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Willy Mason: Stronger Than Bombs

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Dec. 2, 2004

Willy Mason holds the austere honor of being the second act to have a CD released on the horribly named Team Love Records -- Saddle Creek Records' so-called "sister label" owned and operated by a pair of New Yorkers, one of which has Omaha ties. Maybe it's a bit presumptuous to call Conor Oberst a New Yorker, but it sure seems like he's been spending a lot of time in his Manhattan apartment these days, lots more than he's spending in his Omaha home. Heck, according to the OWH, he didn't even come home for Thanksgiving. What kind of no-good son is he, anyway?




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.

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Published in The Omaha Reader Dec. 2, 2004. Copyright 2004 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved. Photo by Jasper Coolidge,








"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."