Cursive's Tim Kasher on living in an indie ecosystem
The frontman explains why the band never signed with a major label.
Hello and welcome to REPLY ALT, the only and therefore greatest email newsletter about music in the world.
Hope you had a relaxing holiday in which you tried not to think about the pending collapse of civilization too much. I tried to kill my brain by strapping myself to the couch and staring at the TV for a week and half. I watched 26 movies in 9 days. A commendable attempt, but alas, one last brain cell remained dormant and used its energy to reboot my entire system until I became functional again like at the end of Terminator 2, which is one of the movies I watched. (2022 check-in: Still a perfect film.)
Also, if you bought tickets for the raffle I held last month, thank you! We raised $3,000 to buy food and supplies for unhoused Los Angeles residents. The money bought a TON of tents, blankets, clothes, and non-perishables. The three winners have been contacted and their prize packages have been mailed out. So, if you didn’t hear from me, you didn’t win. Sorry. Better luck next time. Also, a few people very generously kicked in over 100 bucks and I sent those folks signed copies of SELLOUT as a small thank you.
Anyway, on to today’s main course…
A BRIEF INTERVIEW WITH CURSIVE’S TIM KASHER
I’ve been thinking about Cursive a lot lately because I’ve been very trepidatiously looking forward to their ludicrously stacked tour with Thursday, the Appleseed Cast, and Jeremy Enigk. Band members keep testing positive and dates keep being postponed or cancelled, so who knows what will happen. We’re deep enough into this pandemic that I think we’ve all learned to cope with Touring in the Time of Covid, which entails: tempering your expectations, finding alternative but ultimately insufficient ways of supporting your favorite bands (hello to my closet full of unworn mailorder t-shirts), and reading the fine print on TicketWeb’s refund page.
A while back, when I called Cursive frontman Tim Kasher to tell him the premise of the book I was writing and ask him if I could interview him for it, he said, “But I didn’t sell out, Dan! I’m not a sellout!”
Factcheck: True. Cursive never made the jump from their Saddle Creek Records home to a major label. I found this incredibly surprising because they must’ve been in a prime position to do so, right? After all, their breakout album, 2003’s The Ugly Organ, sold over 170,000 copies. Those kinds of self-earned numbers from an indie rock band typically got the A&R motors running back then. But, according to Tim, Cursive and the rest of the Saddle Creek scene might’ve given off too much anti-corporate vibe to have been seen as approachable. Major labels never came sniffing around, or if they did, he never caught wind of it. And so, Cursive remained a beloved indie holdout and never pissed off their fanbase with a move to a major. But would they have done it if presented with the opportunity?
Below is a brief interview I did with Tim during the SELLOUT sessions. It also appears in my photo zine, MAJOR LABEL DEBUT, which is still available in my store. I was also reminded upon re-reading it that many years ago I published an oral history for The Ugly Organ. I believe it is the only oral history I’ve ever put together. I hate them. I hate reading them, I hate compiling them, they are tedious in every sense of the word. A tiresome form of journalism. Oh uhhhh… I mean with the sole exception of the aforementioned one, which is great! Anyway, here’s Tim…
I’m very surprised to hear you say that Cursive never had the opportunity to do a record with a major label.
Tim Kasher: I think we never came off as very sellable, although many other bands didn’t come off as accessible and got picked up anyway. But I do recall that when we were touring Ugly Organ, there would be rumblings and people coming out to shows. That chatter about the Saddle Creek family and how fiercely independent we all were and had built our own label ourselves, there was a certain intimidation. I don’t know if intimidation is the right word…
You seemed not for sale.
Exactly. And the truth of it is that we weren't for sale. I think maybe that extended past us and people were answering for us, almost. Like, we weren’t even asked, but we’d hear about this or that label that was excited, and if we ever were open to it, they’d want to be involved. But that’s as close as it got. It might be because Robb [Nansel] from Saddle Creek was saying we weren’t interested.
I could be mistaken but I’m pretty sure that when I interviewed Robb for Ugly Organ’s oral history, I remember him saying that he started Saddle Creek to get his bands bigger. Nobody would sign the bands in Omaha, so the label was a vehicle to get them in bigger places. Do you think if you had gotten the opportunity to do a record with Atlantic or Capitol, one, would the band have been interested and, two, how do you think Saddle Creek would’ve taken that?
Saddle Creek would’ve been fine with it because ultimately that doesn’t really matter and we should all maintain some sort of friendship over that. If it’s a decision we wanted to make, then it’s a decision we wanted to make. But we were all pretty fiercely independent at that point. I do remember, when those conversations would come up amongst the band, the rare times it was brought up, we were just totally disinterested.
Because we were so into Merge and Dischord that we were really proud that we had our own ecosystem going, so there wasn’t a need.
Here’s a hypothetical. Say you could sell 200,000 copies of your record on Saddle Creek versus selling 700,000 on Atlantic, you’d take the former?
No. But at the time, yeah. Fifteen years ago, the grey area of major label/independent that existed... nobody really cares [now]. It was such a huge deal growing up, and that’s what your book’s about. Conor [Oberst] has had this attitude for years of “Why does it matter? Who cares?” It took me years to catch up with him. [Laughs] I just kept sticking with this DIY ethic. It ultimately just doesn’t matter. Unless you’re really gonna release it yourself and sell it out of your own van and not touch any of the greater system, you’re just using the system or the system is gonna use you. So what does it really matter?