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Desaparecidos -- Play Music / Speak Spanish

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Jan. 16, 2002

Want more? Check out the April 2001 Desa interview and the more recent August 2002 interview.  

When word went out last March about Desaparecidos, the Saddle Creek Records'-powered supergroup, everyone thought the band would be a short-lived curiosity.

The five-piece ensemble included members of The Good Life and Bright Eyes, but most notably Conor Oberst, the current "it-kid" who was taking the indie music world by storm with his unique brand of confessional songwriting. Oberst had toured Europe and Asia, signed a publishing deal with Sony and was rumored to be dating the hottest cast members of The WB. If he was forming a new project outside of Bright Eyes -- his band of rotating support players who back him up on his folk-tinged journeys into his own personal hell -- well then it had to be a mere diversion. Oberst would never risk everything he had accomplished with Bright Eyes on a thrown-together rock 'n' roll band... or so everyone had said, including folks involved at "the label."

"We weren't sure what to expect," says Desaparecidos guitarist Denver Dalley over coffee at the 13th St. Coffee Shop, just hours after he returned from Nashville where he'd been visiting his family. Dalley, the spitting image of a young Roger Waters, seemed a bit tired as he recalled the band's formative days just months earlier. "We immediately knew we would definitely be a band and do some recordings. And we knew we'd be labeled as Conor's side project -- something that I don't take offense to at all."

Desaparecidos drummer Matt Baum, talking from his day-job at Krypton Comics on 84th and Center, said he knew the band was in it for the long haul "from day one."

"The idea for it came while we were on the road doing Bright Eyes stuff," said Baum, who along with having played drums with Red Menace was one of those so-called "rotating members" of Bright Eyes. "Conor said 'let's put together a band' and I said it had to be rock and roll -- loud and fun. Though everyone's perception was that this was Conor's side thing, we knew that this was going to be our project and our band."



Rounded out by Ian McElroy on keyboards and Landon Hedges (who also plays with The Good Life) on bass and vocals, the so-called Conor Oberst side project will celebrate the release of their debut Saddle Creek Records full-length, Read Music/Speak Spanish, Jan. 18 at the Sokol Underground with Jade Tree artist Milemarker and Beep Beep. One listen to the guitar-powered shoutfest and there's no mistaking it with the usually somber Bright Eyes. Sure, you still have Oberst's trademark rattle-voiced adolescent croon, but this time it's braced with equal parts anxiety-ridden howling the likes of which haven't been heard since his Commander Venus days. And don't go reading the lyric sheet hoping to find any of Oberst's usual first-person laments of pain, heartache and loss. Though it's not a concept album, Read Music/Speak Spanish is held together lyrically by reflections on modern-day consumerism, urban sprawl and the frantic pace of America's never-ending hunger for more, more, more.

"Whereas Bright Eyes is social commentary on the most personal and intimate level, this is the polar opposite," Dalley said. "For me, it seems like a summation of all the things you think and feel after watching a couple hours of TV or walking around Times Square -- how America has this model of 'It's never enough.' Everything is bigger, better, faster."

The slight, 31-minute comment on the state of America opens with "Man and Wife, the Former (Financial Planning)" a rocker (there are no ballads here) that documents a couple's false dreams and struggle to call themselves "middleclass," with the line: "And if you need money for bills this month my love I'd cover you / And if you have to lie to everyone; well I would cover up for you."

"Man and Wife, the Latter (Damaged Goods)" picks up the theme a few years later, after the couple has grown so far apart that all the possessions can't bring them back together again: "Want to take me out to dinner / Want to bury me under a mound of shopping bags / Like it would really make a difference / Or make up for your disinterest / I'm a bill you pay / I'm a contract you can't break."

The waltz-timed fuzz-guitar corker "Manana," ends with a mock conversation where Hedges tells a choking Oberst how Omaha needs to grow up and get more strip malls along with a new Starbucks in the Old Market. The staged comments are the perfect prologue for "Greater Omaha," a look at how gluttony has resulted in Omaha's suburbanization and urban sprawl: "I have been driving now for 100 blocks / Saw 50 Kum and Go's / 60 parking lots / One more mouthful and I'm sure / They will be happy then."

What could have been construed as the CD's most controversial track had it not been written before September 11, "The Happiest Place on Earth" takes another bleak look at the American dream ("I don't want to be ashamed to be American / But opportunity, no it don't exists") and makes frighteningly accurate statements about modern warfare: "Too bad that nowadays you just point and click / Swing Lo satellite / Hot white chariot! / In the computer's blue glare / The bombs burst in the air / There was a city once / Now nothing is there."


"Whereas Bright Eyes is social commentary on the most personal and intimate level, this is the polar opposite."


"With Bright Eyes, I don't break a sweat. I have to bite my lip and try not to laugh because it's serious stuff. With Desaparecidos, we're lucky if all our instruments make it off stage intact. We're constantly tackling each other on stage. "



Despite the pessimistic lyrics, the constant stream of hooky guitar riffs, explosive drumming and Oberst's controlled screeching (see Cursive's Tim Kasher at his heaviest), make this anything but gloomy. McElroy's keyboards and Dalley's guitar touches add the necessary texture and atmosphere.

The CD was recorded in a week at Presto! Recording Studio in Lincoln by Mike Mogis, who has worked on a number of Saddle Creek projects and performs in Bright Eyes. Unlike some of his more-pristine recordings, Read Music/Speak Spanish has an intentionally raw, almost unproduced sound. "We rushed a lot of the mixing," Dalley said. "This has a live rock feel. You'll hear the white noise of a distorted guitar as well as subtle little things that we left in to capture the energy."

Musically, longtime Saddle Creek fans will recognize touches of Park Ave. melodies, Cursive angularity, and Commander Venus control-on-the-verge-of-chaos -- just about anything but Bright Eyes' tenderness.

Baum says the sound was influenced by the Omaha bands they grew up listening to in the mid-'90s. "Mousetrap, Frontier Trust, Mercy Rule, Clayface, Culture Fire, Fisher, Slowdown Virginia -- they were all friends of ours, and growing up watching them fed into what we're doing."

That influence is apparent on stage as well. Don't look for the tears you can spot in the audience at a Bright Eyes' show. A Desaparecidos show is a controlled wall of sound, with as much distortion as melody, and enough chaotic energy to saturate the crowd.

"With Bright Eyes I don't break a sweat. I have to bite my lip and try not to laugh because it's serious stuff," said Baum, who plays in both bands. "It's inappropriate to make a joke after a song about someone's internal strife. With Desaparecidos, we're lucky if all our instruments make it off stage intact. We're constantly tackling each other on stage."

Baum, a veteran of a number of bands including Truck Johnson and Body by Heroin, said he's "always been the chimpanzee with the drumsticks who broke his fingers on stage. With Bright Eyes, I had to tone it down and was awful when I first started. I've learned a lot about playing loud by playing quiet and I've incorporated a lot of what I was doing with Bright Eyes into Desaparecidos."

With only a three-song single in hand, the band went out on a 9-day tour last year with Cursive, Sorry About Dresden, and The White Octave that included a 600+ sold-out show in Boston. "We were a bunch of laughing, drunken idiots in every city," Baum said. "We had a complete blast and came home and said, 'We're all still together.'"

He said that despite the obvious differences from Bright Eyes, a few people still called out for Bright Eyes songs. "I can't speak for Conor, but I think it's rude," Baum said. "I would think any idiot could tell that this is not Bright Eyes. It really hasn't been a big issue."

"I don't think they were being serious," Dalley said. "I think it was more in good fun. You have to realize that Bright Eyes is a more established band. You're going to get some of that."

With a five-week, 28-date tour that starts in Nashville Jan. 23 and runs through North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona and California, the band will have a chance to further establish itself.

"We get crazier and crazier on stage," Dalley said. "Some of it is knowing the songs better. We don't have to think about what we're playing as much and rely more on instinct. We feed off each other and the crowds. That's ultimately why we are a band and not a fizzled-out side project -- because we're having so much fun."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Jan. 16, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photographs copyright 2002 by Bill Sitzmann, used by permission.