Team Love appears to be the place
where all the acts that couldn't get signed to Saddle Creek get
a second life, at least if they know Conor. Jenny Lewis of Rilo
Kiley fame -- that's the band that fled Saddle Creek for a posh
deal with Warner Bros. disguised as their vanity Brute/Beaute label
-- just announced that she's got a solo record coming out on Team
Love. And everyone's favorite suburban white-boy rappers, Team Rigge
(a.k.a. Ian McElroy and Clark Baechle), already have put tracks
from their upcoming Team Love release on the label's website for
free download (Eminem watch out!). But mystery man Willy Mason seems
to be the exception to the rule. No one 'round these parts ever
heard of the guy before his name showed up on the Team Love website,
along with a handful of working man glamour shots.
That's because Mason made Oberst's acquaintance by sheer luck.
Via a call from Chicago a few days after his recent Omaha gig, Mason
told me the Hollywood movie version of how he fell into Conor's
life (For reference, think of the shitty Cameron Crowe rock epic
Almost Famous). Seems a friend of Mason's dad owned a local radio
station on "the island" -- Mason's vernacular for his
hometown of Martha's Vineyard -- and asked Willy if he would play
a song on the air during his Friday night show. Turns out an associate
of Oberst's, Sean Foley, who works in the production office at NYC's
Irving Plaza, was driving through Cape Cod and heard the performance.
He liked it enough to leave his phone number at the station.
"I thought it was cool that someone from New York had heard
it," Mason said. "He started sending me CDs of bands he
thought I'd like -- a lot of Saddle Creek stuff like Cursive, Rilo
Kiley and Bright Eyes. It was like another scene of kids had popped
up that I felt I could relate to even though they lived in a different
part of the country."
Foley invited Mason to see Bright Eyes perform in Northampton,
Mass. In no time, Mason, Oberst and the rest of his crew hit it
off and presumably partied the night away. "I woke up on their
tour bus in Vermont, and that night Conor, without warning, called
me onto the stage. That was my first gig off of the island. The
whole thing was surreal." Afterward, Mason, a high school student
at the time, ended up hitching a ride with a fan headed back to
the Berkshires, where he hopped a bus and made it back in time for
his second-period class.
Foley soon began lining up shows for Mason, who would stay at Oberst's
apartment whenever he was in Manhattan. "We were walking through
the East Village one day, and Conor told me he was starting a record
label and would love to do some stuff with me."
The rest, as they say, is history, or is becoming history. Mason's
debut, Where the Humans Eat, was released in October and
already has garnered praise on both sides of the Atlantic. The British
newspaper The Independent called the track "Oxygen" (which
just happens to be the song Foley heard on that fateful drive-by)
"an anthem to generosity of spirit, a hymn to a better, buried
America, 'stronger than bombs' and 'cooler than TV.'" Better
watch your step, Conor. Your student could quickly become your master.
Published in The Omaha Reader Dec. 2, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
Photo by Jasper Coolidge, Jenyk.com.
"It was like another scene of kids
had popped up that I felt I could relate to even though they
lived in a different part of the country."