While the entire city of New York sweats and strains under the veil of an Indian summer, Tim Kasher and the rest of the Good Life arrive at the Bowery Ballroom completely dry and oddly unremarkable. These are normal guys. The knowledge that, in a few hours, they will become the kind of emotive, visceral live band that doesn’t mind letting a member of the audience come up and destroy their neon sign doesn’t make this information any easier to reconcile. They load their own gear into the venue, and while Kasher answers questions, Ryan Fox restrings his own guitar.
These are normal guys.
With the lack of pretense and fanfare surrounding them, it’s not hard to see how Kasher (who is still also at the helm of Cursive) writes such convincing songs or why there might be a question as to how autobiographical his lyrics are. The most recent Good Life album, Help Wanted Nights, released in September on Saddle Creek, is based on a screenplay that revolves around a man whose car breaks down in a small town; he’s marooned with the locals for a few weeks as he observes their lives and the life of a small-town bar. Given the amount of lyrical space Kasher has devoted to stories about being stuck in a small town, it’s impossible not to imagine where the inspiration came from for his screenplay.
“I think it’s just a matter of wanting to continue to blur those lines, which I think writers should do,” says Kasher. “Unless you want to come out and say. ‘I’m writing memoirs,’ or, ‘I’m writing a diary of my last year.’ I think everything I’ve written is fiction, in the sense that it’s an account of my experiences but with the freedom to embellish.”
“For any of us — as for books we read or whatever medium we’re talking about — it gets into that murky, troublesome area where you worry, ‘Well, did so-and-so really plummet the depths of ruin or are they just acting like they did?’ That’s where trusting in your writer comes into play. I’m only bringing it up because I’ve talked about it so much. You know, people tend to be so concerned with authenticity. I don’t worry about authenticity, because I find it distasteful to write an account that sounded kind of vaguely like me about how I won a wheelchair race in Cambodia or something. I did win a wheelchair race in Cambodia, but I haven’t written that yet.”
Like his Saddle Creek compatriot Conor Oberst, Kasher has recently moved out of Omaha — Oberst to New York, Kasher to Los Angeles — and it may be that his new locale has put the question of authenticity into his head. His interest in writing screenplays, he says, predates the move. “It’s something I’ve been wanting to do forever,” he says. “If I wasn’t doing that, I was writing songs. I was trying to get as much narration out of songs as I could. But with every record, you just feel the confines of it. It’s great, now, writing things narratively that are more complete, because it makes the songwriting less frustrating.”
Kasher has been weaving narrative threads through entire albums for years now, most recently with Cursive’s Happy Hollow (2006, Saddle Creek), so his new avocation hardly comes as a shock. Whether the songs on Help Wanted Nights will ever be tied to the eventual film by anything more than a shared title is still unknown. “If it works out that [the songs] are the soundtrack to said film, then that would be great. I think they would complement the screenplay well, in my opinion,” says Kasher, although he is demure about it. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that they were written in that Randy Newman sense of, ‘There’s a screenplay you’ve got to write some songs for and write a jingle, something snappy to Help Wanted Nights.’ It’s also just our fourth album.”
Help Wanted Nights fits in perfectly with the Good Life’s oeuvre by not fitting in with the other three, although Kasher thinks this album is the most stylistically similar to Album of the Year (2004, Saddle Creek). “We found a comfortable niche with the four of us,” Kasher says. “So I think we just expanded on that with this record.” The only difference is that the new album has less of the straight rock structure to its songs and is less reliant on the standard pop-hook chorus.
“I’ve gotten more into experimenting with the pop simplicity of a refrain and finding that one line that you really like — that being, ‘I know your heart is breaking, too’ — and kind of keeping everything very compact, centered around that,” he says.
This seems like a key difference between Kasher’s two bands: Whereas Cursive evolves its sound, building on what it’s done before, the Good Life treats style and structure like names on a speed-dating card. “I’ve always felt that there’s been more freedom with the Good Life as far as avoiding genres. It seems like Cursive’s always been scratching and clawing its way out of a genre ever since it started. We’re just always trying to find a way to be genre-less, but it’s difficult when we started somewhere. But with the Good Life, I don’t feel like we necessarily started anywhere specific, and so we feel pretty comfortable about playing a hard-rock song or playing a [laughs] soft-rock song.”
The result is that both bands are incredibly effective in completely different ways, a distinction that Kasher himself may qualify for should Help Wanted Nights — the screenplay — turn into a film. “I’m working quite a bit on trying to get the screenplay made. That’s something that I’m really pushing,” he says. “I’ve told so many people now that it’s being worked on that I feel that I need to make it a reality, because I don’t want to be sitting here doing Cursive press in a year and a half, telling everybody that it didn’t work out.”