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Learning to understand the language of Cursive

Cursive is part of a tight-knit community of Omaha musicians and bands, which includes The Faint, Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos.
By Cara O'Connor
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday April 24, 2003

Band explores new emotional territory on new album The Ugly Organ

Singing with only half of a left lung might seem heroic, like playing the piano with only one hand. But for Cursive front man Tim Kasher, it's simply routine.

While the band was on tour in June of last year, Kasher's left lung collapsed, requiring surgery to remove part of it. Perhaps the injury had something to do with Kasher screaming his lungs out in jagged hard rock songs since 1995.

Kasher's poignant songs are about pain and disappointment, both of which he has had his fair share of. In addition to his collapsed lung, Kasher has suffered through a divorce, several meltdowns, a disastrous relocation to Portland, Ore., and return to Omaha, Neb., and weathered it all without becoming too hard-hearted.

Despite his difficulties, Kasher maintains a gentle, sensitive, even reticent demeanor, in stark contrast with the loud, screaming anguish that he unleashes in his songs.

But Kasher has less reason to scream these days. Since the release of Cursive's fourth full-length album, The Ugly Organ, in March, the group has had to deal with a lot more attention due to newfound fame.

"We are not familiar with supporting a really successful record because this is the first time it has really happened this quickly," Kasher said.

Where and When . . .

Cursive plays Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., Sunday. Appleseed Cast will open for the band. Tickets are $10 for under 21 and $8 for over 21 and will be sold at the door. Doors open at 9 p.m. For more information call

Club Congress

Since the album's release, Cursive has become a new staple in indie-rock album collections, made two appearances in Rolling Stone Magazine and received first-rate reviews.

But the group, which hails from small-town Nebraska, has not let the recognition go to its head.

"I think that it's behind us now. It was definitely there. There was definitely a surge there where it was like, ╬Holy shit,' and it was almost surreal," Kasher said. "It actually can bother you. But you do it to yourself; it's the path you've chosen. We never asked anyone not to put our picture in Rolling Stone, you know?"

Kasher is known for the energy and intensity that goes into his songs, as well as for the raw emotion that he wears on his sleeve. The Ugly Organ, the group's darkest and most dramatic album yet, lives up to Kasher's reputation.

The songs play like short stories, complete with characters, plots, dialogues and even the occasional stage direction (e.g. "enter second gentleman caller, stage left"), all entwined with recurring symbolism and images of pain and self-deprecation.

One might call this album a "theme" or "concept" album, but that wouldn't do it justice. It is a piece of musical literature, and the lyrics are some of the most intensely personal in Kasher's repertoire ¸ a difficult standard after the last full-length, Domestica, which recounted the story of Kasher's 1999 divorce.

"It was much more like a diary entry than it was lyric writing," Kasher said.

But Kasher had no idea what an impact his writing would make in the indie-music world. "Personally, I just wrote the lyrics, recorded it and walked away from it. And it wasn't until the reaction Ě that I kind of started recognizing how personalized the lyrics actually were."

Cursive has been developing its sound since Kasher's days in Commander Venus, when Kasher and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst learned to play rock 'n' roll together as teenagers. Today, the two are still making music about love and loss.

Cursive was created in 1995, but the current lineup (Tim Kasher ¸ guitar, vocals, keyboards; Matt Maginn ¸ bass, vocals; Ted Stevens ¸ guitar, vocals; Clint Schnase ¸ drums; Gretta Cohn ¸ cello) didn't come together until the Burst and Bloom EP, the second release with Stevens in the lineup and the first on which Cohn appeared.

Original guitarist Steve Pedersen, who grew up with Kasher and Maginn in Omaha, left for North Carolina after recording the band's second full-length, The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song.

Kasher then picked up and moved to Portland, where his marriage fell apart, and then back to Omaha. Upon Kasher's return, Cursive picked up Stevens to fill guitar and vocal parts and recorded its best album up to that point: Domestica.

Kasher came out of his shell for Domestica, retelling the story of his painful breakup. And while the concept of a "breakup album" may seem trite, it signaled a new development for Kasher and led toward the intensely personal and moving nature of Cursive's most-recent releases.

The group then recruited Cohn (who had played with Bright Eyes) to play cello, thus adding another dimension to its sound.

With the 2001 Burst and Bloom EP on Saddle Creek Records, Cursive's sound really gelled. Kasher's

passionate vocals, Cohn's gentle cello melodies and one of the tightest rhythm sections in the indie-rock world made Cursive one of the most underrated bands in America.

The Ugly Organ changed that with its intense guitar riffs and dynamic melodies, giving the band widespread recognition.

That drama carries over to Cursive's live performances, which are well known for their intensity. Kasher has a magnetic stage presence. He has also been known to hurt himself onstage, by playing his guitar so hard that he slices his hands open on the strings. And though many of his riffs are dissonant and chaotic, Kasher's powerful voice, sometimes reminiscent of The Cure's Robert Smith, cuts right through it to provide a sense of melody.

When Kasher can't find melody, Cohn's cello steps in, standing out against a mess of guitar chords.

Kasher and his colleagues are also extremely modest and gracious. Kasher often thanks the crowd for its praise and support. Timid expressions of gratitude like, "Thanks, you guys are so nice," are nonetheless somehow reconcilable with Kasher's dramatic screaming and his wild, jerky movements.

Considering how much he performs, one would hope Kasher would put on a good show (and he does). He has played in Phoenix three times since November, twice with Cursive and once with his other band, The Good Life, all the while working with producer Mike Mogis on the final mixing and promotion of The Ugly Organ.

Barely more than a week into this tour, and after only a week off prior to it, Kasher is already working on songs for The Good Life.

"It was a long week, especially when you don't ever really get time off. A week is pretty extravagant."

Recent success has afforded Kasher the opportunity to buy a computer that he uses to edit music and film.

"It's pretty cool. I'm bogging it down with lots of software. I have a program on it to work on promos and stuff for The Good Life," he said.

"We are pretty unsure about when we are going to get a chance to record (the next Good Life album), but I'm just kind of enjoying the creativity of actually writing it. It's a nice outlet to work on that because it's just another project," he said.

Guitarist Stevens is in the thick of releasing the second album for his band Mayday, due out next month. Mayday toured with The Good Life and Rilo Kiley, another band on the Saddle Creek label, earlier this year.

In the meantime, Cursive is working on a video for the song "Art is Hard" and hopes to start writing for the next album as soon as the group gets some time off. The band's optimistic deadline to release another album is next September, Kasher said.

"We still have a lot more touring ahead of us, but as soon as we find some time off, any time that we can find off, we are going to start writing the next record," he said.

Writing songs, promoting albums and playing shows, all while living in hotel rooms, might seem like an impossible task, but Cursive has been doing it for years.

"It really wasn't until this year that it really became difficult," Kasher said.

Success has made life complicated for the group, but Kasher said that they try to stay grounded. "We are going (to Portland) early to go to this hippie nickel arcade that we always go to," he said. "We might try to catch a movie, too. They show movies (at the arcade) as well, but they tend to be catered toward children. I am kind of hoping ╬Spirited Away' might be showing."

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