Every day, we seem to be inching closer and closer to the end of the world. But if there ever was a person who could articulate the special kind of angst that accompanies an impending apocalypse, it's Cursive frontman Tim Kasher.
Though it's been six years since Cursive released their last album, the music veterans finally returned this year with Vitriola. A record that practically fell into place for the group, Vitriola sees the return of their use of cello, and also of both founding drummer, Clint Schnase, and the production stylings of Saddle Creek Records mainstay, Mike Mogis. And despite what Kasher would prefer, it's an album that unintentionally returned to the ardent, anxious sound Cursive became known for via releases like 2000's Domestica and 2003's The Ugly Organ. But perhaps that's because what Cursive is and always will be at its core: A project that's been made so relatable thanks to Kasher's raw and somewhat abrasive songwriting.
With Vitriola, though, Cursive's focus is objectively far less self-reflexive than previous works that Kasher himself would consider "solipsistic." As of late, the biggest thing on Kasher's mind hasn't been his own life. Like so many other people, he's been horrified by the sad state of American affairs, as well as the dismay and despair that accompanies bearing witness to extreme inequity and outright xenophobia.
And while Kasher is well aware of the amount of privilege he wields in this situation as a straight, middle-aged white man, he still believes expressing his personal frustrations and making space for marginalized perspectives are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the idea that both things can coexist is something he believes we should be talking about more.
In honor of the record's release, we sat down with Kasher to talk about everything from accidentally returning to his roots to the importance of staying in your lane and everything in between. Read our Q&A with him, below.
Listening to this new album, I really was struck by how it felt like a return to The Ugly Organ days, what a lot of people would consider “old” Cursive. Was this kind of a conscious decision or was this something that kind of fell into place?
I think much more of a fell into place. If anything, there had been conscious efforts over the years to not do The Ugly Organ again for fear that it would seem that we were trying to capitalize on something that we were successful with. And also just, more importantly, not rehashing any of our catalog...
When it came to this new record, I broached it as I love working with strings and [cellist Megan Seibe]'s likely going to be out performing with us anyway, so you might want to consider that she'll probably be playing on these songs live. Do we want to beat that to the punch and we could actually just incorporate that into the music? But honestly, we didn't bring Megan in until everything was laid in. And we were still ready to not use it. That's how delicate of a decision it is for us. Again, just because we don't want to come across as treading the same waters, in familiar waters. But I promise that all of it is just happenstance. Matt [Maginn], Ted [Stevens], and I, after starting our label, 15 Passenger, we were initially just going to reissue our catalog. But we got excited about [the idea of,] we can release anything. Or nothing. We can give you whatever we want.
So we started talking about it, and we started being open to the idea in a really non-committal fashion. But then Clint [Schnase], our first drummer, reached out to us aside through all that, expressing interest in doing another record with us, which we're ecstatic about. So that really set everything in motion.
Working with [producer Mike Mogis] again is really just a matter of. We liked the producers we worked with, but we're not beholden to anybody. It's been over a decade since we worked with him. Why not work with him again? Let's see if he'd be willing to do it. It all really is just coincidental circumstance, but it all comes off a lot like we are doing.
All that said, it had been six years since we had done a record and it was the first time we worked with Clint in over a decade. I'm realizing this now, but we had zero ideas or plans going into it... We didn't have anything set. We didn't set forward with any ideas for this record, resulting in something that we now realize probably sounds more like Cursive than anything else, which then ultimately sounds like older Cursive.
I think the most obvious thing that separates Vitriola from more recent Cursive releases is that it's a lot less rigidly themed, conceptually speaking. But, I'm assuming you can chalk that up to not even really intending to do all this.
Yeah, I didn't have any ideas set in mind. Actually, now I feel like I have to backpedal a little bit, because one idea I did have in mind, is that I really didn't want it to be thematic.
I just feel like we are careful about wanting to avoid being pigeonholed, and we shouldn't be expected to do a conceptual record. I know some people love that, I don't mean to be dismissive of that, it's just that we want to keep moving in different directions. I always want to conceptualize records, and it's more of a challenge for me not to. Even this one is still a one-piece, but it was a concerted effort to try to not put those structures. Especially because [our last record I Am Gemini] was the most conceptualized thing that we had ever done. I was really trying to go in a different direction than that.
Even though there wasn’t a concept overtly spelled out for the listener, it felt like the songs on the new album were connected by a feeling of nihilism or bleakness.
Yeah, it is kind of bleak. And nihilism definitely rears its head. I don't feel like it's over-political, but it is based off of the feelings that many of us are experiencing day-to-day as a reaction from the news.
That said, in terms of politically charged works, there has been a lot of discourse about how this is a time for straight, white men to kind of take a backseat—to listen rather than continue putting themselves out there. Did that ever sort of give you pause while writing an album that’s, in a nutshell, about the frustrations you have about America right now?
That's a good consideration. I was gonna say I haven't really thought about it, but that's not true. I actually do think about that a lot. I think it's important as a writer. So for myself, as a middle-aged white male, which is really amongst the least interesting demographic right now… When I get in these conversations, I'm always quick to respond that it's like, I shouldn't be so flippant about it because really all it means is that, if we're less interested in the white middle-aged male story, that only means that next year it will be like 60 percent instead of 90 percent [of those stories still being told]. It's still going to be the majority. It's still so completely the majority.
What I'd like to say positively about this is that I do think about it, and it's important. It's important to me, and I think it's important for any writer to stay the course and keep writing what you write, because that's what we're all supposed to do. It really shouldn't be about any negativity toward a white male or toward any specific category. But, thankfully, now there's more space being shared for more people's voices, more people's stories.
I think it's always really interesting to talk about anyway. Even that said, this record probably still is very identity-driven, just in the sense that the stuff that I do always ends up being that. This isn't as obscenely solipsistic as stuff I've done in the past, but it's still so much from my point of view. I even try to be aware of, when I'm working on this stuff, the place of privilege that certain points of view can come from. Sometimes they're intentionally flippant and other times, I recognize, no, that's just what I know. I'm just coming from places that I'm familiar with, you know?
As you said, you have been criticized as solipsistic at times. What do you think about all the people who almost weaponize your self-awareness? The ones that make it a point of contention rather than a sign of strength.
I guess I try to avoid them. They feel not altogether healthy for me. It's not altogether healthy to focus on good reviews either, you know? That's a slippery slope though, because I believe that criticism is so helpful and can be so beneficial to anybody's path in writing. I also tend to think, when I run into those more aggressive, negative opinions, I'll remind myself that that's a person, that's an opinion. They have the right to that. I can use it as constructive criticism, or I feel comfortable to decide that they have a chip on their shoulder against you.
You don’t think you ever really internalize that feedback?
Unfortunately, I have. I'd say that I'm so aware of the shift, and I'm not proud to say this. I'm aware of the shift that occurred in my music over a period of years—five to maybe even 10 years, although that seems like a long time—where emo was being used as a [negative] word. It was at the tail end of it. There was so much negative feedback toward that genre that I was ultimately included in, though we'd never even placed ourselves in it. I just know we were placed in it. Some people placed us in it on our behalf. I felt exhausted by this public attitude—everyone was sick of the navel-gazing and just didn't want it anymore. I found it frustrating.
Aren't all people inclined to navel-gaze in some capacity, though?
I thought the whole attitude was destructive—to shit on this self-aware style of writing, self-reflexive writing, or personal writing. It all felt unhealthy to me, but I couldn't help but notice that it was having an effect on my writing. I feel older, and perhaps more mature now, and I've shed that and came back to feeling more comfortable writing how I feel like writing. I just accept the criticism or try to avoid it.
I don't think anyone should be ashamed of wanting to be self-reflexive. Or of taking the time to do that.
I just think it's just damaging in an art community to attack anyone. I've attacked EDM before. Now I'd actually like to go back and take it back. There was an interview I did a few years back where I was just expressing how little I understood it.
I don't know. Actually, I wouldn't even say anything bad about them. I guess what I'm saying now is I'd prefer not say anything bad about any of it, because it doesn't really feel productive. Especially to an umbrella genre like that. There's so much more. There's so much involved with that. That'd be like looking at country and being like, "I hate country."
We need to parse it and figure out what you don't like, and what you don't care for. Which is your subjective opinion and it's totally yours, and you should have that.
Speaking of being lumped under the whole “emo” umbrella, what was that like for you?
It did have an effect on me. It was just like, "Oh, I'm part of the problem, apparently." You know?
I find comfort in what critics, not even just critics but what the music industry, started calling the fourth wave of emo. I was really blown away. This was five years ago now, I guess. I was playing the fest down in Gainesville, and playing with all these bands. Some of them ended up being really successful bands, like The World Is a Beautiful Place... I guess my long-winded point is I'm really glad it's happening for people. It all seems great out there. I'm positive that if young people are back to feeling comfortable about laying it all out there, and being upset, or writing their diary-esque songs, they should. People should just do that. Or not. The thing is that we just shouldn't shit on it. We can not like it. I just hate the idea of stifling it.
You are at that point where you do have a lot of younger fans now. Like, Cursive has a definitive legacy. Has their interest in your body of work surprised you at all?
Yeah, even just the most recent tour that I did, I should confess some surprise. Because, mind you, I'm 44 now, and the number of people in their 20s… These are people that were in grade school when I was really out releasing things.
That's kind of wild... I might be a generation gone from a new set of teenagers.
You really gonna write yourself off like that?
Yeah. I mean, if they get stuck on what I do, that's great. I appreciate it. It makes sense though, and it's really funny and so odd to be a part of that. I recognize that we are.
One final big, vague question in line with the album’s theme: What does America mean to you right now?
You know, I'm not a politician. I didn't study politics, so my answers would certainly be generalized. But for years, for most of my adult life, I guess, I've been pretty dubious of capitalism. So I'm not sure how I feel about it. I've never been in love with this country. I try to walk that line carefully, because, you know, back to privilege. I mean, we're living in such an insane amount of privilege. I mean, we could just start piecing together where we are right now. So I don't want to be so dismissive in that regard, but, yeah, I'm not sure that I'm convinced that the foundation is even that strong or that great. I definitely know we don't need to be so reverent to a Constitution that was written a really long time ago. I'll be okay if we started changing that around somewhat, but in other ways, it's actually still managing to protect us, so that's good.
This current administration though has certainly helped me to further recognize how opposed I am to many Republican points of view, all of them which are, to me, based back into capitalism. That's where I think rampant capitalism is a problem. I think that some form of capitalism... it should be obvious that it should be applied hand-in-hand with ethics, and it just feels like it's not. Actually, I know it's not.
Cursive's Vitriola is out now.