Bright Eyes: Carry That Weight

brighteyescA private, precocious songwriter who’s grown up in public, Conor Oberst has shouldered expectations and weathered the hype. But Bright Eyes’ latest album, an orchestral-country passion play for the 21st-century decline, is the heaviest thing he’s ever done. By Matthew Fritch

They say it takes a worried man to sing a worried song. Until now, you may not have regarded Conor Oberst as someone who’s seen a lot of trouble—or enough of it to craft one of the most complex, haunting records a concerned citizen is likely to hear in 2007. Cassadaga, the Omaha, Neb., native’s sixth full-length under the name Bright Eyes, is set against a bleak backdrop of American idiocy and imperialism, its 13 songs bound by lyrics about holy wars, Babylon and falling empires. Not to mention polar ice caps, hurricanes, poor black children and a frightened middle class. Cassadaga isn’t an album; it’s a federal disaster area.

If this gives the impression that Cassadaga is the feel-bad album of the year, with Oberst preaching the kind of liberal politics that landed him on the Vote For Change tour in 2004 alongside R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen, well, that’s kind of like saying M*A*S*H wasn’t funny because of all the wounded soldiers lying around. Cassadaga is full of symphonic, weird, cosmic country/rock, and it’s more than a little confusing. Here, Bright Eyes sounds as eerily uplifting as the Titanic’s string band, playing for beauty and kicks even as the ship is going down.

Sitting in an Italian restaurant in lower Manhattan, Oberst discusses his latest album between sips of Peroni beer. Cassadaga takes its title from a town in the swamplands of central Florida, a haven for a community of about two dozen psychics, fortune tellers and palm readers to practice their craft in what they claim is a geographical vortex of paranormal activity. Though Cassadaga welcomes tourists, its humble town square and bungalow-lined streets are decidedly off the beaten path for Disney vacationers, and Oberst is slightly remorseful—you might say worried—that he’s about to alert his audience to the sleepy psychic center.

“I hope it doesn’t cause them any trouble” is the first thing he says about Cassadaga. “You know, like indie kids from Orlando driving down there or something.”

Oberst visited Cassadaga last year and entered a bookstore whose chalkboard lists the names and numbers of psychics available for readings. After making an appointment, he walked down the street and into the front parlor of a house for a two-hour session that centered more on stress relief than predictions.

“She said I have a lot of anxiety,” admits Oberst. “She more or less said, ‘You’re doing all right. Keep going with the grain.’ Because there are times when I think I need to make a major change. I always feel like disaster is right around the corner. One of the spirits that she sensed was a man in my family from a couple generations back who was dissatisfied with my pace and wanted to push me further. Which I didn’t understand, because I’ve been working pretty hard.”

Oberst retains a healthy skepticism about the whole experience but doesn’t deny the desire to believe in his glimpse at the great beyond. “Maybe because [the psychics] believe it so strongly,” he says. “What’s religion other than a little guidance, a little bit of peace of mind? Some way to help calibrate your life so that you don’t feel so separate from everything.”

Connection is what Cassadaga is all about. Which is significant, because Oberst started out as a songwriter walled in by his own emotions and experiences, exhaling a lot of precious ruminations on the topic of himself. Sometimes the soul-baring came out in loping, tangled lines about gray skies and cigarettes, and sometimes it burst forth in quivering, edge-of-a-breakdown shouts. Thousands of young fans wanted to give the doe-eyed indie-folk heartthrob a hug; Winona Ryder even gave him a kiss. He’s been photographed for dozens of glossy magazines, and he’s been sent scripts for movie roles (most recently by Hedwig And The Angry Inch writer/director John Cameron Mitchell). Oberst currently lives in New York City’s East Village, has a knockout girlfriend in musician Maria Taylor (formerly of Azure Ray and now a solo artist), hangs out with Michael Stipe and is the envy of less-successful musicians who don’t have his talent, principles, friends, looks or relative youth.

Given the scrutiny of Oberst’s personal life and the weightiness of his new music, I attempted a lighthearted question-and-answer round. It didn’t really work.
I have a list of stupid questions.
Well, earlier today I got asked where was the strangest place I’ve ever had sex.
This isn’t Sassy. I don’t think. Who asked you that?
Jane. I made something up because I didn’t have a good one. I said, “In a tree.”
Some people go to Cassadaga to commune with the dead. Who would you want to talk to from beyond the grave?
[Immediately] Jimi Hendrix. Probably the coolest person who’s ever lived. I saw a picture of him the other day in a bar—he had kind of a mod look and was wearing a handmade Bob Dylan pin—and was starstruck.
Magazine articles tend to analyze your songs and your psychic pain. Do you read your own press?
Half the time they’re writing about themselves. I’m just the vehicle for them to get their ideas across.
Because they need to hold you up as an example?
Yeah. Or to tear me down. It’s part of the deal.
People take potshots at you, maybe because you’re kind of young—
I’m not that young.
Well, you used to be kind of young. Point being, I think there’s some jealousy there. But who are you jealous of?
I’ve always wanted a higher voice. Like Otis Redding. I’d settle for (My Morning Jacket’s) Jim James. I’ve got this croak in my throat. My voice keeps getting lower, and it’s starting to bum me out.
You’ll be 27 next week. What are you doing for your birthday?
Actually, I’ll be practicing. We have a tour coming up. So no plans, really.
Your response should’ve been, “I’m having sex in a tree.”
That’ll work.

He was so much younger then, he’s older than that now. It was 1999 when I met 19-year-old Conor Oberst for an interview at a vegetarian café the day of Bright Eyes’ debut in Philadelphia. With him was Tim Kasher, frontman of fellow Omaha outfit Cursive and then a member of Bright Eyes’ touring band. Six years Oberst’s senior, Kasher fielded a lot of the questions while Oberst shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

We talked about Neutral Milk Hotel, whose In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was the hottest thing going in underground rock at the time; Oberst had even traveled to Athens, Ga., to record some of Bright Eyes’ debut, 1999’s Letting Off The Happiness, with members of the Elephant 6 collective. Bright Eyes played for a couple dozen people later that night, and after the show, Oberst passed around a bottle that some similarly underage kids from Lancaster had snuck in. It seemed very much like Oberst’s first brush with the music business, but that perception was all wrong.

“I first met Conor as I was paying for a record in the old Dirt Cheap Records store downtown,” says Omaha singer/songwriter Simon Joyner. “I turned to leave, and there was this little kid with huge glasses looking up at me with a big smile on his face standing next to his older brother, who was only an inch taller than he was. They were blocking the door. This was probably 1992 or 1993. Conor threw out his hand and introduced himself and said he was a big fan.”

Not long afterward, Oberst released his 1993 cassette debut, Water, under his own name through the makeshift Lumberjack label run by brother Justin and friends Robb Nansel and Mike Mogis. Joyner issued Oberst’s next two cassettes on his Sing, Eunuchs! imprint. Along with the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, Joyner helped define a Midwestern style of ragged, warbly cassette folk, filling in the edges of his songs with noirish character sketches. In hindsight, Joyner was probably a bigger influence on Oberst than Neutral Milk Hotel ever was.

Buried just as deeply in the catacombs of pre-Bright Eyes history is Commander Venus, the punk band Oberst fronted while attending Creighton Preparatory School, a Jesuit high school that’s also the alma mater of older bandmates Kasher, Nansel and Matt Bowen (currently of the Faint). A Doogie Howser of an indie-rock band, the precocious Commander Venus got a record deal due to a case of mistaken identity.

“Commander Venus got signed to Grass Records because of a demo [the label] heard,” says Mogis. “I don’t know if they just never called the band or what, but they thought Conor was a female singer. They were interested in this band, going, ‘This chick is like PJ Harvey on amphetamines.’ Because Conor’s voice hadn’t changed. Then they came out to Nebraska and found out it was a 14-year-old boy. I think they were even more stoked about that.”

Commander Venus had run its course by the end of 1997, mostly because Oberst’s muse had shifted focus toward the acoustic folk he’d been making all along on his own. That winter, Mogis lugged his eight-track reel-to-reel machine to the Oberst home and set up in the laundry room to capture Bright Eyes’ earliest recording.

The first three Bright Eyes albums—Happiness, 2000’s Fevers & Mirrors and 2002’s Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground—were capable of great feats of astonishment and annoyance. It wasn’t that Oberst was an especially uneven songwriter, but rather that a certain discomfort was part of the experience, usually manifested in Oberst’s periodic outbursts of vocal histrionics. A constantly revolving backing band deserved part of the blame, too.

Nevertheless, Bright Eyes’ success and sales made Oberst a breadwinner for Saddle Creek, the label formerly known as Lumberjack. (The name was changed in 1995 due to the existence of a music distributor also called Lumberjack.) A combination of cash flow, local talent and dumb luck made Omaha—or, more specifically, Saddle Creek’s musical stable—one of the busiest hubs in indie rock. In 2005, the Spend An Evening With Saddle Creek documentary was issued on DVD to recount the label’s history and publicize its bands (including the Faint, Azure Ray and Cursive)—and perhaps as an excuse to show Oberst in his Harry Potter-like pubescent years, performing in living rooms and coffeehouses. More than a decade after its Lumberjack beginnings, members of the Saddle Creek crew can trace their friendships back to a dormitory at the University of Nebraska or a soccer team at Creighton Prep. Says Mogis, “It’s all just sort of this giant, mutating band.”

Oberst’s move to New York in 2003—coupled with a widening circle of tourmates over the years, most notably M. Ward and My Morning Jacket—gave him a new set of peers. Although he remains tight with the Omaha crowd, he also regularly consorts with New York musicians such as Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Ben Kweller and Pat Sullivan (formerly of Oneida and currently of Oakley Hall). The concurrent release of Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in 2005 seemed to reflect Oberst’s diverging interests and expanding sonic palette.

Though issued separately, the two albums were bound to compete with each other. The synth-pop Digital Ash, which featured guests from the Postal Service and the Faint, got the critical black eye (“a mess of preening pretension,” wrote All Music Guide; Mojo invented the word “schizophonic” to describe its aimlessness), while the country-flavored Wide Awake was correctly bronzed as Oberst’s best effort yet. But planted in familiar folk territory and leaning on guest appearances from Emmylou Harris, Jim James and Norah Jones guitarist Jesse Harris, Wide Awake also played it safe. Oberst seemed bottled up until closer “Road To Joy,” on which he let loose with, “Let’s fuck it up, boys—make some noise,” but even then, the song was hanging on a borrowed Beethoven melody.

In conversation, Oberst himself isn’t quite so easy to dissect. Whether at a Manhattan bar shortly before an M. Ward show at Town Hall or by telephone from an Omaha studio, he’s inscrutable in a way that’s maddeningly frustrating to write about. He’s too polite (“I had a pretty good upbringing”), too responsible (“I don’t care if Cassadaga sells as well as the last record did, but I hope that it does because everyone around me will be so disappointed”), too goddamn humble (“I have friends who make incredible music, and I honestly don’t think my music is as good as a lot of my friends’. That’s enough to deflate any kind of ego”).

Goading him into taking swipes at the Bush administration only makes Oberst seem more reasonable. Look for a chink in the armor where his puritanical DIY ethics are concerned, and you end up learning something: In protest of the homogenization brought about by Clear Channel’s majority ownership of radio stations and live music venues in the U.S., Bright Eyes has boycotted the company since 2003. But staying a step ahead of the corporate masters isn’t just a matter of willpower (over the past three years, Bright Eyes shows were either booked into alternative venues or rooms operated by competitor House Of Blues); it takes some research, too.

“[Clear Channel] basically changed its name to Live Nation and bought House Of Blues (in 2006),” says Oberst. “They had the audacity to call us up and say, ‘Conor can play here now. It’s not Clear Channel—it’s Live Nation.’ They tried to explain that Clear Channel was only a six-percent investor and that there was a different board of directors … But it’s just restructured and more giant now.”

A peculiar twist in the Cassadaga story is that there happens to be another town called Cassadaga in upstate New York. In 1875, Cassadaga, N.Y., psychic medium George P. Colby traveled to Florida, where he was reportedly led through the wilderness by his spirit guide to establish a winter camp for clairvoyants. This, of course, became the town Oberst visited—several times, in fact; most recently in January, taking Zinner with him.

But Cassadaga, N.Y., is also home to Tarbox Road Studios, where producer Dave Fridmann has spent the last decade working on psychedelic pastorals with Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips. Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga, recorded in Portland, Ore., New York City and Lincoln, Neb., could almost be mistaken for a product of Fridmann’s Hudson River School: Its moonlit orchestral-country sound is spooky and sprawling. The Cassadaga coincidence is trivial and subjective (Mogis cites early-’70s acid folkie Gary Higgins and modern-day sound sculptors Animal Collective as more relevant barometers), but Oberst seems open to the comparison: “We should’ve recorded there.”

Oberst insists the most exciting new development is that Bright Eyes is now a proper band, with Mogis and Nate Walcott inducted as permanent members before work commenced on Cassadaga. In a way, the invitation was a long time coming—Mogis and Walcott have been members of Oberst’s touring outfit since 2002—but he was typically shy about the approach.

“I felt like they might not be interested in devoting themselves full-time to my band,” says Oberst, noting Mogis’ career as a producer and Walcott’s wide-ranging abilities in jazz and classical music. “I thought Nate played with me for the experience of travel or maybe to make some money. He’s a hard man to read, so I didn’t know what he really felt about my songs.”

Walcott, a Lincoln native who played trumpet and piano in now-defunct Saddle Creek outfit Lullaby For The Working Class, spent three months perfecting Cassadaga‘s brass and string arrangements. It all came down to one day at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, 40 classically trained musicians and a $50,000 price tag. When asked about working with a 40-piece orchestra, Walcott is as sphinx-like as Oberst makes him out to be: “Actually, it was a 37-piece orchestra,” he says. “I think we cut down on a couple French horns.”

For his part, multi-instrumentalist Mogis added crucial twang counterpoints with his pedal-steel playing and served as a translator of Oberst’s ideas. While past Bright Eyes albums had fleeting moments of fitful experimentation, Cassadaga is sonically disorienting from start to finish. Some songs—country/folk fiddle stomp “Four Winds,” acoustic-guitar ramble “I Must Belong Somewhere”—could be tagged as winning follow-ups to I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. “Coat Check Dream Song,” however, revisits the electronic quagmire of Digital Ash with dismal results.

But the bulk of Cassadaga finds Bright Eyes in previously unexplored territory, sounding more like the Band (rollicking group effort “If The Brakeman Turns My Way”) or Calexico (spaghetti-Western instrumental “The Middleman”) than anything in the singer/songwriter realm. Oberst explains that “Make A Plan To Love Me” was a “bad attempt at some kind of a soul song with a girl-group call and response.” While it fails to achieve anything you’d mistake for Motown, the song is massively successful in conjuring a Henry Mancini composition for flute and ethereal choir, with a bridge section bigger than Phil Spector’s afro.

“At certain points during the recording, things got a little too over the top,” says Oberst with an impish grin. “Sometimes the orchestra sounded like a spaceship turning around.”

What keeps Cassadaga from collapsing under the weight of its own ambition is Oberst himself. His lyrical twin pillars of fear and loathing support enough songs about the Holy American Empire to make a compelling through line, but he proves just as adept with character studies “Soul Singer In A Session Band” (a “Piano Man”-like lament for a wasted talent) and “Classic Cars” (featuring vocals from Gillian Welch and the indelible line “The best country singers died in the backs of classic cars”). Given these songs’ grandiose canvases of sound, the mostly steady-voiced Oberst—at times sporting a Southern twang—is painting with nuanced strokes instead of erratic splashes.

“Conveying emotion is one thing, slipping into emotionalism is another,” says Joyner. “I think Conor has really matured in his songwriting to a point where he trusts his writing to deliver the bulk of his message. He doesn’t have to unnecessarily telegraph every little thing vocally or hit people over the head with what he’s trying to say or how he wants them to feel about something. I’ve always found that Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ is far more scathing than anything sneered or screamed on Never Mind The Bollocks.”

“When I started out, I sang in a natural way,” says Oberst. “It’s been a very intentional attempt over the years to be able to control my voice better. A lot of the shaking and that kind of thing in my early recordings—it was the way it came out, but it was also a good way to hide that you can’t sing in key. Everything I’ve done musically has been trial and error.”

If Oberst seems older and wiser, a songwriter entering a milder maturity and made more palatable for the National Public Radio demographic, consider Cassadaga opener “Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed),” which continues a long Bright Eyes tradition of fucking with you at the front door. Says Mogis, “At this point, it’s sort of a personal joke for us: Create an annoying intro that no one will listen to for every album.” On Wide Awake, it was a rambling story about an airplane crash; on Digital Ash, two minutes of nearly subsonic hiss; on Happiness, playground noises and distorted percussion.

“Clairaudients” contains queasy orchestral atonality and snippets of conversations Oberst recorded by dialing psychic-hotline numbers. Although he spent a couple hundred dollars on the phone calls, Oberst says he’s still in the process of contacting the psychics to obtain legal clearance to use their voices on the track. He’s not that worried, though: “Well, they probably already know, right? They’re telepathic.”

The Team Love Records office, a third-floor East Village walk-up, has a homey, lived-in feel. Until recently, it was the apartment of Nate Krenkel, Oberst’s manager and partner in the label they started in 2003. While many artist-run imprints earn their derogatory designation as vanity labels, Team Love is a working model, and Oberst and Krenkel, a former A&R man at Sony and EMI, are its moving parts.

Sitting in a swivel chair with a fax machine on the floor by his feet, Oberst chats about the label and rifles through a stack of demo CDs to find one of his favorite new discoveries. He comes up with a four-song CD by a Frenchman who goes by the name Just A Muffin. About 30 seconds into the demo, it’s apparent that this is an ironic favorite: a cloying bit of amateurish electronic pop with a certain Serge Gainsbourg charm. No offense to Just A Muffin; rather, it’s mildly surprising that Oberst is actually familiar with his label’s unsolicited demos.

As with just about anything Oberst is involved in, the philosophy is to do the opposite of whatever is happening on the major-label level. The initial plan was to make all releases available to download for free on the Team Love Web site; whatever money is lost through unsold physical CDs, the thinking goes, is also money saved by not paying extravagant radio-promotion fees. While the free-download tactic is now only applied to select releases, it’s too early to judge whether Team Love’s strategy would work; flagship act Tilly And The Wall—an offbeat Omaha band with a tap-dancing percussionist—isn’t exactly tearing up the sales charts, but if you’ve heard of them, that’s kind of the point.

Back in Omaha, there’s a whole new frontier for Team Love’s parent label. This year, Saddle Creek will open a $10 million complex that includes a 500-capacity music venue, bar, movie theater, label office and retail and living space. The two buildings, which are currently under construction, occupy an entire city block. Saddle Creek first attempted to build its own venue in 2004 but encountered resistance from neighborhood groups. When the label was approached by civic planners to relocate the project to a piece of city-owned land in an industrial neighborhood just north of downtown Omaha, Saddle Creek was skeptical.

“We didn’t want to be stuck in the middle of their vision of what urban development is going to be,” says label co-owner Robb Nansel. “We didn’t want to be sandwiched between a Famous Dave’s and a Starbucks. But it was a ridiculously good deal (on a lease) from the city, so we had to do it.”

At this point, it’s difficult to say who’s got more anxiety: Nansel, thrust into a real-life game of Monopoly, or Oberst, who’s on the cusp of releasing an apocalypto-folk album with strings. When I finally get around to asking Oberst about the doom-struck sentiments that haunt Cassadaga, he says he’s backed off from the specter of current events.

“I’ve tried to actually pay less attention to everything because all indications are pointing to some kind of drastic shift coming soon,” he says. “It’s not really sustainable what we do with our economic policy, our foreign policy … There’s such a drastic difference between the rich and the poor, and the middle class is shrinking. I think those are all indications, historically, of when a society is going to enter a downward turn. And I don’t know if the American people would accept living a different way than we do now.”

A car waits on the street below the Team Love office, ready to take Oberst to a photo shoot for another magazine. He suddenly remembers that he hasn’t shaved and begins a futile search of the office for a razor. “Oh, fuck it,” he says, descends the stairs and climbs into the black car, ready to be seen with a little stubble.

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