The Oral History of Cursive's Accidental Masterpiece, 'The Ugly Organ'

Reflections on Cursive's big, weird, wild surprise by the band's members and friends.

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Nov 24 2014, 5:00pm

The Ugly Organ shouldn’t have sold a single copy. It was never meant to. “It just seemed really queer and perverse to me. And I thought it was me internalizing in such an obnoxious way that it just wouldn’t translate and it made me feel a little selfish,” recalls Cursive frontman Tim Kasher. “But it all ended up being this big, weird, wild surprise, which is kind of exciting but also still leaves me perplexed.”

Armed with low expectations and grand ideas, Cursive accidentally captured lightning in a bottle on their fourth album, a follow-up to 2000’s Domestica. The band improved upon the conceptual nature of Domestica, stretching it a step further on The Ugly Organ. On it, the band dove headfirst into the the navel-gazing, self-effacing nature of the life of an artist and weaved real-world cynicism with fairytale storytelling.

If Kasher were a serial killer—the “bloody murderer” he alludes to in the song of that title—he would be caught instantly, as he is not much for covering his tracks. In many instances on the album’s lyrics, which is meant to be a fictionalized first person narrative, Kasher himself bleeds through, from referencing his own name on “Butcher the Song” (“Who’s Tim’s latest whore?”) to the subtle, sarcastic callback to the band on “Art Is Hard” (“Oh Cursive is so cool!”).

But despite the lack of universality Kasher gives the record credit for, it was an immense success upon its release in 2003, becoming a darling among music critics, an instant fan favorite, and selling over 170,000 copies for Saddle Creek Records, earning its place among the Omaha-based label’s landmark records, along with The Faint’s Danse Macabre and Bright Eyes’ Lifted. It’s now seeing a deluxe special edition reissue by the label, complete with photos and early drafts of the artwork. It was a level of success that Cursive had never reached before and really, would never reach again. “If it was too introspective, well, maybe that’s just precisely what people wanted at the time,” surmises Kasher.

In the liner notes of the record, there is a prelude to the album, a stage cue: Enter Organist. Moves stage center in grotesque costume. He gestures towards an imaginary audience. This is the story of an eerily beautiful album, performed for a crowd of no one.

Ladies and gentlemen, The Ugly Organ...

The Characters

Tim Kasher (Cursive, guitarist/vocalist)

Gretta Cohn (Cursive, cellist)

Ted Stevens (Cursive, guitarist)

Matt Maginn (Cursive, bassist)

Robb Nansel (Saddle Creek Records)

Jordan Blilie (The Blood Brothers, vocalist)

Geoff Rickly (Thursday, vocalist)

Erin Tate (Minus the Bear, vocalist)

Photos from The Ugly Organ deluxe edition reissue

Save Me from the Wreck I’m About to Drown In

Cursive had received critical acclaim for their 2000 album, ‘Domestica.’ But by the following year, they began quietly laying the groundwork of what was to come. There were rumblings of a new style of Cursivesomething unlike the earlier works of their catalog. The band tested the waters of the sound which was to come on ‘The Ugly Organ’ with 2001’s ‘Burst and Bloom’ EP.

Kasher: I try not to be too hard of a critic about the stuff I was doing a long time ago but, musically, I think prior to The Ugly Organ, we had a little less of our own identity. That’s where that time we spent in the 90s listening to Dischord bands was a little bit more apparent.

Maginn: We had whatever amalgamation of sound that was like Dischord and Merge Records fused. We loved Archers of Loaf, but we also loved Fugazi and all these influences. We often ended up on tour with posthardcore bands but we really weren’t that hard even if we were heavy at times.

Kasher: We were big fans of Brainiac back then and there’s a lot of perversity to the way they approached their music. Some of The Ugly Organ reflects that a bit. It wasn’t just Fugazi that was a big deal for us, Shudder To Think was huge for me as well, just to see the sass of Craig Wedren back then was a pretty big deal.

Maginn: We played some of the big Ugly Organ songs like “Gentleman Caller,” “Art Is Hard,” “Red Handed Slight of Hand” on the Plea for Peace tour. I feel like the reaction was really good. It’s kind of the road-testing you want out of a song. Those crowds were pretty open-minded.

She Pulled Some Strings

In 2001, Cursive added a new weapon to its musical arsenal, enlisting the help of cellist Gretta Cohn, who served as a full-time member of the band for nearly four years. ‘The Ugly Organ’ was the only full-length album she would appear on, giving the album a distinct sound, unlike anything else in their extensive discography.

Cohn: I was in college and playing in a couple of bands there. We became the default opening act there. I graduated and moved back to New York. Then a year later, my parents called me and said, “There was a message on our answering machine from this cowboy and we don’t really know what it’s about.” It was Ted Stevens calling me to just say, “We met you and remembered you and we’re looking for a cello player. Are you interested?” I flew out there, I learned the songs on Burst and Bloom, and recorded them in the course of like, five days. I remember when we were driving back to Omaha from the studio, Ted was like, “Alright, do you wanna move out here and join the band?”

Stevens: With the addition of Gretta, the idea was the EP preceding Ugly Organ would be a springboard for some of these ideas, and the ones that stuck would be eventually incorporated into the following release and kind of the band dynamic. I think it was kind of a slow build in development into that particular sound.

Cohn: I think the cello amplifies the melodies and the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking stuff. The cello can be unexpectedly fierce. There are so many bands with a cello and all it does is sweetly accompany what’s happening. But I liked with Cursive, I didn’t have to play sweetly or somberly. I could play aggressively.

Maginn: She did the Burst and Bloom EP but that was different because those songs were mostly written before she joined the band. So the cello was added as a layer after the fact, rather than written together the way Ugly Organ was written, with her as a participant.

Cohn: I had been out of college for a year, I was working a job I wasn’t that excited about, and it just seemed like an adventure. I flew out there with a suitcase, a cello case, and my cat. I’m so glad I did it. I learned a lot about myself. I got to tour and travel the world and be a part of this thing as it grew. I feel like I was in Omaha for a pivotal point in Saddle Creek’s story. I took a leap. At the time, I said to myself, maybe I’ll go out there for a year or two and see what happens and then move back home. I ended up staying there for four years.

And What Comes Out Is a Horrible Mess

Expectations around the release of ‘The Ugly Organ’ in 2003 were lowboth by the band and Saddle Creek Records. It wasn’t that they were displeased with the record, but more that they had always operated with a mindset of: art first, reception second. Acclaim was an afterthought.

Nansel: I don’t remember actually hearing it for the first time. That period was so crazy for us. The Faint had done Danse Macabre and that was really resonating on an international level. And then Bright Eyes had Lifted. Each time any of those guys made another record, everybody was trying to one-up each other.

Maginn: I was married at the time and we were in the living room listening to the record for the first time. The whole record had played through and “Staying Alive” had just finished. I remember saying to my wife, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna like that record except that last song.” I remember having a similar conversation with Tim. Like, “This is a really weird, fucked up record.” We were super excited about but it was a bit different. We thought people would think we’re spazzes and it was just too weird.

Rickly: We were on the Plea for Peace tour with them. They had finished making it but it hadn’t come out yet. They came on our bus and played us the record and we were like, “Woah...” I remember they played them very piecemeal for us. They played “Art Is Hard” right away and we were like, “Ho-ly shit. That is the new Cursive anthem right there. You call out all this stuff and make fun of yourself right in the middle. This is amazing. This is so Cursive of you.” But then they had a few more songs that they were like, “Well, these are kind of weird, they might not end up on the album.” One of them was “Driftwood” and that one—when they said it might not be on the album—I thought they were crazy because that was a big highlight.

Cohn: No one was really anticipating that the record was going to be received the way it was.

I've Been Making Money Off My Indifference

Despite the band’s penchant for self-deprecation, the album was critically acclaimed, earning a four-star rating from Rolling Stone and a massive cover story in the New York Times’ Arts & Leisure section. The album went on to sell over 170,000 copies, a tremendous success by indie rock standards, making it one of the most popular records in Saddle Creek’s catalog. It was the label’s 51st release.

Nansel: We always loved all these records our friends were making. Early on, we were just trying to get all the bands signed to labels. And labels didn’t want to sign them. That’s another reason Saddle Creek started—we couldn’t get anybody to care so we started putting out the records ourselves. In hindsight, you can say, yeah Ugly Organ is this masterpiece or whatever, but I don’t think you know what’s going to happen in advance of it happening.

Rickly: So, Death Cab for Cutie is just like perfect Urban Outfitters hip. It’s just cool enough to be in with that crowd and just not edgy enough to alienate too many people. And Conor [Oberst], despite the crazy shit he does in his music, is still a handsome guy with a guitar talking about his feelings and that's marketable too. Cursive didn’t really have a quick one-line that would make you say, “Done, sold.” They were really selling the music on the strength of the ideas. And that’s never as easy. It’s always a miracle when a record as crazy as The Ugly Organ sells 170,000 copies. I mean, today, if they were selling that, they’d be the biggest fucking band in the world.

Nansel: We didn’t always participate in that game. We didn’t hire expensive commercial radio promoters because it wasn’t really what anybody wanted. They wanted to make their music on their own terms and go out and support it. I don’t know if anybody really even wanted to get to that next level. When Saddle Creek started, we always thought, “Oh my God, if we could sell 20,000 copies of a record that would be insane!”

Kasher: It was just that we were all completely chagrinned. When we had the hundred thousand sales party, I remember [Nansel] being really torn. Like, “I'll tell you what, if there was any record I thought was gonna do this, it wasn’t this.” [Laughs]

Tate: Obviously that record should have sold 500,000 copies. They have a good amount of fans, but they’re a total band’s band. Journalists love them and booking agents love them, everyone loves them. They’re the nicest dudes and you’d never leave a Cursive show not thinking they were rad guys.

Maginn: We always tried to stay positive but it went way past what we’d hoped. We really wanted our peers to like it—the bands we had developed with. It was the first time we got larger press and the first time we’d hired a publicist and stuff like that. We were exposed to things we hadn’t been in the past. We were all Midwestern Catholic high school boys. None of our parents were musicians. They were never openly negative about it, but they were definitely like, “What are you doing? This isn’t a career.” Then getting that New York Times cover, I remember my dad saying something like, “Well, I don’t know, you’ll never see me in the New York Times.” It was nice to have our family think that we weren’t just total goofballs. Being a musician in Omaha is not a remotely normal career choice.

Kasher: It’s a cliché to say but I think it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s become something that’s not really Cursive anymore. The Ugly Organ’s kind of set itself apart as its own thing.

Rub It In with Your Dumb Lyrics

A trademark of Cursive’s brilliance is Kasher’s lyrics. His words are often self-effacing and clever, and sometimes downright funny, relying heavily on literary references. Kasher comes off like the guy at the bar who’s read one too many Bukowski books and knows it.

Kasher: We decided a really long time ago that it was just easier if I come in with finished compositions. It just saves a few steps. But also, people don’t recognize that Ted contributed a handful of the songs as well.

Stevens: Cursive has always had a very similar writing process where Tim will come in with a skeleton, and the band will start writing around that idea. Edits will happen weekly or daily depending on frequency of practices, which have increased over the years. It’s always that kind of idea with Tim. I wrote some songs for the record too, I guess, but largely it’s just jamming out material time and time again.

Kasher: If anything, I think coming off Domestica, that was a record that became a little too heavily conceptualized. The Ugly Organ was written the way every record I write is written—where it’s written in a cluster of months and so all of the ideas are flushed out ideas. But Ugly Organ, it was a little more after-the-fact that those ideas were threaded together to make something read and felt more cohesive. Ted had a lot to do with that—one of those great benefits of working with a group of people.

Nansel: Tim was a really influential writer to a lot of the people that were involved in Saddle Creek from the beginning like Todd from The Faint and Conor [Oberst], everybody was just enamored by Tim as a songwriter. That was the impetus for starting the label, really. We were just kids.

Blilie: The thing that strikes me so much is how seamlessly everything flows together, how smart their songwriting decisions are. Their songs are very dynamic but never feel forced. You don’t get the sense that they’re putting opposing jigsaw parts together. It reaches these emotional heights without feeling corny and that’s something to be proud of and a feat that a lot of bands can’t pull off. It’s really smart without feeling pretentious.

Stevens: I feel like Domestica was very conceptual, but Ugly Organ had kind of a dream-like quality of what was happening with the characters and the plotline. And it is schizophrenic and weird at times.

Rickly: I think Domestica was a really brutal breakup record. Burst and Bloom seemed like they were letting off a bit of steam. It was funny, it was ironic, it was kind of stupid at times. But then The Ugly Organ did this amazing magic trick, which everyone seems to do now but at the time, seemed very rare—it was sort of post-ironic where it had irony and it was self-deprecating and it was funny, but at the same time, it served a larger narrative that was actually quite sad.

Blilie: I like that there’s this parallel storyline going where on one hand, you have sort of this line of trying to grapple with all the ego and existential dread that accompanies the creation of art and then on the other hand, you have the ugliness and selfishness of male desire. And it’s just this really weird way that he interweaves the parallel lines.

Art Is Hard

In addition to serving as the album’s primary songwriter, Kasher also painted the artwork for the album’s coverthe iconic green background with off-white, misshapen keys of the organ, which more closely resemble teeth of a rabid beast.

Kasher: I think about the artwork every time I do artwork. I had a lot of time on my hands. I’m not a painter. But for whatever reason, I just said to the guys, “Let me take this on. I have these pictures in my head.”

Maginn: We talked about the concept of it. At one point, there was a bear in a cave and all this stuff, but it went through the sketch process and we pretty quickly liked where Tim was going. It was kind of perfectly odd for the record. It’s cool to see him do that stuff. I like seeing him do a drawing or art once in a while because it’s not something he does a whole lot. We’re really lucky as a band that if one person has an idea and they’re feeling it, then we all just back it.

Cohn: I remember seeing the actual painting. It’s kind of visceral and sharp. I think it really captures what the album sounds like. Tim’s really good at that.

Nansel: Obviously the keys are very iconic. People have those keys tattooed on their body.

Kasher: The original painting, I gave it to our drummer at the time, Clint. I think I gave it to him and his wife Susan as a wedding gift.

When You Get on Stage and They Scream Your Name

For as structurally sound as ‘The Ugly Organ’ is, the band would often take great liberties with the material in a live setting. For those looking for a performance leaning heavily on improvisation, Cursive’s live shows never repeated themselves. For those wanting a strict performance of the album though, it was maddening.

Kasher: I know everyone is familiar with Ugly Organ and how it sounds [on the record], but that’s a totally different experience than I have. I don’t. I don’t listen to it. I think I play a totally different version. The way the songs go in my head have continued to alter over the years. And perhaps I should go back and hear what everyone else’s version of it is.

Tate: I wasn’t really a fan [before touring with Cursive]. I heard Domestica, and wasn’t really into that genre of music at the time. Susan from Flower Booking booked us for that tour and it was one of those “Yeah this’ll probably be good for the band” things and we didn’t realize how good they were.

Blilie: My introduction to that record was through that tour that we did together all those years back. I wasn’t really familiar with the band. Cody, our guitar player, was more well-versed with Cursive and those Saddle Creek bands. I was going into it cold. I have all these very specific memories of their songs but all in the live context. It’s been kind of strange to listen to the recorded versions of them. They hit a lot harder live. I think most people would probably agree that that’s a sign you’re a good rock band—that your songs are a lot harder live than they are on record.

Tate: That was a total breakout tour for all of us. Their fans were incredible and amazing and they treat their fans great. Everyone knows they hand pick their bands. So if you’re a fan of Cursive, you’re excited they’re presenting other bands that they think are cool so their fans tend to get into it. Much respect to Cursive for that.

Blilie: I remember the crowds, there was a very interesting mix of audience members. It was a weird time for rock and punk where you could have two bands like ours tour and there would be some kind of crossover there. We had done opening tours like that in the past that on paper seemed to make a lot more sense and we’d get brutalized for seven weeks, every night. But their crowds were very receptive, or at least polite. Like when we opened for Glassjaw, for example. You’d think there was more mutual interest in the fanbases. But the reception we got on the Cursive tour was far and away better than the one we got on the Glassjaw tour.

Stevens: It seemed like more people were coming to shows and buying records. At that point in my mind, I didn’t realize we were making what might be our peak record. [Laughs] No one wants to think that.

Cursive in Irvington, NJ. September 19, 2003. Photo by the author.

The Sunrise Is Just Over That Hill, The Worst Is Over

By 2004, Cursive had toured on ‘The Ugly Organ’ extensively, playing 126 dates in 2003. It was beginning to take its toll. Cohn moved back to New York and the band went on a brief hiatus. Kasher devoted more time to his side project, The Good Life.

Cohn: In any band, there are tensions. Sometimes they get bigger and bigger and harder to manage. And not that ours were so big, there were just tensions. Around 2004, Cursive kind of went on a hiatus, I think it was when all the touring was done for Ugly Organ. I remember just sitting down with Matt and us basically breaking up.

Stevens: We’ve kind of conveniently taken a break after each big release, so there was a period after the touring cycle of Ugly Organ where we were in limbo as to where we’d make another one. Tim and Cursive have always operated like that, we’ve taken a pause after each one. We made sure each one was something we wanted to do after each process.

Kasher: In your head, you’re always trying to outdo yourself. So for me, I’m always trying to outdo Ugly Organ in a sense. But with that, I don’t have any expectations. But you just try. And before Ugly Organ, I was just trying to outdo Domestica. And before Domestica, I was just trying to outdo Such Blinding Stars. That’s just kind of the way it always is. But I have a catalog going now—some records do better than others. But in a lot of ways, you’re just trying to outdo what you did last. I guess the point is that Ugly Organ happened and that was great, and ever since then, I’ve taken the approach to write the greatest album I could. And there’s no feeling of defeat not hitting that mark. That was a really high mark Ugly Organ had. And it’s cool to hit it once. Or to hit it at all. I mean... I’m OK. I can ride off into the sunset with that being the biggest one.

Exeunt.

Do-do do-do do-do do-do Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi