Art Rock Is Hard: The Oral History of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ
In June 2002, something felt wrong inside Cursive frontman Tim Kasher’s chest. He had a sharp pain, a lack of breath, and a near-complete inability to sing — a problem for the Omaha band as they rolled into Salt Lake City on a headlining tour.
As it turns out, one of Kasher’s lungs had collapsed, ending the tour prematurely. It forced the rest of Cursive to return to the Midwest while their singer and primary songwriter was in a Utah hospital.
More from Spin:
- On Middling Age, Tim Kasher Doesn’t Always Want to Be a 47-Year-Old Rocker
- The 40 Best Emo Love Songs
- Cursive’s Tim Kasher Enlisted the Cheers Mailman to Save the USPS
However, in addition to the tour being cut short, Kasher’s condition put a damper on their post-touring plans. Cursive already laid down the initial tracking for their next album (their fourth) but vocals obviously couldn’t happen until Kasher could sing again.
In the 21 years since, Kasher obviously regained his voice, both literally and figuratively, with various musical projects. His range has become a calling card. In February 2023, he’s at a casual Oaxacan restaurant in Los Angeles, staring at the four small bowls of mole on the bar in front of him. In many ways, those four chocolate-based sauces are somewhat representative of Kasher’s career up to this point. They all come from similar ingredients, yet contain strikingly different flavor profiles. There’s no guidance or reason on which to start with, what order to consume them in, or which will go best on rice versus a tortilla.
The near-black mole represents his solo career, bursting with different flavors that the other three wouldn’t go near. The sand-colored one across from it would have to be the Good Life — light and easy on the taste buds, but with spiced olives and peppers in it for zing. Then there’s the milk chocolate-y sauce, which has the roots of everything else in a slightly less-refined package, not unlike his early group, Slowdown Virginia.
And then there’s the rich, dark brown, complex mole. It’s everyone’s favorite because it delivers what people want and expect, but with a blend of spices that separate it from those trying their damnedest to replicate it. It may not be the dish that people necessarily go to Guelaguetza for, but it’s the one they love and remember. In other words, it’s Cursive.
Like his bands, Kasher doesn’t stay with any one sauce for too long. He bounces back and forth, giving each of them attention. He uses words like “interesting” to describe some while pointing out that the dark chocolate is his favorite. The veteran songwriter is at a point where he’s comfortable with people knowing him as “the Cursive guy,” even when he’s more in the mood for the intricacies of his charcoal-flavored solo career or the easily digestible sweetness of the Good Life.
It took Kasher years (or perhaps decades) to accept that many fans would always consider his solo career as a side project to his most prolific band, but that’s the price of admission after you release one of the most genre-bending influential albums of the 2000s.
By 2003, Cursive was already gaining momentum in the Midwest emo/post-hardcore scene growing around Saddle Creek Records. Domestica was the first thing anyone outside of their local scene had paid attention to, and they were quickly gaining a fan base for the breakup album that Kasher insisted wasn’t about his divorce (he now acknowledges it was inspired by it, albeit fictionalized). Labelmates like Bright Eyes and the Faint were finding success with their most recent albums (Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and Danse Macabre, respectively), and the national and international scenes were finally starting to pick up on what was happening in and around Omaha, Nebraska.
But if you told the members of Cursive in 2003 that the album that The Ugly Organ would influence many emo bands over the next two decades, they probably would’ve scoffed and insisted that it wasn’t “emo.”
Those who are now considered to be the foundation of the 2000s emo scene would do anything to avoid being labeled as “emo.” In the New York metro area, Taking Back Sunday had just released Tell All Your Friends, My Chemical Romance introduced themselves through I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love, Brand New was weeks away from Deja Entendu, Thursday was celebrating the success of Full Collapse, and Midtown was riding high on the strength of Living Well is the Best Revenge. Fall Out Boy would soon change the entire Midwestern scene with Take This to Your Grave, and albums like The Used’s self-titled debut, Thrice’s Illusion of Safety, and Something Corporate’s Leaving Through the Window had entered from the west.
Even today, calling The Ugly Organ “emo” or “post-hardcore” is woefully incomplete: it would be like calling Ziggy Stardust a “classic rock” album. Ranging from the drastically cacophonous to the elegantly beautiful, Cursive moves drastically away from the scene that built them across 12 tracks, making use of carnival music, a timpani, and various other instrumentation — in conjunction with their recently added cellist — to create a sonic landscape as vast as it is unique. Perhaps the most agreed-upon subgenre for the now-classic album is “art rock,” a term ultimately as meaningless as it is vague, yet somehow still an appropriate fit for an album that’s simultaneously high-concept and introspective.
Similarly to how Domestica featured nine songs that happened to come together into a story of a couple going through marital issues, The Ugly Organ frequently receives praise for its theatrical narrative following a musician (“The Ugly Organist”) dealing with insecurities, romantic entanglements, and more — even if the bigger story was effectively an afterthought invented once the majority of the album had been finished. The result allowed Kasher’s love for unconventional songwriting to blend with Ted Stevens’ indie-folk sensibilities and create a complex, yet catchy, 40-minute tale of an album without any wasted space.
Whether it was a matter of just being in the right place at the right time, an accidental success by a band hitting their stride, or a well-thought-out conceptual masterpiece, The Ugly Organ has stood the test of time. It serves as both a keystone of the early 2000s Saddle Creek scene and an inspiration for punk/emo/post-hardcore-and-beyond artists looking to expand with something different and unheard of.
For the album’s 20th anniversary, SPIN asked all five of Cursive’s members from that time to share their thoughts on the career-defining album.
Having added cellist Gretta Cohn for 2001’s Burst and Bloom EP, Cursive was still riding the success of Domestica as they toured first throughout America and Europe in late 2001 through early 2002.
Matt Maginn (Bass): I think we started writing some of The Ugly Organ along with the Burst and Bloom stuff within six months of releasing Domestica. When we were writing songs for it, we felt like the core of the band had been together long enough and had put out enough music that we had the right and the freedom to expand the sound from Domestica. That’s probably what became the more truly “Cursive” sound too.
Tim Kasher (Vocals / Guitar): After Domestica, I had anxiety, like, “You wrote something that people responded to, so now you’re in great danger of writing something that will disappoint more people than ever because your audience is larger.” While I never thought too much about that, I had to grapple a lot with myself and my own feelings when thinking about both that and what the next album was supposed to be. Even before we started writing much of it, that’s how The Ugly Organ kind of turned on itself and became such a self-referential and self-deprecating album. It’s me attacking myself for a myriad of reasons — one being for acting too precious about this record. It’s like, “It’s just another fucking record. Who do you think you are? You think you’re gonna hit the Billboard Top 10? Get the fuck out of here.”
Clint Schnase (Drums): I just remember we were in a good groove before we did The Ugly Organ. We were just a music-making machine. I don’t think any of us knew that we were doing anything that anyone would care about in 20 years, but we loved what we were doing and felt like it was some of the best stuff we’d done as a band.
Maginn: We wrote “Staying Alive” on a Domestica tour. We borrowed somebody’s barn outside of Orlando, and they let us go in there and practice for a little bit. We were working on new songs at the time, and that’s where “Staying Alive” was born. It’s one of the few songs I think we’ve ever worked out outside of a studio, a stage or a practice space.
Kasher: The barn was in DeLand or somewhere like that, but I don’t recall which song we were working on.
Ted Stevens (Guitar): I remember writing in the barn in Florida, but I don’t think it was “Staying Alive.”
Cohn: As far as the process of writing The Ugly Organ, Tim typically brought skeletons of songs, and then we would all just jam on it until we reached a place where people’s individual contributions started to cement. In some cases, Tim certainly had ideas of what he wanted from anyone in the band, including me. But I think one of the reasons why I loved it so much, and why it worked for me, was because I was bringing whatever my sensibility was to the band.
Maginn: We toured behind Domestica, and towards the end of that — which I think was 2001 — we got offered to do the Plea for Peace / Take Action tour with Thursday and some other bands. By the time we got on that tour, we were playing some songs off of The Ugly Organ. That’s what’s so cool about The Ugly Organ. We had written some of the songs so early on that we got to play them in Europe and on that Plea for Peace tour. We got to road-test them for months, which is something we don’t really have the luxury to do anymore.
Stevens: We wrote and recorded the four songs for the Eastern Youth split [8 Teeth to Eat You], and some of the other material featured on the  deluxe version, at the same time as The Ugly Organ. It was all written together with the same intention. When we sat down to do that four-song recording, we demoed what would become The Ugly Organ — except probably two songs — in that session. We basically tracked instruments for those four songs, and then while we had the room setup and the tape going, we just played what would become The Ugly Organ live. Then we went back and did our overdubs and produced those four songs, which were pressed on a CD with Eastern Youth. But in the meantime, we had this live studio demo of our next album with unfinished lyrics.
That demo circulated amongst the label and our friends and families, and people got very used to the alternate lyrics and the alternate versions of the songs. So much so that when we cut the record, and mixed the real version, I remember Clint’s dad was like, “I like the lyrics better on the demo. What happened to those?” My biggest memories of that time are talking to people about the recording and trying to convince them like “Hey, if you don’t like it, hold tight, it’s gonna get better.” And then, on the flip side, “If you do like it, just wait, it’s gonna get better still.” We felt like we had something with that demo. We were a five-piece band for the first time, and we felt like we had a real shot at making a good record.
The band’s first trip through Europe, where they were opened for the Appleseed Cast, proved to be a particularly defining run for shaping the new material.
Cohn: The tours before The Ugly Organ were super scrappy. We’d sleep at someone’s house most nights — maybe the person who booked the show or the promoter or something. We’d all be lined up all next to each other in sleeping bags on someone’s floor — and the hardwood floors were the worst! Matt always had a camping pad with him. In retrospect, I have no idea why I didn’t get one. Sometimes we stayed in hotels, but even then, we’d be six in the room, with four sharing beds and one person on the floor between the beds.
Stevens: The most meaningful tour for us prior to The Ugly Organ was the Appleseed Cast tour of Europe. I remember it was very DIY — we were sleeping in the venues and playing all these punk rock clubs — and we were playing the material live prior to recording and really shaping it. I think having a European audience who were Appleseed Cast fans gave us a lot of freedom to try out ideas on the stage. The Appleseed Cast themselves were also so supportive of the new stuff and so excited about it, and I think they gave us a lot of confidence that we were doing something special. I think that was very formative.
Schnase: I remember packing into one of those passenger vans and driving it around Europe. Nobody knew where we were going or how to get anywhere. Nobody could speak anyone’s language. It was just a total mess. It’s a fun memory, and I’m happy that we did it, but I don’t know if they did any good for either band at the time. It was a bunch of 20-somethings just fucking going to Europe to see what would happen — to see what we could do. I think Cursive still plays shows with the Appleseed Cast. Those tours in those formative years were bonding experiences.
Maginn: I think we technically started recording it in May, right after the Appleseed Cast tour. We stopped because we had a small tour that was supposed to happen, but then Tim’s lung collapsed toward the start of that tour, so the rest of it was canceled. I know the record still wasn’t done when that happened.
Schnase: When Tim’s lung collapsed, he insisted on still playing that night. We were playing Kilby Court in Salt Lake City, and he decided he was gonna play the show no matter what. We didn’t know his lung was popped at the time, but we knew he was not doing well. He played the show anyway, and then went to the hospital the next day. We lucked out because Matt’s father-in-law at the time lived in Salt Lake City and let us stay with him.
Stevens: Tim couldn’t fly home because of the altitude, and we had a feeling he was going to need surgery. We ended up leaving him there in the hospital after his mom flew out to be with him.
Schnase: We would go to the hospital every day and visit him. We played a blind date game show that was on MTV in the hotel room with him and made a couple of videos of us playing it. We were just trying to do whatever we could to not make it feel so terrible for him, because good grief, we all went through a lot at that time. Then it was me, Maginn, Greta, and I can’t remember who else all trekking back from Salt Lake City together. I’m pretty sure we blew a tire on the way back, and I think there was some other ridiculous thing that felt like a tragedy at the time. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember it was not an easy road home.
Stevens: I remember coming home from that trip, and that was pretty brutal. The momentum was happening, the expectations were high and the excitement was high. Coming back to Omaha didn’t feel so much like defeat or like, “Oh, the tour’s over, and what the hell am I gonna do with myself?” But more like “Tim’s not well, and we had to leave him behind.” It just all felt really wrong, and I felt really bad. Tim had been through it all before, and I remember him handling it great — very dignified and very tough — but I still felt shitty. I had a feeling that things were going to work out, but we didn’t know. None of us knew.
With a good number of the tracks written, recorded, and road-tested, Cursive had to wait for Kasher to heal before he could record the album’s vocals, which allowed time for some extra changes and additions.
Stevens: Before we started recording, Matt, his ex-wife and I had to drive back from Colorado with the timpani in a minivan. We were like, “OK, we added cello,” but the grand plan was to add timpani as well. So after some dates out there, we stopped in Sterling, Colorado at a Quiznos to buy these two timpani drums off a high school band teacher.
Schnase: I think that was the first time I felt really comfortable going into the studio with the songs. We had played them so much, and I was ready for it.
Cohn: I remember being in the studio at Mogis’s, and kind of living there. My memory is that we had sleeping bags so we could sleep there some nights. I remember watching Tim refine lyrics, because the lyrics, as I recall, were some of the last things that he worked on. So I would just watch him write and edit and write some more in the studio.
Kasher: We were pretty well into the creation of the album when my lung collapsed, so that kind of pushed everything back. I almost want to say that we’d done some of the recording for it and then had to sit on it for a while, but that’s probably not accurate.
Maginn: I think the vocals were the last thing done, because Tim needed a little bit of recovery time after his lung collapsed before he was able to lay down the vocals.
Kasher: I couldn’t do any vocals for months, but I think I also benefited from having to wait until I healed up. It was like when you get your car out of the shop, and everything feels great. My lungs were working at peak capacity, and I wasn’t smoking anything or excessively drinking. I was just incredibly healthy. That was a good time to get to do those vocals.
Stevens: We didn’t want to push Tim too hard because we didn’t want him to have a setback. We wanted to let him recover at his own pace that whole summer. I met a girl during that time period too. We started a relationship and we’re married now, 21 years later. So it’s a pretty defining point in my life.
One major difference for Cursive when working on The Ugly Organ was their newfound relative success. Domestica put them on a lot of people’s radars, which meant more freedom and more pressure to create a suitable follow-up.
Kasher: The good fortune for The Ugly Organ is that Domestica was recognized, relative to our standards back then. It found an audience and some success at the time that we had never experienced before. That offered me the freedom to write something that was more kooky and more “me.” I still consider Domestica to be less a picture of us and more a picture of our influence — like Fugazi, Superchunk, and all of those post-hardcore bands — but I think it benefited from a real immediate rawness of expression. It’s become a special record for me, but it also afforded me the opportunity to go out on a limb and go back to that old kooky, more eccentric self. The Ugly Organ goes back to my old band, Slowdown Virginia, which is our true selves — but it cleans up all the goofy high school or freshman in college bullshit while leaving all of the self-deprecation. It’s nice to think about The Ugly Organ as the more mature and more realized follow-up to Slowdown Virginia. It’s like Slowdown Virginia plus Domestica, or maybe plus the first three Cursive records.
Maginn: After Domestica, we felt a little freedom. We thought we could branch out a little bit in what the record sounded like. For instance, when we started writing “Art is Hard,” we gave it almost a swing beat. It didn’t sound like a Cursive song at the time because everything else was post-hardcore. I remember thinking that we’d been a band long enough that it would just sound like us playing something that has a swing beat, rather than something totally different. “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand” was still a very classic fast punk song, but there was some comfort that we didn’t have to stay within any guardrails of what our sound was. I would say “The Recluse” would fall under that. We called it “Instrumental Chorus” as a working title because how could you have a chorus without vocals? That sounds crazy. Where’s the really loud rocking part for this song? It’s not there. We had a lot of freedom, and it was a very fun experience to be playing and writing that way.
Kasher: I think it’s funny that our [most popular] song [“The Recluse’] is also our least heavy song. I recognize that it’s like “Ballads for hard rock bands tend to work better with blah blah blah,” but I don’t recall us ever thinking that we were onto something with “The Recluse.” We called it “Instrumental Chorus” because what was weird about that song was that it doesn’t have a chorus. How are you gonna record three verses with no chorus? But it always goes back to this infectious instrumental section. We were like “I don’t know. This instrumental section feels good enough that maybe we just let that be the thing.”
Schnase: Tim must have heard the cello in his head while he was doing some initial writing for The Ugly Organ and just knew that it was gonna sound really good. I remember him saying something about it to me, and I never doubted it. But also, who would I be to say “Tim, this is not a great idea”? [Laughs.] He’s the dude who’s written all this music that I’ve ridden along with and made a successful career with. I wouldn’t have second-guessed him anyway, but I knew he was right about the cello. Greta was a champ, too. She walked into a tight-knit group of friends that had known each other forever. It took her a minute to get it because I think she was playing “cello” at first and not “rock cello.” Her nuance as a cellist served us well for quieter stuff, interludes and things like that, but there were some times where Tim wanted it to be as loud and obnoxious as anything else. She caught on to that really fast. We were lucky to have her. She’s such a great musician.
Cohn: I was never solely about melody and like beauty in the music that I played. The bands that I listened to — and the reason why I was compelled by Cursive — had me excited to be making music that had a more aggressive quality. There’s one song on 8 Teeth to Eat You that was so fun — I think it’s “Excerpts [from Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb 24, 1997].” It starts off with this very aggressive cello. One of the entries in my diary from back then was about sharing the bill with Murder by Death. I was like “Oh, their cellist is playing so pretty, so I’m glad that what I’m able to do in this band is more aggressive.” But I did have pretty serious training, so I can see where that difference could come from.
Kasher: I always like keeping a really good mix of louder stuff and quieter, beautiful stuff. I want to find those people — and it’s probably not a big subset of the population — who are like me and want something achingly beautiful, but also want to rock loud as hell and bang their head. Prior to The Ugly Organ, I felt pressure from the scene that I wasn’t allowed to do that. If you’re going to see Fugazi, you don’t want Ian MacKaye to play a Paul Simon finger-picked acoustic record — or a James Hetfield acoustic album. So I wanted the cello to feel heavy, but also be small and beautiful. I remember asking Gretta, “Can you give me all of those things on the same song?”
Stevens: I think we just knew, in our collective minds, that if we kept our head down and kept playing music like Cursive writes, that when we added instruments like cello and timpani, they would fit. They’re both in the real audible frequencies, and we knew we were already a bottom-heavy band. Matt’s style of bass is a very consistent thing on every song the band’s ever written, and that helped to shape Cursive into a six-piece band with a timpanist and a cellist. We knew it’d be great and moody as hell and weird. I didn’t really know what to expect until the songs themselves started coming out, but they’re kind of raw and abrasive. I thought they’d be more mellow, a little sadder and darker. I didn’t expect to do the over-the-top carnival music with that instrumentation, but it made sense. There’s a lot of herky jerky moments where these instruments really stand out.
Kasher: Avoiding any single genre was really important to me post-Domestica because I think we were a little too cozy and a little too snug on that record — so it was important for me to stretch out and break away from that on The Ugly Organ. Saying that we sounded too much like Fugazi might not sound like a bad thing, but I wanted to break away from being put into any one genre. I don’t care about it as much anymore since I’m not as young, but back then, I would really lose sleep over it. Bringing in strings was a way I knew we could set ourselves apart and make sure that people recognized we weren’t this or that. Having the cello also allowed us to take a different approach, which I still use when I write. It’s a great instrument and really versatile.
Cohn: It’s the entire kinetic thing of five people who happen to be making art together for a few years, and what happens as a result of that. You have what an amazing bass player Matt is, how great of a songwriter and guitarist Ted is — and the slightly more out-there contributions Ted made — Clint, of course, and Tim is just a masterful storyteller. If the songs didn’t have the stories that he crafted, would it be the same? Probably not. You’re really gripped from front to end because there’s such a vivid narrative.
Schnase: The biggest difference on The Ugly Organ was Tim’s willingness to explore — as far as he’s concerned — a poppy attitude about the music, instead of it being so dark and brooding all of the time. The first couple of records were pretty grim, and I think that even if the story that he’s telling on Domestica and The Ugly Organ are grim stories, the music’s a little bit lighter. We were just growing as a band, too. We’d been playing so much, and I think we were finally starting to find a pocket where we were all very comfortable. We all were agreeing on the direction we wanted to go and how we wanted to sound. There was a happiness about it, and a comfort.
Kasher: So much of The Ugly Organ is me responding to my own inner dialogue and attacking myself. Sometimes people get the impression that I’m attacking other songwriters or musicians, but that’s really not the type of person I am. If I find another band to be shitty or something, I’ll joke around with my personal friends about it, but it’s not something I’m going to be inspired to write about. I like to express my own self-deprecation because I think that’s really relatable, so I can validate it to myself by saying that a lot of other people feel that way too.
Stevens: I just love big concept records, so I was always pushing Tim to do stuff like that. I don’t know who came up with the concept that Domestica was going to be this unified story of nine songs, but I was definitely all about that. I wanted Tim to do that, because we were moving really quick and I wasn’t writing music for the record — like not bringing riffs to practice but just trying to catch up. I wasn’t a lead guitar player in a rock band; I was a folk singer. So when we got to The Ugly Organ, I was excited to offer some songs to the band. I don’t feel like I offered much. It’s just those two little snippets [“The Ugly Organist” and “Herald! Frankenstein”] and the last song [“Staying Alive”], which is not a real verse-chorus-verse formulated idea. I was comfortable offering the little nooks and crannies. Nothing that would stand in the way of one of Tim’s big songs, like “Art is Hard” or “A Gentleman Caller.”
Kasher: I’m such a big fan of Ted’s writing that I didn’t want to pick him up as our guitar player. He’s a songwriter, not a lead guitarist. It was very much in Ted’s character to not write songs for Domestica because it was his first record with us, but it was so cool that he felt the comfort to jump in on The Ugly Organ. I’m so glad that he made contributions to both this album and Happy Hollow.
Stevens: Normally, everyone’s jumping in to take credit for something people like, but I think this album is such an example of groupthink that I don’t want to take credit for anything. It just works when Tim and I write stuff like this. I do well on the bigger picture, and he’s great with the details. I don’t feel like my musical contributions to the record were enough. I don’t have regrets on that record — I just feel like I didn’t do that much. It’s not like, “Oh, let’s drop this song and put my song on there.” I didn’t have a song to put on it, and the ones Tim wrote are great.
Schnase: Ted’s never going to admit to writing anything, but he knows he did. He’s so good. Ted’s the reason I was in the band. He’s the reason I liked the music that I like. I met that dude when I was 16, and he changed my life forever. He’s a really special dude and a great songwriter.
Perhaps one of the strongest facets of The Ugly Organ is its variety of “kooky” sound and tones. From the abrasive “Butcher the Song” to the delicate “The Recluse,” fans and band members alike all have their own preferences and memories among the album’s different tracks.
Kasher: Some of the songs on The Ugly Organ are really self-reflective, and then others are the ones that are “on” the album [inside of the narrative]. “Sierra” is a strong song based on audience reception, but to me, songs like “Sierra,” “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale,” and “The Recluse” are the songs that are written [inside of the narrative]. The Ugly Organ to me is “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand,” “Art is Hard,” “Butcher the Song,” “A Gentleman Caller,” and maybe some others I forgot. Those songs are the important ones to me, where I’m breaking the fourth wall and doing an examination of “Sierra” or “The Recluse.” Once I started doing that, it became something I wanted to do on every record. I hold myself back on that, because I realized that it could be annoying. I know I’m already annoying because I’m constantly self-deprecating and denigrate religion too much, so I don’t need new ways in which I could be annoying.
Maginn: “A Gentleman Caller” is probably the perfect mesh of all that is Cursive in some ways. When we wrote it, we called it “Perv Song” because it was so pervy-sounding, from a musical perspective — but then it ends so beautifully. I feel like that song encapsulates a lot of parts of that record all in one place. It’s got the perviness of “Butcher the Song,” but then it’s got the beauty of “The Recluse” and a little bit of Bloody Murderer” with really cool guitar interplay and cello. Then there’s the almost-Baroque “doo doo doo doo” stuff that happens. I think “A Gentleman Caller” definitely still sticks with me as a well-rounded example of the whole record.
Kasher: I think a really good example of my kookiness or weirdness is that I tend to get excited about the more eccentric music on The Ugly Organ. I love “Butcher the Song,” but I know better than to do an album of all songs like that. Matt has always been a really great editor for recognizing when my writing is getting too weird, and he’ll come in and save it. I have a tendency to always want to write in that style, like “A Gentleman Caller.” I love that style. But then as [current Cursive multi-instrumentalist] Patrick Newbery, with a smile on his face, asked me, “Do you really think people like ‘A Gentleman Caller’ or do they tolerate it because they want to hear ‘The Recluse’?” I think there’s probably some accuracy in that because I’m sure there are plenty of Cursive listeners who tolerate “Butcher the Song” to get “Sierra.” I’m not going to do a record of just “Sierra,” but I know better than to do a record of all “Butcher the Song.” My favorite listener would anticipate the “Herald! Frankenstein” and appreciate it, even if their favorite song might be “Art is Hard” or “The Recluse.”
Kasher: As far as The Ugly Organ not really being as conceptualized as it may seem, one example is that the “doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo” on the end of “Staying Alive” was only written for “A Gentleman Caller.” It’s just part of that song, but I recognized that it was a way that I could tie the record together with it — and that was before we even decided to go more conceptual with the artwork. I just wanted to bring the album a little bit closer together and have everything feel like there were certain elements going from one song into the next. We started testing it live, and it seemed to make sense. But it wasn’t a forethought or a part of the bigger concept, that was all Ted.
Schnase: The most challenging bit for me was “Staying Alive.” I don’t remember if the take we used was my first time or the second time, but it’s a 10-minute song. If you fuck up in the middle of it, you’re screwed and have to start all over. The take that’s on the record, I got like seven minutes into it and totally fucked up a roll. I fucked it up so bad, but I kept going to pretend like it didn’t happen. You’ll recognize on the record that the drum part kind of fades out. That’s because I fucked up, so they mixed it so you couldn’t hear it anymore. I think there’s even some distortion on it just to make extra damn sure that you couldn’t hear it.
Kasher: “Art is Hard” and “Butcher the Song” are the two songs I tend to think of the most when I think of what the album means to me. I recognized “Art is Hard” was a banger as soon as we wrote it. I knew it was gonna be the first single. I remember laying on the ground in the studio while working on the lyrics, because I was being super precious about it. I recognized that it was going to be a strong song on the record, so I was just writing and rewriting it. I was writing stuff that was super earnest, just trying to milk it of any of its emotion to make it a “true” song” — a great fucking song. Then I caught myself doing that and was so repulsed by how I was making a total artifice out of what I was doing that I was just disgusted. I started just shooting out the lyrics that it currently is, like “Cut it out! Your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine…” I ended up writing it pretty quickly, but it was all in response, like, “This isn’t a precious song. Stop trying to create some artificial bullshit. Nobody wants to hear that. You’re being an asshole. I would rather take a dump on this song and ruin it than allow you to put some fucking artificial shit on it. You’ll never want to play it.” It made the song way more honest, and it showed the kind of asshole that I am.
Beyond the individual songs, The Ugly Organ is often celebrated for its theatrical narrative arc — but the entire storyline was really nothing more than an accidental afterthought.
Stevens: I remember Tim and I talking about taking this concept record beyond Domestica — which is just a little story about these people — and taking it further to create this monster of a concept. Tim really wanted to play keyboards back then, because he was bursting out of his musical self during that time period. He wanted to embody this character that he’s describing more, so it makes the performance more real for the fans. I feel like that character’s perspective was easy for him to write from because he’d already been feeling that way. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of thing.
Kasher: It’s definitely less romantic than some people want to hear, but it was a totally unintentional concept record. We just put the whole record together, and after all of the pieces were assembled, Ted sat down and spent some time with it on his own. He was like “All of this stuff is really connected more than you realize.” He started playing with that idea of playing it out as a musical, and I really ran with that. Everything was a lot more connected through the threads that Ted had found.
Stevens: It’s a murky record, as far as a concept — or all the different concepts — but I just kept pushing him to go with his gut. The meta thing is fun and interesting, and I was trying to write from another character’s perspective who’s in the works. So it’s not just one story, but several different stories happening at once. It’s not as cohesive to me as Domestica, and I don’t assume the listeners find it cohesive — but I don’t want to take that away from anyone if it’s meaningful to them. It wasn’t until we sat down and started doing the liner notes that it came together. I worked on the liner notes a lot. I feel like adding the stage directions in the liner notes was my one real good contribution. It helped me see that even if it was initially this gumbo of people and concepts thrown together under this banner, bringing it all back with that stage direction and editing on the liners made it felt more cohesive.
Maginn: A lot of the transitions and narrative things were actually Tim and [producer/engineer] Mike Mogis. I was involved and had a strong opinion about the sequencing, but those crossovers between the songs was Tim really tying them together. Mike’s very into that sort of thing, and I’m sure we stole that idea from somebody else. I can’t think of what bands we listened to back then that would blend the songs together in that theatrical way, but I’m sure we took it from them.
Kasher: Some seasons I’m into [transitions between songs], and other seasons I’m not. It probably has more to do with “How recently have I done it, and is it OK to do it again?” I tend to feel like I shouldn’t do it every record, but it’s my preferred way to do a record. It’s such a little thing, but I think it’s a way you can really find yourself becoming immersed into an album. It’s keeping you hooked. I’ve also just been a fan forever of natural and less common sounds and soundbites. It gets your imagination racing as to what the hell you think is going on — especially if you’re not really sure what you’re hearing — so you start coloring it in yourself. I was really into it around that time, so I know we did a lot of it on Burst and Bloom as well. I remember working on some of those interstitial parts after the fact when we were mastering it, as well.
Stevens: Mike Mogis has such unique skills. He’s a great guitar player. He’s got an amazing ear for music. But it goes way beyond that in the studio. He has this love for it and collection of instruments — and his ability to play them well and get them to sound perfect. And then there’s his ability to manipulate the mixes. Mike and I had worked together in the studio for probably seven or eight years before The Ugly Organ, and he’d just gotten a bigger space to work in. He had those big, giant chimes that you hear on it, the vibraphones, and his own timpani, which sounded amazing. He’s a big part of that record and a lot of that stuff. He was able to take our energy and where we were coming from and help us shape it and make it really weird.
After finishing the recording, Cursive knew they loved The Ugly Organ. But no one in the band was so sure that anyone else would.
Maginn: There were times when we would listen to The Ugly Organ tracks before they were completely finished, and we were really excited about it. We really loved what we had done, but we were also really, really afraid that people would hate it since it wasn’t really post-hardcore. But there was always some reassurance among ourselves like “Hey, even if they hate it, we did what we wanted to do and we should be happy.”
Kasher: I didn’t have any impression that people would get as excited about the record as they did. I think there was maybe just a little bit of hubris because Domestica had gotten a little bit of attention, and Bright Eyes and the Faint were getting some attention. So getting attention was something I was acclimating to, just in the sense that people were checking out our scene. With the new songs getting a good reaction, it was like, “OK, I think we’re going in the right direction.” I think I was just selfishly stoked that something we had written was getting early positive reactions.
Cohn: I really don’t think that there were particularly high expectations for it. The first year that I was in Omaha — which would have been 2001 into 2002 — we were touring and such, but I literally went to a temp agency and got a job working in an accounting firm. Music wasn’t anyone’s sole focus, even though I had moved to Omaha just to be in this band. When we finished the record and were poised to release it, I don’t think there was any feeling of “This is gonna be it for us, guys.” There was a lot going on because Cursive was a part of this whole Saddle Creek scene with the Faint and Bright Eyes. Each band was having its own little moment of success, one after the other, so success didn’t seem like an impossibility or an unknown. But I recall a feeling that we might have made something unlistenable, or that people might listen a little bit but maybe not get it.
Kasher: I went through a bout of such anxiety and pre-release regret that we had just truly fucked up. I was given the freedom to write whatever the fuck I want — not what I thought people want to hear — and ended up apologizing to the band and giving a pep talk before it came out. “I think we really fucked up here, but when this comes out, we all need to remember that we like this record and that this record is important to us. It doesn’t really matter if anyone else likes it. The most important thing is that we like this record.” It was the way that one feels when you do something that’s a little too close to home or a little too personal. You go, “Oh my god, everybody’s gonna hate this. I’m going to be the laughingstock.” You’re back in grade school and wrote a poem about your family or your dog, and you’re like, “Everyone’s gonna make fun of me.”
While the album received near-universal acclaim from publications ranging from Rolling Stone to Alternative Press and was Cursive’s first appearance on the Billboard charts (peaking at No. 9 on Independent Albums), it wasn’t enough to keep the band together. In fall 2004, the group announced a hiatus — a break which lasted less than two years.
Cohn: The tours before The Ugly Organ were smaller venues. There’s obviously a huge audience for Domestica — and those early tours were always exciting and had a lot of energy — but I was flipping through the first chunk of my diary [from after The Ugly Organ] and my notes are like, “Wow, this show is sold out.” “This show is also sold out.” I think that was the big turning point for really reaching people. I have a memory of being in D.C. and how the crowd was singing along to so much of the show, and how exciting that is.
Maginn: There was just more enthusiasm at those shows. It’s not like the Domestica shows were not enthusiastic, but there was more for The Ugly Organ. Maybe it was the bounce in “Art is Hard” or the straightforward speed of “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand” or whatever, but it was a little bit more raucous. It may be just that we were really starting to draw crowds at that point, and it seemed like they were really into it rather than just learning about us or something. The crowds for Cursive have always been good, in that they’re either listening carefully or having fun and jumping up and down. But I do feel like The Ugly Organ got a little more raucous.
Stevens: I don’t remember feeling very grateful at the time. I just remember being young and kind of privileged or entitled, and just feeling like, “Well, yeah, this is what we do now. We just devote our lives to the road.” It just seemed like the right time for us, and we were all in our mid-20s. After my entry [into Cursive] in ‘99, I noticed a big change in our popularity, those first couple of years. This was a continuation of that. I don’t have regrets, like, “Oh, I took it for granted” or something. I think I was just too young to even really have any perspective on it.
Cohn: A little bit later, we went on tour with the Cure for Curiosa. That was incredible, absolutely amazing, and totally life-changing. We were going back to cities we’d been to before, and we could really feel the impact after the show was sold out. There were so many more people that we moved up to the next size venue in that town. Or in the case of somewhere like New York, you’re going from playing Bowery Ballroom to playing two nights at Bowery Ballroom.
Stevens: It feels like it went pretty quickly from the excitement of “OK, the record’s out. You’re touring and everything’s great” to “OK, we’re taking some time off. Everybody go back to work or go home or do what you’ve got to do. Just don’t plan on being in the band or touring anytime soon.” It’s just a blur of fun, youth and good energy — and probably bad energy.
Schnase: We always said that if Cursive needed to take a break, it took a break — but I never felt like it was going away. I just always assumed it was something that we were going to come back to. I don’t even remember the circumstances or why we decided to walk away at that point.
Stevens: We had elders of our scene who toured and had released successful records, and when we decided to break up for a little bit after The Ugly Organ, I remember some of those elders sent word, like, “Tell them not to stop. Tell them not to break up or take a break. Don’t slow down at all. Don’t even pretend to hit the brakes. Don’t project that at all to your fans because that’s not going to help. If you’re feeling weird or tired, or if the band’s not getting along, just shut up and shake it off.” I don’t think we made a formal press release or anything saying we were officially taking a couple of years off, but we knew we’d only proceed when it felt right to us. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Two decades later, The Ugly Organ remains the definitive Cursive album and is considered an essential piece of the era. Its unique tale and timelessness continue to connect with new fans to this day.
Schnase: I think if we knew [why The Ugly Organ still holds up 20 years later], all of our records would sound that way. I think it’s because the message is pretty universal. The record is dark, but as it goes along, there’s hope that builds toward the end of it. It’s like “Everything is really terrible. Nothing is right. Nothing’s ever going to work again. But there’s still hope.” It’s probably that message, and Tim is a great writer who tells an amazing story. I think that always holds up. What I love the most about his storytelling is that I never really know if it’s true or if it’s fiction. He’s always done a great job of balancing that — and if you ask him, he’ll never admit to any of it.
Kasher: I think it’s because a lot of the songs are either love songs or heartache songs. “The Recluse” is a love song. “A Gentleman Caller” is definitely coming from a place of love. But I also think that the pieces about self-examination [hold up] as well. I would hope that you’re not too young at 14 or 16 to start self-examining, and I would hope that it would be something that people would recognize and see in themselves as well. I still remember who I was at 14, and I was a sharp kid. I respect myself as a teenager more than I respect myself at a lot of other points because I was so hungry and open-minded.
Maginn: The Ugly Organ has the same spastic, odd, eclectic sound that often came from Tim’s writing — even in his bands before Cursive. I think The Ugly Organ is a very well-rounded version of Cursive because it has that oddball sound that really comes naturally to the band.
Kasher: The Ugly Organ is a reflection of the weird shit that we’re into as a band, and it really does make me really proud. It really felt like the most tapped-in that we’ve been as far as what we sound like. I know that Happy Hollow is less authentic than The Ugly Organ because, as a fucked-up artist, I needed to walk away from everything we just did and specifically not do The Ugly Organ again. There are lovers of Happy Hollow, and it was a successful record, but a lot of people felt burned by it. But that’s the asshole type of artist I am. I was like “Y’all fell in love with The Ugly Organ so much… Guess what? You’re never gonna hear that again. I hope you didn’t wear out your record because that’s the last time you’re gonna hear that!” I think I’ve grown up a lot since then.
Cohn: Listening to The Ugly Organ now, it goes by so fast. I just listened to it, and I was like, “What?! It’s already on ‘Staying Alive!’ It’s already over!” I think it really holds up. I absolutely love it. I’m really proud of it.
Schnase: I joke about this a lot, but The Ugly Organ really is the peak of everything for me as a musician. I can’t believe it was released in 2003. That’s also the year I got married. Tim gave my wife and me the artwork that he painted for it as a wedding gift. That record represents the pinnacle for me, personally. I’ve still got the artwork hanging up in my room, so I see it every single morning when I get up and go to sleep. It just reminds me of how cool of a time that was and how lucky I was to have been in a situation like that, considering all the things that had to happen for me to be in that situation.
Maginn: We were lucky to get the positive response that we got to The Ugly Organ because there’s a lot of other art we’ve done in our lives that doesn’t really generate a lot of attention or appreciation. Obviously, this is our biggest record, and it’s awesome that it’s still appreciated because the last thing you want is something that doesn’t age well. If it can still appeal to people throughout their lives this much later on, that’s one of the highest honors we could have. There’s stuff I connect with on there when we play a song, and a certain lyric of Tim’s will hit me in a different way — like “I don’t think I really processed it that way when we did this record…”
Maginn: When a record takes off like that, you’re so thrilled and so excited — but the DIY or the punk or the artsy side of you is like “Is that cool or not? I don’t know anymore.” Then you play it a million times and you get tired of it for a while. But I think it’s stood the test of time for me now. I have complete appreciation, respect and love for that record. We’re lucky to have created it, and even more lucky that anybody cared.
Schnase: My favorite thing about The Ugly Organ right now is that YouTube exists, so it’s still getting spread around. My daughter can tangibly see it. She can pull up one of the videos, and it’s got 50,000 or 60,000 hits or whatever. That kind of shit matters to her. So selfishly, in my life right now, it means that I have exactly one cool point with my daughter and her friends.
Cohn: What makes any album stand the test of time? Why did I connect with the Kinks or Stevie Wonder — I’m not comparing Cursive to Stevie Wonder. I don’t know. I guess it’s a good record. Emo has come back. The kids are all emo now.
Stevens: But we didn’t use the term “emo” at the time, because it offended us — we hated it so much.
Kasher: I like the term “art rock.” It’s such an obscure genre that it’s almost not a genre. Like what is that even?
To see our running list of the top 100 greatest rock stars of all time, click here.
The post Cursive’s Tim Kasher Enlisted the Cheers Mailman to Save the USPS appeared first on SPIN.