Coming off of a string of very strong variant projects such as Monsters Of Folk and his work with The Mystic Valley Band, Conor Oberst returns with his Bright Eyes cast on the album The People's Key. This latest offering experiments as it reveals musical and lyrical growth by its inspired group members, and it's a reminder of why critics have raved about Oberst's various creations and band configurations since his early Saddle Creek days. Start Here: "Jenune Stars," "Triple Spiral," "Beginner's Mind," "Ladder Song," and "One For You, One For Me"
2. Shell Games
3. Jejune Stars
4. Approximate Sunlight
5. Haile Selassie
6. A Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)
7. Triple Spiral
8. Beginner's Mind
9. Ladder Song
10. One For You, One For Me
A Conversation With Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst
Mike Ragogna: Conor, you have a new Bright Eyes album coming out called The People's Key. I think this is your seventh album?
Conor Oberst: Yeah, something like that. I've lost count a little bit, but I think that's right.
MR: Let's get into the song "Firewall." It starts with a monologue, a science fiction-oriented proposed history of what happened on earth. What's going on with that?
CO: The recording is a friend of mine, this guy named Denny Brewer, who I met down in El Paso, Texas. The (Mystic) Valley Band made a record down there at a place called Sonic Ranch, a great studio. Through the owners and friends down there, we met this fellow, Denny. You should actually check him out--him and his son have a great band called Refried Ice Cream. They're kind of like a garage-psych-West Texas strange incredible music. He's just a really fascinating guy, he's in his mid-'60s, and has lived this pretty crazy off-the-grid kind of life. I realized as I was writing the songs that some of these ideas that he had or what was coming through the songs, some of these things I had heard him talk about or things I had heard him discuss while I was down there. We kind of have a tradition with starting each record with an awkward intro, so it's like good luck. I decided to give him a call and see if he would consider recording some dialogue, and he was gracious enough to oblige us. He sent about an hour or so of conversation he had with him and his son and another friend of ours, Tony. Then that gave us free reign to edit it and added the musical accompaniment. It seemed like a nice way to set the tone for the album.
MR: I would love you to talk about some of the perspectives you had with these songs. For instance, "A Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)," what is its core concept?
CO: Well the people's key--depending on who you talk to--is the key of "C." On the piano, it's considered the key of "C" because that's the one where you can hit all of the white keys and never hit a bad note as far as playing in the key. On a guitar, people say it's the key of "E" for the same kind of reason. Basically, it's like an amateurish way to play the instrument. In the context of the song. it's talking about a time in the future where the idea of humanity might be quaint or old-fashioned as we progress into a more technology-based existence, which we are already seeing now. How many times do you walk into a room and it's just twenty people staring at a little thing in their hand typing. That's the tip of the iceberg, I think, in terms of where we're headed. I'm sure you've heard about the concept of singularities--something that I find fascinating--where eventually, artificial intelligence will pass human intelligence and we sort of get to a stage of existence where our bodies are no long required and death becomes obsolete. It sounds far out, but it's really pretty conceivable. I'm not saying it's going to happen in my lifetime, but in the next couple hundred years, if we hang on that long, these ideas aren't too crazy. So, I guess it's just a preoccupation with some sort of futurist thinking.
MR: It seems like a merging of spirituality and technology.
CO: Yeah, that's very much what it is about as far as the singularity concept. The idea of a spiritual machine comes from there, and eventually, we will just upload our consciousness to new hard drives, essentially, or new places to exist that our bodies are no longer required, but we are still ourselves. We can solve the frailty of our planet and our bodies through this new process of passing consciousness through new electronic forms.
MR: It seems like it's all about consciousness, evolution, getting the point that everything is one thing, and accessing what exists on more subtler levels of existence.
CO: For sure. If you think about the concept of reincarnation, it's essentially uploading yourself and your spirit into a new form, a new hard drive as it were.
MR: Have you always had your eye on evolution?
CO: Well, I've always been slightly preoccupied with death or whatever those kind of silly big questions people will tell you to not spend your time worrying about. I guess it's more trying to kind of enlighten myself as much as I can and know all these perspectives that are out there or these possible meanings of things that has always been a fascination of mine. I think it's really interesting how so many things--whether it's religion, science, or it's a general quest to understand the human condition--how many things lead back to the same place.
MR: What do you think when you look at religion? Do you find that they tend to be narrow-minded in terms of spirituality, evolution, and consciousness, or do you find that they really are all striving for the same thing but just not speaking the same language?
CO: I think both those things can be true depending on the situation. I don't pretend to be an expert on the various religions, but there is a reason I don't belong to any of them. I think you're correct, especially in our current, very volatile world, they are used to divide people more than anything and control people. The beauty of them and their original intention is lost in a more political or economic game, which the people are participating in whether they know it or not. I guess that's the shame in it--it blows my mind that people will murder each other over these really insignificant details. If you think about Protestant and Catholic or Shiite and Sunni, they are basically the same thing...one eats with their left hand, the other eats with their right hand. There is nothing that different about them and it's just shocking to me that so much suffering in the world is caused by those organizations, which I think is a good term for them because I think the essence has been lost.
MR: It seems that the strangest, pettiest things are at the bottom of some of the biggest divisions among races, religions, people...
CO: Definitely, I think that's very true. I'm with you, and I don't think we should give up. I think the trick is to show people and tell people to see themselves in each other, to see that all those divisions are illusions and that we really are all in this together. Wishful thinking, I guess, but you gotta strive for that.
MR: Okay, let's get back to the album. Can you tell me the process of how you guys recorded the latest Bright Eyes album?
CO: We started in January of 2010, and we finished mastering a couple of days before Thanksgiving, so it was a nine-month period but with many breaks in that time. We would go in and do a session for a couple of weeks, and then it would be a month or month and a half before we would get back together again. So, it actually worked out good because it gave a lot of time to think about the songs and a lot of the songs had different forms, and we would go back and revised. We really took our time with it. Towards the end of our last record, Cassadaga, we completed a new studio in Omaha in Mike Mogis' house. It's a really fantastic place to record. This was the first time we got to make a record there start to finish. It was the best of both worlds where you feel like you're home, essentially, but the place itself is very hi-fi.
MR: That kind of atmosphere is always conducive to being more creative, huh.
CO: Yeah, on no one's schedule but our own, getting to work at our own pace, and if something isn't coming out like we wanted it, we go back and do it again or we try something else. That's a freedom that not very many bands have--where they are stuck in a studio for a certain amount of time, where they are working on a producer's clock or something like that. So, I feel lucky to have that kind of flexibility.
MR: And I imagine some of your personal relationships also allow you for being more creative as well.
CO: Yeah, Mike and I have been making records together for twelve years now; Nate has been with us for the last five or six years. We know each other really well and I think we've come to trust each other's instincts. Speaking for myself, I'm much more open to re-imagining a song, even if we were on a good track. I guess I've learned to not hold on to my little visions of what it should be like. A lot of times, I'm wrong and one of the other people has a better idea. That's something I've learned.
MR: When you record Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band albums, do you take a different approach or is it the same as Bright Eyes with more of an emphasis on Conor Oberst?
CO: It's actually the polar opposite as far as the approach with The Mystic Valley Band. Where Bright Eyes is very much a studio project where I show them the demos and we like sit around and discuss how to arrange it and we build the songs bottom up track by track. It's very cerebral, and what you hear at the end is a summation of all three of our ideas combined. With the Valley band, I start playing the song in the room with the guys and everyone knows what instrument they're going to play, and everyone has their general style. It's much more instantaneous and visceral, it's like a live band. Both ways have their merits, so it's nice to change it up.
MR: For a while, at whatever musical event I attended in Los Angeles, Monsters Of Folk was casually referenced all the time. It was considered a pretty significant album for a while. So, how did that project come about?
CO: We did a tour back in 2004 and played on each other's records and became friends over the years and always talked about wouldn't it be great to make a record together. Finally, it did kind of happen. I guess it's kind of a combination of both when we're writing the songs and getting in each other's heads a little bit, we would sit around with guitars and play songs and talk about chord changes. Once we started recording, we wanted to have the rule of lets be the only four people to play on the record, not getting hired guns. If we wanted drums, one of us had to play drums. It was kind of nice to go back to that stage where your uncomfortable on an instrument where it kind of felt like we were in high school where we were trying things and experimenting. M. Ward and Jim are two of the people I admire most in the musical world, so to get a ringside seat to see them in action making a record they find important...the way they approach arranging and recording was just really fantastic. I'm better because of it. I learned things I can take with me onto new records.
MR: How did you guys all meet? After a few years, everybody runs into each other on the road, right?
CO: Yeah, we definitely ran in the same circles. I met M earlier, we met in 2001. I was a fan of his music, and he ended up opening for us on the Lifted tour, and we became friends ever since--collaborated on different albums. Jim, same kind of thing. I love My Morning Jacket and I ran into him through mutual friends along the way somewhere. We just kept in contact. There are a lot of people you meet who you love their music and they are nice, but there is no chemistry or there is no inclination to want to get to know this person better. I think that's somewhat a rare thing where I've had that feeling about someone, then, of course, it's reciprocated. It's just a really nice stroke of luck that we became such good friends...they are just really a joy to be around.
MR: With Saddle Creek, you forged a lot of indie ground, you were able to have a real D.Y.I. approach. How did you pull it off?
CO: For us, it was a perfect storm of good fortune. There was a group of friends and a little scene in Omaha--not a huge one--but enough to where there was a cool little record shop and some cool local bands we liked to go see and bonded over. There was a circle of friends that had three, four, or five songwriters in it, that were all encouraging each other. Bands were forming and people were sharing members making these records. Then, we had the good fortune of having someone like The Mogis Brothers being there who could make somewhat decent recordings, so we had that going for us. Other friends like Robb Nansel who owns the label and runs the label, he was just very organized and could deal with the business side of it in a way that was really smart and used the best of the resources we had, which was not many. It was a different time--the Internet was just coming, so it was advantageous because it was a way to communicate and get our word out there. Also, the bands had a really strong work ethic...we spent years in bands.
MR: Everything that was released on that label had a real quality to it.
CO: Thank you, it was fortunate. I think the fact that people bought CDs back then too, it made it actually possible for us to focus on music and not have jobs and stuff like that.
MR: So, "Jejune Stars" seems to be influenced by '60s and '70s pop. What are your influences?
CO: I'm a real music fan, so I listen to all kinds of music all the time. I listen to a lot of what my friends or people I know are listening to. I'm always checking out new bands. It's hard to pinpoint a specific--what you hear is some swirl of everything that's living at the bottom of my brain. It comes from different times and different types of music.
MR: I've read that you were influenced by artists like Elliot Smith and Neil Young.
CO: Oh yeah, of course. Definitely singer-songwriter, lyrical driven music. I've always been drawn to people that can put words together really well.
MR: Also topical music, it seems, the way you bandy about the lyrics are really wonderful.
CO: Thank you, I tend to focus on the lyrics when I'm listening to music--not that they all have to be super-heavy and complex or anything. I just like when (things) conjure up images in my mind and make me think. That's the litmus test for me. If it's getting me to think of things in a new way, it's nice, and being able to relate to the emotion behind it, it's nice to.
MR: Are you also a supporter of PETA?
CO: I definitely believe in animal rights. I think cruelty to animals is terrible in all forms. I don't really have ties to that organization anymore. We let them hand out t-shirts at our shows like ten years ago. That was kind of it.
MR: What's on your mind politically?
CO: I mean, I don't know, it's all intense. I've been getting more and more cynical with the political. I think it's how we really see the money power structure behind our politics and address that problem, I don't think we can expect anything to be solved, to somehow get rid of the corporations in our government is what we need to do or else our policies will always serve rich people and corporations. I don't know how you begin to do that because it's so entrenched, but sadly, the candidates don't really matter until that grip is loosened.
MR: I'm with you. I just think it's one big pot of corruption. On the other hand, you have to get to the voting booth to make sure there's balance because you have to protect the basics.
CO: Right, yeah, there is a certain lesser of two evils.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
CO: Keep doing it regardless of the reaction or of what happens. If you love it, you should do it cause you love it. Get out and play, don't count on whatever--mybook or faceme--to get your music to people. Go play your music with real human beings watching you.
(transcribed by Theo Shier)
...and this audio clip and note to Ronald Reagan just in from The Low Anthem!:
"Dear Ronald Reagan, President, protector, lover of freedom, poet of justice,
We were too young to know thee but swooned before your likeness in the glow of the silver screen. Thank you for telling all of us degenerates to get off our asses. This song goes out to you in loving memory."
The Low Anthem