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On the verge of becoming a superstar, Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst talks about his breakthrough CD, his ambitious tour, his other band and how he pulls it all together…

With a Little Help from His Friends

 
story by tim mcmahan


 

 

 

Lazy-i: September 4, 2002

 

Bright Eyes
w/M Ward, The Bruces
Tuesday, Sept. 10
Rococo Theater

Lincoln, NE
8:30 p.m.

$10, 18+

 

 
Lazy-i Exclusive:
Click here to read the stuff that didn't make it into story. What's Oberst listening to? The Sony publishing rights deal two years later, and sizing up Omaha.
 

 
Want more Conor? Check out the Dec. 3, 1998, Lazy-I interview and the May 2000 interview.  

Sitting across the table at a midtown coffee shop is a jittery Conor Oberst with his perfectly mussed jet-black mop, black button-up shirt and rust-colored cords. The genius singer/songwriter behind America's newest breakthrough music act, Bright Eyes, stirs his coffee and waits anxiously for the next question.

Oberst looks worried.

Could it be the tension of the upcoming tour? In less than a month, he hits the road to support his just-released CD, the blithely named Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. But this time, instead of riding crammed in a van filled with equipment and three or four band mates, Oberst will travel with a circus of 19 on a tour that will last six weeks.

"We're taking a 14-piece band, but there will be 20 of us total," he said with a look of concern on his elfish face. "Something like 13 will be in a bus and the rest will ride in my van. This tour by far is an anomaly."

Maybe it's the strain of the road reflecting in Oberst's eyes. Life is starting to become a never ending tour. He just got back from being out with his other band, the edgy, punk-fueled five-piece, Desaparecidos. Now with a precious month off, he's desperately trying to catch up with the friends and family that he says goodbye to all too often.

"I've been spending time hanging out with people mostly, and working on music," he said. "It's been a while since I had more than a month off. Touring gets tiring; it starts to take its toll on you. Then you're home, and it's easy to get bored again."

Or maybe his newfound success has him flummoxed. Out for just two weeks, Lifted already has sold more than 13,000 copies, landing it on the Billboard Top 200 and in the College Music Journal top 10 -- two firsts not only for Bright Eyes, but for fledgling Omaha indie label, Saddle Creek Records. The release was propelled by a 4-star review in Rolling Stone and an 8-out-of-10 rating in SPIN -- territory frequented by major-label superstars, not by some guy who's spent a good part of the last decade singing in front of small crowds in smoke-filled clubs and coffee shops. Will the independent label the he helped create be able to keep up?

"We'll just keep doing what we do," Oberst explains. "Every time, it just gets a little easier, but at the same time, it gets harder in a different way. There's a larger audience, I suppose, and consequently, the way we do Saddle Creek has to keep growing and changing to keep up with the bands. I think it's a positive thing, though."

 

 

 

If there's one thing Oberst isn't worried about, it's his music. Over a year in the making and clocking in at over 73 minutes, Lifted is easily the most ambitious CD that he's ever produced. The recording effortlessly crosses the threshold between folk and rock, indie and pop, and poetry and prose. It is both a journal of stark reflection and an honest comment on the world Oberst feels powerless to change.

Like his last LP, Fevers and Mirrors, the CD opens with a found-noise montage of sorts -- the sounds of people driving in a car, listening to their radio when out of the speaker comes Oberst and his guitar in an audio AM crackle. Before long, one of the passengers (played by Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley) begins to subconsciously sing along, and before you know it, the mono changes to stereo and like the rest of the passengers, we all go along for the ride. For the next hour, we hear stories of death and renewal, love and betrayal, comfort and need, self-awareness and self-questioning, melancholy and longing, and strangely enough, faith and hope.

Over the years, Oberst has earned a reputation for being a self-loathing weeper, a somber sad-sack born with his broken heart firmly sewn on his sleeve. He's been publicly baring his sorrow since his painful teen years as the front-boy for his first band, Commander Venus, all the way through the three full-lengths and two EPs he's performed as Bright Eyes. There's still plenty to cry about on Lifted, but through it all, there is a thread of understanding and hope, and maybe a bit of acceptance, whether he's celebrating the broken lives of those around him in "Waste of Paint" or healing a broken doctor by holding his hand in "Bowl of Oranges." Oberst is no longer satisfied with wallowing. Instead he wants answers, and he wants them now.

He says he didn't go out of his way to write more-positive songs. "There was no premeditation," he said. "I just started writing songs and they weren't like the old ones. It's nothing I thought about ahead of time, it just ended up not being so dark. I still think there are some sad moments on the record."

While some of the characters who inhabit Lifted are based on real people (the artist with an inferiority complex in "Waste of Paint," for example), Oberst said he continues to render his world based on archetypes. "I try to use whatever tools possible to convey whatever you want to call the truth of the song," he said. "I'm willing to draw from my own life, or craft something to achieve something that's real at the end of the song. That's just what writing is. Anyone who gets hung up on if a song applies to my life or is something I created has missed the point."


 

LIfted CD


"Anyone who gets hung up on if a song applies to my life or is something I created has missed the point."


 

 


"That's the biggest thing when you take on a project with 30 musicians -- you have to be willing to listen to other opinions."


 

The new lyrical direction complements the CD's ambitious new sound. The arty guy who used to only find beauty in hissy, "low-fi" basement tapes incorporates full-scale choirs, horns and strings, and sophisticated studio techniques on Lifted, creating much denser, detailed compositions unlike anything he's ever done before. The word "lush" comes to mind, surrounding traditional melodies spoken in a language firmly rooted in folk combined with dollops of rock, twang and high drama.

Prolific both in his writing and in the studio, Lifted comes two years after Fevers and Mirrors. "Normally it's a lot quicker turnaround," Oberst said. "After Fevers came out, we toured for a year straight. After that, I was sort of done with the whole thing for a while."

Oberst finally re-entered Presto! Studios in Lincoln in December 2001, spending two months with engineers Andy LeMaster and Mike Mogis, who also worked behind the scenes on Fevers. Oberst said Lifted was meant to be a "big" CD from the get-go. "It's the most enormous production I've worked on as far as arrangement and scope," he said. "I demoed the record twice. I recorded the songs once in Athens and then did a demo here and each time fleshed out the songs a little more and kind of came up with the parts I thought would be good. Both Andy and Mike took my ideas and ran with them."

Over the years, Mike Mogis has earned a reputation for being the ultimate studio wizard who can fill in on almost any instrument at the drop of a hat. Ask any band that's worked with him, and they'll tell you Mogis' input both in the studio or during the mixing process played a big part in making their records better than they ever dreamed they could be. Oberst couldn't agree more.

"Certainly he is a part of making the vision a reality," he said. "He's really good at recording bands and putting stuff together in a mix to give it clarity. There are certain things he does later in recording process to fix mistakes, that's for sure."

The intricate arrangements on songs like the CD's epic closer, "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to be Loved)" were mostly a team effort, Oberst said, put together when the performers were all in the studio. "The parts were originally recorded on keyboards. I can't write a score. I don't have the musical terms down, and, at times, it became hard for the musicians to understand me. I ended up playing them the demo and sometimes writing out the notes. If they think it can be done better, they're not afraid to say something. That's the biggest thing when you take on a project with 30 musicians -- you have to be willing to listen to other opinions."

But if there's one constant to Bright Eyes beyond Oberst, it's Mogis, who Oberst says is the only real collaborator for his music. "Letting Off the Happiness is the first thing Mike recorded without A.J. (Mike's brother and partner in Presto! Studios). We've sort of grown up together. He's become a really amazing producer in my mind. Our relationship is built on the fact that we learned how to play together, and everything is fair game. I can give my opinions about what microphone we should use and where it should be in the room, and he'll comment about a lyric. He's just one of my best friends and the only guy I consider a genius."


 

  Not only does Mogis travel as part of Bright Eyes, but he also runs the sound when Oberst tours with Desaparecidos. Considered by many at the time of its conception to be a mere diversion for Oberst between Bright Eyes tours, Desaparecidos has come into its own over the past year with a successful LP, Read Music, Speak Spanish, that caught the attention of the national music press and MTV, and snagged the band an opening spot on Jimmy Eat World's recent U.S. tour.

For Oberst, the benefits of being in Desaparecidos go beyond the hoopla. "That band has done a lot for Bright Eyes in the sense that after leaving the studio with those guys I felt totally refreshed," he said. The cleansing comes thanks to a sound that's purposely more rock and pop (as well as politically charged) than Bright Eyes' folky confessions.

"We make an effort to make it different than Bright Eyes. I always want it to be real upbeat and catchy as hell, and loud and angry. That's how I prefer my rock music."

Though seemingly on the verge of breaking through to a larger audience, Desaparecidos will now be firmly placed on the back-burner for the remainder of the year as Bright Eyes tours the US and Europe. Unlike Bright Eyes, which consists of a rotating line-up of players centered around Oberst, Desaparecidos is a true band with a solid, faithful lineup Oberst hopes the forced shut-down doesn't cause resentment.

"I don't want them to feel like I'm abandoning them," he said, "but they knew going into this that there wouldn't be any continuity. We're all on the same page, as far as I know. I really enjoy playing in that band, but there are only so many places I can be at once, and Bright Eyes is something that is necessary for me as a person to do. They know that. We tried to support the record as much as we could."

In fact, for the first time Oberst might even hear requests for Desaparecidos songs while on tour as Bright Eyes, a possibility that pleases him. "I think it would be funny to hear someone yell a Desa request," he said. "Before the Desa record came out, the people who showed up for those shows were only there because of Bright Eyes, and I think a lot of them were surprised at what they heard.

"I worry about the other guys' feelings when we roll up to a club and see 'Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes' printed on the posters in letters just as big as 'Desaparecidos.' It's a bummer, but that's the way it's set up. Promoters want kids to come to shows. Our booking agent got us into better clubs based on the touring history of the other band. We were already going on sweet tours before the record was even released."



 
"I worry about the other guys' feelings when we roll up to a club and see 'Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes' printed on the posters in letters just as big as 'Desaparecidos.'"
 

 

Oberst


 
"There's more of a barrier between us and the audience. I want to make relationships with people, but I don't even have time to be good friends with my actual friends."
 

 

Once it was out, though, the media immediately embraced the band, including in a Time Magazine article on the Omaha scene that featured a photo of Desaparecidos.

But almost over night, the press has shifted its gaze back to Bright Eyes. "Ambition I have found can lead only to failure / I do not read the reviews." Oberst snarls on the CD's closing track. "No, I am not singing for you."

A ballsy sentiment, but when copies of Rolling Stone and Magnet were dropped in front of him, Oberst admitted that he, in fact, had already read the Rolling Stone review, which called Lifted "a seventy-five minute opus loaded with musical energy and poetic pretensions, all hooked around Oberst's callow, disheveled voice." He hadn't, however, read the Magnet review, which called Lifted "Just more country-tinged ballads, lucid melancholia and indie-folk temper tantrums."

"Negative reviews are my favorite," he said, grabbing the copy of Magnet and scanning the review, afterward saying he didn't quite understand what the writer was trying to say. For Oberst, the press is just another part of the business.

"It's one of those things where it's a necessary evil to do what we want to do," he said, adding that he finds interviews to be a drag. "I prefer to express myself through my music. Either you like it or don't like it; there's not a whole lot to talk about. But it doesn't work that way. It's something we need to do to get the music in the hands of the people who are going to like it."

As for being in Rolling Stone: "It's cool. But for as many people who say that it's great, there are more who will say that it sucks. There will be a backlash from the indie population about any mainstream success. I don't worry about the indie population. Anyone who's going to stop liking your band because of the fact that others like you or because you're covered in the press or MTV are probably not into music for the right reason. It's probably better to shed those supporters anyway."

Probably the most dedicated portion of his fans are the ones who so closely identify with his stories -- the young girls at shows, eyes filled with tears, eager to share in Oberst's pain. "I don't know what to say about that," he says. "I'm glad that they made a connection with the music and want to feel empathy, but at the same time…" He doesn't finish the sentence, and the discussion quickly turns to the responsibilities and expectations that come with popularity, like personally acknowledging the fans that have been going to Bright Eyes shows since the beginning.

"It gets hard," Oberst said. "You feel like an asshole for forgetting people over time. For the most part, everyone understands. It was way easier in the past. You could roll into a town and play for 100 kids and ask for a place to stay and get taken to someone's house and party. Now it's not like that. There's more of a barrier between us and the audience. I want to make relationships with people, but I don't even have time to be good friends with my actual friends. I've learned to read people pretty quickly and escape if it's going to be a real awkward situation."

 
 

 

Now at least he'll have more people to share the unwanted attention with. The tour officially kicks off Sept. 10 at the Rococo Theater in Lincoln. The plans originally called for a CD release show in Omaha at one of the city's more prestigious theaters, but they fell through. Why attempt something as ambitious as a 14-person touring band?

"We made this record enormous, and just once we wanted to present it as it should be," Oberst said. "The musicians are coming in from out of town and we'll have three weeks of rehearsals before we leave." Also along for the ride are two California-based documentary filmmakers who are putting together a movie of the tour.

Oberst isn't handling the logistics by himself. Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring is lending a hand, and the band has hired a tour manager -- Bill Sullivan, owner of The 400 Bar in Minneapolis who was tour manager for, among others, The Replacements.

"He's a big supporter of Saddle Creek," Oberst said. "He hasn't done a tour in six years, but he's coming out of retirement for this. We've had tour managers on our European tours, but we've always handled national tours ourselves. There are times when you have to hire help."

After the Bright Eyes rolling orchestra finishes its six-week tour, Oberst will get a week off before setting out for Europe for five weeks with Azure Ray and The Good Life. Europe is such a hot market for Saddle Creek these days that label operator Robb Nansel spent that last part of August and early September in London setting up the Saddle Creek Europe offices.

Last year when The Faint was interviewed upon the release of their latest CD, Danse Macabre, it was suggested that they could topple Bright Eyes as the label's top seller. The crew merely laughed, but a year later, after opening for No Doubt on their US tour, The Faint clearly held the pole position at Saddle Creek. Now with the advent of Lifted, the pecking order will likely change again.

"Everyone from the songwriters to the label guys to Mike and A.J. are getting better at what they do," Oberst said. "The collective cause is part of the reason we're making better records than ever. The recordings are better, and from a business standpoint, we know how to handle ourselves better and have sort of graduated into becoming one of the few medium-sized indie labels in the world."

And that's certainly nothing worth worrying about.


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Originally published in The Omaha Weekly Sept. 4, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photographs by Ryan Fox. Bright Eyes CDs available from the Saddle Creek Web site.


 
"We made this record enormous, and just once we wanted to present it as it should be."