Conor Oberst, the singer-songwriter who was the voice of a generation well before Lena Dunham took a stab at it, is now 32 years old. And though he's best known for Bright Eyes' aching and somber folk songs, he's angry.
He's angry because America is "destroying families through deportation," and because Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz. is proud to be compared to the KKK. And when Oberst is upset, he doesn't rally a militia of Minutemen or over-zealous officers, he writes a punk-rock song.
And so, in the process of striking back against Arizona's continued harsh treatment of undocumented immigrants, Oberst recorded some new music with some old friends. Joining the lead singer on "MariKKKopa" -- which is debuting today exclusively on HuffPost Entertainment -- are Landon Hedges, Matt Baum, Denver Dalley and Ian McElroy. The original lineup of the Desaparecidos, Oberst's early-2000s post-hardcore band, is back.
The single -- which is available for purchase August 2 and is accompanied by "Backsell," another track -- features Oberst adopting the voice of anti-undocumented immigrant groups. The lyrics approach bloodthirst ("Drag them from their beds / Cause it's their turn for someone to get hurt") and offer a haunting look into the mentality Oberst suggests drives Sheriff Joe's police department.
Desaparecidoes last toured together ten years ago in support of their only album, Read Music/Speak Spanish. Now, they've booked seven dates, beginning August 9 in Minneapolis and finishing September 2 at Los Angeles' F--k Yeah Fest. HuffPost Entertainment traded emails with Oberst, who discussed his position on immigration and explained why the issue is so dear to an Omaha native such as himself.
Why did you feel like it was time for more with the band?
We got together in the summer of 2010 to play the Concert For Equality in Omaha, which was an event to raise money to fight a SB1070 copy-cat law that the city of Fremont, NE had passed. I helped to organize the event with the ACLU and even though Desaparecidos hadn't played together in seven years at that point I called the guys out of the blue and they were all incredibly supportive and willingly to help. I was very touched by that and surprised how easily we fell back into the groove musically. Riding a bike type of thing.
We're all such old friends and it was cool to see that hadn't changed despite the time apart. The show went great and we all agreed we should play together again as soon as schedules allowed. So, this past spring we were able to get together, and even though we had no expectations except to have some fun, we ended up writing new material, recording and playing a small show in Omaha. We also decided to book more shows for later in the year. It's been very casual and enjoyable thus far.
At what point did you feel as though going after Sheriff Joe by name was important? Is there a danger you're just giving him more attention?
Joe Arpaio needs no help from me getting attention. For years he has been a beacon of bigotry and intolerance for all the world to see. The list of human and civil-rights abuses he's committed in Maricopa County is long and well documented. His many "crime suppression sweeps" are some of the most egregious affronts to American values and human dignity perpetrated in this century. What he does need is to be called out at every opportunity as the criminal that he is. There are many ways of doing that. The federal government's current law suit against him being one of them. I used the best means at my disposal to do it: a punk rock song.
As someone who grew up in a non-border state, why do you think this particular issue strikes you as so important and inspiring?
Well, first I would say that there are undocumented people living all across this country. There are a great many living in Nebraska; the vast majority of whom make vital contributions to our economy, society and culture. They are without a doubt a net positive to our American way of life. I have many friends who are both Mexican and Mexican-American and others who, I guess you would say, are somewhere in between. The ironic thing is that all three of those categories often exist inside of the same family. I've seen with my own eyes how our unjust immigration system tears these families apart, separating mothers and fathers from their children and leaving all involved in a state of helplessness and despair. I'll never understand how destroying families through deportation benefits our society. How we treat the undocumented says a great deal about us as a people and whether or not we'll continue to fulfill the fundamental American promise of equality and opportunity for all. Considering our history, I can think of nothing more American than an immigrant.
Tell me about the line "it's their turn for someone to get hurt."
I wanted to convey, through the music, the unbelievable level of vitriol and hatred that comes from some supporters of these anti-immigrant laws. The rage with which they demand "justice" is terrifying. In the case of Sheriff Joe and his "deputies" they are, quite literally and by their own admission, a posse. And as anyone who has seen a few Western movies can tell you, a posse is basically a mob that usually ends up lynching someone. I decided to sing most of the song from their point of view to hopefully illustrate the dangerous nature of that way of thinking. So often the debate is framed as a state's rights or security issue when, in actuality, xenophobia and racism play a much more central role than most proponents care to admit. The language in the song is ugly and hurtful, just like these ideas themselves. If you think it's heavy-handed, just listen to the sample of Joe Arpaio himself at the end as he responds to being compared to the KKK. Unbelievable.
There are a lot of people in this country who regard Arizona's actions with a similar horror and disappointment as you. Boycotts and protests aside, what solutions should they be pushing for?
I think we should be pushing for amnesty and a path to citizenship for every undocumented person residing in the United States who has not committed a violent crime; with a special emphasis on keeping families together. This isn't just the only practical solution, it's also the only moral one. Our immigration challenges are tied to many other challenges facing our country. In order to achieve "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" we must also reexamine our trade laws, our labor laws, our drug laws, our budget priorities, our for-profit prison system and our foreign policy towards Mexico, Central and South America. If part of that reform is discouraging illegal immigration in the future, we will need an accessible Guest Worker Program as well as a real effort to force businesses to pay a living wage, both here and in Mexico. As far as paying for public services for these new Americans -- although I believe their participation in the economy would do so -- I'd recommend cutting our military budget in half. We'd have more than enough money for all the basic public services we all require. I'll never understand how we allow public health and education to suffer here at home while we spend endless amounts of money overseas fattening the purse of defense contractors. I know I'm dreaming big here, but you asked!
You've been making music for a couple decades now. What keeps you going?
For me, it's still the act of creation that drives me. I enjoy recording and performing, but it's the songwriting that I love most. The feeling I get at the moment when a new song exists where there was nothing before. That's the feeling I'm always chasing.