Tim Kasher Is Still Trying to Understand the New Cursive Album, Too
The frontman is not exactly sure what he did on 'Vitriola,' so maybe you could help him figure it out?
Photo by Tony Bonacci
In the six years since Cursive released I Am Gemini, frontman Tim Kasher has kept plenty busy. He’s released a handful of EPs and a pair of solo albums, the second of which, No Resolution, was accompanied by a movie he made to coincide with the record. He and his Cursive bandmates also launched a record label, 15 Passenger Records, and re-released the band’s first two albums. Somehow, in the midst of all that, he found time to slowly work up a new batch of Cursive songs, the first with the band’s founding drummer Clint Schnase in a decade, as well as with cellist Megan Seibe and keyboardist Patrick Newbery. The result is Vitriola, a record that hits with the vigor of the band’s early material—those Ugly Organ comparisons are very warranted—but with a decidedly more mature outlook.
It’s fitting how Vitriola finds a way to sound like an early Cursive record without sounding predictable. Kasher started writing for Vitriola after the 2016 election, and that informed the bulk of his writing. Instead of working on an album-length concept, Kasher wrote from his gut, allowing all his anger and fear to get funneled into the songs. But even then, there’s still an undercurrent of hope running through it. “Despite how bad things might be, we’ve got to find a way out if we can,” says Kasher, and that drive to make it through the darkness is what lingers long after Vitriola has ended.
But talking to Kasher, he’s still trying to figure out exactly what this record means. Unlike his past works, where there was a clear thesis to it all, with Vitriola, there’s more ambiguity than ever. That’s a product of the collective uncertainty of our future, but also because Kasher is open to having a conversation about his work instead of being prescriptive. As we talked, it became clear that he’d found a bit of freedom making this record, as he allowed himself to make a record that sounded like Cursive, a thing he’d been a bit cagey about doing before. but also that he found a bit of himself in going through the process. In essence, Vitriola serves as the start of the conversation with the audience, one that shows Kasher is open to asking questions and listening instead of having the final word.
Noisey: Reading other interviews you’ve done so far, people keep commenting on how dark the record is. And while that makes sense, it’s not like the old Cursive records have been super positive either. Why do you think people are reading it that way?
Tim Kasher: I don’t know yet. This may seem like a pat or paltry answer, but I maybe need more people to hear it first so I understand it better. I’ve definitely heard other songwriters mention this, that you’re not totally sure what it is you did, and then you get reactions back and you get a greater sense of it. In a few months, if people are like, “Whoa, what the fuck happened to Tim?” I’ll believe that more or something. I just want to know what the groupthink is.
So I don’t know. I don’t know offhand, but I don’t think that we promoted it in the bio to be any darker than usual. We probably said, “It’s dark and it’s moody,” but that’s probably—and this is no offense to us or our publicist Amanda—that’s probably recycled. [Laughs] That’s kind of the to the point you’re making. It’s a Cursive record, so it’s gonna be dark and moody.
I will offer a couple things that I have been responding to considering that, and it’s that I probably went two directions with it. I probably did feel like I was giving away too much of my pessimistic and nihilistic beliefs on this record, and it’s something I do sincerely try to keep at bay. I have a sensitivity, and maybe if you look at interviews I’m repeating myself, and I’m sorry, but I have a kind of a sensitivity to being too grim. The sensitivity is based on knowing that there are people out there who listen to what I do but also might be having problems with things like clinical depression and I don’t want to make things worse. I want to write something that people can relate to and bring catharsis because they can relate to it, but I don’t want to write the lyric of like, “Go ahead and slit the wrist.” That’s not how I feel, and of course that’s not how most people feel that way.
But part of this was also looking back at The Ugly Organ and realizing that Ugly Organ actually has these kinder moments throughout the album of redemption and maybe even optimism or faith. And I think I got away from that for a lot of years. I forgot about that more well-rounded type of album, or even just message. And I wanted that. I think it’s more that I wanted that because, and I think I’m going to come full circle here, because of what I was writing ultimately felt darker than what I had been writing. So I think I had to come up for air and be like, “Is that all you’re gonna do and just be really cynical?” And that’s when I started looking at the back catalog and trying to understand where I’m getting off course and how to proceed. So leaning back on Ugly Organ, it was nice to have a glimmer of hope.
That’s interesting, because Vitriola does have those moments of redemption and hope, but to achieve that, you kind of have to show the other side first, right? You can’t just be like, “Well, everything’s great now, so let’s not discuss what happened at the start.” Was there any consideration to that idea when you were starting to work on this?
If I were to say yes to that, I would be lying. It would suggest that I was really overthinking the process when, really, I was trying to make this record less thematic. And they always end up thematic, but it was just trying to push against how tightly I wanted to package the concept and what kind of ribbon I wanted to put on it. I was trying to avoid that, but it still came out of it, but hopefully in a little looser sense. But that’s my way of saying, no, I certainly wasn’t thinking of that. I think it is more of what we just spoke of, which is that it was like, “Oh man, this is a burden on me, even.” That general loss of hope and burgeoning negativity that was seeping into all these songs, I think I wanted to start finding ways to create something more well-rounded.
To that idea of loosening the thematic reins, I know you had over 20 songs for the album and then cut it down from there. Did approaching it that way, where you could kind of cherry pick what made the final cut, break you from that feeling that everything needed to connect at the end?
That’s… really insightful. I hadn’t really thought about that. That came out in that Stereogum article and I was like, “Oh shit.” I just mentioned we had a ton of songs and we don’t have any plans or anything like that. Then I saw in the comments sections people were like, “When are we gonna hear those songs?” And it’s like, “Oh God.” Which is great, but I don’t have an answer.
But, no, that’s really insightful because you’re onto it—you’re absolutely onto it. We really belabored what to put on this record. It wasn’t 21 songs that all felt like Vitriola, we picked the songs that ended up sounding like Vitriola, in our opinion. There were myriad songs where, all along, we were like, “That’s definitely making the record.” It was really an interesting development, because we ended up with multiple songs that just surprised us. One, we couldn’t get a consensus, but there were songs where, upon hearing them, they were big, catchy, and heavy, and they just made sense, but we just kept looking at the record as a whole and they just weren’t fitting. So other songs took the lead, and I think of songs like the first song, “Free To Be Or Not To Be You And Me,” and the song “It’s Gonna Hurt,” and even to a certain extent the closer, “The Dystopian Lament,” they also had guaranteed slots on the record but they ended up being the focus of the record.
There were definite points where we considered putting out two albums, a moody one and a hard rock one. And this is kind of, ultimately, the moody one. Though that’s not quite accurate, as it’s an amalgam, still, of those ideas.
Listening to it, it’s clear that the album could have gone in a bunch of different directions. How much did taking time off of the band, as well as welcoming Clint back, as well as these new members into the writing process, feel like Cursive could start fresh?
That really wasn’t a concern. I’ve been thinking of this more for these conversations, and even just through these early interviews I’ve gotten a better understanding of what the process was because I’m forced to think about it. I’m realizing more and more, and we’re getting feedback where, and I’m really sensitive to people being like, “It sounds like The Ugly Organ,” because I would shoot myself if I felt like we were trying to do something like that, and that’s the consensus of the band. But we didn’t have any preconceptions of what the record would be before we went into it, and I never really took time to think about what the record should be like. Though I have, through interviews, realized that I’ve kind of gathered influence from the first two records. We worked on those reissues a lot, and it was kind of around the same time that I was working on this record, and I just look back at those really favorably. And it just reminded me of that 21-year-old self and I wanted to write like that again. And that, to me, is not off bounds. If it’s a matter of tapping into that process I used to have, and I remembered what it was, it was essentially just that I needed to have a really intense, visceral reaction to what I’m writing. And it’s kind of as simple as that. Over all these years, I felt more and more like that wasn’t totally crucial and that I just wanted to write stuff that sounds great. So there’s kind of a subtle difference there, but it’s a major difference for me in how I was approaching songwriting.
I’m really answering this in a long way, but what really helped is that it had been six years since we had done I Am Gemini. I didn’t have any of these feeling of doing Happy Hollow where I was like, “It needs to be so far away from Ugly Organ,” and then when I was doing Mama, I’m Swollen and was like, “It needs to be so far away from Happy Hollow.” Gemini was so long ago, I just wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t thinking about what direction Cursive had to go in this time. Instead, it just felt like a celebration. Clint was back, and that was great, and I just wanted to write stuff for Clint and with Clint—and obviously for, and with, the rest of the band, too. When I say that I mean it was everybody was kind of feeling that. I’m aware now that people are kind of saying, “Oh, this sounds like Cursive.” I used to not always take “It sounds like Cursive” as a compliment, It could even be an insult in certain scenarios. But again, because it’s been six years and we’ve gone in a handful of directions, I think that makes sense that it sounds like Cursive. And I don’t think they’re necessarily saying it sounds like Ugly Organ, but I’m noticing a lot of fun debate as to what record people think it sounds like. They’re all pulling out pads of paper and are like, “Well, actually, I think it sounds like this record.” [Laughs] But it’s somewhere on that spectrum between Domestica and Gemini.
It’s funny, because when we talked for the Rank Your Records piece last year, you said that The Storms Of Early Summer was a favorite among the band, and when I hear Vitriola, I kind of saw that coming out a bit again. The theme of that record broke down to the sides being broken up as “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Self,” and I think that applies here. We’re all living through this moment together and know what’s in the air, so did you feel less of a need to make songs that told the listener where the songs were going instead of just kind of putting your feelings out there?
I’m not positive that I’m going to answer the question you want me to, but through describing that, you helped me realize that subtle difference in how I approached needing a reaction when I wrote a song for those earliest records. The comparison to Storms as you were explaining it, it also makes a lot of sense for where I was in that time in my life and where I am now. This is kind of personal, and a little depressing for me, but when I was doing Storms, a lot of it was philosophical stuff because I was finishing school at the time. But there was also a lot of pain and angst about just feeling helpless under the weight of society and economy. I was at an age where I was still working any job I could find and just not knowing how life was going to fit together and if it was ever going to. I was fortunate and privileged enough to spend the last 18 years just doing music, and then even getting to do a movie. But the last few years, and I need to be careful, because I’m still making a career through writing, but it’s so hand-to-mouth. This morning I was looking for work. I’m fretting about money all the time, looking for work.
Oh, I totally understand that.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Those feelings went into that. It’s totally delicate for me to talk about, because I’m still coming from such a place of privilege on the other side of it, where I’m still benefiting from being a professional songwriter, but I still need to pay rent just like everybody else does.
I’m sure having a back catalog helps to a certain degree, but you address that rather directly here on “Life Savings,” and how dystopia isn’t some sci-fi concept, there are very human concerns in that. Were you consciously trying to make those abstractions have real weight here?
Again, I appreciate this, because I feel like you’re helping me understand the writing process better by asking questions such as this. I’m certainly quite sensitive about excess solipsism with what I write, especially when it comes to Cursive. As we all have been, as we’re always trying to keep our catalog intact without any tainted albums. But it was occurring to me as you were laying that out that I didn’t have to think about it that much this time around. Based on that description, I don’t really have to lay the concept out here because we all understand the current administration and the current social norms being so abnormal, and we’re all going through these similar traumas, thus I could comfortably write from a personal vantage point with the hunch that everyone was going to be able to relate to this. I never thought that through, but I am kind of thinking it through now. It’s maybe less going out on a limb when we’re in a moment, and we’re in an era, where my personal crises are shared by everyone. Maybe I can just let loose and say what’s on my mind and maybe that won’t be such a stretch for people to connect to.