Cursive’s Tim Kasher
- Michael Cera on the evolution of George Michael Bluth and working in Arrested Development’s writers’ room
- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
- Noah Baumbach on how Frances Ha helped him see New York City with new eyes
- Amy Schumer had to be talked into making the show of her dreams
- Joe Hill on his new novel, Locke & Key’s end, and why ideas are just glue
Tim Kasher once said that Cursive’s name was inspired by a passage in a V.S. Naipaul book that involved British invaders forcing Indians to learn cursive penmanship—a pointless pursuit, really—but perhaps the frontman also picked the moniker to quietly remind listeners to pay attention to the details of his words. The Omaha, Nebraska indie-rock outfit has amassed a complex discography greatly indebted to Kasher’s smart, obsessive explorations of dark subjects such as unfulfillment, self-doubt, destruction, and anger.
Cursive’s latest full-length, I Am Gemini, is a carefully mapped concept album that frames its lyrics as the dialogue of a play. Said play is a multi-act, multi-character drama focusing on the troubled relationship between twin brothers Cassius and Pollock, making it vital that listeners have Gemini’s liner notes handy to keep up. Sunday, March 25, the band plays Lincoln Hall. Before the date, we spoke to Kasher about structuring Gemini, his addiction to writing concept records, familial ties, and the positives of being obnoxious.
The A.V. Club: A press release for I Am Gemini noted an interesting detail. For the first time, you wrote all of an album’s songs in order, right?
Tim Kasher: To specify that, it’s not the music. We really did the music the same method, which is just [that we] compiled a lot of songs and worked on them until we got what looked like the album. But the unique thing is before I started writing the lyrics, I had kind of a complete story in mind, and I wanted to take a shot at telling one big story, so then I sequenced the album and offered that to the band. They were pretty hesitant about it, but they said [they were up for] a challenge. I would have been pretty far behind in my homework if it wouldn’t have worked, I guess.
AVC: How long has this idea been gestating in your mind?
TK: Well, for a really long time. I think [with] practically every record I do, there will be some morning in the shower where I daydream about making a grander story on a large scale, but it never really comes to fruition. It usually just seems like too much work or too much hokey, or I’ll start developing ideas and I scrap ’em because they seem horribly pretentious. This time, everything just came together well and soon enough that I was able to keep moving forward with it. The story itself is intentionally kind of a classic [story with] characters that feel not wholly unlike Jekyll and Hyde or Frankenstein, but I thought that kind of goes well with doing something traditional in the sense.
AVC: Did writing the record in linear fashion present any difficulties?
TK: In some ways, it was actually easier. There were no songs I had to sit and wait to be inspired [for], as they had to be about a certain point in the story. They had to get something across to get to the next song, so in that sense I actually found that kind of a comfort. But then also there are a few songs that were a horrible pain in the ass because I just couldn’t get the story across without needing to explain too much in the restricted, limited meter.
AVC: Where did you get the idea for the story itself?
TK: It kind of had just been floating around since forever, really. I’d always held [it] as a possible idea for an album; I’d just never got around to it, mostly because I could never figure out the idea of a way to write about the internal arguments that we have in our heads—the struggle we have with the different voices in our heads. Any time I tried writing about it in the past, it always felt really hokey. It just wasn’t good.
I knew I liked the idea. This time around, it was working with the music really well, because the music we were writing intentionally had this multiple-personality feel. This is, I guess, the first time that I’d attached these characters to voices. I already write what many would consider a nauseating amount of self-reflective stuff anyway, and I could just do that about myself—I just never thought it seemed like a good idea—but by the addition of these twin brothers, I was able to fictionalize it and place them into a house. It just made a lot more sense, and it finally became something appealing to me while still dealing with the same subject matter.
AVC: Did you go for substantial individual traits for each character’s voice?
TK: You know, I wanted to do that, and I realized I was going to ruin the album if I did. It was this real temptation. Something I did do is—it’s maybe kind of strange—I articulated a lot more on this album because I feel like that’s what musicals do, you know? [Laughs.] It always looks like it’s so important. Since it’s telling a story, you need to be able to hear every word. Since it’s a rock album, I’m sure you still probably can’t. I had to tone [my articulation] down at points, too. Articulation isn’t always the best thing for rock ’n’ roll.
AVC: When Mama, I’m Swollen came out in 2009, you said, “We don’t want to be labeled as a band that only does concept albums. I think that some people have still found this album to be highly conceptualized.” Since this is a concept album, what made you turn the corner from saying something like that?
TK: It’s just something that we always come back to or, I should say, I do. I just kind of can’t help myself. We have to come to terms with it, I think, is what happens with every record. We’re always striving to be a band that is harder to pin down and always trying to go in any direction with each album, so by doing a concept album each time, there’s such a redundancy to it, so I’d just say it’s something that we’ve failed to escape from. [Laughs.] We’ve started probably the last three albums by saying, “Let’s not do a concept album this time."
AVC: Why keep coming back to the concept album?
TK: I just love storytelling. Even if something wasn’t going to be specifically a concept record, I feel like I’m always going to do albums that share a theme. Actually, I shouldn’t say I will always do that, because I won’t—anyone should have more freedom just to write whatever the fuck they want—but I lean toward wanting to have everything come together, have it be about something.
AVC: Do you know if anyone else has written a concept album they way you have here?
TK: I don’t really pursue concept albums, I guess. I love the idea of it, but I don’t really [know them]. Sadly, I watched Tommy before I got into this record. I say “sadly” because it didn’t really hold up. I loved it so much when I was a kid, when I was younger. It’s not a great example [of a concept album] is how I ended up feeling about it, but I love musicals. I feel like that’s a lot of what inspires me. [Laughs.]
AVC: Does this record have any kinship with any musical you’ve seen before?
TK: [Clears throat, pauses.] Nothing really comes to mind. It’s not a musical, but it’s certainly not the same content as The Picture Of Dorian Gray, but I thought of that character a lot while I was writing it. I really love Phantom Of The Paradise. It’s great—an old Brian De Palma musical that he did in the ’70s.
AVC: In the past, you’ve written screenplays. Have you written anything recently?
TK: I guess I’m always writing other things. I got kind of exhausted of writing screenplays and setting them on the shelf, so I switched back to short story writing and stuff. That’s currently what I’m doing. But no, I don’t think I’m going to stop writing screenplays either. I’ve just kind of been writing things I don’t have any other plans for, but if I were to choose to have a plan, I could make one up without it needing a hundred thousand dollars.
AVC: What kind of things do you write your short stories about?
TK: Probably [what’s] far more mundane than this album. Our dull, day-to-day lives.
AVC: Can you talk about any in particular?
TK: I probably shouldn’t. I’m kind of in the process of writing some right now I shouldn’t be mentioning really.
AVC: Can you say something about any plays or screenplays you’ve been writing?
TK: I shouldn’t, I’m sorry. I’ve kind of learned when you’re working on stuff that’s all speculative, it can bite you in the ass when nothing happens, y’know?
AVC: Do you have any future stories in mind for albums?
TK: No, I kind of wish I did, actually. I need a couple. I’m kind of putting together my next solo record, but it’s only music right now, and everything seems a little bit blank to me. I’ll have to get back to you on that one.
AVC: Seeing as this is the age of downloading, someone is bound to listen to Gemini without having the liner notes available. How will that experience be different from someone who has the whole thing?
TK: Potentially, it could be a lot different, and it doesn’t really have to be worse. Some people would maybe argue it would be better if they maybe hate the play aspect of it. The play and the complete story [are] available if you choose to pursue it, and I think that’s great. I’m the kind of person who would choose to pursue that, I think. It’s something that makes it more meaningful to me, so then I hope that that it’s passed along to not all listeners but to some people out there. I’m hoping that it makes it more of a special project for them, but again, it’s completely whether you to choose to or not, and I recognize that.
AVC: Is there any moment on I Am Gemini where the music and lyrics come together in a way that’s exceptional?
TK: Um... [Groans.] I don’t know; it just feels very self-congratulating. [Laughs.] To state one of the more obvious ones, the song “Wowowow” is a whole setup about a set of a conjoined twins that [Pollock’s] looking for. At the end, these two women finish the song. That was all kind of nice. Before I knew that that’s what the song was going to be about, I always wrote the song with such a drastic shift at the end, just with this hunch that I was going to want to do something with it.
AVC: In another interview in 2009, you said, “We’re always trying to expand what Cursive is conceptually. So with each record, we continue to break these parameters that we set upon ourselves.” What parameters did you break this time?
TK: That’s a good question. [With] the meticulous nature we tend to write in, with chopping the songs up, we have a tendency to put detail into things. It’s not new for us, but we did it to such an exaggerated level on this record, and it was a blast. I really have to thank Cully [Symington], our drummer for this album, because he was so open-minded about it. We just were really on the same page of wanting to really explore the minutiae of every section of every song and make something more unusual out of it. Again, this is stuff we’ve done before, but it was just a really hyper-exaggerated version of that, which was nice. It probably doesn’t seem like such a departure for us, but other than two instrumental breaks, this is the first record maybe since our second record where everything is almost always rock ’n’ roll.
AVC: You have lots of familial imagery within your lyrics: multiple references to wombs and babies, Mama’s title, the twins and The Sisters Cecil on I Am Gemini. What interests you about those images?
TK: I don’t really know. I guess that just suggests that that’s just intimacy—an intimate relationship that we all can relate to. I grew up in a large family, and I’d like to think that most of us have families of some sort. That’s not something that I had really thought about before, but the one thing I can really suggest is that those are such intimate relationships that there’s so much to be said about them.
AVC: You could always psychoanalyze yourself someday and wonder what those mean.
TK: Right. Well, the conversation that I wasn’t really going to have earlier was that the short stories collection I’m writing now is about a brother and sister. [Laughs.] I think you must be onto something.
AVC: Around Mama’s release, you also told The A.V. Club, “What I do is obnoxious, and I recognize that. I consider myself an obnoxious person.” Do you still think that you’re obnoxious, and if so, what makes you that?
TK: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a “think.” I think I know that I’m an obnoxious person. [Laughs.] But so much of that is really fun. I guess I like being like that. I actually didn’t used to like the stage very much, but I kind of got more accustomed to it, and now I really like it. I guess I’m needing to adjust. I think I’m getting worse and worse as I’m getting older, because [as] we get older—I think I can speak for all of us—we start giving so much less of a shit, so that’s just making me more and more of an absurdist. It can be difficult to take myself seriously at all, especially with such a goofy role as rock ’n’ roll onstage.
[With] taking myself seriously, I really have to maintain some level of that because I’m just going to abandon it completely if I’m not careful. A nice thing about writing this record was these fictionalized characters kept the album serious because it wasn’t really just me fluffing myself off. It’s probably an approach I should consider doing more often if I’m going to keep being this obnoxious, so to speak.