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Cursive: Seize the Deity

Cursive's Happy Hollow is Tim Kasher's and Ted Stevens' take on religion, faith and society at a time in their lives when their god has lost his way.
story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: July 12, 2006

w/ Make Believe, La Salle
Saturday, July 15, 8 p.m.
Sokol Auditorium
13th & Martha

There will be those who will say Happy Hollow, the new CD by Omaha rock band Cursive, is an attack on a life of religious faith -- a life that chief songwriter and frontman Tim Kasher at first accepted… and then rejected.

Considering some of the songs' themes -- the ties between faith and war, Immaculate Conception, the Big Bang Theory and the tortured life of a homosexual priest -- they might have a point. But Kasher and fellow Cursive songwriter Ted Stevens will likely tell those critics that they're wrong.

Certainly both are well-versed on the subject matter. Both attended Creighton Prep after attending Catholic grade school, and both say religion played an important role in their young lives.

"I believed in it fully when I was in Catholic grade school," Kasher said via cell phone after eating lunch at a Cracker Barrel somewhere on the way to their gig last Saturday in Pittsburgh. "And there was a time in my life when I could have gone heavily in that direction. But when I was a teenager, I met some people that were atheists who were amazing, generous and kind. They were forward-thinking, and I became disillusioned and angry. Now I'm only angry about the marriage of church and state."

"Tim is definitely more of an atheist, and that's all right," Stevens said in a separate phoner moments after Kasher's. "I'm at a time in my life where I'm less atheistic and more agnostic. I don't see being an agnostic as a weak argument, but as a Socratic position, a safety zone of ideology. Everyone in the band has their own idea of the afterlife or god or the devil. We all share a loose idea of that. I hope that the record doesn't come across as a negative attack, but as an argument for humanism."




Heady stuff from a rock band whose core fans are more apt to worship Steven's and Kasher's guitar work then ponder their deeply insightful lyrics. Along with bassist Matt Maginn and drummer Clint Schnase (and a variety of members who've come and gone over the years) Cursive has positioned itself as a central part of Saddle Creek Records' musical triumvirate. Where Bright Eyes is the label's introspective folky, and The Faint is the electric retro dance party, Cursive is -- and has always been -- the band that rocks. And rocks hard, going all the way back to their non-Saddle Creek debut, '97's Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes, through their Creek debut, '00's Domestica, through their best-selling '03 classic The Ugly Organ -- the album that pushed them ever closer toward breaking through indie rock's glass ceiling.

It's a barrier that could very well fall with Happy Hollow, the band's most pop-centric, approachable and, well, swinging, attempt at rock. It's also lyrically their most controversial, a fact that hasn't been lost on the band.

"We made a personal decision while we were writing this record that we were going to avoid a real negative slant, and keep things positive," Kasher said. "I want to be responsible about it. It's so typical in a medium like rock and roll to be another screamer, putting down the administration and the establishment. We just want to bring up our suggestions for solutions."

Still, in an era when a presidential administration freely admits being guided by faith in all its decisions including going to war, Kasher and Stevens have a lot on their minds. Happy Hollow is a 14-song morality play whose characters have either been duped by religion, trapped by religion, betrayed by religion or coerced by religion, each looking to faith as a leverage or excuse for the events in his or her life.

Kasher sums up his point of view on the anthem "Rise Up! Rise Up!" where he sings his confession: "I wasted half my life on the thought that I'd live forever / I wasn't raised to seize the day but to work and worship / 'cause he that liveth and believeth supposedly never dies. / Rise up, rise up / Live a full life / 'cause when it's over it's done."

Though anti-religious on the surface, Kasher says he supports those who choose to believe -- including members of his family -- "because I know it's important for some of them."

It's when religion creeps into politics that Kasher becomes angry.

"We're becoming millions of sheep that aren't really free or forward-thinking," Kasher explains. "And as part of the flock -- as a member of a church or organization -- we're being told the way we're going to vote on issues. We're being told what to believe, and that's scary and creepy and awful and wrong."

Stevens, who wrote three of the CD's 14 songs ("Flag and Family," "The Sunks," and "Bad Science") shares Kasher's disillusionment. "At some point I lost that religion, and a new sense of humanism took over," he said. "It's hard to recover after you've seen your system of beliefs shattered.

"I can see how this record could be considered targeting religion, but to me it's targeting how a community can be so misled by their faith. I don't know what else to do in a time like this, with Bush in his second term, with his evangelical following and his campaign based in Sunday school."

What better way to rail against it all than a concept album that goes beyond religion to examine small-town life and all its trappings? But is Happy Hollow really a concept album? Kasher doesn't think so. "We try to avoid being conceptual," he said, "but we want to have cohesion. It only makes sense. An album is one piece of work. Why not make it cohesive?"


















"... I became disillusioned and angry. Now I'm only angry about the marriage of church and state."
























"Tim isn't poking fun at the priesthood. We have friends who are priests. He's asking people to re-examine what they believe in."


With that in mind, Kasher said there is a point about three-quarters through the process of making an album where the band looks at the songs and recognizes the thematic thread that runs through them. "The songs for this record began to fall into specific categories: Small-town issues, living in a bubble, the disillusionment of the American Dream (see the first single, "Dorothy at Forty," and its sister "Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes") and also religion and sexuality," he said.

All those themes collide on "Bad Sects" -- a song that examines the struggles of a homosexual priest, with lines like "I know this is wrong / Because I'm told this is wrong," and "They can't know what we've done or our whole world will come undone," and the repeated mantra "You'll never live this down."

"It's an issue that Catholicism will continue to deal with," Stevens said. "Coming to grips with one's body and soul is a large part of religion. Tim isn't poking fun at the priesthood. We have friends who are priests. He's asking people to re-examine what they believe in."

Stevens said in the end, all of the concepts just seemed to fit together. "We originally thought that after having done such heavily conceptual stuff in the past that maybe we should just do a pop record," Stevens added. "But there was temptation all along to have some sort of unifying imagery. Should we have just made a pop record? I don't know, but I think we did the right thing."

But whether Stevens knows it or not, he and Cursive have created their penultimate pop record. Happy Hollow is a clear-cut departure from the typical, angular-guitar punk sound of the band's earlier albums, taking a step closer to the pop balladry heard from Kasher's other band, The Good Life. Kasher has always tried to keep the bands' songwriting styles neatly categorized and separate, but the line that divides the two is beginning to fade.

"I see a convergence," Kasher said. "When we decided to do this record I wasn't sure whether there would be another Good Life record. I just really thought it was time to consider the best ideas that I have, and make sure that I'm applying them musically. I wasn't constantly thinking 'I'm going to do this Good Life stuff.'

"With every Cursive record I've done, I've always tried to get somewhere, to achieve a new record that's a departure from the last one. This is just another step in the process."

The departure in their traditional sound is the result of combining a number of new elements, Stevens said, including changes in the recording process. While Happy Hollow was being recorded, producer Mike Mogis was involved in three different projects. "When Mike took a break, he lent us some really nice gear and we took it to our practice space in Council Bluffs," Stevens said. "We shared it night and day, working completely independently -- one person would leave and the other would show up. Mike had to have some faith in what we were doing, and we had to consult with him along the way."

Stevens said all of Kasher's guitar and some of his vocals were recorded at the "C.B. sessions," while all of Stevens' vocals and part of his guitars were recorded there. "Tim is a good young engineer. He has some skills and is really careful about his work," Stevens said. "I, on the other hand, need some help to focus on playing while recording. I'm better at singing and recording at the same time. It involved pushing the 'Record' button and hauling ass to this vocal lean-to we built out of mattresses."

Followers of the Omaha and Lincoln music scene will recognize a couple female voices in the mix. On the somber "Into the Fold," Kasher called on music friend Amy Huffman, a Lincoln songwriter who also has contributed to Good Life recordings. And that floating gospel voice singing "Lord let us go" on the jazzy track "Retreat!" is none other than Sarah Benck, of Sarah Benck and the Robbers fame.

"The first time I met her we had been looking for someone else to do the vocal," Kasher said about the song, which sports lines like "Since you've been away on holiday we don't know which god is which / Since you've been away on holiday it's getting harder to give a shit."

"I had been in touch with a gospel choir, but I didn't want anyone to question their faith for money. It didn't seem appropriate to ask devoutly religious people to sing that. So we gave Sarah a chance. She's this skinny white girl, really petite, and she really nailed it better than we could imagine, along with her friend, Korey Anderson."

And then there are the horns. Never has Cursive used brass to the extent that they're used on Happy Hollow, at times adding subtle cues but usually contributing bombasts of slutty emotion, like on the stand-out track "Big Bang," which would sound right at home in a punk-rock strip joint.

"It took us a long time to decide for sure if we wanted to use horns," Kasher said. "When we started getting ready to record, everything was up in the air, but we got to a point where I heard horns all over it. It does have to do with the swinging approach we took toward the album."

"We also sought out different guitars and guitar sounds than we had in the past," Stevens said. "The horns and keyboards are things we've been approaching slowly for a long time. We finally let go of the idea that keyboards are uncool."

To help emulate the CD's sound live, the band has added a three-piece horn section for the tour. Their impact goes beyond adding a new dimension to Cursive's sound. "We're out with these professionals," Kasher said. "It's helping us raise our own personal bar to play up to their standards."



With the additional brass and a new cello player, Cursive has ballooned in size to an eight-piece, requiring two vans to tour. The obvious step forward is ironic considering that the band almost called it quits only a year ago.

For his fans and colleagues, there always seems to be an air of uncertainty surrounding Cursive, The Good Life, or any project that Kasher is affiliated with. Over the years, he's unceremoniously placed Cursive on indefinite hiatus, and once announced on the last night of a tour that The Good Life was done. Both proclamations ended up being short-lived, but as a result, Kasher has garnered a reputation for being unpredictable when it comes to his artistic direction. It's a reputation that he's quite aware of, and regrets… sort of.

"I make sudden decisions about my involvement in projects, and unfortunately they're rash and selfish," he said. "I'm trying to live with the privilege of having the least amount of responsibility in my life as I can. I want to approach any project with as much freedom as possible. It can be hard. You have to work with other people. But that being said, I'm glad I took the time off."

The break allowed him to work on his other passion -- screen writing -- a dream he's always put on the back burner. "I'd spent 15 years playing music," he said. "I recognized last year that if I didn't start writing scripts soon, I'm never going to. That's why I've broken up bands in the past -- to get out of music, in a sense -- but I always get drawn back in. To do these two bands and have time for screenwriting is difficult."

Stevens said the ongoing threat of a break-up can be distracting, but is expected from any artist. "Every step we take up or down is new to us," he said. "We're really trying to learn how to be a band and be popular and stay popular. It does put some stress on us. You're so exhausted at the end of a recording or after a season of touring that you're likely to want to take a break and walk away from it. It's a little stressful, but you get what you ask for, I guess. When we got back together, the unspoken promise was that we were all going to try harder and work together without complaining."

"I think I suffer from one of the worst artist clichés -- I work my ass off for success but once it comes I don't want it," Kasher said. "I can recognize it as a problem and try to deal with it and keep myself in the game. And these guys recognize that problem in me now and understand why I'm breaking up bands all this time."

With that in mind, the idea of Happy Hollow being the record that takes Cursive over the hump to a new level of popularity frightens Kasher. "It's difficult and scary territory," he said about the potential success. "I do want it, but there's a big part of me that is worried about it. I think it's a big psychological problem I have. I think I like my life better as an underdog."

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Published in The Omaha Reader July 12, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.











"I'm trying to live with the privilege of having the least amount of responsibility in my life as I can."