Bright Eyes interview,
Prolific Nebraskan Conor Oberst – the heart and soul of Bright Eyes – has produced what is likely to be his final record under that moniker with so catch him this weekend while you can. He talks American weirdness, the big Obama let-down and staying posi
CONOR OBERST has never been a follower. He began making music as a teenager, and set up Saddle Creek Records some years later. This kind of drive set him apart early on, suspending him in a kind of musical ice. His idea of music is more of a calling, a vocation.
“I have never really daydreamed about another life, because music was always there. I was 13 when I made my first album, and have been really fortunate to continue doing it for so long. It has been the one thing I can rely on in the world, and makes me feel like I have some purpose and gives me motivation.”
This motivation led to him setting up Saddle Creek records with his brother, Justin. “That is a whole other story. When it started off it was completely idealistic. We were truly like children, just doing it for fun, as there was nothing going on where we were from. It was amazing for many years, but you learn lessons about money and friendship, and people get older and grow apart. Now it is just run like a business, and it’s fine. It is hard to keep that idealism when the world intervenes. Although, I have been very blessed with so many talented friends, and people who were always there to collaborate with. It was a very nurturing place to create at the beginning.”
Accepting change as progression is present in so many of Oberst’s records, particularly 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors, which introduced new instruments such as the accordion into his work, and this year’s The People’s Key, which involved Denny Brewer of Refried Ice Cream, who provides the eerie and brilliant spoken word introduction to the record, akin to a mountain talking sense.
“Ha! That’s a great description of Denny. He has such a cool, gravelly voice. We had spent some time previously in a place called Sonic Ranch in El Paso, which is this really cool studio in the middle of nowhere. Denny lives near there and is friends with the guy who runs the studio. We were there for six weeks, became friends, and then played some shows with Refried Ice Cream, who do all this really cool charity work – we even played a show in the world’s largest Harley Davidson dealership, which was pretty amazing.
“We have a slight tradition of including an awkward intro in records, which forces the listener to slow down, taking them to a place where they are in a better mindset to enjoy the record – or, at least, that is the hope – and I realised that a lot of these new songs reminded me of the late-night car stations I would listen to with Denny and his son Josh. So I asked him if he would record a conversation about his ideas, and he was gracious enough to do it. I thought maybe he would send us 15 minutes, but instead he sent 90! He said so many interesting things that we could have done a whole record with it.”
Brewer’s addition brings an even greater authenticity to the record, which is polemical but kind, local but universal, sharing common ground with someone such as Annie Proulx, who writes so well on the wilder parts of the US, from Texas to Wyoming.
“West Texas is a really magical part of the country. It is like being on the moon or something. People who choose to live there, especially where Denny lives, are like desert rat people, and are always incredibly interesting. Wyoming is also very beautiful. There are certain parts like Jackson Hole, where all the movie stars live because it is one of the most scenic places in the country, and there are mountains, streams, and lakes. Touring takes me to these places – I have played some weird places.”
His love of nature and “weird places” is being sated by his new passion for camping. “I never camped as a kid. My family wasn’t very outdoorsy. So a couple of years ago I met these people who were river rats, and they took me on trips, which were really amazing. That was the first time I ever really slept outside under the stars. The earth looked so flat to me before, but to get out there and see it, you can see the dome – it’s unreal!”
Oberst’s sense of place has also drawn him to local politics. When he released Coyote Song last year, it was to raise awareness of Arizona’s intolerance for the Hispanic community. “There is this really new barbaric nationalism in America; it is so xenophobic and crazy. Here the Hispanic community is used as scapegoats for the economic downturn. I have a special love for Mexico, and to see a whole population brutalised is shocking. Arizona is a notorious place for weirdness. They famously wouldn’t make Martin Luther King Day an official holiday for a really long time, and Public Enemy in the early ’90s had an anti-Arizona thing because of that. It is a race to the bottom right now with states like Florida and Arizona. Even in my home state of Nebraska, they passed a copycat law to SP1070 [essentially legalised racial profiling] it is scary to me how these ideas can become acceptable.”
The People’s Key is about not accepting such brutality and acknowledging that kindness is far stronger. One For You, One For Me, for instance, is full of radiance, and the record ends on the word “mercy”.
“My hope is that there is a humanist spirit to it, the idea that we are all in this together, and the divisions we create among ourselves are just illusions. There is so much misery, pain and sadness that the only thing you can do is to put out positive fire into the world. I think whatever you can do, any small gesture of human kindness is the right way forward, because all of those things accumulate. I don’t pretend to know what it is all about, but when you put that positivity into the universe it is going to come back around. It’s all we’ve got really, so the more the merrier.”
This positive fire was surely his reasoning for performing as part of the Vote For Change tour with Bruce Springsteen in 2004. “Going through the whole Obama election, and being a big supporter early on, means I can’t help but feel a little let down. I am not abandoning him, but the elephant in the room is the fact that our policies are run by corporations and financial interests. Go figure, maybe I should have realised more. Just because we have someone who is a decent human being doesn’t mean that he can change the basic core of how our system works. What people don’t like to hear about is class warfare, and that the super-rich call the shots. I don’t know how you change that. Maybe get like Egypt?”