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July 2019

Cursive: "When I'm wagging the finger at others, I'm also wagging the finger at myself"

Indie-rock stalwarts Cursive are back with their first album in six years. With society falling apart around us, it's a suitably vitriolic reaction to the state of the world.
Published: 11:24 am, October 08, 2018Words: Rob Mair.
Cursive: "When I'm wagging the finger at others, I'm also wagging the finger at myself"

Cursive's Tim Kasher has a problem with cellos. Not in how they sound or what they bring to the party, but more with the baggage that's associated with the words ‘Cursive', ‘cello', and ‘The Ugly Organ'.

It's been fifteen years since the Nebraskan indie-rockers last used a cello on an album, despite the critical and commercial success of ‘The Ugly Organ'. Since then, Cursive have dabbled in brass (‘Happy Hollow') and keyboards (‘Mama, I'm Swollen' and ‘I Am Gemini') to significant effect. But the cello has remained off limits. Until now.

Cursive's eighth studio album, ‘Vitriola' has been labelled as "a return to form" – something that does a massive disservice to the group's last three vastly different but equally-merited albums.

What it is, however, is a return to a previous style, characterised by the atmospheric cello; at times haunting, at others purposeful and driven. Naturally, such a decision to work with strings again was one not an easy one for Tim, guitarist Ted Stevens, bassist Matt Maginn, and returning drummer Clint Schnase.

"The cello is such a huge decision for us that we didn't make it lightly," considers Tim. "It took us a long time to decide whether or not we wanted to use it. There's kind of a stigma to it, and there's a certain old-school attachment to ‘The Ugly Organ'. And also, we don't want to feel like we're being redundant."

"It took us a long time to decide whether we wanted to use cello; there's a stigma to it"
Tim Kasher

The decision is one that is far from redundant, instead reflecting Tim's ear for what is needed when. On ‘Vitriola', the cello works. On ‘I Am Gemini', it might have felt out of place, while on ‘Happy Hollow', and the brass-heavy likes of ‘Big Bang', it would have sounded bizarre.

It perhaps doesn't help that Tim views the strings as an extension to his own parts, meaning he's more attached to them than you'd expect. For ‘Vitriola', Tim wrote the string parts, before asking collaborator Megan Seibe to put them on the songs. It's a complicated relationship between man and music, but emphasises how attuned Kasher is to the band's catalogue and legacy.

Arriving six years after ‘I Am Gemini', ‘Vitriola' is a long-time coming. In the intervening years, Tim has released solo records and a further Good Life album, moved from the Mid West to LA, written and directed his first feature film, ‘No Resolution', and started a record label, 15 Passenger, with bandmates Stevens and Maginn. Not to mention the trio's burgeoning bar empire, now that they've just taken over their second establishment in Omaha.

But, despite the trio being involved in so many businesses together, it wasn't until original drummer Clint Schnase mooted the idea of another Cursive record that wheels started turning.

"The idea was on the table before then, for sure," says Tim. "But when Clint reached out saying that he would love to do another record, it seemed like things were coming together and making sense.

"Also, with doing 15 Passenger, it helps us – Matt, Ted and I – further recognise that we're really in this together. We're in business together in so many different ways, but doing a record is by far the best aspect of it. It would be a shame to be not creating music anymore."

A six-year absence is a long time, however, and it wouldn't be the first time in Cursive's history that things had ground to a shuddering halt; Cursive first broke-up in 1998 before reforming a year later, while the band were unsure if they continue after ‘Mama, I'm Swollen'. Throw in the current wait, and it is clear Cursive is a band that marches to its own tune.

This even extends to the subject matter of ‘Vitriola'. While Tim has difficulty pinpointing what makes a Cursive song a Cursive song, this album, in particular, feels like the band reacting to their surroundings, rather than simply examining the human condition. And, while Tim struggles to see ‘Vitriola' as a political album per se, it is undoubtedly informed by the current social and political climate.

In the same way, Foxing used this discourse on ‘Nearer My God', Cursive too have internalised their response, looking at the socio-economic environment and filtering it through to a personal and individual level, rather than producing sloganeering protest songs.

"I'm still trying to fight the idea that it's overtly political," considers Tim. "I feel it's more like an emotional gut response to what we're all experiencing, and that is less political.

"My take on it is that the early edits of this record were far more on the nose and just like a deliberate attack on the current administration, and I kept just rewriting or reworking everything until I could get it to a place where it was more what I termed ‘show and not tell'. Like, this is what we're thinking, this is what we're feeling, and this is what we're experiencing, without having to outline it."

"I'm still trying to fight the idea that it's overtly political"
Tim Kasher

Certain themes rush through ‘Vitriola'; the cyclical idea of repeating past mistakes and searching for resolution colour the likes of ‘Free To Be Or Not To Be' and ‘Ouroboros' (named after the serpent that eats its own tail in Egyptian mythology), while the likes of ‘Under The Rainbow' and ‘Life Savings' look at ideas of capitalism, government and oppression. But ‘Vitriola' is also, unmistakably, a Cursive record, and much of this is down to Tim's continued use of self-reflection and self-reference.

‘Ouroboros' contains the line: "In the beginning, we were starving under stars" – a sly wink to their 1997 debut ‘Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes' – while elsewhere, Tim is once again making the link between the artist, the creative process and commercial acclaim, taking the listener back on a journey to ‘The Ugly Organ's ‘Art Is Hard'.

Here, Kasher dissected the songwriter's crutch of repackaging emotional pain, casting a cynical eye over the notion that ‘art is hard'. Written on the back of the success of ‘Domestica' – an album inextricably linked with Tim's divorce – it was a tip of the hat to the writing process and the pressure to provide a follow-up.

Back in the present and Tim's making similar references throughout ‘Vitriola'. "The writer will obsess over success / Success is like the carrot on a stick / Once the writer finds it's just a carrot / The writer takes a shit all over it," he blasts on ‘Ouroboros'. It's comfortable territory for Tim, but one he continues to mine for gold.

"A song like ‘Ouroboros' is my way – or my need – that when I feel like I'm wagging the finger at others, I need to also let people know that I'm also wagging the finger at myself," he says. "It's not that I'm out here shaming, it's that if there's a problem, I'm also part of that problem.

"With ‘Ouroboros' and also the song ‘Ghostwriter', there's something about working on a personal record, for me, where I have this tendency to want to strip things down as much as possible; like strip down the constructs or the layers of what we're talking about, and that will always come back to some something self-reflective.

"I know that it is something that I've done a lot of that in the past, so I try not to have it be too much of a repeat performance, but at the same time it feels integral to the way I write, at least at points, where it has to become self-reflective to get the point across fully."

"We always do a record when we feel that it's right"
Tim Kasher

Such songwriting decisions have helped Cursive build a cohesion to their back catalogue that few bands can match. They have created albums that all exist in the same world, referencing each other, the process and its creator in the same breath, regardless of the broader subject matter at hand. Six years after the last entry, ‘Vitriola' is another exciting chapter for a band that writes its own playbook.

Similarly, just as there is a certain level of symmetry in Cursive's catalogue, so is there a similar sense of quality control. Indeed, Cursive are not a band to release a record for the sake of it. Tim's acutely aware of the band's legacy (cellos or not), and ‘Vitriola' respects that by building on what's gone before.

"We often talk about how careful we've been with the catalogue, and we certainly cannot be blamed for just slinging records out," laughs Tim. "We always do a record when we feel that it's right and when we feel energised. And now's the time where we think we can contribute to the catalogue."

Now also feels like the right time to consume a Cursive record. Birthed into a chaotic world, Tim's wry and caustic lyrics are the perfect accompaniment to the challenges society is facing, refracting them through allegory and storytelling, like that of a wandering minstrel of yore bringing news from a troubled, distant land. It sounds fantastic – but the real devil is lurking in the detail…

Taken from the October issue of Upset. Cursive's album ‘Vitriola’ is out now.

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