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
a Little Help from His Friends
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: September 4, 2002
w/M Ward, The Bruces
Tuesday, Sept. 10
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.
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.
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
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."
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."
who gets hung up on if a song applies to my life or is something
I created has missed the point."
the biggest thing when you take on a project with 30 musicians
-- you have to be willing to listen to other opinions."
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
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
"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
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."
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.'"
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."
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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.
made this record enormous, and just once we wanted to present
it as it should be."