Conor Oberst means many different things to many people: indie hero, sensitive yarn spinner, political punk. Upon entering his room at Manhattan’s Ace Hotel this past December, a handful of photographers snapping a few last-minute portraits, I reduce him to one thing: a guy who doesn’t make his bed. Here it’s worth noting that over the years, Oberst, now 30, has morphed into many musical things: first as an outspoken, dewey-eyed teenager with Bright Eyes, to alt-country Townes Van Zandt heir apparent, to solo artist brimming with confidence. He’s been compared to Dylan. He’s been heralded as the voice of a new, alienated, middle-America youth. But never has he been considered a … slob.
As the photographers leave, Oberst sits down, ready to talk The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ first full-length album in four years. And while it was the impetus for our conversation, there were thoughtful detours aplenty, as is often Oberst’s way. In his maturation, Oberst still remains all at once passionate and shy. And that’s probably more refreshing to know than any morning ritual.
Straightaway, there’s rumors that The People’s Key could be the last Bright Eyes record. Is this group retiring?
We’re not really sure. Never say never is my position on all the bands I’ve played with. There might come a time or place when it feels right to do it again. I don’t see us doing anything in the foreseeable future after this. We have pretty separate lives at this point. It was necessary for me to step away after the last record and make a record with different people. [With] the Mystic Valley Band, the biggest difference is it’s such a live band. I start playing a song in a room and everyone starts playing along; it’s very organic, where Bright Eyes has been basically a studio project. We built the songs in the studio, and then we form a band and tour it.
After Fevers and Mirrors came out, there were certain people that said you were the voice of a new generation of youth. How did you interpret it?
It’s a unique situation to be at a certain age, making music, or be the same age as the kids listening to it. I think why there was a fierce connection with some type of kid, was because it really was a firsthand experience, you know? It was an approximation of feelings — it was exactly those feelings. That’s unusual in that it doesn’t happen all the time. Obviously, there are kids in every town making music but maybe it was just the way it all worked out — I was able to get to more kids around the country.
Was it weird to see it play out that way?
We were fortunate to have, amongst our friends and in our town [of Omaha], a rare, fortunate situation that had somebody like Mike Mogis, who had some degree of expertise with recording, and other friends that had organizational skills where we could get a label going and a big community of people playing music that inspired us in writing songs. I just think it was the perfect storm for getting the music out there.
Looking back at that early work when you were a teenager, do you ever get those moments where you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I put that in a song.”
Oh, yeah [laughs]. I guess it’s a blessing and curse of my life or career because of the internet, it’s all so fully documented. You can download the cassette album I made when I was 13 years old. That is unfortunate for me. For everyone, actually. In one sense, I have nothing to hide; it’s like you can basically translate what I was into, how I changed, what I’m into now. And in that sense, there’s a lot of freedom. A lot of people try to reinvent themselves and dissociate themselves from a type of person they were or a type of music they made. Of course, there are things I’d do differently from a creative standpoint but at the same time, it’s all been trial and error. But it’s interesting: sometimes I’ll feel an affinity for an old song, more than the recording of the song. A lot of it has to do with the sound of my voice at the time but the song itself, I stand behind. But hearing the recording makes me cringe. So to play some old songs now, it’s sort of a redemption for the song.
Do you consider The People’s Key to be a continuation of what you’ve always done with Bright Eyes?
Yeah, in the sense that every record, to a certain degree, is a new experiment for us. I like that about the band — that it has managed to change and take on different styles. This is just the next thing in my mind. It’s not a big statement, like, “This is where we’re at.” When we started making the record, we didn’t know what we wanted it to sound like but we did discuss what we didn’t want it to sound like. I was feeling burned out on the whole Americana, rootsy vibe. So basic ideas were “Lets avoid acoustic guitars” and waltz-y songs. In some ways, every album is a reaction to what I had just done. When I first started making music, we called it “punk rock” even though it wasn’t really punk rock. But you had your big distortion pedal and your electric guitar and you screamed and that was the music. And then it was getting a Leonard Cohen record or a Townes Van Zandt record, so then it became we wanted to make this type of music. It’s a constant experiment or playfulness; we want to be engaged and growing up, you’ll have new things you’re into. People who want to repeat themselves or cater to some part of their audience – that’s when stuff really goes south.
Bright Eyes also evolved when bands didn’t necessarily need to have a hit single to make it.
I feel like we fall into a weird, in-between spot — I’ve never felt accepted by the mainstream but I feel like … we’re not hip. We’ve burned our bridges with the indie rock crowd, too, and now we just live in this netherworld. But it’s a good place. Truly, everything you do, people love it and hate it, simultaneously. It took me a while to figure that out. That’s a liberating feeling, too. It truly doesn’t matter; You’re going to lose fans, you’re going to gain fans and you should never let that be a part of what you’re doing creatively. It’s a losing strategy. It sucks my soul and is a disservice to anyone who tries to appreciate what we do.
You were very critical of the last presidential administration as evidenced by your song “When the President Talks to God.” How would you consider the current administration?
It’s … it’s disappointing. Politics in general is just so frustrating and tiring to no end. To me, more and more, the politicians don’t matter. If we want to reform our country, it’s going to be reforming the control of corporate America. It’s class warfare — the idea of rich people staying rich and poor people staying poor. That power structure exists regardless of which politician is in office. And it basically makes their actions moot. Until we take a hard look at that … I don’t know if we could actually make that change; it’s so intrinsic in the idea of our country. I was talking about socialism [the other day], and people act like there’s no better way of doing things and there is. There’s democratic socialism in Western Europe — in my view, that’s a better way of constructing society. You go to a place like Sweden, and there’s more safety nets for those people who are less fortunate but there’s still opportunity for individualism and all that stuff. But here, it’s just a propaganda machine that drives this American exceptionalism that I just find revolting. It drives me crazy that every politician has to say. “We’re the greatest country in the world.” That’s a ridiculous statement. Didn’t you learn any manners? My mother taught me to not going around saying “I’m the greatest at whatever.” It’s just arrogant and there’s a reason why we’re hated.
What’s interesting is that this first part of this century, everything became about information and the demand for information – in that spirit to learn about what the administration was doing. Now, years later, WikiLeaks is dumping every single thing and there’s backlash; It’s too much.
I happen to think it’s fantastic. The stuff [Julian Assange] released about the government — there have been revelations in it but, to me, it’s not that surprising. If there’s going to be any reform, it’s that power structure needs to be deeply relegated way more than it is; if you can get money out of the political system, then we may have a chance to have a country that we all can be completely proud.
Bright Eyes is on tour March – April in the United States. The People’s Key is out now on Saddle Creek.