Evolution Not Resolution: Tim Kasher interview

Feature by Mischa Pearlman | 21 Mar 2017

The man behind Cursive and The Good Life opens up about latest album No Resolution, his movie-making ambitions and the role of culture in troubled times

Tim Kasher has just released No Resolution, the third record made under his own name. It’s an album that reaffirms the Nebraska native as one of his generation’s most accomplished songwriters, expanding a musical and lyrical remit that he’s been steadily pushing for over two decades, first as part of Commander Venus – the band he formed in 1995 with a 15 year-old Conor Oberst – and then as the mastermind behind both Cursive and The Good Life, who along with Bright Eyes and The Faint, formed the core of Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records.

Although celebrated as a heart-on-sleeve confessional songwriter, there have always been multiple narrative layers to Kasher’s songs, and No Resolution is no exception. It’s the 15th album he’s released since Such Blinding Stars For Starving Eyes, Cursive’s 1997 debut, but it’s the first that has seen the 42-year-old realise a lifelong ambition to make a counterpart movie. A few nights after he debuted songs from the new album in Brooklyn, we caught up with Kasher to talk about finally making his directorial debut, the misconception of who he is as person and a songwriter and why, in 2017, he decided to start his own label.

The Skinny: No Resolution is attached to a film you directed. You've talked before about making The Good Life’s Help Wanted Nights and how there was a screenplay but it wasn’t made – now, you’ve actually finished this film, so how did the process of making both the record and the film intertwine?

Tim Kasher: Back in 2006 and 2007 when I was doing Help Wanted Nights, I had actually written the album and The Good Life agreed that it would focus around being a soundtrack. It would double as part of our catalogue, but also work as a soundtrack to a movie. That movie, as you probably realise, never got made.

But I’ve continued writing scripts, and this time around, what would become No Resolution the album – because I was anticipating a third album for this new catalogue under my own name – there was technically another script called Red Rover that I’d started writing songs for. I was writing a third album and then one of scripts started picking up momentum and I was like, "Whoah! I’m going to need a soundtrack for this – I know, this third album can couple as the soundtrack."

That script ended up running into some trouble so I started a new one, which ended up being No Resolution. At that point, the album No Resolution was probably 90% written, but I was able to fashion a lot of the lyrics to work a little bit closer to what the movie is about. So in that sense, the album was definitely influenced by the film. I think I answered a question in there somewhere!

You've always blurred the line between truth and fiction. People think you’re this incredibly autobiographical, tell-all songwriter, but there are a lot of semi-truths there, too, and there always have been.

Yeah. Even going back to [Cursive’s] Domestica, which really started all of that, but the people in my life can recognise bits that sound familiar and other bits that are fiction based off reality and truth. I mean, some fiction totally lives inside of people’s heads, but that’s not really what I do. It’s based all on experiences. I was reading an article by George Saunders the other day – he’s doing a lot of press because of his new book – and he was talking about a similar thing, how the fiction that you write is based so much off the experiences that you have, but you also have this grand license to actually make the dull life seem more interesting.

When The Good Life’s last album, Everybody’s Coming Down, came out, you were talking about the idea of people expecting you to be this downtrodden, sorrow-filled figure, but that’s not really who you are. Do you ever get annoyed that people think that’s who you are, and do you ever feel disingenuous being really happy but then writing and singing these songs?

Well, really happy is probably a stretch, but content for sure! I think that I could probably offer maybe even an apology to those groups of typically young men, but definitely young women as well, who took me on in a lineage with people like Bukowski and Fante and maybe Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son... all of those pathetic characters in literature – and I don’t mean that in a negative way – who are downtrodden and alcoholic.

That’s super-romantic to me, and I’m just another one of those teenage, young men who grew up with that stuff, but I recognise that I embrace that persona. I embraced it a really young age, so when I do play shows and there’s these really drunk young me, I feel bad because some people find them very obnoxious and I feel partly responsible. But there’s a lot of romance to that level of self-deprecation.”

The idea of a solo album to most people is that you are being the most true to yourself as an artist, so it’s interesting that this record is essentially about fictional people. Would you say there’s more or less Tim Kasher on this record than on, say, [2010 solo debut] The Game Of Monogamy, for example?

Probably, sincerely, it’s the same. But in addressing that, there’s a need to address that the movie isn’t about a tribe of Neanderthals on the planet Xaxon or something. It looks a lot like a record that I’ve done – and intentionally so. It’s not just that I don’t have any other topics to explore. I still feel really young as a writer so I’m still mining these fields of very personal relationships.

You talked earlier about the state of the world and how terrible it is. Do you ever feel guilty or self-indulgent writing relationship songs in 2017 when Trump’s President and everything’s completely fucked?

No, not at all. Because if anything, I think it’s totally short-sighted – and I’m going to preface this by saying I know that you don’t mean this at all and aren’t suggesting it – but I think it’s totally short-sighted when people do think things like that. If anything, artists of any medium should also be fighting to make sure that whatever projects they’re working on aren’t going to stop because of the political climate. That’s devastating. That sucks.

I commend anybody who fights politically through any medium they do – I think that’s great. But anybody who wants to draw or make paintings of snails, that’s what they should be doing. It’s a vast world of art and culture, and we should always be encouraging that. Selfishly, this is what I want to do and in times like these you can also do other things, and you can maintain your responsibility by being a good citizen in your personal life.

We noticed there was a ring on your finger at the Brooklyn show. Are you now married and settled down?

Yeah, I got married about a year and a half ago.

Congratulations! Was it weird, then, to write these songs which seem to resist the idea of settling down.

Actually, I think that’s why… I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why you love somebody and get married, but one thing is that she’s a writer and she has a real respect for what I do and we don’t have to delve into it. I’m able to maintain a totally personal relationship with the music I do.

That’s good to hear. It seems a lot of artists find it hard to separate the two – especially if you’re writing about the break-up of a marriage when you’re married.

Right. And I’ve been in married relationships where that was kind of problematic, because it was impossible for the significant other to not read into it!

There is still, though, some existential uncertainty on this album. Is the idea that everything will become nothing in the end – or at least turn to shit – something that still haunts you?

Uh, yeah. But I also want to be a positive voice for existentialism and nihilism. But I understand that a) that’s a little difficult and b) it’s not very positive sounding. But I do hope that there’s catharsis offered. That’s what we seek out in writing, that other likeminded people can maybe stumble across stuff like this; the idea that, ‘Oh, we are nothing’, and that this person also feels that way. I feel a little bit comforted by that.

The music on this album, perhaps more than anything you’ve done before, is really celebratory and triumphant, which counteracts those moments of existential crisis.

Oh. Oh good! I think that might even just be a totally separate thing, from just trying to grow and develop as a songwriter.

You talked the other night about taking the film on tour – showing it to crowds in venues and stuff.

Yeah. It’s still all totally new for me, but it’s like I’ll have been the first to do that. It’s just yet to become common practice. So there’s not a template necessarily yet, but it’s a means of trying a little harder to find an audience for your movie. I don’t want people to just be renting or streaming it – I love going to movies and so I want to be a part of that tradition, so if I can bring it out to people, then that’s great.

And in some ways, by doing that, it continues the emotional connection you’ve built with people through your songs.

Yeah. I recognise obviously that it’s a very different medium – it’s very complex because music is just one aspect of it – but in my head it’s under the same umbrella. I just want to write things and put them through whatever motion they have to go through to become something tangible that other people can experience. I’m being almost too obtuse about it – but for an album you go through the motions of recording it and for a film there are so many steps to it, which is why I recognise they’re very different mediums, but the writing seems very familiar to me.

On Adult Film [2013] you contemplate the nature of art – you talk about making books and films from an outsider’s perspective, and now you’ve actually gone and made it. Did that help you get into the mindset of doing actually doing it, instead of writing about doing it, if that makes sense?

Yeah, and I appreciate you noticing that, because I think those might be some of the personal signposts that I put out for myself, for my life, to look back on. I’ve been working on scripts and trying to get screenplays into production for so many years and by the time I was doing Adult Film I recognised in me that I was about to fulfill what I’ve always wanted to do.

It’s not that everything was laid out and being set in motion, but I recognised that I was ready to take it on and start doing it myself and actually go through with an actual film and get it produced. So there’s a lot of hubris to that album in that sense – which is okay, because there was follow-through!

Who filmed it, and how did you find people to take part in it?

My wife and I were living in Atlanta – and really we could have stayed there because there’s so much film and TV work going down there – but I was really feeling the pull towards Chicago. It’s Midwestern and there’s this amazing theatre community. I was daydreaming of moving to Chicago and making the movie on my own terms, so we did move to Chicago and we started going to the theatre all the time and found these professional actors in the theatre community who were interested and able to make time for this movie. They’re great actors who I have a ton of respect for, and then I started asking around because I didn’t know many people in the film industry, and I found a great crew.

And if making a film and a record wasn’t enough, you also put the latter out on 15 Passenger, your own label. That’s a very brave move in 2017 – why prompted you to take that plunge?   

A lot of the reason has to do with my lifelong friend, and music and business partner, Matt Maginn. Matt plays in Cursive and we grew up together and he worked at Saddle Creek for a long time and helped start [New York-based record label] Team Love – he’s very much a musician and he loves that aspect of things, but he’s also very much a business person.

My pursuit is making albums and movies, for him it's having his own businesses, and for a handful of year’s Matt’s wanted to take the Cursive catalogue to be his own, because they’re his records, they’re our records – it’s not anything against Saddle Creek. And I’m very glad he did it because it’s been a lot of fun for the three of us – [Cursive guitarist] Ted Stevens, as well. It’s just a fun project for us to work on while we’re here on earth. It’s not about making money, it’s just about running things ourselves and being responsible for our own music. It just feels good.

We know how absurd it is to start a record label but it has so much more to do with maintaining our own catalogue and releasing stuff ourselves. It’s been about 20 years since Lumberjack Records became Saddle Creek records and it’s part of our collective history but it’s not part of our present. We’ve all moved on. 

No Resolution is out now via 15 Passenger Records – listen in the player above

Tim Kasher tours the UK from 24 Mar, including dates in Glasgow (King Tut's, 27 Mar), Leeds (Brudenell, 28 Mar) and Liverpool (Studio 2, 29 Mar)