Bottom-bound Cursive tweaks alt-rock formula

Hailing from Omaha, NE, Cursive is known for its use of unusual and distinctive instruments. We talked to Cursive guitarist Matt Maginn about Omaha and Bright Eyes.

By Hayley Lamberson

When people think of musically influential cities, Omaha, NE probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Yet within the past decade, this midwestern metropolis has been churning out some of alternative music’s most popular acts, most notably Bright Eyes and, more importantly, Cursive, which will be performing at the Bottom Lounge tomorrow. Known for its use of unusual and distinctive instruments in their music, such as a cello in 2003’s The Ugly Organ and horns in 2006’s Happy Hollow, the band isn’t afraid of experimentation, changing their sound from album to album. Their newest project, Mama, I’m Swollen, is no different. The album hearkens back to earlier records with traditional guitars, bass, and drums, but uses subtle electronic effects to create a new, slightly conventional style for the band. I called Cursive’s guitarist Matt Maginn to talk about their diverse sound, working with Bright Eyes, and what, exactly, is so great about Omaha.

Chicago Maroon: So let’s talk about the evolution of Cursive. One thing that I find so interesting about you guys is that all of your albums, especially The Ugly Organ, Happy Hollow, and now Mama, I’m Swollen, are all so different from one another. So do you think experimentation is an important part of Cursive?

Matt Maginn: It’s essential. I mean, I think that’s the whole point really. I never understood making a new record that sounds like the last; there’s no need to do it again. It’s not like what you’re supposed to do as a business model, though.

CM: Despite all of these differences in sound, what would you say is the “essential” Cursive, the core of your sound that doesn’t change from album to album?

MM: I think as much as we do mix it up, I do think there is a certain style. After we had done three records, we consciously decided that no matter what direction we would take the music, it is still going to sound somewhat familiar. [The albums] do sound different, but if you put them in a mix, it would sound like the same band. I think that the fact that we all play together makes it sound like the same band; writing style and playing together sounds the same.

CM: Happy Hollow had a pretty distinct narrative, with its 14 “hymns for heathens.” Would you say there’s a narrative for Mama, I’m Swollen?

MM: It’s not necessarily mapped out. The only one that’s been that mapped out really was Happy Hollow. This one has a more universal theme based around oneself, more personal stuff.

CM: Your Wikipedia page tells me you’ve also played with Bright Eyes a number of times. What’s that like compared to playing with Cursive?

MM: It’s just a different style. I haven’t done it in a few years now, but it’s a lot of fun. Conor Oberst and I have been friends for a long time. I love his writing especially. As a bass player with Cursive, there’s a lot of odd timings and lots of stuff with the drummer. With Bright Eyes it’s different…I don’t know, it’s a little more folk, a more meandering style of bass playing.

CM: You’ve known Conor Oberst for quite some time, right? Has he ever helped you guys or contributed to your music?

MM: He sang on a song on our first record back in like ’97. His picture was on our first 7-inch, but, no, we haven’t done anything collaboratively.

CM: Any plans to?

MM: No, not really. I mean, not as far as between bands. I guess maybe something for fun, but nothing official.

CM: I’ve always been curious as to why, exactly, so much music has been coming out of Omaha with Saddle Creek Records. I’ve never been, but it doesn’t seem like a place that would have such an influence on music as it has. So tell me, what’s so great about Omaha?

MM: I think it’s just been a very cooperative and supportive network of musicians in the town. You kind of work well together and push each other to work well and better and harder. You hold each other accountable for your writing, and, when your writing something for your band, you’re wondering if your friends will dig it. It’s a positive musical culture.

CM: So nothing great about Omaha itself?

MM: I think it’s just the people. I don’t think they’re anything special in Omaha.

CM: Can you tell me a little bit about this mysterious Cornbread Compton guy that played drums with you guys for awhile? Your MySpace page says he won’t be touring with you, and I couldn’t find much other information about him.

MM: He was in a band called Engine Down. He has a job now that requires him to stay back home, and he couldn’t be gone for the long time we’ll be gone. He’s a commercial composer. He works for a collaborative called Black Iris, who are some more friends of ours that do some cool stuff.