Rank Your Records: Tim Kasher Rates Cursive's Seven Albums
A look back at a catalog by a band that reinvents themselves with every release.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Before he begins ranking the albums in the Cursive discography, Tim Kasher offers a few prefaces. As is customary, Cursive vocalist-guitarist notes that he’s proud of them all, and he feels somewhat bad putting something at the bottom. But he also notes the delineation between his favorite Cursive albums and the best ones, the records that fans love and critics heaped praise upon. “There’s a difference between what are my favorites and what are the best,” he says. “And I could probably make a counter list of people’s favorites, what they think would be the best, but I don’t really care.”
After the dissolution of Slowdown Virginia in 1995, Kasher, along with bassist Matt Maginn and guitarist Steve Pedersen launched Cursive, a heavy, off-kilter post-hardcore band that, album after album, reinvented their approach to the genre. As the years wore on, and members entered and exited, Kasher would build expansive worlds inside his songs, exploring everything from religion and romantic disillusionment to sprawling, fictionalized operas he dreamed up.
It’s fitting that Kasher is in a reflective mood, as the band is reissuing the first two Cursive albums—1997’s Such Blind Stars for Starving Eyes and 1998’s The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song—on their own label, 15 Passenger Records, this Friday. The records see the band in its gestational period, quickly developing into an obtuse, aggressive band before dissolving just as quickly. Breaking up before the release of The Storms of Early Summer, the band would establish their sound, but their on-again, off-again nature. They’d be back before long with 2000’s Domestica, and they’d fully break into the mainstream with 2003’s The Ugly Organ. Since then, the band has gone on extended breaks, but they’ve never fully took, ensuring that, even if it’s been five years since their last album, 2012’s I Am Gemini, Cursive is always waiting for the right moment to reappear.
After establishing his necessary prefaces, Kasher drops a bomb that’s sure to leave most Cursive fans reeling: “The Ugly Organ is probably the best, but it’s never been my favorite.” And with that, we got into it.
7. Happy Hollow (2006)
Tim Kasher: I’m sure this will be met with some derision, as I meet a ton of people who say that’s their favorite record. I should also say, I have a tendency to lean toward underdogs, and Happy Hollow’s not much of an underdog.
I feel a lot of pride with people’s affection for that record because that’s our big, anti-religion manifesto, and that’s really important to me. I really respect the record and think it’s great, but the reason it’s always sat lower for me is it was a period where we took some time away and came back, and it was so important to us to go in a direction that was different from what we had previously done. Now I look back at it and, my personal feeling is, that maybe we just didn’t quite get there. I mean, it’s totally different from the The Ugly Organ, so we landed the concept of going in a different direction, but it just felt like it steered too far into music that, maybe if we kept working on it—actually, that’s not even true. The other problem I have is that we worked on it for way too long. [Laughs] We were in the studio for months. It felt like it got out of our hands because of how long it took.
Noisey: It ended up being your longest record, too. Are there songs you’d want to cut if you had another chance at it?
Thinking about that record as a whole, there are tonal issues on it. It gets a little too bright for Cursive. Ted Stevens [guitarist], who was writing a lot for that record, I feel he did a nice job of keeping things weirder and darker, and I was leaning too pop for Cursive. It got to be a bit much.
What about going in a pop-focused direction was appealing to you at the time?
I get asked a lot, “How do you discern between the different projects that you do?” And this was a time period where I was thinking that I wanted to start bringing everything together, bringing the writing I do with The Good Life and incorporating it more into what Cursive does. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I just don’t think it was massaged correctly just yet. I remember being at odds with bands members as we were laying it out about whether some directions were the right ones or not. We were trying to reinvent what we were doing but not totally sure of what we wanted it to sound like.
You said that you’re proud of all the Cursive records. What about Happy Hollow are you most proud of?
Mostly, how important that record is to people who are now atheists. That just means a lot to me. Growing up listening to XTC or The The, growing up Catholic, these were bands that were giving me options, showing me there were other things to believe or not believe. Getting to be part of the tradition of handing down atheism is what I set out to do. We had endless conversations about wanting to do that positively, because it’s so easy to be totally dismissive of Christianity and just rip it apart—and, believe me, that’s what I often want to do. But we felt like it was more socially responsible to present atheism as a positive decision.
We were terrified of the reaction we’d get from our own families, since we’re all from Catholic families. And that was another amazing experience I had with that record—instead of anybody in my family being upset or turning on me, it opened up this great discourse about religion. I didn’t change anyone’s mind in my family, and not that I felt like I needed to, because I really respect everyone in my family for being Catholic, but I just wanted there to be positive role models for atheism in the world, and I’m glad we got to do that.
So now I feel like it’s my favorite record. [Laughs]
6. I Am Gemini (2012)
I chose I Am Gemini for kind of similar reasons as Happy Hollow. These are the two records that we kind of feel—and I think I can say “we,” because the band talks about this enough—that we feel like we were going furthest out on a limb. And if you don’t really land it, it can feel like it’s unfinished, or you’re left asking what you could have done differently. With I Am Gemini, there are plenty of reasons why we’re really proud of what we did, but it was tough. It was our first and only time that we set out to do an actual piece of musical theatre. It’s not just loosely based themes; it’s a story. It’s an opera that should be listened to from front to back. And that’s just weird. And it was kind of painstaking.
I’ll confess that why I wonder if maybe I just didn’t do it right is just because the reaction from people—and I shouldn’t say it’s bad, I’ve seen tattoos of that record—but I think it left a lot of people confused. As a writer, it makes me second-guess if I told the story adequately enough. What I mostly worry about with I Am Gemini is that I was too much in my own head and I didn’t get it out well enough.
Were you conscious going into this one that you were swinging for the fences and, if you missed, it’d be a big miss?
With I Am Gemini, it was quite ambitious. It started at the highest tier of really wanting to take it to the stage. That’s where the daydreams all started. I kept pulling it back until I got comfortable with the idea of it being the score to a thing that’s actually fictitious. It’s been brought up a handful of times to make it, to actually create it as an opera, but I’ve always shrugged it off because I kind of like that it’s a fictitious opera at this point.
Did it make it harder to tour that record, since it was this one big piece that you then had to break up and try to get across in the same way?
Only mentally, in the sense that, once we went out and toured it, we just littered sets with what we assumed were the most captivating songs on stage and put them into our set of best-ofs. But mentally, you can also see it as kind of a shame when you had such high ambitions to lay it out as one piece. I certainly wouldn’t have minded if the piece as a whole was really widely received and people demanded to hear it from front to back. We would have certainly obliged.
5. Such Blind Stars for Starving Eyes (1997)
A lot of this conversation is just my impression of these albums that remain with me, and Such Blinding Stars didn’t really sit that well in my head. I thought that I had a really horrible vocal performance, and that’s what I assumed for a lot of years. I went back to it for these reissues and just really fell in love with these two records again. I really like how raw I sang. It’s super earnest, and I just can’t sing like that anymore. I can’t scream like that anymore, and I’m kind of envious. I would really just love to be able to do something like that again. But I can’t, because that’s not an option for my vocal cords anymore.
The reason why it would be lower on the list is because, kind of peppered throughout, there are ideas that feel a little younger to me, that feel a little naive to me. But there are others that feel really spot-on, and set a precedent for the rest of the catalog.
Listening back, were there any moments where you were surprised by how well you were able to express those thoughts back in your early 20s?
With a 20-year separation from that time, I think a song like “The Dirt of the Vineyard” set a precedent for my songwriting. That was the first time I was doing something like that, and it’s nice to have a document of that. There’s the song “Retirement” that we’ll still pull out and play sometimes, which I think is great. It’s something that’s so raw and sounds like it would be on Domestica.
So many bands release their first record and that’s the one that they’re measured against forever. In hindsight, do you feel lucky that this isn’t the one you’d have to try and recreate over and over?
That’s something I never really considered, because so many bands get pigeonholed in that sense, don’t they?
They have to forever chase the thing they did when they were 18.
I think there’s always going to be a difference between a songwriter’s impression and a listener’s but, that said, not only did we have these first records in the 90s—though a lot of people aren’t even aware of them—but with Ugly Organ being our biggest record, we probably really benefitted from the fact that Domestica was also pretty big. Not nearly as much but, to me, those records kind of head in different directions, and I think that maybe helped us from getting stuck in that.
4. Domestica (2000)
I know that this is very highly revered amongst Cursive listeners, but I just personally feel that… well, I guess I’ll start with positives. It was really a decisive moment for me, personally, and I hope the rest of the band members, too. We had broken up after the first two records, and thanks to Matt Maginn and Steven Pedersen, I felt felt pretty gung-ho when we were doing it. But leaving Cursive, and then coming back and starting it again with Domestica, that was when I was the most gung-ho.
The reason I was always breaking up bands was because I loved music, but I think I still had that pragmatism in my head that said I needed to do something real. As the bulk of us know, it can be so debilitating and deflating to just keep hitting your head against a wall trying to make something work. It can feel like too much, so it’s easier to quit or just not take it too seriously. I moved away for a little bit and, coming back to Omaha and making that decision to do Cursive again, and having Domestica come out of it, that was one of the bigger decisions in my life. That’s when I decided I was really going to do music. And thank god that Domestica reached people. Because who knows how much of that has to do with making that definitive decision, but out of it seemed to come immediacy in the music.
But most of what I like—and dislike—about Domestica is the rawness of it. I really appreciate it, and I listen to records from other bands love when something is raw, but when it’s your own stuff, it comes with this idea that maybe it could have sounded a little better, that maybe there was more we could have done.
Do you mostly wish for more time to have spent focusing on the smaller details, like the guitar tones on certain songs?
I remember that time period very well, and there was little-to-no money available. We went in and recorded with the Mogises [Mike and AJ] when they were still recording in the basement of their house in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had just enough money to spit it out. And that’s fine, I’m not so dim as to think that it would sound better re-recorded, because that’s the beauty of something that’s raw. We captured something at that time, and there’s something to be said about the immediacy of not tinkering with it, laying it down, then walking away. And that’s very much what it is.
But to me, Domestica is the record in our catalog that—though strong—feels derivative of the 90s post-hardcore I was listening to. It was us putting our spin on that; And maybe that is part of the immediacy, too. But that’s just the way I hear that record. I wish it had a little more of the stamp of Cursive, which was always wanting to avoid genre, and Domestica feels more like, “Oh, that’s a post-hardcore record.”
This one definitely was well received by fans. Were you noticing a different reaction when you were touring on it? Were people more receptive to these songs?
Yeah, I remember that, and it really blew my mind. It’ll probably be a deathbed memory for me. My memory of touring prior was us not knowing anyone, kind of being scared of the music scene because we didn’t know anything—because we were hicks from Nebraska—and trying to prove ourselves to really teensy crowds. But then, with Domestica, it was happening during a tour. We were playing very small rooms, for certain, but we sold some of them out. It was just so confusing for us, but also totally thrilling, to be the recipients of a music scene that was paying attention to us and was curious about what we were doing. It really blew our minds.
3. The Ugly Organ (2003)
This was another exciting time because I think it’s the first time, looking back at the catalog, Ugly Organ is us getting our footing, and it’s the record where it sounds most uniquely like us.
What inspired you to take that step and make things more distinct than the records that came before?
I’m not totally sure. I’ve been thinking about this more and more, which is that I really react to the people I am writing with. It’s all subconscious, but I think having Ted in the band offered me this freedom to get really weird. And I love that. To me, now that Ugly Organ exists in our catalog, I’m always trying to incorporate that weirdness now, or what we call our “musical perversions.” Because I think that’s a big part of what I find fascinating in music. And Ugly Organ is the first time we went out on that whim and allowed ourselves—or myself—to be really weird.
We talk about this a lot, but we thought the record would be truly reviled. After doing Domestica, which was this muscular, post-hardcore thing, we went into this more beautifully effeminate record, even though it’s still very weird and loud. It just has a lot of that expression that, when I was younger, I was scared to express. As we’re talking through this, I’ll suggest that maybe the success of Domestica gave me the courage to be weird and to just get something like that out. But then we did the record and I was terrified that it was too weird and that I’d shown too much of myself, and I thought everyone was going to hate me for it. [Laughs]
People didn’t end up hating it, though. Instead, they really, really loved it. But did that acclaim serve a similar function, where you had to ask yourself why they loved this ugly thing?
Dude, you’re really bringing up a lot of the uglier, psychological underbelly of that. Because now that I’m looking back, and it’s been so many years since we’ve done that record, I was initially thinking about the positivity of feeling that I got back to this place of doing weird stuff. Going back, Slowdown Virginia was a pretty weird band. I was a kid and I was like, “I don’t know what music’s supposed to sound like because I’m in Nebraska and pretty sheltered and this is what I want to make.” And I think I got pretty self-conscious, and then the Cursive records became much more serious. And I think I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist and a writer. So then Ugly Organ, it seemed like everyone was okay with what I was doing so I thought I could just be my weird self and see where it goes. But that positivity from it, it’s obviously great, but going back to the underbelly of it, I speak so much more positively of The Ugly Organ now. Five years ago, I probably would have had Ugly Organ number six or number seven on this list. But I’ve grown to appreciate it so much more over the years.
I spent a long time questioning myself. We broke up after it. Again. [Laughs] Because I didn’t trust myself. I didn’t trust what I was doing. After so many people responded to it, I looked at that record with some serious distaste. It was like an ethical thing. Like, “I don’t know how you did it, Tim, but you managed to sneak by me and write a bunch of pop songs for the masses and I fucking hate you for it.” But that’s just second-guessing yourself and always being the cruelest judge of yourself.
Revisiting it for the reissue, and the tour where you played all of The Ugly Organ in full, did that help you make peace with it?
Yeah, it did a ton. If nothing else, I feel like I have to offer the album respect for helping get my songwriting out there to more people for years to come. It helped inform a lot of people about what I’m doing. And I now look at it the way I should have all along. I should have stood by it and stood by myself. I should have trusted in what I was doing.
Shortly after breaking up that time, I had a friend lay out, which I know is true, but I am one of those types of people who wants to work really hard but doesn’t want to be successful. It’s a psychological problem, I think. I truly want to be successful, but if it happens I’m going to take a huge shit all over it.
2. The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song (1998)
Recognizing that Domestica and Ugly Organ are crowd favorites, these two are more—not only personal favorites—but band favorites. I’m not sure what order Matt and Ted would do, maybe a little bit different, but it probably wouldn’t be a lot different.
It was probably about seven years ago now when I started talking to the band again about how overlooked it felt to me, and how much I was really into it. So it’s not just because we’ve been spending more time with it for the reissue, it’s kind of been the joke for the band. When people talk about Ugly Organ, we’ll always be like, “Listen to Storms.” [Laughs] It’s kind of our favorite. It’s also a huge underdog in our catalog. It’s the record that a lot of people don’t know exists because we broke up before it was released and we never toured it. It’s almost like it’s still more fresh for us.
But more so than that, I have a lot of respect for it. What I was saying earlier about how bringing in Ted helped inform what we ended up doing, and bringing me out of my shell, the style that Steven Pedersen does, I think I was really writing to him in a lot of ways. It comes out really strongly on that record because, for us, it’s really angular and really disciplined—things that are very Steven Pedersen to me. Such Blinding Stars went in a direction that was more like Codeine, in that is was really slow, sludgy. And we refined that on what became Storms of Early Summer.
Why do you think it doesn’t get the love it deserves? Just because you never got to tour on it?
Who really knows. It’s like sliding doors theory. We don’t really play songs off that record for the most part. But maybe they would would have been staples like “The Martyr” and “The Casualty” are.
Do you ever think about just dropping these songs back in sets and forcing the issue?
Over the years, since we appreciate songs on that record, we’ve sprinkled set lists with a song here and a song there. Sadly, over a tour, they generally get dumped. For the time that you’re spending on stage, it’d be clear that, night after night, we’d be appealing to two percent of the crowd when we play those songs. So we just take it out and put something else in. We keep lobbing stuff out there but it tends not to stick because people don’t know that record.
This record is also your first foray into doing more conceptual writing, with the record being split into the two halves, “Man vs. Nature” and “Man vs. Self.” What made you want to do something like that, even if it wasn’t a full story like on later records?
That album was just a bunch of songs written, just like any album would be, but I worked on the sequence and I started piecing together that, “Oh, these songs are all kind of about this, and all these songs are kind of about that.” And the song “Proposals” was kind of neither, so it was intentionally put in the middle because it didn’t fit on either side, really. I just started playing with it and daydreaming this theme, which was completely unintentional, and that I created after the fact, because I realized these songs worked in these groupings. But that really did set off a spark in me. I realized I could do stuff that was really exciting to me, and so Domestica became the way more ambitious version of that when we got back together. It was realizing that I was going to write more specifically and stay on point for that record.
1. Mama, I’m Swollen (2009)
It’s not really an underdog, but it’s an underdog for the band. This might get into particulars that casual listeners don’t really think about but, for us, it’s such a straightforward record, way more than any of the other records. We were working with “Cornbread” [Matthew Compton, drummer] at the time and, again, writing to the players I’m with, he was really good at encouraging us to iron things out. It resulted in a record that’s much less trick-laden—we always call them “tricks,” all the uneven time signatures and stops and starts that we do—so it’s much more kind of groove-oriented. So a few years ago, post- Storms being our favorite record, I said to the band, “I think Mama, I’m Swollen is our best record.” We started talking about that, and we all kind of more or less agreed—though some of us may still keep Storms as our favorite. It’s a record that has just grown better in time, and I look very fondly upon it.
It’s something that sticks out from the rest of the catalog, but in good ways. Gemini is an example of how I wasn’t interested in writing songs like the ones on Mama, I’m Swollen, so we just got back to being so jagged. Gemini feels like a very different record, and that’s what makes me appreciate Mama, I’m Swollen. I’ll use the cliche and say the songs were able to breathe on Mama. It’s very song-based, and also a very dark record, and very emotional. I look back at that record and it feels very complete. It feels more finished than records tend to feel, because you always want to do more to them.
You talked about how you had some qualms with how poppy Happy Hollow was, so did you feel a little more comfortable with that approach this time around?
It ended up being the M.O. going forward. “Cornbread” was new to us, and once we got the feel of what we were doing as a band, it was nice. It was the one time where I was like, “All this stuff is just a little bit more straightforward, isn’t it?” But I got to just go with it. Being more ironed out and straightforward was different for us, so I was able to check that box because we don’t do stuff like that usually.
And the tone of it holds pretty well throughout. I was just getting into Cormac McCarthy and his worldview, I just related to it a lot. You kind of dwell in his world and it’s just so heavy, and that’s kind of where I was. I like the way it kind of helped influence that record.
Having built a body of work like this, does it feel freeing that you don’t have to write to a template and can just explore whatever you’re feeling in a given moment?
I think that there’s two sides to that. Because of this catalog, it affords us the ability to do whatever we want. Upon doing another record, it doesn’t really have to hinge on the idea of being successful. We can know going into it that we want a record to resonate, but if it only resonates with a small percentage of the crowd, then that’s okay, because we still have our catalog to play during a set. So it does give you that freedom to feel like you get to write a record for yourself.
But the counter to that that I really want to express—because I’m fully aware of this myself—is don’t ever take that for granted. To just do any old record, just to have another record, and then to go on tour and just play your catalog, that’s such an awful thing to do. It takes us years to decide whether we want to do a record or not because we want to feel like it needs to be done. And we are so careful. We talk endlessly about the catalog and the legacy of Cursive. And I don’t mean to speak too highly of ourselves, it’s just how we feel personally. If we live long lives and look back, we don’t want to see a blemish in our catalog. It’s just way too important to us to make sure that the catalog is fully intact.
David Anthony is on Twitter.