Tales From the Script
It's a muggy August night in Omaha, and outside the weathered Sokol Auditorium, kids line the sidewalk like a string of firecrackers waiting to go off. It's kind of a weird setting for a big rock show: a snoozing residential neighborhood full of gas stations, dusty signs and weeds poking up out of the blacktop. The auditorium itself is a creaky structure of beaten brick that looks as if it's hosted a dozen too many Shriners conventions and gymnastics meets.
The kids, though, don't notice all that. They're here to see a band, the cream of this season's bumper crop of hometown heroes: the quintet known as Cursive.
Opening for Cursive is Denver's own Planes Mistaken for Stars, swinging through Nebraska on the final stop of a Midwest tour. After a short but rousing set by tour mates End Game, the four guys in Planes hit the stage like a hand grenade. But even in the midst of shucking their breastbones and slopping heart and guts all over the well-dressed, unsuspecting Omaha kids, the bandmembers seem oddly subdued. This is the last show they will ever play with departing bassist Jamie Drier, and the mood is solemn.
Backstage between sets, Gared O'Donnell of Planes and Tim Kasher, leader of Cursive, drink beer and joke about the show. This isn't the first time they've played together; their bands have shared the bill many times over the past few years, and even tonight, the idea of a tandem tour is being discussed. As if to punctuate it, O'Donnell keeps giving Kasher bear hugs and chanting with a toothy grin, "This guy's the limit!" -- appparently some extremely clever play on the phrase "The sky's the limit." Kasher laughs back. Minutes later he takes the stage wearing a plain white T-shirt upon which is scrawled in all caps: "THIS GUY'S THE LIMIT."
Cursive's set is, quite simply, flawless. Guitarist Ted Stevens seems reserved, almost polite, as he gouges shuddering melodies and splintered rhythms out of his equipment. Bassist Matt Maginn and drummer Clint Schnase spin whispers and whip up roars. The outfit's newest conscript, Gretta Cohn, flourishes the bow of her cello like the tip of a feather -- that is, when she's not brandishing it like a hacksaw. Kasher coos and slashes his way through songs from the group's fourth and latest full-length, the almost universally lauded concept album The Ugly Organ.
Released in March this year, The Ugly Organ is just another notch in the belt of the Omaha scene -- a small yet outrageously hyped circle of bands revolving around Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, a young man heralded by many lazy (and apparently deaf) journalists as "the Bob Dylan of his generation." Saddle Creek -- the independent label that houses both Bright Eyes and Cursive as well as serving as the spiritual home base for the whole Omaha cabal -- has been the subject of recent writeups in Time, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times, Spin and Rolling Stone. And although it's the elder band, Cursive has been riding for years now in the wake of Bright Eyes' monumental acclaim -- not that Kasher is complaining. Not really, anyway.
"For as much as I love Bright Eyes and really support them, it bothers me that Conor's overwhelming success can almost be seen as kind of taking away my ability or my right to move forward on my own," Kasher offers. "It's like the path has already been laid out for me now. I'm really the type of person who likes to lay out his own path."
No kidding: Kasher lays paths like Hannibal made marches. After forming Cursive in 1995 and releasing two albums, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes and The Storms of Early Summer: the Semantics of Song, the singer/guitarist had already cemented his mix of cornfield emo and highbrow rock. A year-long hiatus and a lineup shuffle followed, resulting in the release of Cursive's artistic breakthrough, 2000's Domestica. It's a scary record, ravaged by heartbreak and dissonance, both musical and emotional. Ostensibly a tragedy about failed cohabitation, Kasher howls lines like "Sweetie, the moon has raped me/It's left its seeds like a tomb inside me" while the music broods and churns like storm clouds overhead.
But if Domestica was a creepy little one-act, The Ugly Organ is the Grand Guignol. Bound by a morbid cohesion, it's a full-on, post-punk opera replete with stage directions and a cast of characters that includes the composer himself, who steps out from behind the script and onto the stage every so often to comment on his own macabre production. "You gotta sink to swim/Immerse yourself in rejection," Kasher sings, sounding like a psychotic drama coach giving lessons in method acting. "Regurgitate some sorry tale/About a boy who sells his love affairs/You gotta fake the pain/You better make it sting/You're gonna break a leg/When you get on stage/And they scream your name/'Oh, Cursive is so cool!'"
"Yeah, I'd say it's almost completely about myself," comments Kasher on his new album's rampant self-reference. "But I'm also taking a jab at songwriters and songwriting in general. It's kind of a dark way of trying to keep myself in check as a writer. I think that a lot of the songs can get away from you sometimes, and that's when you start writing bullshit. I tried to catch myself on this record. I remember writing batches of lyrics, then coming back to them a couple days later and being like, 'This is just totally dishonest crap.' I can't stand that.
"I'm a big believer in the idea that if it's not honest, it's just not going to come across effectively anyway," he continues. "I write a lot of fiction, but I believe that when you write fiction from an honest standpoint, that is honesty. To me, it's very clear-cut: You fictionalize real things about yourself, things that have occurred in your life or around you. You're just re-creating it. You're rewriting it."
That said, it sure must suck to be one of Kasher's exes. Not that the doomed romantic scenarios in his songs always paint the other person as the bad guy (or girl, rather) -- but they never fail to probe the messy innards of his ill-fated relationships using the cold, surgical implement of the pen.
"Certain ex-girlfriends of mine from any period of my life would be the first ones to tell you that my songs are definitely not all literally true, that it's definitely not all personalized," he says in his defense. "They know which parts really happened, and they know where the fictionalization comes in. When I write songs about someone, I try to make it fair. It's not that anyone could feel unhappy, as if I had robbed them or inaccurately portrayed them or anything."
Sure, what girl wouldn't dream of inspiring the female character in The Ugly Organ's "Butcher the Song"? Riding silently in a car with his lover after a fight, Kasher assumes the voice of his pissed-off girlfriend: "Your dumb lyrics/Yeah, that's the time and place to wring out your bullshit/And each album I'll get shit on a little more/'Who's Tim's latest whore?'"
"Well, they're not always happy about it, I guess," he admits.
An even more bitter and twisted story is recounted in the song "The Recluse." A fable of a one-night stand turned viciously Kafkaesque, it details a morning-after scene in which Kasher wakes up in a strange woman's bed -- right before she turns into a spider (a brown recluse, perhaps?) and snares him in a web of confusion and desperation. With his dying breath, he spits out the bilious lines "My ego's like my stomach/It keeps shitting what I feed it."
"It's really just what obsessively drives me," says Kasher of his ghoulish preoccupation with breakups, romantic addiction and infidelity. "I've tried to get away from it, but it's just who I am. I'm so driven by trying to make each relationship work, trying to make the best out of these terrible, ridiculous situations. It seems to be what bothers me the most -- and what gives me the most excitement, as well."
Speaking of excitement, several hard theories have been put forth concerning the alleged, uh, phallic connotation of The Ugly Organ -- theories that Kasher is quick to confirm. "We wanted the title to be open-ended in the sense that people could interpret it differently," he remarks. "While I realize that what really drives me is sexuality and sexual relationships, I recognize that there are a lot of people out there who aren't that way at all. So we wanted it to be openly interpreted according to the type of person you happen to be." Then again, lyrics like "The reverend plays on the ugly organ/He spews out his sweet and salty sermon" don't really leave that much to the imagination.
When it comes to Kasher's fantasy list of turn-ons and turn-offs, though, the idea of being on a major label would definitely fall on the latter. With the media frenzy surrounding Saddle Creek showing no sign of abatement, the specter of corporate rock looms ever on the Omaha horizon.
"We've had offers from major labels, but they're not even worth mentioning," Kasher says. "They'll be like, 'Hey, is there any possible chance in a million that you might be interested in leaving Saddle Creek?' And we're always like, 'Nah, we're fine.' I've never had a real problem with majors, but it's just not something we need right now. Being on Saddle Creek, there's really no reason. Plus, I think a lot of us on the label aren't sure how much of the public eye we really want." Bearing in mind that label mate Oberst was recently caught on camera in a hotel parking lot, escorting none other than notorious rock groupie Winona Ryder, it's easy to understand Kasher's reluctance.
It's a strange position to be in. Cursive has already scraped the ceiling -- both commercially and critically -- that most indie bands could ever possibly hope to reach. And yet The Ugly Organ shows that such success ushers in its own internal conflicts and doubts. As Kasher points out, "It's easier to be the underdog; at least then you're fighting for something." And with lyrics such as "I'm writing songs to entertain/But these people, they just want pain/And what comes out is a horrible mess/Songs that I can't forget/That organ's playing my song/But this song's gone on too long/What a day to sever such ugly extremities," sometimes it seems as if Kasher is cutting off his nose to spite his face.
"I try not to sabotage myself, but I know that's me to a T," he confesses. "But I'm trying not to do that. It's especially difficult now that The Ugly Organ has become so successful. It'll be difficult writing a new Cursive record, 'cause there's this constant, nagging voice in my head saying, 'Oh, you're cashing in' or 'Hey, that'll sell.' It's hard not to listen to those voices. In all fairness, there's nothing wrong with writing another Cursive record. I've been doing it for a long time now. And I've stayed honest to it; I always have. But when I know that it's going to be so anticipated and potentially well received, it really makes me not want to do it.
"Getting too popular worries me -- a lot," he adds. "It worries me that it might affect the way that our songs are written. I have a pretty strong hunch that if we start getting cocky or buying into ourselves too much, we're going to lose that honesty in our songwriting that got us here in the first place."
Seeing Cursive on stage with the home-field advantage, anyone can tell that the group's honesty is in no way in jeopardy. The songs rock; the crowd is rapt. But as airtight as their set is, the players seem vulnerable up there on stage, almost tender-fleshed. There's no cant, no hyperbole, no posing, no shields. And though the show's attendees are for the most part sassy, stylish teenagers, Kasher and crew are predominantly in their late twenties, sporting rather mundane haircuts and nondescript jeans and T-shirts -- nondescript, of course, except for the two-inch-high letters spelling "This guy's the limit," emblazoned like a shaky commandment across Kasher's chest.
"You'll have to ask Gared about that," he says with a laugh. "It's his phrase. I guess he just nominated me as the guy who's the limit, so I took it upon myself to carry his banner."
When asked to deduce some sort of deep, underlying message from his Sharpie-scribbled T-shirt, Kasher laughs again -- this time, more at himself than anything else. "It's something so super-duper ultra-cocky that only a real fucking tongue-in-cheek rock star would be seen in it," he replies wryly. "It just seemed like a good thing to wear."
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