Progress Report: Conor Oberst
NAME: Conor Oberst
PROGRESS REPORT:Gearing up for a massive world tour, Bright Eyes’ front man Conor Oberst talks about his new album, the pressures of political activism, and growing old gracefully.
The first time I meet Conor Oberst in person I am meeting him at an apartment in the east village that he does not actually live in. The uninhabited third floor walk up is rented by Oberst’s manager and serves as a kind of halfway house for various members of the Bright Eyes/Saddle Creek camp who might be passing through NYC. The apartment is filled with the kind of detritus that one might expect touring musicians to leave behind—an assortment of dusty amps, tangled webs of electrical cords, stacks of magazines, assorted rolls of duct tape, and a few mismatched pots and pans. When I arrive, Oberst is sitting alone at a tiny kitchen table in the middle of an otherwise empty room, pecking away on a battered old laptop that looks to have toured as many miles as he has. “I’d offer you a drink or something, but I don’t even know if there are glasses in this place,” he says, curiously picking through the kitchen cabinets. He is cordial, but seems a little bit wary. Dressed in a worn out hoodie and jeans, with at least a few days of beardy stubble on his cheeks, he looks like one of a million struggling young someones currently roaming the streets of the east village, not at all like a bonafide rock star (a term he would surely wince at) preparing for a world tour.
“It feels a little bit like the calm before the storm,” says Oberst, sitting down with mug of tap water. “I spent so much of the last year in a studio recording, the idea of doing press and spending the next year or so traveling around, it’s a little….well, it’s exciting, but it’s nerve wracking too. Whatever kind of normalcy you’ve managed to establish for yourself—any kind of routine—goes out the window once all of this starts up.”
For Oberst–who has been touring and performing under the Bright Eyes moniker since he was 18—normalcy is a relative term. Though he expresses a vague yearning for a more settled kind of living situating, he still bounces back and forth between his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska (where he owns a home and recently built a fancy new recording studio) and places in Los Angeles and New York. At the moment he is camped out in NYC, a town that has felt more and more like home to him since he left Omaha, Nebraska in 2003. Still, he is reticent about staying put or making any kind of plans that don’t somehow involve going someplace else other than where he is at any given moment. Oberst’s music has always been informed by a kind of wanderlust—both emotional and intellectual—and that itch to always keep moving appears to have been a defining factor in his life.
“Rock and roll can keep you young, but that’s not always necessarily a good thing,” he explains. “I’d like to have that steady home thing, but it’s difficult. At some point you have to choose what is going to be important to you. There is a level of sacrifice with all of the traveling. I’ve slowed down somewhat in the last couple of years, touring-wise. But still, I can’t say that I’ve stayed put anywhere for more than two months. Not ever. Not in my entire adult life. There is always somewhere to go, a show to play, some thing that needs to be done, some person I need to see. I get uneasy at the idea of having to be in one place for too long. I’m ok with that, but it does keep you from being able to deal with certain things, it can make it hard to have a relationship or establish any kind of roots. Those sorts of things have been on my mind more and more lately, I guess.”
These more grown up concerns are reflected, albeit somewhat obliquely, in the new Bright Eyes album, The People’s Key. Having shaken off some of the folky Americana vibe of his last record (2009’s Outer South), the new Bright Eyes album is arguably the most concise and most overtly poppy record that Oberst has ever made. It might also be the weirdest. The albums opens with a long spoken word passage from Denny Brewer (…space is expanding, there are spirit is coming from the center, there are eight other universes spinning counterclockwise to ours…) the singer and vocalist for an El Paso-based psychedelic band Refried Ice Cream. Aside from being a musician, Brewer might be what some would commonly refer to as a crazy conspiracy theorist, but for Oberst Brewer is not only a friend, but a voice for those willing to consider dissenting takes on “reality.” The Peoples Key is, in its own way, an album about challenging and figuring out exactly what you choose to believe in. Or, to hear Oberst describe it, the record is about “Science fiction and futurism.”
“There is a fine line between insanity and profound enlightenment,” says Oberst, “I’ve always been interested in that. When you believe something to be true, that belief totally shapes your world. There is also the opposite, the moment when you lose your belief—whether it is a belief in Santa Claus or Jesus or God—and those can be pretty gnarly experiences. You have to take someone’s word for something at some point, right? It’s not possible to know everything in an immediate concrete way, so how do we ever really know what is real and true? What is the key? Once you figure out what your own version of the truth is—or what you want it to be—you have this way to frame the world around you. It provides a kind of anchor for your life.”
After spending some time with him, it occurs to me that Conor Oberst could only be from a place like Omaha, Nebraska. Not only does he have the manners and witticisms of native Midwesterner (as a native Oklahoman, I tend to recognize such things), he is also quite possibly the most genuinely earnest and least pretentious rock star I’ve ever talked to, even when discussing things as esoteric as how to “really figure out your own personal truth.” It’s also clear that the pressures Oberst might feel regarding the success of Bright Eyes extend beyond just creative and financial. Over a decade deep into his career, Oberst’s success is inextricably wound up in the community of friends and family with whom he collaborates.
“I’ve been very lucky to do this mostly my own way,” he says. “There are pressures that come from managers and booking agents and labels, but I mostly work with my friends. It’s still hard sometimes though. It’s easy to say fuck you to some faceless record label, but not so much when you are working with people you grew up with and have known forever. You can’t really say fuck you to people who you are then going to be hanging out with later that night or when you are also crashing at their house. You just can’t behave like that.”
A couple of weeks after our initial meeting, Oberst agrees to meet up with me for a cup of coffee. We have yet to talk at all about his history of political activism and, being the music nerd that I am, I am eager to ask him about the dramatic early days of Bright Eyes, back when he was considered something of a heartthrob for misanthropic teens and first generation bloggers. Given that there is actually no such thing as a quiet, uncrowded coffee shop in the east village where two people might sit and have a relaxed conversation without shouting, we retreat instead to the dark and quiet of a tiny bar called on 13th Street called Heathers. The bar isn’t yet open for business, but since I also bartend there occasionally, I happen to have a key. For the rest of the afternoon, the two of us have the place to ourselves—with only the sound of an occasionally clanking radiator and our own voices for the next couple of hours.
Oberst has the good fortune of still mostly looking like a kid. He may not be the frail, quavering-voice manchild who anxiously sang lyrics inspired by The Unbearable Lightness of Being back on 1998’s Letting Off The Happiness, but the now 30 year-old Oberst could still pass for much younger if he wanted to. His hair is longer and his face is scruffier, but he still has the same boyish features and wide, kind eyes that made sensitive indie rock listeners (and music journalists) fawn over him back in the early 2000’s. These days Oberst’s musical projects (Bright Eyes, Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk) appeal to a slightly older demographic of NPR-listening white dudes and aging indie rockers but as he is somewhat loathe to admit, his earliest and most fervent fanbase was made up of kids (mostly girls) who latched onto his emotionally raw and brazenly confessional music as a kind of 21st century answer to The Smiths. Oberst elicited a kind of hysterical devotion in his fans, who not only scrutinized his lyrics, but also copied his style (a floppy haircut that was seen as a progenitor to the bad emo Hot Topic style still prevalent in malls across America to this day). Clearly, Oberst has moved on—both musically and stylistically—but the subject of his early years still causes him to shudder just a little when I bring it up.
“It was frightening,” he recalls. “I was in an emo band without even knowing it. I didn’t even know what ‘emo’ was until Bright Eyes was called that. When you are nineteen years old and writing these very confessional-seeming songs, inevitably you attract people of the same age who are feeling the same things you are…and feeling them in a really fierce, adolescent way. It was intense. I knew I wasn’t gonna stay like that forever, but certain fans definitely thought I would stay that way forever. It was disappointing to them. I think we lose fans and gain fans with each record and you’ve got to do what you are motivated to do. I couldn’t have gone on in that vein without losing my mind. Luckily, as our music matured, so did most of the people coming to the shows.”
So who are his fans now?
“Now, Bright Eyes falls into this netherworld. We’re not really a mainstream band, but we’re not really cool in the indie hipster zone either. I think we exist in this funny middle ground where we don’t really have to appease anyone. The biggest sign of success is longevity and I’ve seen so many bands end because it just didn’t work out or they couldn’t make a living and had to quit music and get real jobs or whatever. So, the fact that I’m sitting here talking to you feels like a success, you know? Just to be making record and touring, that is success.”
Bob Dylan is the most obvious example of an American songwriter who manages to, among other things, perfectly balance the personal and political, along with the traditional and the mythological. After spending a certain amount of time with Oberst, it’s clear that he would not—probably even at gunpoint—compare himself to Bob Dylan, but others have been known to do so. Both artists have a fairly prodigious output (Oberst has released nearly 20 albums in the past two decades), but more tellingly, both have made music that has become synonymous with political and cultural shifts. When Bright Eyes released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in 2005, the record was largely seen as an indictment of the Bush administration (an opinion mostly validated when Oberst performed “When The President Talks To God” on network television). It wasn’t as if he were tearing up pictures of the pope on SNL, but the galvanizing message that Oberst sent out—mostly to young people—was unmistakable. Touring with the likes of Springsteen, R.E.M., Neil Young and Pearl Jam on the 2004 Vote For Change Tour further cemented Oberst’s position as an artist to reckoned with. He was the young lefty rebel rouser, as well as being the boy wunderkind with the fragile voice and the heart of gold—a role that nearly drove him round the bend.
In regards to his political motivations, Oberst views his role as an activist to be something born out of personal motivations rather than any artistic one. “I wouldn’t say I have an obligation, I would say that I feel compelled,” he explains. “It’s not necessarily something I enjoy doing, but I feel like I should. Obviously, that provided a very specific context for people to think about us—as a kind of political, lefty band. I didn’t plan it that way or intend for people to think of Bright Eyes in that way. It’s very much a part of what I do, but I don’t think of myself as a specifically “political” artist. Just because you feel something in your private life doesn’t necessarily mean you have to express it in your public life or in your work….but it would be nice if more people did. Especially when it came to gay rights and immigration rights, wherein people are really being oppressed here in the U.S. on a daily basis.”
While he might want to avoid being known as a preachy political artist or a kind of messianic do gooder in the way that, say, Bono is (“I’d rather just been known first as a songwriter” he says), it’s when the subject of our conversation turns to politics that Oberst really begins to light up. Last year the bulk of Oberst’s political work concerned xenophobic immigration laws—both in Arizona and Nebraska. He was responsible for getting bands like Rage Against the Machine to play protest shows to raise money and awareness, as well as encouraging artists to boycott the state of Arizona altogether. He later staged a similar concert in his hometown of Omaha to rally against a similar immigration law that was passed into law in Nebraska. It was a move that ruffled more than a few feathers back home (“I got written threats stuffed into my mailbox a lot” he says), but it only reaffirms his position not only as someone willing to stick his neck out for things he believes in, but as an artist with the power to actually make things happen. As a result of Oberst’s fundraising and the work of the ACLU, the Nebraska law in question is expected to be overturned.
For someone whose career has been characterized by the discussion of his youth, what happens when you get older? When I suggest to Oberst that The People’s Key sounds like a kind of exploration of aging (i.e. “I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t know what I really believe about anything”), he can only nod and say that I could be right….or maybe I’m not. Growing older in an industry that often encourages male artists to live out their Peter Pan fantasies can prove to be a mind fuck for even the most levelheaded human being, but to have success thrust upon you so early in life is almost always a recipe for disaster. How then has Oberst managed to weather the industry with such relative grace?
“Music has always been the thing that pulls me through, or at least provides some structure for my life,” he says, “A lot of times on tour I can start to feel really lost, but when we actually play the show and play the songs, I remember. It makes me feel better—physically better—to play music. I used to be much more shy and awkward about performing. I’m still kind of an awkward performer, but I used to feel like I had no obligation to the audience. My attitude was something like, I’m up here to do what I want to do, and if you don’t get it, you can leave. But I guess to a certain extent I still feel like I’m up there to make myself happy and I don’t want to pander, but at the same time….people have spent money to see you. A lot of those people probably don’t have a lot of money to be spending, so they really want to hear you sing well and play the songs without being totally inebriated. I had some growing pains in those areas along the way, but I try to be as natural as I can be on stage, but not disrespectful. I think I’ve become more professional over the years, at least. As a kid, I played shows with my hair in my face and could only get up in front of people after pounding drinks beforehand. Some people probably saw that as a kind of put on or whatever, but it wasn’t. That was me saying I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m scared. Now if I were to get up on stage and do that, it would be a put on. I’m not afraid of an audience anymore.”
By the time you read this story, Conor Oberst will be 31 years old. Depending on your own age and how you feel about aging, that might seem old or, perhaps still painfully young. Even though he has said so long to his twenties and made plenty of wise adult decisions (“I have owned a home since I was 20. I signed my first publishing deal when I was 19—for something like 50,000 dollars—and I was afraid I’d blow it all, so I bought a little house in Omaha.”), Oberst still finds the concept of adulthood puzzling.
“No, I really don’t feel like an adult,” he says, “I don’t really feel any different fundamentally than I’ve felt all my life. That sounds strange, I know, but I feel very much like the same person. Circumstances have changed and hopefully I’ve learned a few things, but I don’t really feel like a grown up. But maybe everyone feels that way? Or, there are certain people who probably have always felt like an adult—even when they were kids—but I am not one of those people. I would say that I’m thicker-skinned now. I don’t react as intensely to life. I still care about things, but you can never go back to being 18 or 19 years old. Each year the callous around your psyche gets thicker. I don’t want to spend time dwelling on the feelings I had when I was a teenager or in my early 20’s. Or if I am gonna revisit those feelings, I want to find a way to express them that isn’t quite as on the nose. I guess that’s the biggest difference between the music I’m making now and the music I was making then: I’m still pulling from the same life experiences, but the delivery is much less obvious and naked.”
Of all the things we talk about, the subject of growing older seems to give Oberst the most pause. For someone with such a strong attraction/repulsion to his childhood home, success has been both a blessing and curse, as has the pressure of trying to always do the right thing. Talking to him, one gets the impression that Conor Oberst is a person who spends a lot of time actively trying not to be a jerk. As the light in the bar continues to fade as the afternoon wears on and our conversion winds to a close, I occasionally get a glimpse of the melancholy that played such a part in his early songs. After a long silence, he says:
“You know, one of my really good friends is 77 years old. I don’t think of him as being old though. I just think of him as this cool person that I like to spend time with. I guess I don’t mind getting older, but I don’t like feeling like you have to adhere to those conventions that come along with aging. I don’t want to ever feel old, even if I am.”
Conor Oberst has made a career out of writing songs that playfully invert all the familiar idioms that are classic to American music—from nakedly confessional teenage soliloquies about love to sweeping, countrified Americana, to glitchy pop music and tensely political singalongs. Given his prodigious and varied oeuvre, it’s not at all unfair to rank him among our most gifted and weirdly prescient music-makers. But the truly great thing about him—and the thing that carries through all of his various creative endeavors—seems to be his absolute genuineness. He is a guy who looks you in the eye when he talks to you. He is gracious and grateful. He gives you a hug rather than a handshake when you say goodbye. In short, he’s just super fucking nice. And it shows.
Of his success thus far—and regarding comparisons to other great American songwriters—Oberst can only shake his head. “There are a lot of trippy aspects to public perception and critical versus commercial success,” he shrugs. “To be in the same paragraph as people I admire is fantastic, but it’s hard to figure out where I fit in and what is real and what’s really an illusion. I try not to take any of that to heart. I try to never allow myself to think things like, Now I’ve made it! I think it’s that midwestern part of me; the part that says, no matter what happens, you just gotta keep working. You can’t take anything too seriously, but you gotta be serious about what you do.”
A few days after our afternoon coffee date, I send Oberst an email to thank him for being so generous with his time (especially given the fact that I know sitting down and submitting to interviews is not high on his list of preferred activities). In the email, I also suggest to Oberst that—in an effort to enliven my story and to combat his unrelenting niceness—I’ve taken the liberty of fabricating an anecdote for the story in which the otherwise friendly musician takes offense to my line of questioning, splashes a scalding cup of coffee in my face, and storms out of the interview. It’s the kind of thing Oberst would only do in some other, parallel universe and imagining the scenario in my head actually makes me laugh out loud. Within a few minutes of sending the email, I receive Conor’s response:
“Yes! If I’m asked about the coffee incident, that is how I’ll remember it as well. Take care my friend! See you soon I hope. Peace!”
These days he might be serious about getting serious, but it’s nice to know that Conor Oberst can always take a joke.
Bright Eyes will play the Ground Control Touring showcase at Auditorium Shores in Austin on Saturday night. NPR will stream the whole show.
[Photo by Autumn De Wilde.]