Cursive: “Nihilism has been part of all the records we’ve written, but never so much as this one.”

Cursive: “Nihilism has been part of all the records we’ve written, but never so much as this one.”

By Gareth O'Malley

Oct 5, 2018 16:38

Since their formation in the mid-90s, Cursive have never stood still, comfortable to explore different sounds on each of their records. The band's lineup has been in a constant state of flux, in tandem with music that is by turns theatrical, confessional and explosive. They've been keeping a low profile for much of the past few years, but with eagerly-awaited eighth full-length Vitriola out today, they're returning to full activity, with an expanded lineup and yet another shift in sound that nonetheless has roots in some of their most celebrated work. We caught up with frontman Tim Kasher to discuss the Nebraska band's past, present and future.

Tim is a busy man. So busy, in fact, that you’d have been forgiven for thinking that there was no time for him to devote to Cursive anymore. The band have mostly been off radar since 2012’s ‘I Am Gemini’, allowing its members to pursue different passions – starting a record label chief among them – but Kasher reckons that following up that record with what turned into their eighth full-length Vitriola was always a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. “Matt [Maginn, bass] and Ted [Stevens, guitar/backing vocals] and myself, we’re in business together; we own a couple of bars in Omaha, and we started 15 Passenger together as well. That took up a considerable amount of time, but all the stuff we’d been working on included the next Cursive record. We were quite active around the ‘Ugly Organ’ reissue [in 2014]; we didn’t do a European tour, but we did a US tour for that…”

It sounds like a lot was happening behind the scenes, and Kasher seems to be in agreement. “I wish I knew my timeline better! When did we start work on Vitriola? Probably about two years ago. We don’t really consider releasing records our duty and have always seemed to take things one album at a time. After Gemini we weren’t necessarily planning on doing another record at all.” It turns out the record label provided them with the impetus to continue making music under the Cursive banner. “Starting 15 Passenger helped us get excited about writing another album. We recognised that we were still close with each other and another Cursive record was certainly an option. In the end it just took a while to get around to making that decision.”

There was more of a spontaneous vibe to things this time around, with the band feeling reinvigorated thanks to their other business pursuits. “We were sitting around brainstorming [and] talking about how much we wanted to do with the label. Do we just want to release reissues, or do we want to release other bands? Then there was the obvious idea: ‘Oh, we could do another Cursive record and release that.’ It definitely helped us to focus.” Inspiration would also come from much more unexpected places. ‘Clint Schnase, our original drummer, reached out fairly randomly to say he’d be interested in doing another album with us, which really aligned with how we were feeling at the time.’ Schnase last featured on 2006’s Happy Hollow, which was produced by Mike Mogis, also resuming working with Cursive on ‘Vitriola’.

Despite all this welcoming of old bandmates and associates back into the fold, there was room for new blood in the form of cellist Megan Seibe, who joined the band full-time as their official sixth member. “She’s toured with Cursive before – she was with us for a little bit of that ‘Ugly Organ’ tour, and we’ve grown really close over the years” Kasher explains. “She performed on some of ‘No Resolution’ [his solo record from last year] and all of the tour we did for that album.” A number of things seemed to dovetail in the background while ‘Vitriola’ took shape–Schnase rejoining, working with Mogis again, a cellist once again being a vital part of the band’s sound–but while there are nods here and there to past works, their latest record is far from a nostalgia trip. “It kind of seems like we’re reforming and touching on stuff we did earlier on in our career, [but] there was never any question of that” Kasher affirms. “I can try to explain it a little bit: Clint reaching out was a moment of great serendipity; him wanting to do another album with us really helped propel it into being.”

“As far as bringing in cello – I was really reserved about that. I was really hesitant because, as a band, we don’t want to feel like we’re rehashing ideas. We’d had a cellist on tour with us for the ‘Ugly Organ’ stuff, but one thing that convinced me to bring that element of the band’s sound back in was that I’d been working with strings like crazy! They’re all over my solo records like ‘No Resolution’ and [2010’s] ‘The Game of Monogamy’… and when we play material from ‘The Ugly Organ’ and ‘Burst and Bloom’ live, fans really appreciate it when the strings are faithfully represented. We feel the need to respect that, so when writing ‘Vitriola’ we had the realisation that, like, we’re gonna need a cellist on stage anyway… so if we’re gonna write string parts we should do it properly. Which worked for me because I love writing for strings.”

On that note, Cursive have always been comfortable making music that incorporates instrumental colour beyond the traditional rock band setup, including such things as strings, brass, keyboard and synth. How does Kasher feel about reproducing such things live? “We’ve taken on the attitude that the players we have with us on a given tour can contribute parts – we’re very open to that. Patrick [Newbery, multi-instrumentalist] – he’s been with us forever, even if he’s only officially been a member since ‘Gemini’. He wrote parts for ‘Domestica’ and ‘The Ugly Organ’, played trumpet on ‘Happy Hollow’, and has written keyboard parts for older songs. Megan has also written parts for the older songs, so… with this upcoming tour we’ll see how it looks. There are a few songs–only a few– where it’d be more appropriate for additional members to sit them out so they can be a bit more, well, lean-sounding. As a musician I find it interesting to hear all these contributions.”

As well as looking forward, Kasher has recently been looking backward – recently, the band’s first two albums (1997’s ‘Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes’ and 1998’s ‘The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song’) were reissued and remastered after having been out of print pretty much since release. 20-odd years removed from those records, how does the band feel about them? “We’re all still really proud of them. We tend to be delicate with our catalogue–probably another reason why we only put albums out when we feel like it! We’re really proud of them, but they’re the sound of a young band that hasn’t really found its voice yet. Putting it politely there’s a bit of a derivative post-hardcore sound in there. We’re planning on touching on them a little bit on the upcoming tour – since we did those reissues we think it’s appropriate we incorporate that era into our sets somewhat.” One of the openers on that American tour is Chicago-based quintet Campdogzz; notably the only band outside of Cursive and Cursive-adjacent projects to be signed to 15 Passenger at the moment. “If it hadn’t been for them we probably still wouldn’t have released anything by another band. I discovered Campdogzz early on, before a lot of other people knew about them. I wasn’t sure about releasing their music [on our label] but I sent [some] to the other guys in the band and they loved it, so we were like, ‘What the hell, let’s give this a shot and see what we can do.’ Outside of our own stuff, we only want to release music that speaks to who we are as people; so it was fortunate that Campdogzz approached us while we were still getting the label figured out.” The other band on that tour, also from Chicago as it happens, are Big Scary Monsters labelmates Meat Wave, whose ‘The Incessant’ soundtracked the short run of solo dates Kasher did on these shores last year. You might say he listened to it incessantly.


As for ‘Vitriola’ itself – it’s a very frustrated and anxious-sounding record, less concept-driven and more of a snapshot of a world in turmoil. It’s interesting to note that the seismic events of the 2016 US presidential took place during the making of album and that it wasn’t written in response to it, per se. From a lyrical perspective, Kasher says that it’s ‘not a particularly realistic record’. “I was enjoying playing around with end-of-days scenarios in my writing. I realise I can be terribly nihilstic, but the frustration and annoyance that we’ve all been going through over the past few years has brought out that side of me much more than was on display previously. Nihilism has been part of all the records we’ve written, but never so much as this one.” It’s a pessimistic listen, for sure, but it’s not necessarily hopeless. I feel a little bit guilty about that; the record definitely isn’t positive but I hope that it can offer catharsis to people who are also feeling frustrated or angry. That would be [something] positive, but the album is generally pretty dark and doesn’t offer much in the way of resolution.” In the words of ‘Vitriola’s’ clamorous opening track, Kasher and his cohorts endeavour to ‘scream into the void and make some noise.’ Album track ‘Ghost Writer’ deals pretty directly with the idea of making music in times as tumultuous as the ones we find ourselves in; the creation of art for art’s sake. “Nobody’s really asking for my opinion, but I’m offering it anyway because that’s my prerogative. I feel like, aside from ‘Ghost Writer’, a lot of these songs came out despite myself and were written in a reactionary sort of way. Like, written in a way I wasn’t necessarily intending to write… but, there it is all the same, on the page, and you just have to accept it for what it is. Or, well, you can not.”

It’s obvious Kasher’s been on a creative streak this decade: three solo albums, two Cursive records, even a resurrection of his full-band side project The Good Life for 2015’s Everybody’s Coming Down. How does he differentiate between all these different projects, especially when, say, a collaborator on the music released under his own name can end up on a Cursive record 18 months later, as was the case with Megan Seibe? “Well, with Cursive, the approach to songwriting is just different. I can’t concretely explain the mindset [required], you know, but it’s more riff-based; writing guitar parts is the usual way a Cursive song starts. The line between Good Life and my solo stuff is a little bit blurrier. For Good Life I often write with the other band members Stefanie Drootin and Ryan Fox in mind, and they also contribute their own unique styles. I was listening to ‘Everybody’s Coming Down’ the other day and there’s so much of them on it.”

Had that album not happened, who knows what the future would hold for Kasher now? That Good Life reunion certainly sounds like it reignited Kasher’s fondness for full-band activity, and he has plenty of that to look forward to over the coming months, leading into 2019. As for Cursive’s latest full-length, there are plenty of curveballs across the 10-track record, and one in particular deserves a mention: the heart-wrenching torch song ‘Remorse’, which doesn’t seem to fit on the album at first but makes sense in the album’s wider context. “‘Remorse’ was Patrick’s idea. The album’s pretty eclectic as a whole, and when he sent the song in I said that I liked it and we should try to do something with it. It almost didn’t make the cut, but it’s an important part of the record as it really helps to expand its overall sound.”

We save the most difficult question for last, of course: what’s Kasher’s favourite song off ‘Vitriola’ and why? “’Free to Be or Not to Be You and Me’” he answers after a moment’s thought, having stated that the answer to this question will probably change plenty more times before the six-piece band brings the album on tour. ‘I’m probably being the most honest on that song, so much so that it makes me uncomfortable. Musically I love how it explodes in the third act; like, it had to happen.” It’s a good summary of the sort of space ‘Vitriola’ occupies in Cursive’s discography: wiry, impulsive and tense as hell. Two decades since their debut record, they’re still making music and learning to better themselves as musicians and people. They may not have all the answers, and are as caught up in the turbulence as anyone else; but even so, in the chaos it can be helpful to know that we aren’t alone. Buckle up.

Vitriola is released today on Big Scary Monsters & 15 Passenger.

Check out our review of ‘Vitriola’ here.