Fiddling Around, “Middling Age”: A Conversation with Tim Kasher




ON CURSIVE’S 2003 groundbreaking album, The Ugly Organ, a twentysomething Tim Kasher called out the contrived and formulaic songwriting dominating the music scene. In “Art Is Hard,” he mocked bands who sacrificed creativity for profit, who “[k]eep churning out those hits / till it’s all the same old shit.” Looking back, one might say that the song also served as Kasher’s personal vow against “the comforts of repetition” in his own work, challenging himself as much as he was his contemporaries. Even at a relatively young age, he remained prophetically aware of his role — and, frankly, responsibility — as a writer.

Whether in his two bands (not only Cursive but also The Good Life) or his more recent solo work, Kasher has spent the past 20 years living up to his promise by pushing the boundaries of songwriting both musically and lyrically. At the same time, he remains fond of the traditional form of the album and its capacity to infuse his songs with a kind of literary quality; each Kasher album is put together like a novel, with carefully sequenced tracks making up chapters of a larger story. And yet as seriously as he takes his songs, he has cultivated a voice that doesn’t take itself too seriously. On his second solo release, Adult Film (2013), Kasher sings, “It scares me to death I might outlive you all. / All those eulogies, all the funeral costs. / All jokes aside, I simply can’t bear the thought.” This balance of darkness and humor has become a trademark of Kasher’s. As anyone who has seen him perform live knows, his banter between songs can sometimes rival his music.

Kasher’s wit and self-reflection remain sharper than ever on his latest solo release, Middling Age. While the album continues to explore what have become common themes in Kasher’s songs, from the complexities of relationships to the rejection of life after death, Middling Age begins to combine the two in new and often tragic ways. No longer celebrating “the beautiful truth” of not being “the chosen one,” as he did in Cursive’s 2006 Happy Hollow, Kasher in Middling Age illustrates how such bold attitudes undergo considerable transformation as one gets older. “Whisper Your Death Wish,” for instance, imagines the inevitability of losing one’s spouse (“I don’t wanna roam the neighborhood a widow. / I don’t wanna lose the scent from your pillow”), while “You Don’t Gotta Beat Yourself Up About It” opens with the haunting line, “I don’t wanna be forgotten.” These songs deal with the emerging anxiety of mortality and conformity from the perspective of someone approaching his 50s. 

In our conversation, I was curious to know how his time in quarantine influenced not only Middling Age but also Kasher’s understanding of himself as a songwriter. Although he wouldn’t necessarily agree, Middling Age might be remembered as his pandemic album, one that captures the stillness of quarantine in addition to the introspection so emblematic of Kasher’s catalog. It also didn’t hurt that he recently debuted the album in the most pandemic way possible: on a livestream from his Los Angeles apartment. Pandemic album or not, Middling Age is a highlight of Kasher’s prolific career.

Author photo by Erica Lauren.

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JUSTIN GAUTREAU: Lets dive right in. How did you spend your quarantine?

TIM KASHER: I spent it the way I spend most of my time off, by working on various projects. I will offer that due to the excess amount of time available, I did venture into some projects that were a bit more unique than merely writing the “next record.” I wrote a large batch of songs that became the seed for my Patreon page, “Tim Kasher’s home phone,” and did some score work for a couple screenplays that have yet to receive proper funding. In short, I stayed busy fiddling around with all my favorite things to do.

Many people might not know this, but your writing extends far beyond music. In fact, you have drafts of scripts for movies and TV, which sometimes have thematic parallels with your contemporaneous albums. Did quarantine allow you to explore one of these avenues of writing, or even a new one altogether?

Yep, I also wrote more screenplays, a practice I’ve enjoyed doing for over 15 years now. I also started a few different novels, haha, though I struggle to ever properly finish one (I’ve started and set aside novel ideas for 15-plus years as well, haha). If I could just get the first one finished, I’m sure I’d be off to the races, filling my proverbial shelves with novels no one cares to read!

You’ve recently started a Patreon page, where you post (among other things) reimagined versions of older songs. Did the pandemic affect your relationship with your past body of music? How?

I can’t say a new relationship was sparked with my older material … well, okay, I suppose that’s not entirely true: with the excess amount of time spent wandering the streets listening to music, I was able to turn to some of my older records I hadn’t visited in years. All that free time allowed me to find space for checking out my own work, something I’ve always urged myself to do, but have rarely found time for. But I can’t say I developed any new relationship with the material more than simply checking it out. I revisit older material on the home phone Patreon site as a bit of “fan service”: that familiarity seems to be more inviting to listeners.

How did the pandemic affect your relationship with fans?

Hmmm, not sure that it did, haha. If anything, it may have alienated me from listeners, as I wasn’t able to stop into their respective towns to say hello. Not to fixate on this Patreon thing, but the lockdown did turn me toward that project, which in turn opened up a new line of communication with listeners. So, I guess there’s that.

You’ve been working on a new solo album, Middling Age, some of which you’ve shared on your Patreon page. What can listeners expect?

I have! I had already written most of it prior to the pandemic, but was able to continue working and tweaking it over the course of the pandemic, as I wasn’t eager to release it at a time when there was no touring on the horizon. As for what to expect, hmmm … I had set out to finally make that “intimate, stripped-down acoustic album” and got it about half-right. It’s far too tempting to me to adorn a song I love with additional arrangement. But there are at least a few stripped-down songs on there, and as for the others, I managed to not burden them too much with extra bells and whistles.

In what ways did the quarantine/pandemic play a role in these new songs?

There are at least a couple songs on the new album, “100 Ways to Paint a Bowl of Limes” and “Forever of the Living Dead,” that were written during the actual pandemic, so those reflect a feeling of isolation and stagnancy. And they both feel like pandemic songs to me.

Each of your albums tell a story. What new story would you say you’re telling with Middling Age?

Some of the album is revisiting older ideas on religion and relationships but from a (hopefully) new perspective as I’ve grown older, much to my dismay. But what stands out the most to me is the anxiety of giving oneself completely to a relationship with another, always with that ticking clock of mortality looming.

What was the recording process like for this album? Did the pandemic bring about any challenges on that front?

I inadvertently saved some money, as no one booked any studio time for this record. I didn’t know if any studios were even open; I assume many were, but it was all hush hush. Certainly not something one should advertise during a pandemic. As a result, I was unable to rehearse with anyone, which often ushers in new ideas. Wasn’t able to do that, this time around.

I understand you went on a few reading tangents during quarantine. What were you reading? Did any of those books impact your upcoming album or other creative outputs?

I dipped into a couple genre styles, finding an interest in sci-fi with Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler, as well as the Dune series. I also discovered how much I enjoy a good page-turner thriller such as Patricia Highsmith or The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Other than that, I got into Patrick deWitt, Colson Whitehead, and Iain Reid, who also happens to be sci-fi, haha. Did they influence my own work? Absolutely! Everything I consume certainly must be regurgitated in some fashion, though I rarely recognize just how.

Photo by Erica Lauren.

Your lyrics sometimes reference specific landscapes, including your hometown of Omaha. You live in Los Angeles now, and in Middling Age you make at least two specific references to the Los Angeles landscape, so I’m sure readers of LARB would be curious to know: how did a pandemic-ridden Los Angeles factor into your writing?

Hmmm … again, I’m not sure I could express the “how,” but I am a staunch believer that environment plays a big role in one’s work. I can offer that standing in the middle of the street on Melrose or Beverly at noon had a chilling effect on my psyche, and likely led me to read the Oryx and Crake series, as well as The Parable of the Sower (seems like many people turned to Parable of the Sower over the pandemic!). Aside from the pandemic, I do find that living in such a metropolis as L.A. worms itself into some of my writing, as I can’t help but be in awe of the grand excess of the entertainment industry and the dark underbelly that comes with such excess. I also reread Day of the Locust over the pandemic, haha.

You’re in the middle of a tour with Cursive at the moment, so it’s worth asking: how has performing live changed in the age of COVID, both for you and the audience?

It’s currently a bit different at the moment, what with masking and vaccination cards, but much of the energy still seems to be present. I’m of the opinion everything will return to some semblance of normalcy sometime soon, but as we creep into a third year, well … I guess I can’t say just how soon that may be.

Given that many your past albums are structured around a narrative thread (sometimes described as a concept album), you might be the best person to ask: what does the “great pandemic album” look like in your view?

I’m not entirely sure there is such a thing. Many of us became fascinated with the pandemic of 1918, noticing how such a major global occurrence became not much more than a footnote in our historical timeline. As odd as it may seem at the current moment, I wonder if this pandemic will be swept under our historical rug as well.

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Tim Kasher’s Middling Age is out now on 15 Passenger Records. He will begin touring this May with Laura Jane Grace and Anthony Green on The Carousel Tour.

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Justin Gautreau is lecturer for the Merritt Writing Program at the University of California, Merced, where he also teaches classes in film. His book The Last Word: The Hollywood Novel and the Studio System was published by Oxford University Press in 2020, and his work has also appeared in Genre and Adaptation.

 

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