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Cursive's Domestica uncovers the painful side of relationships gone bad, layer by rocking layer. How much of his life will Tim Kasher reveal?


 

 

Pics taken June 3 at Omaha's Sokol Underground. Tim Kasher talks about the band's breakup last year in this Jan. 20, 1999, interview.
 

Imagine what happens when Tim Kasher's next girlfriend is handed a copy of Cursive's Domestica by a knowing friend and is told, "You better listen to this."

First, she'll glance at the sweet couple on the CD jacket and smile. It's so cute! But the cuteness will quickly fade when she checks out the song titles: "The Casualty," "The Martyr," "The Game of Who Needs Who the Worst," "The Night I Lost My Will to Fight." It's only after she hits the "play" button and is pounded severely by the opening guitar assault that she begins to see the whole picture. Kasher, his boyish sotto voice, almost whispers the opening line: "The night has fallen down the staircase/And I for one have felt its bruises."

Kasher might have some explaining to do.

 

Rarely in rock has the modern screwed-up relationship been presented in such forthright, gritty, honest terms. Taken as a whole, Domestica, Cursive's new full-length CD on Saddle Creek Records, is nothing less than an indie rock opus, a concept album that summarizes the darker side of relationships gone awry.

In a bit of promotional hubris, Saddle Creek label honcho Robb Nansel -- with Kasher's approval, of course -- put together a one-sheet (that's industry talk for a glorified informational background paper) that succinctly eliminated any doubt of what Domestica is all about.

"Tim Kasher, singer/songwriter for Cursive, got married," says the flyer, which Nansel had printed as a sticker and slapped on the back of every copy of the CD sent to the media. "With blue skies up ahead, the troubled days of guitar-driven rage would surely become a branch of the past. But as his songs have always predicted, there will be no happy endings…

"Tim Kasher, disillusioned and disappointed, got divorced. And though he'll swear to you that Cursive's upcoming full-length, 'Cursive's Domestica' is not an autobiography, the parallels are difficult to ignore."

The one-sheet goes on to describe the CD as "the vicious assault, the tender embrace and the bitter waiting game that falls in between. These are stories of anger, heartbreak, deceit and disappointment that keep us desperate."

 

 

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"As I wrote the CD I thought I kept a distance. I knew I was writing about something I went through, but I also knew there were a lot of fictions in it"


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Kasher and company have produced a concept album that conveys the intimate, personal and desperately painful feelings tied to a marriage lost in mutual loathing.


 

Strong stuff. Kasher says he still hasn't shown a copy of the CD to his ex-wife. "I need to talk to her before she sees the sticker," he said. "She's only asked me what the title was about. I'm going to explain it to her the same way I would explain it to anyone else. The story will sound familiar, but she'll listen to it and realize that it's not our life."

He explained all this while eating French fries in the dimly lit stock room of the USA Baby store off 72nd and Dodge streets, Cursive's official rehearsal studio and where Kasher works a day job. The rest of the band was late, which gave Kasher time to explain the album's "concept" and why he put the sticker on the CD in the first place, especially if he didn't entirely agree with the idea.

"I was looking at it as promotion," he said, sitting below a tower of brown cardboard boxes. "I knew it would be important for the industry to understand the CD, but it didn't occur to me that the press would pick up on it and talk about it."

He says the whole topic is difficult to discuss. "As I wrote the CD I thought I kept a distance," he said. "I knew I was writing about something I went through, but I also knew there were a lot of fictions in it. I didn't want to write a CD that I wouldn’t enjoy performing. I really see the two characters in the CD -- Sweetie and Pretty Baby -- as actors."

For example, on track 5, the bass-driven chimer "A Red So Deep," infidelity is sort of implied with the lyrics, "Are you satisfied tonight, Oh trader's wife/Does he neglect you?/Crawling barstools and Touching girls/As you wash their smell from his clothes."

"Kim and I never had problems with cheating on each other," Kasher said. "It's part of that fictitious relationship I wanted to write about. Some of their problems weren't necessarily about us."

But what about that line "a hole where the phone was thrown"?

"That did happen," Kasher admits. "Some of it is based in reality, but there really weren't very many lyrics to begin with, so I plugged in most of the story line myself. At the end of the CD -- on the cold February night that kind of symbolizes their last treacherous argument and he realized that he lost the will to fight -- none of that is true. These characters don't get divorced, they continue living together because that's what they've chosen. On the CD, the explosion isn't a breakup, it's an acceptance that this is what domestic life is."

 

Sound bleak? It would be if the music didn't make you want to shake your ass. Don't tag it as emo -- this is way too tuneful for that. Every song has a guitar part that is either mesmerizing or just plain bouncy. Kasher and company have produced a concept album that conveys the intimate, personal and desperately painful feelings tied to a marriage lost in mutual loathing.

Domestica is a leap forward from their last CD, The Storms of Early Summer, whose cosmic lyrics took on the world's problems on a universal scale, with cryptic song titles such as "A Career in Transcendence" and "When Summer's Over Will We Dream of Spring."

"I actually spent more time on those lyrics then these," Kasher said. "This one is more like storytelling. With Domestica, I always knew what I was writing about."

But old-time Cursive fans will recognize much of their distinctive sound. The band might be compared to the driving, indie rock of Jawbox, Fugazi or Burning Airlines, but certainly no other band on the Saddle Creek label sounds anything like them. They've been ordained the label's official heavy-rock band, and they've embraced that title with a snarling grace.

"We're the only ones on Saddle Creek who really have an aggressive style," Kasher says. "One reason is because Conor (Oberst of Bright Eyes) and Todd (Baechle of The Faint), knew we were already doing rock. It's part of the reason why The Faint went electronic."

But regardless of their styles, there is an obvious continuity among the Saddle Creek bands. Kasher points to the fact that most of the band members grew up together and share the same attention to composition. More likely, though, is the connection between the bands' bleak lyrics and musical subtext. Bright Eyes' songs are folky laments of alienation and self-questioning. The Faint's Euro-electric-pop trip sports sterile lyrics about sex without love. Lullaby for the Working Class perform barren, stripped-down soundscapes that are as lonely as a Kansas prairie in the dead of winter. Cursive's guitar-driven bursts of anger and confessional lyrics of frustration fit right in with the discontented theme.

With a June 19 release date, Domestica already is receiving a ton of college airplay, and it won't be long until it joins Bright Eyes' Fevers and Mirrors at the top of the CMJ charts. At least that's the plan.

 

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"We're the only ones on Saddle Creek who really have an aggressive style,"


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"I expected so much from the band (Lullaby) and when it didn't happen, I felt disillusioned. Now it's all about honing skills, working on songs and collaborating."


 

One by one the band entered the pseudo practice space and set up. Around the stockroom's concrete floor, the four plugged in amps, set up drums and tuned guitars, preparing to rock out among stacked cartons of disposable diapers and plastic playthings. Someone threw a glowing blue ball at guitarist/vocalist Ted Stevens' crotch that just missed. "This is the part in the practice where we try to whack each other," he said, kicking the ball at drummer Clint Schnase, who casually tapped it away and went back to mounting a cymbal.

There's some dissension as to how the band will present Domestica on stage: As a typical assortment of tunes mixed with older Cursive songs, or in the order they appear on the CD, sort of like performing a rock opera. "I don't like to see bands recreate an album on stage," says bassist/vocalist Matt Maginn. "I prefer diversity."

Kasher, on the other hand, likes the idea of using Domestica as a set piece. "We'll play it straight through on Saturday (June 3, the night of their Omaha CD release show). I think it's kind of cool that way."

At the show, they, in fact, did play most of Domestica, but definitely not as a rock opera. The night's biggest burst of applause came at the end of the set, when they played an old Slow Down Virginia tune that, according to Kasher, Stevens' demanded they cover live before he agreed to join the band last year.

Stevens has his hands full these days not only playing in Cursive but as vocalist and guitarist for Lullaby for the Working Class, a 7-piece acoustic band whose CDs are released on Bar/None Records, while the vinyl versions are handled through Saddle Creek. How is he going to split his time between the two bands? "I'm still waiting to see what happens with that," he said. "I'll be fine as long as I have a guitar for each project. I'm kind of a schizo. One of my many personalities is to be non-committal."

Lullaby was the first of the Saddle Creek bands to garner real critical success. Their second album, 1997's I Never Even Asked for Light, was a New York Times critic's choice, and The Associated Press called it "an enchanting escape from the monotony that often plagues both old and new country."

"My opinion is that the music industry has changed since the break in Lullaby," Stevens said. "I expected so much from the band and when it didn't happen, I felt disillusioned. Now it's all about honing skills, working on songs and collaborating."

Pressed about his frustrations with Lullaby, Stevens said he's speaking solely of a publishing deal that never came to fruition. "There was one in the works," he said. "A publishing deal means immediate success; it means you have the luxury to write and tour without having to worry about money. It's nave to think any kind of deal is in the bag. That situation has forced me to write better songs."

"I've been doing Cursive for four or five years," said Schnase from behind his drum set. "I've been playing rock since I was 16. Whatever comes, comes. You can't expect anything out of it."

Stevens agreed. "I'd love to be able to make a living writing songs. My goal is to hopefully stay around long enough to be able to get a job at a record label and continue to write."

 

Despite past disappointments, Stevens says he hasn't enjoyed writing and performing this much since when he started out. "It seems like people are excited about playing music again," he said. "I feel the same collective energy that was around when we were just getting started."

For these guys, that dates back to the early '90s and a time when the Omaha/Lincoln music scene was ripe with bands such as Sideshow, Mercy Rule, Mousetrap, Frontier Trust, Ritual Device, Sideshow, not to mention the singer/songwriters such as Bill Hoover, Simon Joyner and Alex McManus. "The whole Saddle Creek movement grew out of that era," Stevens said.

"I was heavily influenced by Pioneer Disaster, The Acorns and Mousetrap," adds Kasher. "I would go to Mercy Rule and Mousetrap shows and wonder if I could be that old guy who was headlining. We have friends who moved here because they think there's something romantic about this city. It almost makes you wonder who was the genius in the '80s who started the local music scene. I'd sure like to thank him."


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Published in The Omaha Weekly June 8, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.