Eyes: Wide Awake in Omaha
story by tim mcmahan
Lazy-i: Jan. 12, 2005
w/Coco Rosie, Tilly and the Wall
Jan. 14, 8p.m.
13th & Martha
Want more Bright Eyes? Check out these historic Lazy-i
interviews with Conor Oberst:
Conor Oberst's publicist made it very clear in the
e-mail: There would be no face-to-face interviews with Mr. Oberst.
Not this time. Are you still interested in talking to him?
Message: You need him more than he needs
you. His Jan. 14 show at Sokol Auditorium is already sold out and
has been for weeks. And this isn't the same Conor Oberst that you
interviewed six years ago.
back in 1998, took place in a semi-rundown apartment somewhere around
38th and Farnam where Oberst lived with a handful of musicians his
age, including then-Bright Eyes band member Joe Knapp (Son, Ambulance).
Between sips of soda, a wide-eyed Oberst talked about his early
days, when at age 13 he had been called on stage at local watering
hole Kilgore's by Omaha music forefathers Ted Stevens, Bill Hoover
and Tim Kasher to play a few songs. That was before he made his
first waves nationally fronting the short-lived emo-core band Commander
Venus. In '98, Bright Eyes' album Letting Off the Happiness
had peaked at No. 105 on the College Music Journal (CMJ)
charts -- a respectable achievement for an Omaha band -- and Oberst
was still satisfied if 50 people showed up to see him play at Sokol
Underground. "All's I want is to make enough money to live
- which is having an apartment and a shitty car," he'd said
of his music aspirations. "I don't need a house, but it would
Two years later,
I interviewed Oberst while he reclined with a glass of wine on the
back balcony of his parent's mid-town home. He'd just returned from
Japan where he'd been treated like a young Elvis, doing in-stores
and interviews in support of Fevers and Mirrors, a CD that
would chart in the CMJ top-20.
By 2002, the star
machine was in full motion, but Oberst still had time to meet over
coffee at Caffeine Dreams. Jittery but lucid, he talked for almost
two hours about the making of Lifted or The Story is in the Soil,
Keep Your Ear to the Ground, and the tour that would involve
driving around the country with 13 musicians and six crewmen in
two vans. Lifted ended up being his breakthrough release,
selling more than 100,000 copies by the end of 2003 and landing
him on David Letterman and in the pages of every major music publication.
Now at the close of 2004, Oberst no longer has an appetite for
face-to-face interviews, at least not with the "local"
press regardless of being in town for the holidays. After tracking
down his number (his publicist had sent out the wrong one), we finally
got down to our "phoner." The first question: Why no more
face-to-face interviews with the "local" press?
"I've done so many over the last two months," he said
after a brief pause. "It's a full-time job. I just got done
doing interviews eight hours a day for two weeks in New York. I
did the same thing in Europe for two weeks."
So you're burned out?
"Yeah, you could say that. On one hand, it's been overwhelming,
but I brought it upon myself just to get it out of the way so I
won't have to do them next year when I'm on tour."
The Politics of Oberst
I tell him that it doesn't matter.
I remember what he looks like. Anyone who lives around Dundee is
bound to run into him during the holidays, either down at The Homy
Inn or in a restaurant. Though he's approaching his mid-20s, he
hasn't changed much since our first interview (though he no longer
wears nerd glasses).
But in spite of owning a house in mid-town, Oberst spends much
less time in Omaha these days. He began renting an apartment in
Manhattan in May 2003 after spending months in New York living with
friend, business partner and former Sony Music Publishing VP Nate
Krenkel. "Somewhere along the way I decided it would be a good
idea to get a place of my own there," he said.
So he made the move, which didn't surprise anyone who knew Oberst
and his aspirations and ideology. New York is a bigger fishbowl
of talent than Omaha. It also sports a much more liberal political
"If anything bums me when I come back here, it's being in
the minority politically," he said. "It's just a strange
dynamic. I live here and I understand the way people think, but
even in that context, I can't believe people can think that way."
Oberst's political views took center stage in '04 when Bright Eyes
was asked to take part in the Vote for Change tour. Organized by
political action group moveon.org, the get-out-the-vote concert
series featured superstar acts performing in critical swing states
with the goal of unseating George W. Bush from office.
"Michael Stipe had asked us to be involved. At some point
they combined Springsteen with R.E.M.," Oberst said. "It
was amazing playing with people I admire and listened to growing
up and being involved in something that transcended entertainment.
Even though it didn't turn out the way we wanted it, I don't regret
Springsteen, he said, went out of his way to make the bands feel
as comfortable as possible, even giving a pep talk before the first
show and coming back stage afterward to say how well everyone had
done. "The first night was crazy," Oberst said. "I've
played in front of audiences that big before, but it was a lot different
playing to a crowd that was mostly there to see him. But after a
couple nights of it, I realized it's only as weird as you want to
make it. It's just people singing songs and the mystique surrounding
the people who have been doing it for a long time."
While the concerts took on an almost historic flavor and gave Oberst
a chance to call Bush a "madman" in front of thousands
of people, at the end of the day the madman got re-elected. Oberst
sounds like he's still reeling over the election's outcome.
"The day after, I went through a gauntlet of emotions -- from
disbelief to wanting to wake up to that feeling of hopelessness,
fear and anger," he said. "The immediate temptation was
to run and hide or to move to Canada or Europe, but that would be
wrong. It's more important to get smarter and louder and more active,
and really try to help people understand that half the people out
there feel the way I do about it.
"I don't see this working that much longer, this sort of spell
the current administration has cast," he added. "It will
take time, but it'll change. People will realize it when the jobs
that are lost don't come back, and when more neighbor kids go off
to war and don't come back. I have to believe that people here (in
Omaha) understand the value of logic and peace and life over money."
Despite his passionate words, Oberst kept a fairly low profile
throughout the Vote for Change publicity circus. He didn't even
take part in the Rolling Stone photo shoot that featured
most of the Vote for Change performers. How could he pass on an
opportunity to be on the cover of Rolling Stone? "I
was recording in Lincoln," he said. "I would have had
to fly back to New York to get my picture taken. If I didn't have
anything going on, I would have done it. We finished mastering Digital
Ash the day before we went out on that tour."
don't see this working that much longer, this sort of spell
the current administration has cast. People will realize it
when the jobs that are lost don't come back, and when more
neighbor kids go off to war and don't come back."
| || |
through my head was that I was hearing her voice right from
her mouth, singing my words. It was pretty overwhelming. I
had to kind of excuse myself and take a breath."
Acoustic Vs. Digital
Surrounded by the election turmoil,
Oberst spent much of last year working on the first Bright Eyes
full-length releases since 2002's Lifted. I'm Wide Awake,
It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn -- two
distinctly different sounding records -- are slated for release
simultaneously on Jan. 25.
I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is a more traditional Bright
Eyes album featuring Oberst and a slew of musicians centered around
multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis -- the only consistent
member of Bright Eyes other than Oberst. The album is filled with
laid-back, almost countrified personal folk tunes done up on acoustic
instruments -- it's a style that's defined Bright Eyes since the
days of Letting Off the Happiness -- the stuff that gets
him compared to Dylan, whether he likes it or not.
Wide Awake is arguably Oberst's strongest collection of
songs to date -- pure, perfect melodies merged with lonely ideas
sung in his ever-cringing voice. Standout tune "Lua" is
classic Oberst -- his voice and guitar capture a musical snapshot
of what must be his everyday life in NYC, right down to the flask
in his pocket that he shares on the train with one of his many emotionally
fractured companions. "First Day of My Life" is a lilting
acoustic love song, where our hero rasps upbeat lines like "Besides
maybe this time is different / I mean I really think you like me."
After a spoken monologue done Woody Allen-style, "At the Bottom
of Everything" cranks into full hoe-down mode driven by Oberst's
shuffling guitar. The quiet "Poison Oak" builds like an
anthem, and recalls Jackson Browne in his heyday (with Mogis as
Oberst's David Lindley).
And then there's the three songs Oberst sings with country music
legend Emmylou Harris, where the duo harmonizes like brother and
sister on stage at the Grand Ol' Opry. "We had recorded those
songs and sent them to her," Oberst said. "A couple months
passed and she got back to us and said she liked them. Mike and
I flew to Nashville in April and spent a day in the studio recording
the parts. She's just amazing."
Oberst admits to being a bit star struck during the sessions. "It
was a little overwhelming, kind of disarming," he said. "She
goes out of the way to make you not feel intimidated. I was sitting
on the couch listening to playback and she was talking to me, and
then she started singing. Going through my head was that I was hearing
her voice right from her mouth, singing my words. It was pretty
overwhelming. I had to kind of excuse myself and take a breath."
Then there's the second full-length, Digital Ash in a Digital
Urn. And digital it is. The beats aren't drums, they're sampled
explosions. The instruments are keyboard-fueled electronic tones,
hollow and cold and floating beneath a layer of chaotic blip-click
noises, throbbing hiss, ticking clocks and other found sounds. At
times, the album comes off as Oberst's version of Ben Gibbard's
"Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" chugs along on top of a
chorus of whip-cracks and pong tones that would make any Casio proud.
"Down a Rabbit Hole" sounds like something off of a Ric
Ocasek solo album, while the electric-guitar driven "Light
Pollution" sounds like a Desaparecidos song with less screaming.
Digital Ash will be called a rhythmic departure for Oberst,
but strip away the electronic doo-dads and add an acoustic guitar
and "Gold Mine Gutted" would fit in just fine on Wide
Awake. The same can be said of the rather straight-forward "Hit
the Switch" and "Theme from Pinata" (but only after
you remove the sound effects on Oberst's voice).
Oberst disagrees. To him, there is absolutely nothing similar about
the two LPs, which goes to the heart of why they weren't released
as a double CD.
"We did the Wide Awake record first, in February. We'd
been playing those songs live for the last couple years," Oberst
explained. "We didn't release it because Mike (Mogis) and I
were more excited about working on this other batch of songs that
were more rhythm based. We could have put out Wide Awake
and not played any shows, but Robb Nansel and Saddle Creek weren't
stoked on that idea. So we just held off."
Oberst said Saddle Creek would have preferred to have the two CDs
packaged together as a double album, "but they are two very
different records in my mind. The only thing they have in common
is the musicians playing on them and that they're coming out on
the same day."
In fact, don't expect to hear any Digital Ash songs on Friday
night. That concert launches a tour that's dedicated solely to Wide
Awake. A joint Faint/Bright Eyes tour will be launched in late
spring specifically in support of Digital Ash, with members
of The Faint acting as Bright Eyes band. Oberst said he still hasn't
figured out how they'll play Digital Ash live.
"I'll let Clark (Baechle, from The Faint) figure it out,"
he said. Oberst will even use The Faint's large multi-media projection
screens for his portion of the show, projecting videos created by
local filmmaker Nik Fackler, who has worked
with The Faint and directed videos for The Good Life and Azure Ray.
||Beyond Bright Eyes
In between all of that, there's Oberst's
other projects, not the least of which is a revival of a band many
thought to be dead -- Desaparecidos. Formed as a side project at the
end of 2000, Desaparecidos (or Desa for short) released one full-length
CD of loud, screaming indie rock before Oberst's busy schedule and
a sudden lack of enthusiasm put the project on hold right before the
band was slated to go on tour.
Now it seems the project is being lifted from its ashes. "We
have some songs written and will record a few," Oberst said.
"It will be hard to get them done because I'll be touring for
six months, but we have a traveling set-up now that allows us to
record on the road fairly easily."
Plans called for recording some Desa tracks while Oberst was in
town prior to Friday night's tour launch, and recording more on
the road and this summer. "We don't want to say we're putting
out a record," he said, "but we're working on it. I miss
playing with those guys and rocking out and screaming. It's not
something I can do all the time, but I do enjoy it."
Then there's Team Love, Oberst's record label launched early last
year with New York pal Nate Krenkel. Their releases already include
debut albums by tap-dancing indie rock sensations Tilly and the
Wall and Martha's Vinyard singer-songwriter Willy
Mason, with plans for future releases by local hip-hop acts
Team Rigge and Mars Black, and a solo project by Rilo Kiley's Jenny
Oberst was one of the founding members of Saddle Creek Records
and continues to be one of the label's most influential partners.
How does Team Love fit into the equation?
"It's in the Saddle Creek family," Oberst said. "Saddle
Creek does all the manufacturing, distribution and mail order, while
Team Love has offices with Nate in New York, where we do promotions,
press and radio and make decisions concerning talent."
Oberst said Team Love afforded him a chance to release music without
having to deal with what appears to be Saddle Creek's bureaucracy.
"Some stuff fell through the cracks with Saddle Creek,"
he said. "It's hard to get everyone on the same page."
For example, nationally recognized singer-songwriter M.
Ward was feted by Saddle Creek to release his last record. "It
wasn't as if anyone at Saddle Creek was opposed to it as much as
things moved so slow. He finally ended up on Merge, which is a great
A similar ordeal played out with Tilly and
the Wall. "I always felt there was something really special
about that band. Not everyone there saw it that way." So far,
Tilly and the Wall's debut has sold more than 7,000 copies. Not
bad for the label's first release.
With that, our phoner had come to an end. Oberst was late for a
holiday family gathering. I had time for one last question: Was
it as much fun as it was back when we first talked in '98, before
New York and Springsteen, before Letterman and the New York Times
and eight hours a day of interviews, back when all he wanted to
do was make enough money to buy a shitty car?
"Yeah it is," Oberst said. "Music is still the main
thing. I feel the best when I'm playing and recording. The rest
of the world just kind of washes away, and I feel good and safe
and happy. That's what I do it for. The rest of it
crazy and sometimes unpleasant; exhilarating and sometimes terrifying.
But that's what living is -- all that stuff at once, and you have
to do the best you can with it."
Originally published in The Omaha Reader January
12, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
"The rest of it
it gets crazy
and sometimes unpleasant; exhilarating and sometimes terrifying."