Eyes: It Is Certain
On Cassadaga, Bright
Eyes' Conor Oberst peers into the Magic 8-ball and finds the answers
in his own back yard.
story by tim
Lazy-i: April 5, 2007
w/ Oakley Hall, McCarthy Trenching
Thursday, April 26, 8 p.m.
Holland Performing Arts Center
13th & Douglas
opens with a hollow, static voice, like a telephone call from
another time. Real Twilight Zone kind of stuff. It's the voice
of a woman saying matter-of-factly, "Cassadaga, oh yeah,
that's where you're gonna find the center of energy, and they
got those in Arizona, too."
like a 1-800 telephone psychic, eagerly telling the listener to
go to Nevada and Texas and Arizona, while in the background, atmospheric
noise -- backward-tracking mixed with an orchestra's pre-concert
tuning -- slowly rises to the surface. Spooky. Two minutes into
"Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)," the woman tells
the listener to be patient, don't give up hope on yourself, that
Cassadaga might just be a premonition of a place you're going
on the other end of the line is, of course, Conor Oberst.
And for Oberst,
Cassadaga could be the one place that provides the answers he's
been searching for, seemingly for his entire life. It's where
he starts his search before heading to the Paris of the South
to a shredded-confetti covered stage to an L.A. detox ward to
a rain-soaked battle trench to a series of padded rooms, old hotels
and a dozen different daydreams, all the while bringing you --
the listener -- along for the ride.
the new album by Bright Eyes slated for release next Tuesday,
is Conor Oberst's one-man journey through a thousand doors with
nothing but hope on the other side. "In my mind, it's a pilgrimage
record to find peace of mind," he said. "I guess that's
a lonely process. It's not anything anyone can do for you, and
there are no easy answers."
are, however, plenty of questions, and Oberst was eager to answer
them one evening in the middle of February, when he and Bright Eyes
bandmate Jake Bellows (also of Neva Dinova) sat across a table in
a nearly empty Saddle Creek Bar, only a few blocks from Oberst's
mid-town home. It was a week before Bright Eyes would hit the road
on a brief tour in support of their just-released 6-song EP, Four
Winds -- a mere preamble to a year that will be spent supporting
Cassadaga, Oberst's most ambitious album in his storied career.
Over beers and
a lap-top computer, I mention that now, in addition to his army
of heartbroken teen worshipers who weep through his concerts, Oberst
can now expect a sizable contingent of psychic kooks who will view
him as a follower, a believer, a messiah. Oberst just laughs and
pulls his long, dark hair behind his ears, leans forward in his
chair and says that there is no underlying psychic theme to the
guess I'll leave that to you and the listener to decide for yourselves,"
he said before going into a detailed explanation about how he found
out about Cassadaga from a friend a couple years ago. The idea of
a town populated by spiritual advisors intrigued him.
wanted to go there," he said. "I built it up in my mind.
I thought I could find something I was looking for. It was a year
after my friend first told me about it before I made my trip down
there. It's really amazing."
said, is a "super small town" in central Florida surrounded
by swampland that pulses with a gothic, Savannah-type vibe "but
with white trash magic. It's just got a really intense energy because
most of the people that live there are psychics and mediums. There's
a chalkboard out front that lists the people who are working that
day. You make an appointment and go to their homes -- most of them
have converted their front rooms into reading parlors. You get your
reading and go on your way."
the same gimmicky psychics you find in places like St. Marks (Place),
he said. "These people make it their life. It's a practice
that's been going on for thousands of years. People could see the
future and interpret dreams. I was attracted to the authenticity
of the minds of all these people together. I left with this peaceful
Yeah, but did
he find what he was looking for? "In a way, I did," he
said. "It's a personal thing that's hard to articulate. I left
there feeling a little more that I was on the right path, working
in conjunction with the universe and against the grain."
In other words,
traveling on the same path he's been on most of his career.
Notes version of Oberst's career begins with a cute, bespectacled
Conor playing at local watering hole called Kilgore's (now the site
of the Shelterbelt Theater) at age 13 with a handful of musicians
who (along with him) would become the godfathers of the current
Omaha music scene -- Ted Stevens, Bill Hoover and Tim Kasher.
Within a couple
years, Oberst would front the short-lived emo rock act Commander
Venus, the band that gave him his first taste of national exposure.
His appetite would grow considerably by 1998, when as Bright Eyes
Oberst released Letting Off the Happiness on Saddle Creek
Records, a recording that would be his first to break into the College
Music Journal charts, at No. 105.
Two years later,
Fevers and Mirrors would make it all the way to the CMJ
top-20, while his next record, 2002's Lifted or the Story is
in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground would sell more than
100,000 copies and land Bright Eyes on Late Night with David Letterman,
all without the help of Clear Channel and commercial radio.
But that was
nothing compared to where he was headed in January 2004, when Bright
Eyes released two full-length albums simultaneously -- the acoustic-flavored
folkie I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and the rhythm-based
rocker Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
By the end of
January '05, Wide Awake was No. 10 on the Billboard
charts (forget about CMJ) while Digital Ash was No.
15. The combined first-week sales of both discs exceeded 100,000.
Impressive by anyone's standards. By the end of 2006, Wide Awake's
total sales would exceed 380,000.
And that pretty
much brings us to the present, except for the part about Oberst
performing with Springsteen and Michael Stipe as part of 2004's
Vote for Change tour. Or the part about Oberst giving President
Bush a lyrical flipping of the bird on The Tonight Show with Jay
Leno. Or the part where Oberst moved to New York City, then back
to Omaha just before playing in front of tens of thousands of people
in Omaha's Memorial Park. And what about Park
Ave. and Desaparecidos? What
about creating his own record label -- Team Love -- which released
the hugely successful solo debut by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis that
sold nearly 100,000 copies?
There's no room
to recap it all. For those of you reading about Conor Oberst for
the first time, all you really need to know is that he may be the
most successful singer-songwriter to ever come out of Omaha, and
if you've never heard him before, you will. Cassadaga will
make sure of that.
left there feeling a little more that I was on the right path,
working in conjunction with the universe and against the grain."
calmed down by listing everything I could think of and its
place in the world -- not where I designed it to be, but where
off and on over a year at studios in New York, Los Angeles, Portland,
Chicago, Lincoln and Omaha, Cassadaga may be Oberst's most
well-conceived and well-executed recording, and certainly the one
with the biggest commercial potential. Released on Saddle Creek
Records in North America and Polydor everywhere else, the album
has enough pop punch to break through the indie-rock glass ceiling
to a mainstream world inhabited by bands like Modest Mouse, Death
Cab for Cutie and The Shins.
almost 30 songs as opposed to going into it with a defined idea,"
Oberst said. "With Wide Awake and Digital Ash,
we were going with a specific aesthetic -- one being a purist '70s
folk rock album, the other being based on acoustic rhythms. This
time I just wanted to record the songs I had, just to see what happens.
And it kind of took its own shape. When we decided which songs to
put on it, we found a common thread, and it sort of shaped itself."
musically and thematically, Cassadaga is pleasantly overcast
with both loneliness and a sense of discovery. Its overall tone
rings with resignation, as if Oberst realizes that this is all there
is, and that he has to be content with what he has, whether he likes
it or not. The theme isn't really about finding your place in the
world, it's about realizing that your place is right where you are.
the album is wall-to-wall. The orchestral arrangements -- though
not exactly Nelson Riddle quality -- provide a souring emotional
cushion to music that's emotional at its very core.
through the album, discussing some of the highlights, like the provocative
lyric in the jangly rocker "Hot Knives," a song that starts
with a distorted acoustic guitar and fiddle, then breaks to a piano
and Oberst singing "When I do wrong I'm with God, she thought
/ When I feel lost I'm not lost at all" and punctuated
with "I've made love, yeah I've been fucked, so what?"
is about an average wife, a mother character who realized that her
husband has been unfaithful to her," Oberst explained. "She
goes through this metamorphosis where she has sex with a lot of
people, does drugs, lives the nightlife, and eventually realizes
she has to let go of her ego or what was hurting her and start a
new life and shed her old existence."
been fucked" line speaks from her perspective, Oberst said,
not his. "But I think it's a line that applies to a lot of
us. It's a different thing, sex and love. Sex without love is one
kind of experience, and sex when you're in love with someone is
a different experience."
It's easy to
assume that the songs are autobiographical, but Oberst has always
said that his lyrics are derived from images of what's going on
around him, discussions overheard, voyeuristic glimpses into other
"Lime Tree," for example -- a song that bears the same
lonely ache of "Lua" from Wide Awake -- opens with the
lines, "I keep floating down the river but the ocean never
comes / Since the operation I heard you're breathing just for one
/ Now everything is imaginary, especially what you love / You left
another message said it's done / It's done."
that those lines are indeed about an abortion. "Like most songs,
it's a composite sketch, a drawing from a lot of different experiences,"
he said, "some my own and some from people close to me, stories
I heard that affected me and entered my subconscious to find a place
in a song."
do draw directly from his personal experiences. The lovely, woodwind-fueled
"Cleanse Song" has passages that are clearly auto-biographical,
with lyrics, "And if life seems absurd what you need is
some laughter / And a season to sleep and a place to get clean /
Maybe Los Angeles, somewhere no one is expecting."
a cleanse early in 2006," Oberst said, "with some friends
in L.A. where we basically ate raw foods and drank these shakes
made out of volcanic ash that suck the poison out of your bloodstream.
No sugar, no caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, any processed anything,
and then you do colonics and different things. It's a pretty intense
experience. You start to realize that there's a reason you're injecting
all these chemicals into your system. When the fog clears you can
see 10 miles instead of 10 feet in front of you."
on to describe the colonics, which he said "were wild. When
they're happening they feel good. But afterward, you get a deep
massage and get rid of all that. You're lying on this table and
these stones push on different organs, your liver and colon."
So what drove
him to have his colon irrigated? "I felt pretty toxic after
2005," he said. "Ten months of touring and everything
that goes along with the lifestyle, it was time to clean it out.
That's what that portion of the song is about."
"No One Would Riot for Less" seems like an antiwar song,
with the lines, "Little soldier little insect you know war
it has no heart / It'll kill you in the sunshine or happily in the
dark / Where kindness is a card game or a bent up cigarette / In
the trenches, in the hard rain, with a bullet and a bet."
verse is obviously about a soldier," Oberst said. "The
song itself is sort of a love song that takes place in the not-so-distant
future, when the peak of the oil crisis comes to its full tilt and
the basic needs of people -- food and fresh water and those things
--- become scarce. That's really a much more plausible Armageddon
than anything else in my mind. I think there will still be love,
for overt political themes in Cassadaga will likely be disappointed.
Oberst said while he's still interested in politics, political issues
are secondary in his life.
try to follow it as closely as I can and I'm really excited about
2008 and having actual leadership," he said. "But it was
never my intention to make it a full-time job, to be an activist.
I want to be a musician. I will help people and causes I believe
in, but it's hard. If you wanted to, you could spend every day of
the year working on it, but there's just not enough hours in the
day to do that and do what I want to do."
there are some political themes woven into the songs on Cassadaga,
"But nothing a overt as 'President Talks to God,'" he
said. "That's not a song as much as a commercial. I don't really
premeditate what I write about. It just comes out. I'm not going
to go out of my way to write about something that doesn't come naturally,
and I won't shy away from it, either, if another song comes along.
After I wrote that song and played it on television, a lot of people
rallied around it and wanted me to keep doing it."
To spice up
the message even further during a live performance on The Tonight
Show, Oberst concluded the song with the Arabic phrase "Fil
it was cool to spout some Arabic on national television in a cowboy
hat," he said, explaining that "fil mish-mish" sort
of means "when pigs fly." The phrase came after the final
line, "I wonder if he smells his own bullshit, I doubt it,
I doubt it."
like that (Bush) is so far gone he will never understand what he's
done to this world," Oberst said. "He's so detached from
reality, now more than ever, doing his John Wayne thing."
there was little fall-out from the Leno show, unlike what happened
after The Dixie Chicks' lambasted Bush from a London stage, a situation
central to the documentary Shut Up and Sing, which Oberst
has yet to see.
Chicks) had so much on the line and could have turned away from
their own beliefs. It costs them millions of dollars," Oberst
said, adding that the folks at Saddle Creek Records got most of
the brunt from the Leno show in the form of some nasty e-mails.
really affect me since my career doesn't depend on commercial radio
or MTV or any those things," he said. "It certainly doesn't
depend on CMT or the Nashville elite like theirs did."
The only negative
reaction, Oberst said, could have been a coincidence. The Leno show
was filmed on the West Coast, during Bright Eyes' tour with The
Faint. "We had both Letterman and Conan booked," Oberst
said. "Somehow by the time it took to drive back to the East
Coast, both of those shows were mysteriously cancelled due to scheduling
conflicts. I don't know if it was truly a mistake or if someone
somewhere was worried. I'm not a conspiracy person, so I tend to
take it at face value, but still, it was a little odd to have two
confirmed TV appearances cancelled."
The Conan O'Brien
show provided the funniest excuse. "They said, 'Oh, sorry,
but we already promised that day to Billy Idol.'"
best song on Cassadaga (or at least, my favorite) also is Oberst's
most personal. The upbeat, rural-flavored "I Must Belong Somewhere"
gives a clear glimpse of a tired, fearful but self-reliant Oberst
as he recites a check-list of his surroundings underscored by the
line, "Everything must belong somewhere / I know that now
that's why I'm staying here."
was written at the height of an intense panic attack," Oberst
explained. "I was in this sort of creepy German hotel room
freaking out and I couldn't get my heart to slow down, I couldn't
catch my breath. I calmed down by listing everything I could think
of and its place in the world -- not where I designed it to be,
but where it is. 'Why don't you leave me here?' is the idea that
sometimes you have to sit still and be where you are regardless
of any expectations or plans you might have made or things people
want you to do for any reason. It's about being content in your
It's a theme
that sums up the entire record -- a search for peace of mind, something
that Oberst says he needs. "It's a search for contentment,
which is what I'm always looking for," he said, "until
I get it, then I want out, I want chaos."
every song on Cassadaga has unique instrumentation. While
there are the usual country rockers that recall Bob Dylan and The
Band, more often there are woodwinds and strings, sometimes provided
by a trio of players, other times by a full orchestra.
the idea of using orchestration on the recording was a joint decision
by himself and the other two full-time members of Bright Eyes --
producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and arranger/multi-instrumentalist
approximated the sound of an orchestra before with multi-tracking
and string quartets," Oberst said. "This time we decided
not to cut corners and hired an orchestra. Nate did an amazing job
with the arrangements. There's nothing like hearing your music performed
by 50 people in a room."
recordings took place at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Walcott
wrote and revised the arrangements and then demoed them prior to
the session. "He worked himself sick," Oberst said. "It
all came down to one long, very expensive day. We were lucky to
have Suzy Katayama to look at Nate's arrangements and double-check
his work to make sure everything was in the right place. She's an
arranger, conductor and composer whose worked with people from Prince
to Justin Timberlake to Elliot Smith. It came off without a hitch."
example of Oberst surrounding himself with whatever he needs to
breathe life into his music. Over the years, there have been questions
as to who is more responsible for Bright Eyes' sound -- Oberst or
Mogis (and now Walcott). Oberst is quick to credit both.
true that we've developed this incredible way of communicating where
I can speak in abstractions and Mike can find a way of making the
sound that I'm envisioning," Oberst said. "But it's a
case-by-case business. I come in with specific melodies and things
I want to hear. It's an open book and they help fill it in."
out how the band's current press release stresses that Bright Eyes
is more than just him these days. "It's the three of us,"
he said. "But that's stating the obvious to anyone who's familiar
with how we worked in the last several years -- Mike starting with
Letting off the Happiness and Nate when he joined the band after
the recording of Lifted. Nate filled that role of arranging instruments
in a way that accomplished what we wanted to in a live setting and
in future recordings."
The three are
an odd match, Oberst said, each with a distinct personality, each
with unique quirks.
a brilliant person and talented musician, but he's also unbelievably
scatterbrained and won't admit to knowing anything," Oberst
said. "If a question is posed to him by a new player, he'll
wrap around the question until it's pointless. Whereas Nate is so
thorough and so prepared. Anyone in the band can ask him what the
melody is supposed to be doing and he can show them. They're so
funny to watch talk to each other. Mike will never stop talking
and not say anything, and Nate says so few words but they're so
he first met Walcott when he was touring with Lullaby for the Working
Class, one of the first bands on Saddle Creek Records. "He
moved to New York and for a long time I'd have him on these tours,
starting with Lifted. I figured he did it because it was a good
paying gig and because we're friends. I didn't know what he thought
of the music."
years of touring, Oberst began to realize that Walcott wasn't going
anywhere. "He said, 'I actually love playing your songs and
love what you're doing.' All this time I thought he was buying time
before going back to his jazz band or his composition work, but
for some reason, he likes what I do and finds it challenging."
He's not alone.
Oberst once again has surrounded himself with some of the most talented
musicians both from Omaha and elsewhere as he hits the road for
another year of touring. For the first wave of road work, in support
of Four Winds, Bright Eyes consists of the core trio along
with Bellows on bass and guitar, violinist Anton Patzner, and drummer
Rachel Blumberg, who's played with M. Ward and Norfolk & Western.
At the time
of this interview, Oberst said he was still figuring out who would
be Bright Eyes for the Cassadaga tour. "It's going to
be in the 10- to 12-person range -- a string quartet, woodwinds,
a couple percussionists and a drummer," he said.
The tour already
is booked through September, including a show at The Holland Performing
Arts Center April 26. "We're going to try to space it out with
more breaks," Oberst said of the tour. "I don't want to
ever repeat 2005. It was too much. We didn't plan right, we didn't
have enough time off, and I think it was taxing on everyone mentally
performance history has been controversial, at times involving onstage
implosions. But those days seem to be behind Oberst, who now has
a reputation for putting on solid live shows without incident, much
to the chagrin of those who go to Bright Eyes concerts to see a
on, I was completely freaked out when I got on stage," Oberst
explains of his early touring years. "I was totally terrified
and a lot of the times the way you deal with that isn't the most
healthy of things. I still get nervous and still feel some amount
of stage fright before going on stage, but I've done it so much
at this point that it's not the same visceral fear that I had before.
a higher opinion of musicians who are 'entertainers.' I used to
hate that word. People think it's degrading in some way, but who
doesn't want to be entertained? People want to see the band finish
their set. We used to go around the country being wasted or in a
bad mood or with equipment that didn't work or variables that made
for a bad show. Now I want to sound really fucking good. You can
have so much more of an impact by putting on a good show."
* * *
ends keeping with Cassadaga's psychic themes. The writer offered
up three predictions for 2007:
will be Bright Eyes' first gold record.
2. Bright Eyes
will make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, and
3. Bright Eyes
will finally be a featured musical guess on Saturday Night Live.
disagrees with all three, scoffing at going gold before the end
of the year. He says that making the cover of Rolling Stone
involves deep record-label politics, while it's almost impossible
to fit into SNL's tight scheduling window, especially in the middle
of a national tour that has been booked for months.
unpredictable things have happened during his career, like Omaha
becoming the center of the indie music world -- a world that these
days seems to revolve around Bright Eyes. Oberst could literally
live anywhere he wants, but has chosen to make Omaha his home, at
least part of the time.
actually moved completely out of Omaha," he said. "I always
had a house here. I just moved houses. I still have an apartment
in New York, that's never changed. I still live there some of the
time, but I've spent more time in Omaha the last few months than
in years. I love being here.
at times, a wonderful place. Everything that's happened has been
a complete surprise to me. I won't say it wasn't an accident. There
was a lot of work that went into it. I'm really proud of what has
happened to Omaha in the last 10 years. The amount of bands and
venues and attention paid to music and the visual arts, it seems
like it's just getting better. It was born out of desolation and
neglect and adversity. It's not exactly Greenwich Village."
Published in The Omaha Reader April 5, 2007.
Copyright © 2007 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
don't want to ever repeat 2005. It was too much. We didn't
plan right, we didn't have enough time off, and I think it
was taxing on everyone mentally and physically."