We’ve Got A File On You: Conor Oberst
Hear Bright Eyes' new "Forced Convalesence" and read our career-spanning interview
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
Conor Oberst did not plan this. Releasing a new Bright Eyes song called “Forced Convalescence” at a time when so many people are confined to their homes, some of them stuck in bed fighting off a deadly virus, was purely a coincidence. In a different timeline, the most noteworthy aspect of the song would be this former teenage emo-folk wunderkind singing about turning 40, or maybe that it features Flea on bass. Recording the track in Los Angeles last year, Oberst couldn’t have known how eerily prescient his allusions to mundane domestic life, grave illness, and metaphysical epiphany would be, or how severely longtime fans of the legendary indie band would be craving the catharsis supplied by the song’s buoyant finale.
Oberst certainly did not expect to be homebound himself right now. By this point, Bright Eyes were supposed to have traveled to Tokyo for their first show in more than eight years. Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott were scheduled to launch a North American tour in May ahead of a new album later this year, the group’s 10th. Instead, Oberst has been holed up at home in LA calling friends, turning his produce into soup before it expires, power-walking on the treadmill, and binging McMillions. While sheltering in place last weekend, he hopped on the phone to shuffle through memories from a quarter-century of indie-rock stardom, discussing Bright Eyes’ latest comeback single and then diving into the nooks and crannies of his career.
“Forced Convalescence” (2020)
STEREOGUM: When you came back with “Persona Non Grata,” you mentioned there was a more obvious single coming up. Is that this song?
CONOR OBERST: No, it’s actually not. That’s still yet to come. The one that I think the label and everyone’s settled on to try to make a video for and send to radio and all that. So that’s still a little ways off. But we thought because of the situation and trying to figure out ways to get more music out there, it seemed to make sense to just start putting it out — the more music the better, I feel like that we can get into people’s hands.
STEREOGUM: What was on your mind when you were writing this song? I’m particularly intrigued by the way it smashes together these blasé everyday experiences with references to the multiverse and interdimensional travel and all that.
OBERST: Obviously I had no idea this kind of thing was going to happen when I was writing it, but anyone that’s been laid up in bed with an illness or an injury or anything like that, I think can relate to the first verse and the idea of you’re left with just your imagination. And then, yeah, where do you go from there? How do you maybe reconcile your physical condition with, I don’t know, a wider connection to the universe? I don’t know. I feel like my spirituality is — I can’t really point to anything that I am, but I do believe in some things, and the fact that everything’s connected, it’s something that I do honestly believe.
STEREOGUM: Was this inspired by actually being laid up with an illness at one point?
OBERST: Yeah. I’ve had different things over my life where I’ve ended up having to stay in bed. Actually, when I was like three years old, I broke my femur. It’s one of my earliest memories, having to be in traction in the hospital and then in a body cast for months. And then, at different points in my life, I’ve been forced to chill out. Here’s another example right now.
STEREOGUM: When did this come along in the writing and recording process for the new album?
OBERST: We did two different sessions, one in Los Angeles and then one in Omaha. This was from the Los Angeles session, which was the first one. They’re roughly broken into two halves, so this was one of the first ones. I can’t remember exactly where it came in as far as when it was written versus the other songs. But yeah, I definitely know it’s in the first batch of the recordings.
Covering “Lean On Me” For Gortimer Gibbon’s Life On Normal Street (2016)
STEREOGUM: Bill Withers just died, so let’s start with your “Lean On Me” cover for an Amazon TV show. How did that come about?
OBERST: Once in a while you just get propositioned via the publishing companies I’ve been on. They’re always excited to get any kind of sync money, and so sometimes people will come with wild ideas. They just contacted us and said, “Will you cover this song?” And I love Bill Withers. That song’s great. It probably wouldn’t have been like my first choice to cover, but you got to be careful with these things like I’ve found out.
My advice to other musicians is, most of the time they want you to make it and then submit it and then they use it if they want. But if you’re kinda stubborn, you can be like, “I’ll do it, but you gotta give me the money whether you use it or not.” So, that’s what I always say to them. I’m like, “If you want to send the money over, we’ll make the song.” But they wanted a real sparse, sort of like “First Day Of My Life”-y acoustic guitar thing, and that seemed really not exciting to me. So, it was mostly just me and my friend Ben Brodin, who’s an engineer at our studio in Omaha. We just played all the instruments and he did a lot of the Beatles-y background vocals and stuff. We just made a version that we thought was cool. And I don’t know how happy they were with it or not, but since they’d already given us the money, they used it.
Dntel’s “Breakfast In Bed” (2007)
STEREOGUM: You had done Digital Ash In A Digital Urn by that point, so it wasn’t totally out of left field, but it was still pretty rare at the time for somebody from a folk-rock background to appear on an electronic pop album like that.
OBERST: I don’t know what year I met Jimmy Tamborello, probably 2002, just through the Rilo Kiley crew. And yeah, he was just always my friend. I didn’t actually know that much about his music. I knew he made electronic music, but I’d been friends with him a while before I ever really heard what he did. And then obviously of course the Postal Service stuff blew up. And he just asked me to sing on that song, and I loved the beat. I loved that Alka-Seltzer sound in it. That was a fun one. I just think I recorded the vocals in his apartment at the time in LA.
Guesting Alongside Ben Gibbard And M. Ward On Jenny Lewis And The Watson Twins’ “Handle With Care”(2005)
STEREOGUM: You mentioned meeting Jimmy through the Rilo Kiley crew, and obviously Jimmy was connected with Ben Gibbard as well. That same circle of friends was involved in the Traveling Wilburys cover on Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat. Where did the idea for that come from?
OBERST: It was Jenny’s idea. At the time I was like, “Oh, this might be kind of cheesy.” But she wanted to do it. And I think it came out cool. I remember we were on tour with Rilo Kiley, I think like in Europe. For some reason, I had to record my vocal for it at a venue after sound check. Mogis had a little travel Pro Tools thing and just had, like, a mic but not a fancy mic. But we just did it in the backstage. I think maybe even on the stage. I just remember recording it in a venue, my little part of it. Yeah, it was cool once it was all put together. Obviously Jenny sounded great.
The Abandoned Monsters Of Folk Screenplay (2014)
STEREOGUM: At one point you were working on a screenplay based on Monsters Of Folk, your supergroup with Mogis, M. Ward, and Jim James. What ever happened with that?
OBERST: I actually finished it and everything, and we even started recording some of the music for it, but then it’s just like — you know how things are in Hollywood. It just got derailed. The film people that we were going to work with — just basically, the project fell apart and it was probably for the best. Because the way the script was, to do it right, it would’ve needed a couple of hundred million dollars. It wasn’t really an indie film, it was like an action adventure.
STEREOGUM: So it was an action film, but it also was about you guys as a band? Were you guys going to play yourselves in it?
OBERST: Yeah, yeah. We were going to play ourselves. We weren’t really the main characters, but we were in it. And we were going to do a lot of music. In sort of our forever sarcastic, jokey way about that band, the idea was like, “We’re a super group. We made one record. You can’t just make another record, the only idea was keep going bigger.” So we were like, “All right, full-length feature film. That’s what a super group would do.” That was the idea of that. Yeah, it didn’t quite work out, you know? This town will chew you up and spit you out.
STEREOGUM: You think you’ll ever leak the screenplay?
OBERST: [laughs] Probably not.
Auditioning For Inside Llewyn Davis And Later Interviewing Oscar Isaac About The Film (2013)
STEREOGUM: Keeping it on the Hollywood side of things, you also auditioned to play Llewyn Davis. How did that come about?
OBERST: Again, they just reached out. I think they reached out to a lot of different musicians because I know I have other friends that read for it too. I have this friend, this guy Brian Young who I guess is like my film and TV agent? He’s just a friend, and he’s been helping us make music videos and everything since like 2005 or something, just an old friend who’s in the business. Once in a while he’ll get a call from a casting agent type person that’s like, “Would Conor want to read for this?” And he’s always like, “He’s not really an actor.” But in that situation it was the Coen brothers, so he’s like, “You gotta do it.” But it was like, man, and I’m sure I was terrible. I know I was terrible. And I was also really, really nervous. I didn’t have to read for them, it was like their casting people. But I have a lot of sympathy now for actors that are always going to those things and trying to get the gig. It’s really stressful.
STEREOGUM: Do you remember what scene they were having you read?
OBERST: It was the one where the cat runs away. I remember that. It was like right after — he actually lets the cat out of the window and then he’s talking to her, they’re fighting in the cafe. I think it was that scene.
STEREOGUM: You later interviewed Oscar Isaac about the movie. Was that weird or awkward since you had auditioned for the role?
OBERST: No, it was great because we became friends. There was a concert for the movie at Town Hall in New York. And I have a song on the soundtrack. It was tons of people, like T Bone Burnett produced the thing, but it was like, I don’t know, Gillian Welch, Jack White, blah, blah, blah. Tons of people played. Joan Baez. It was a pretty amazing night. Everyone just played a couple songs. And then [Isaac] was there, and he sang a couple of songs from the movie, and then we just ended up attaching at the hip that night and hanging out all night, ended up back at my apartment and just, yeah, we just became friends. And so, when they were trying to think of someone to do the interview piece with, I was like, “That would be cool.” Because I love that guy.
Covering “The Pearl” At An Emmylou Harris Tribute Concert (2015) And Working With Her On I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
STEREOGUM: Another big star-studded event you played was a tribute to Emmylou Harris, who obviously you worked with on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. How did that connection come about?
OBERST: At the time we just threw a Hail Mary. We’d been making that record. We knew we wanted someone to sing harmony and we were like, “Well, let’s just shoot for the stars. What would be our top choice? Obviously Emmylou.” So we reached out to her management or whatever and sent her the music, and she agreed to do it. And so we were over the moon. So Mike and I flew down to Nashville, went to the studio with her and she did it. And she was so gracious and just everything you could imagine, just so kind. And hearing her sing my words, it was a pretty amazing thrill.
Over the years we’ve run into her at like the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival or just random places over the years. And she was always very sweet. And then, yeah, they asked me to be a part of that tribute, and I always loved that song of hers, “The Pearl.” I think it was in DC, we just went in, and they had their whole pro band backing me up. I got to meet Kris Kristofferson that night. That was incredible. He was really about as cool as you can be. Talking to him, he’s like, “I can’t remember anything but my songs, Conor.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s good. At least you got those.”
Young Thug Sampling “First Day Of My Life” On “Me Or Us” (2017)
STEREOGUM: Speaking of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, did you hear the Young Thug song that sampled “First Day Of My Life”?
OBERST: No, I didn’t hear it. I know about it. I might’ve heard in passing, but I should re-listen to it. Is it tight?
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s pretty good. I guess one of the people who produced it was Post Malone, who recently told an interviewer about how obsessed he is with Bright Eyes: “Listening to him as a kid definitely inspired me. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is probably one of the saddest [albums] — I sit there, and I’m drinking and crying my fuckin’ eyes out to that shit.” I know he’s done late-night karaoke with Beach Fossils. Has he ever hit you up?
OBERST: He has not. But yeah, I didn’t know that. That’s rad that he’s a fan.
Bright Eyes’ TV Debut On Letterman (2003)
STEREOGUM: You were supporting Lifted at the time.
OBERST: It was weird because Lifted had been out for a while, as those things go. The record came out, and it took a while for people to catch on. So by the time we got the Letterman offer, I don’t know, it was like a year-and-a-half after the record had come out. We should have just played a song off the record. That would have been the normal, smart thing to do from, like, a commercial point, I guess. But I had a bunch of new songs. I was like, “Let’s play a new song.” Everyone thought that was weird, like the publicist and Letterman, but they were like, “Fine, do what you want.”
So we played this song “Trees Get Wheeled Away.” I was very nervous. I’ve gotten used to it now, those TV shows, but the first time you do it, it’s like such a different experience than a regular show. Just cameras coming, flying all around you, in your face. And it doesn’t ever sound really that great, and it just feels kind of sterile and strange. But I think we did a pretty good job for our first time.
And of course, it’s also something everyone in your hometown — it was something on television. People that kind of know you play music, all of a sudden when you’re like, “We’re playing Letterman,” or at least back then, your street cred back home I remember going up quite a bit. People are like, “Wow, really?” Which is kind of funny.
Collaborating With Phoebe Bridgers (2017) And Forming Better Oblivion Community Center (2019)
STEREOGUM: Your most recent thing before this Bright Eyes reunion was Better Oblivion Community Center. You sang on Phoebe’s album Stranger In The Alps before that, and I know you’re credited on the new album as well. How did that creative partnership develop, and what makes it so appealing?
OBERST: We met, I guess it would have been like summer of 2016, at this little secret show at Bootleg Theater here in LA. And that was the first time I heard her sing, and I was just totally amazed and thought she was fantastic. And then she ended up mixing her record with Mike in Omaha and asked me to sing on the song, which I did. I had an advance copy of the record and just thought it was one of the best things I’d heard in a long time. And then we did shows together and just became friends. And at some point we’re like, “Let’s write a song.”
I didn’t really grow up with this co-writing culture or whatever. But out in LA, a lot of songwriters do it all the time, where it’s like, “Let’s get together and write a song, and then maybe someone else will record it or maybe it’ll be on one of our albums.” I hadn’t done a lot of that, but I thought, “Well, if there’s anyone I’d want to try that with, Phoebe would be amazing.” So, we got together and we wrote, I think it was “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” which is the first song on that record. That was the first song we wrote together, and we just both were really happy with it. And then it was like, “OK, let’s write another one.”
And then after doing that a couple of times, we just realized, “We like these songs, we should just make an album. We don’t want to give them away.” Again, probably for both of us, it wasn’t necessarily the most logical thing to do, commercially or whatever. She was going to make a new record of her own. But I always feel like creatively, you just have to follow what you’re interested in at the time. And I think that that’s where the best work comes from. I think if you get too wrapped up in schedules and planning — obviously, it gets harder with the management and labels and timelines and expectations. But I’ve always bounced around from project to project just because that’s what keeps me excited about what I do. I think if I followed the most sensible path, I wouldn’t be as happy creatively.
covering the new bright eyes in quarantine pic.twitter.com/jtYiyi6njl
— traitor joe (@phoebe_bridgers) March 29, 2020
STEREOGUM: I read some interview where Phoebe claimed to have taught you about memes. Is that true?
OBERST: Yeah. She’s taught me a lot about the internet in general. A lot of hours on the tour bus where she has to explain jokes to me and stuff. I think I’m starting to get it a little more now. I understand there’s a template and then everyone comes up with their funniest version of it. It almost seems like a parlour game or something you’d play with your family after Thanksgiving dinner, a weird Pictionary or something. But people love that stuff, so I think it’s good. Especially nowadays, the more jokes you can get, the better.
STEREOGUM: You got any favorite memes?
OBERST: Shoot. I let them in one eye, out the other kind of thing. I couldn’t name one.
STEREOGUM: They’re ephemeral nature.
OBERST: Yeah. I feel like there’s definitely some that make me laugh and then there’s definitely some I need explaining to me for sure.
Bright Eyes & Britt Daniel’s Home Volume IV EP (2002)
OBERST: That was really fun. I remember being so excited because I was such a big fan of his from high school. So, to get him to come to Omaha and basically make a record in my basement with me that was really cool.
We had become friends. Omaha was weird in the ’90s because we had one cool record store and we would end up — all of our friends, our small group of friends that all played in bands and were super passionate about music — we would find out about a record and we would all get obsessed with it. And this happened to several different bands over the years. I can think of like, I don’t know, like the Wrens and Brainiac, Spoon and bands that I don’t think were — they were popular in other places, of course, but they would show up in Omaha and there would just be like a hundred kids that were so excited and knew everything about them that you could.
This is before the internet. So it was hard to know that much. I remember going to see bands and having no idea what they look like, and watching them unload their van and being like, “Oh my God, is that Archers Of Loaf?” Anyway, we had the Telephono record pretty much right when it came out, and we all went and saw Spoon play in Omaha. And I don’t think they were having that great of a tour at the time, but they were rock stars and they got to Omaha and ended up hanging out with everyone. Back then it was wasn’t weird to be exchanging numbers and addresses and, “I’ll send you my music.”
I kept up with them over the next several years. I was just starting Bright Eyes, and I think I must’ve sent — Britt came through at some point, I remember I gave him Letting Off The Happiness on vinyl just when he was passing through town. And then, he might have even written me a letter, believe it or not. Or it might’ve been an email, I can’t remember. But he wrote me and was like, “I’ve been listening to the record and I really think it’s good.” Because I’m sure in his mind he was just like, “This is that little kid from that town or whatever.”
I don’t know what year that would’ve been, but I had already kind of known him for, I don’t know, four years or something. And then I convinced him to come to Omaha, and we made that recording literally in my basement. I guess he took it back to Austin and made it sound nicer. But I remember we did a lot of this stuff in my basement.
Dave Rawlings Machine Blending “Method Acting” With Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” (2009)
STEREOGUM: A lot of artists have covered Bright Eyes over the years. Did any stand out or catch you off guard?
OBERST: They’re friends of mine, but I was pretty blown away when David Rawlings did his mashup with “Cortez The Killer” into “Method Acting,” or vice versa I guess, on the Dave Rawlings Machine’s first record A Friend Of A Friend. That was really just amazing. One, because I love Dave and Gill and their music is so, I don’t know, transcendental to me. But just obviously being put in the same world as the Neil Young song, I was like, “Wow. They think of me like they think of him. That’s insane.”
STEREOGUM: Have you ever gotten to hang out with Neil?
OBERST: I have. I’ve met him a few times. When they used to have the Bridge School Benefit, I played that a couple of years, and he always would have a barbecue at his house. It was a weekend, like a Friday night, he’d have all the bands and crew to his ranch. And then Saturday and Sunday we would play. I did that I think twice. And he’s super generous. You’re literally just hanging out at his house and they’re all barbecuing and stuff, and a big bonfire and yeah, just really one of the best there ever will be. It’s very special on so many levels.
Bright Eyes’ new song, “Forced Convalescence,” is out now via Dead Oceans.