Ted Stevens of Cursive: "There's a lot of risks you take in making a record like this."
See also: Interview with Lauren Larson of Ume, sharing the bill this Sunday.
Cursive (due this Sunday at Larimer Lounge with Ume) was one of the most popular and influential bands to have come out of the underground scene in Omaha, Nebraska, the same one that spawned Bright Eyes, the Faint, Azure Ray and Tokyo Police Club and Saddle Creek Records. Beginning in 1995, Cursive's brash, angular music coupled with sharp lyrics struck a chord with audiences who had maybe outgrown basic punk rock but not the defiant spirit found there as well as within Cursive's oeuvre.
With the addition of singer and guitarist Ted Stevens, formerly of Lullaby For the Working Class, Cursive began to write an arc of concept albums that continue to this day, including its latest record, I Am Gemini, in which the group uses the mythology and imagery of the legendary twins Castor and Pollux as the core around which the narrative unfolds. We recently spoke with Stevens about the Omaha scene beyond what most people have heard about, as well as the process by which the band put together its latest album.
Westword: What was your first experience with live music, and what was it like for you being a musician in Omaha when you were starting out?
Ted Stevens: The first experience, my mom took me to see Gloria Estefan at the local amphitheater. I guess it was a pretty small auditorium relative to what they have today. Maybe like a two thousand seater. But I was so young, and I do remember it, but my first concert that I chose myself was Violent Femmes, and that would have been in '89 in a ballroom kind of setting. A 1,500 seater ballroom. That was incredible, and it lead the way for me going to pretty much every band I could afford to go see over the next four or five years.
At the same time, segueing into the next question, playing music in Omaha at the time was pretty thrilling. There's a long kind of modest tradition of musicianship and performance here in this town. If you really study it, you can follow it back and the jazz music you can follow it back a long ways. But as far as contemporary rock music, it's still a pretty old tradition in Omaha, and there's a lot of pride and some of the artists are still performing.
My coming up was the '90s and the real, from my standpoint, beginning of the grandfathers and grandmothers who lead in the music that I consider Cursive or myself to be a part of, and it was thrilling to open for those bands and go see them. We were just eager little kids, you know, watching all these others. They would have been Sideshow, which was one from Lincoln; that was kind of a classic post-punk/punk rock band. Mercy Rule was another one. Frontier Truck, Mousetrap...Simon Joyner is still performing today.
There's a whole other kind of acoustic/avant-folk scene that was happening kind of underneath the rock movement. Everyone was connected through a couple of downtown record shops. It was a really exciting time to be singing and playing guitar and doing anything creative, musically, in Omaha. I'm sure it still is here. I hope so.
How did you come to join Cursive, and what about that band interested you in becoming a member? It's probably more organic than formal, I'm sure.
You know, I always liked Cursive. Cursive kind of came from a couple of other high school bands that I was friends with. I'd always followed them. Some of those guys were a year older than me, and some of them were the same grade as me. I always kind of watched them and was very excited for any progress. I was very supportive and just loved the band. At some point, I just realized that life decisions were probably going to get in the way of the original members, and I really wanted to try out for the band. I really wanted the job, and I think that enthusiasm meant something to them, and, yeah, they took me on. That was almost thirteen years ago now. Twelve good years ago.
Not that Denver has received the same level of attention as yet, but there seem to be some cultural and historical parallels between Omaha and Denver. Do you remember when there got to be a lot more attention outside of Omaha for the music happening there, and how have things changed since then if they have?
Yeah, there was a heyday. Saddle Creek kind of...you know, the scene itself, all the bands and the label gained a lot of national attention suddenly in a shorter period of time than we were used to. In a lot of ways, Bright Eyes and the Faint and their success lead the charge. But people were interested in this little collective, seemingly collective, that came from Nowhere, USA.
It's hard to tell how it's changed since then. It's definitely broadened. I feel like there's now...I mean, Saddle Creek didn't just break through any barriers that couldn't have been transcended by any of these other bands you're seeing. More than ever, there's more talent coming out of Omaha. I feel like there's more kids playing guitars, more bands playing and more venues hosting shows. I think the whole city has just grown. The music scene has diversified, and it's something to be proud of. Ten years ago you just did not see this much music happening. This many stages offering concerts. Now we need to keep the momentum up.
In a 2009 interview with The Culture Shock, you mentioned there having long been a punk rock and indie rock or whatever thing going on in Omaha for years. What have been some of the interesting DIY venues or collectives you've witnessed, and what are some going on today?
Oh yeah, well Omaha -- and this is strictly my perspective -- but I was sneaking into shows before I was of age. I had my way of meeting the band at the back door, carrying in a drum kit and getting locked in the bar, and I would be in there all night. In that era, the White Rabbit was the place to go see shows. I'm sorry, the Howard Street Tavern. The White Rabbit was the loft above it. The Howard Street Tavern was a cool spot. The Capitol was kind of our original punk rock music venue in the early '90s.
I guess going further back, the original '80s punk rock venue is what was called the Lift Ticket. Now The Waiting Room Lounge exists on top of where the Lift Ticket used to be. The Lift Ticket, Seven Seconds played there. Nirvana, I think, played the stage. I mean it really saw the heyday of underground punk rock and hardcore. There was a place The Cog Factory that existed all throughout the 90s that was the punk rock kind of DIY joint in Omaha.
There's a long history of the south Omaha social hall. It's an institution. It's like you go there -- and I'm talking about kids from all over the city when I was in high school -- and you rent it for a night. You charge five bucks a head at the door. Sometimes they even sold beer, and they had their own system of beer and all that vending -- all family owned. You have a show in these social halls, and that also developed, in Omaha, into one really big family-owned business called Sokol, which is still existing today.
They have a couple of shows a month of interest to most people. They do metal shows in the basement and anything upstairs. And you can rent it for a private event. It's kind of just the old box that you rent. It doesn't sound great, but it has a lot of character and lot of heart. I kind of grew up going to a lot of those places: Diamond Hall...Omaha is full of them. Lincoln, too.
We capitalized on that. When you're too young to organize at bars, that was one way to circumvent that whole scene. A lot of times, like I said, the booze was still there. It was just controlled by the owner and the family. That made for a great party, because then it was all ages, there was music playing and people could drink. It was great times.
What about the imagery of Castor and Pollux proved to be inspirational for your new album and would you consider it a kind of concept album?
It's definitely a concept record...
What about the imagery of Castor and Pollux proved to be inspirational for your new album and would you consider it a kind of concept album?
It's definitely a concept record. We've made so many at this point that the taboo is not even there for me anymore. It would be more challenging for us not to make one. Maybe we should really try to wean ourselves off of it.
It's a linear narrative. As linear as any narrative these days -- it jumps around time-wise. It's a story, I should say. Guilty. This is largely Tim [Kasher's] research and his character development. We talked about some of these ideas early on and sometimes we brainstorm for an album and we help each other and get the imagery on the table. This time that's a time image that he chose.
I was definitely more interested in the classical world with classical imagery. Maybe not just monotheistic kind of Judeo-Christian cast. But something a little broader, a little bit more like Greek or Roman. We were on the same page but that was his choice, but he was attracted to that image in general.
That's just Tim, you know. When you develop a record like this sometimes you get too many ideas on the table and then there's this flood of imagery. I think that's where this record turned up. The manic flood of imagery just really suits the frantic nature of the story. So I supported it. I like where he goes. Tim was researching something, and that story probably stuck out as a good image. At least you need a name for these characters when you start anything like this.
I had a really funny thing happen. I'm kind of an insomniac and totally embarrassed to admit I watched five minutes of the movie Face Off the other night, which is fucking awful. It's so bad it's funny. It's like one of those things where it's too far over the top that's interesting again. But the brothers are Castor and Pollux Troy -- Nick Cage and the little guy. I mentioned that to Tim, and he laughed and he's like, "Yeah, I was well aware of that."
It's just that when you pay attention to mythology, suddenly you start seeing these names and these images that until you have some reason to stop and pay attention to it, some of those things kind of slip by. I thought that was really funny that it was in Face Off and that Tim knew about it and had been through that. Those characters have many lives and now they've found this next one.
Did the way Tim wrote the lyrics for I Am Gemini affect the way you recorded the album as well?
No. The record was written as a group over several months with the music. What Tim does is sings along with what he calls "vowel sounds" -- just a way to work out his melody without necessarily committing to lyrics. It proves to be really powerful because then when the lyrics pop up, there's already a melody for them underneath them. A lot of times he can kind of come up with some catchy one-liners for the improvisational nature of practice and repetition.
Once we had all the jams lined up and we knew what songs were actually going to be on the album, I mean he had already started working on some lyrical ideas, I think, but then he sat down and took the whole meat of the album in sequence and wrote the lyrics for it. What it did is that the minute he started working on it, it meant that those songs had to assume a place in the sequence. Which if you're in the business of making albums, like we are, as a producer, that's a really hard thing to commit to until you hear the finish product. You never want to sequence it until you have all the mixes.
It was the first time I had worked on an entire record where we knew going into the mix down what the sequence was and we had all the songs picked out and that meant we knew which ones we were throwing away. There's a lot of risks you take in making a record like this. I'm delighted that people are responding to it so favorably and I feel so good about it still.
Why did you choose to record the album at Arc Studios?
Arc Studios is probably the best studio between Denver and Chicago. I mean I don't feel bad saying that, because if there is one, invite me over to see it, because Arc is really something else. I wonder if Paisley Park has the gear. They probably do. But Arc has two studios and some of the best outboard and professional gear and microphones that you're going to get anywhere near here.
We've worked with Mike and A.J [Mogis] since the beginning of the band. This was the first project that didn't have their direct, hands-on influence. But at least we got to use their studio and their equipment and their routing. There's some familiarity there. Their studio is very comfortable. Matt [Maginn] lives really close to it. We can pretty much congregate at Matt's and walk to the studio. I would recommend it to anyone that's looking to come from Denver to Omaha to compare. Even the price of their B room is really affordable.
What sparked your renewed interest in New Order of a few years ago, and what is it about its music that you found especially compelling?
It's funny that you ask me that because now it's kind of branched into a general obsession with that era, the early '80s and new wave music, in general, and trying to dig deep and find the contemporaries of New Order that kind of slipped through the cracks. New Order, there's something about that first effort without Ian [Curtis] that is so haunting because the system is in place, the Joy Division mechanism is in place; the tones are all there but there's the missing component. You can feel Bernard [Sumner] struggling to hold that role.
Sonically, it's my favorite era of either band. It's this really awkward transition from this dark, kind of gothic, new wave and suddenly '82 or '83 their production value steps up three or four notches and suddenly they're ahead of their time and they're recording sounds better than they should. It's such a fascinating band. I just love that I can listen to that music and feel so much about that era.
There's two Peel sessions from that first wave of songs and one of those is "Turn the Heater On," a cover, an old dub song. It's just really cold, it's like that really fucking stark late 70s, early 80s thing that we hadn't really learned in America yet--that coldness to a recording that sounds so good. That's what I love about it.
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