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Conor Oberst’s Road to Joy

With his reunion world tour on hold, the Bright Eyes frontman is riding out the pandemic at home in Nebraska. Still, after years of grief, the indie-folk wunderkind has a newfound hope for the future

Conor Oberst can’t stop seeing apocalypses. After all, he’s lived through several of them.

As the singer and frontman of the Omaha-based indie rock group Bright Eyes, Oberst first captured the attention of the college radio crowd by writing high-drama songs about young heartbreak. After 2000’s romantic and mystical Fevers and Mirrors, released when he was 20, Oberst leveled up to even more dramatic songs about watching your country backslide into fear and warmongering on the 2002 breakthrough Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The critical success got Oberst tagged as a sensitive, brooding indie rock prodigy, and subsequent albums like 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, with its megahit “First Day of My Life,” connected with a mass audience who, like him, felt adrift and unmoored during the George W. Bush years. Oberst was never afraid to use his fame to speak out on late-stage capitalism, music conglomerates and “cowboy presidents,” even when the blowback sometimes got downright unsanitary (here’s a video of some guy spitting on him during an MTV2 performance as he sings about choosing love over war).

Then, after 2007’s prog-country Cassadaga and 2011’s The People’s Key, Oberst quietly retired Bright Eyes. He spent the decade making solo records (including the quietly devastating 2016 album Ruminations), touring with his agit-punk group Desaparecidos and forming the supergroup Better Oblivion Community Center with a new indie rock prodigy, Phoebe Bridgers. He also spent the decade facing one personal crisis after another. In 2013, he was accused of sexual assault by a fan; the fan later retracted the allegations and admitted they were false. But the bad news never let up: Oberst weathered the death of his brother Matthew in 2016, a health crisis and then a divorce.

So Oberst started over. He felt a need to reconnect with close friends. He and Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott (who is also a touring member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) decided on the spot to restart the band while hanging out at a Christmas party. They FaceTimed third member Mike Mogis to see if he was in, and he was. The resulting self-produced album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, finds the band comfortably revisiting the epic sweep that earned Bright Eyes its early aughts devotees. Oberst has learned to wink at his morose persona while contemplating how to move forward in a world that won’t stop falling apart.

Now, with his planned world tour on hold, Oberst is riding out the pandemic at home in Omaha. He’s bringing food to his elderly neighbors — and, as ever, trying to stay sane in an insane time.

I first saw Bright Eyes in 2003, at this Orlando club called the Firestone. It was the week the Iraq War began, and as soon as you got on stage, you started denouncing the war. I remember people were heckling you, and one guy tried to rush the stage to fight you, and security threw him out. And these were people who paid money to attend this show. Was that sort of reaction to you speaking out politically common back then?

Oberst: Yeah. If you can remember back then, people on the left and the New York Times were all buying into the weapons of mass destruction argument. There’s always been an antiwar movement, but it felt — to me, anyway — like the majority of the country was ready for revenge after 9/11.

The songwriter Ted Leo told me that back in the early 2000s, it felt like you, he and Kathleen Hanna were really the only people in the indie and alternative world even bothering to speak out against the war and the Bush administration. Did you always feel isolated, as though you were out there mostly by yourself?

Yeah. I was living in New York, and I was surrounded by like-minded [musicians] and friends. Even before that, it was really interesting and crazy that with my other band, Desaparecidos, when we recorded that first record [2002’s Read Music/Speak Spanish], we finished it a couple of weeks before 9/11. A lot of that record is about capitalism, but there’s definitely some antiwar lyrics on it. I remember thinking, Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into? It’s, like, the worst time to put out a dissenting [opinion]. In some ways, dissent is one of the most important things you can do as an informed citizen. But people reacted to that pretty fiercely. [They said] it’s this anti-American record, at the worst, most inopportune time, as far as patriotism and shit.

I love that album, but I didn’t really fully understand all the anti-capitalism lyrics until I started reading Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Nowadays, that viewpoint is a lot more popular. When did you first start moving past liberalism into full-on leftist politics?

I remember being on tour in 2000, and I was overseas when the whole Gore-Bush lawsuit stuff was happening. And I remember just being really confused: It’s been 50-some days, and we still don’t have a president? Even in my novice mind, I was like, This seems strange and doesn’t quite match up with my civic lessons in high school. I guess at that point I started getting more curious and reading more, and then obviously, for all of us — I don’t know how old you are, but it sounds like we’re maybe similar ages…

Yeah.

I think, for all of us, I was 21 when 9/11 happened, and that changed everything. Then, for my own sanity and my own understanding of the world, I felt like I had to learn about these things and form opinions, because it was obviously a really big awakening for all of us back then.

Looking back at how Bright Eyes was written about and received in the 2000s, you obviously were well respected, but you also had your detractors — a lot of people calling you whiny or even less flattering terms. My theory is that any time a man wants to upend conventional notions of masculinity by opening up about his feelings, some people are going to react to that very, very harshly. Do you ever sense a weird undercurrent that the confessional nature of your songwriting bothered people?

Yeah, there was that dynamic. [But] bands we would end up sharing stages with — I’m thinking about At the Drive-In [or] a band like Cursive — if you listen to their lyrics, they’re hyper-fucking-emotional, talking about your feelings. There’s this masculinity to a lot of that [emo-hardcore] music because of the heaviness of it. It was okay, it was acceptable for dudes or bros to like it. I don’t quite understand it.

Oberst, then 23, performing with Bright Eyes at the 2003 Austin City Limits Festival. Photo via Kate Lewis/Flickr

I had conversations with Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! back in the day, and she definitely felt this overactive masculinity in the scene. And I’m very proud of the fact that if you were to go see a Bright Eyes concert in 2002, or 2005, the majority of the people in the audience would be female. I can’t tell you the amount of times that some guy after a show would pay me a really back-handed compliment. Not even realizing they’re doing it. They’d be like, “No, my girlfriend dragged me to this show, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but you guys are actually good.” And you’re going, “Okay, thanks. I don’t really get your point, but, yeah.”

A lot of anti-emo sentiment and the backlash you received now reads to me like coded gay-bashing, but against a straight guy.

Yeah. We have plenty of queer fans, and I think there was a lot of that culture that’s a big part of our fanbase, and again, that’s something I’m super proud of because I feel like our shows, and our presentation, was much more inclusive than a lot of bands of that era.

I’ve heard Phoebe [Bridgers] go on rants with journalists about Bright Eyes. She’s like, “Yeah, it’s kind of sexist not to like Bright Eyes.” In some weird way, it became “music for girls,” which, like I said, I’m totally proud of. The majority of the time, they’re more thoughtful than guys. So that doesn’t bother me much at all.

A 2008 photo featuring “Sad Conor” at Turn It Up! music in Northampton, Massachusetts. Photo via sushiesque/Flickr

On the last song on your album, “Comet Song,” you talk about getting accused of being a Peter Pan, and you say you’re not much of a man. What’s your relationship to masculinity like these days? Because it’s something we’re all talking about a lot in our current culture.

Yeah, that song is obviously personal, and has a lot about my relationship, and my divorce, and struggles that we had in our relationship. Corina [Figueroa Escamilla] and I, my ex-wife and I, we’re really, really tight. She’s one of my best friends, and we hang out all the time. We were married for whatever it was, eight years, and we were together for 10 years. We went through a lot of shit together, and more so than [the song is] a comment on toxic masculinity, I think it’s more about an inability to grow up. [The] cliché things: Rock ’n’ roll either keeps you young at heart, or it kills you, or it turns you into a cynical asshole.

There’s an element of stunted growth or arrested development that anyone who spends their life as a touring musician and a working musician [knows]. It’s just a different lifestyle, a different experience from somebody who goes to a nine-to-five job. Keith Richards has this great, funny quote: “When you’re a child, you have a nanny, when you’re an old man you have a nurse and in-between you have a tour manager.” You kind of do end up becoming like spoiled babies. It’s not that you’re a bad person. There’s so much of an ecosystem circling around you and your art, and your work is literally sustaining the livelihoods of all these people around you. It’s a double-edged sword: They’re totally counting on you to keep bringing the goods, and putting on the shows, and making the records, and doing interviews, and demanding a lot of work from you — but also, in a weird way, they start to try to coddle you or protect you from certain information. Like, “Don’t let Conor know about that, because it’ll upset him.”

There are a lot of artists who prefer to be coddled, prefer to be protected from reality. And that’s their own personal choice. But we used to book all our own tours, and we had our own label, and we were very much DIY. For anything that’s a big decision, I always have a seat at the table, and I still read all the contracts, I go through all this shit with my lawyer. I don’t want to have my head in the clouds and ignore the business side, because that can really affect your life if you do it the wrong way.

You sing about the loss of your brother on your new album. Obviously, this has been a terrible year for millions of people, and thousands upon thousands of people have lost someone recently. If you had the opportunity to talk to someone who’s really fresh in their grief, what would you tell them?

I have been doing that. My oldest friend from New York, Hassan, just lost his dad to COVID. My other friend, Butch, a photographer who’s taken my photograph a million times, lost his mom to COVID. [Bright Eyes collaborator] Andy LeMaster lost his mom, actually, to cancer. It’s just, like, everyone’s going through stuff. And even people I wasn’t super-close with but I knew and respected, like Justin Townes Earle and John Prine… it seems like we’re losing people left and right.

I don’t have a lot of good advice, other than to say that, from my own experience, it doesn’t go away, but the visceral, really painful part of it does lessen with time. I lost my brother — now it’ll be four years [ago] at Thanksgiving. Four years. I still think about it all the time, but the really crazy painful stuff… I can remember the first year after it happened, how it was really hard to be around my parents, because you’d see that pain in your mom’s eyes, and that’s the worst part of it. Or, with his kids, who are now 20 and 16, they’re definitely old enough to understand everything. That’s just horrible. But it does get better, and the only thing you can really do is to try to be there for the other people who are hurting. And also be strong enough in yourself to ask for help when you need it.

When it comes to mental health and depression, I’ve been on and off antidepressants and all kinds of shit my whole life. I’ll get better for a couple of years, and then sometimes you’ve got to know when to reach out and trust somebody to help you get through the rough patches of time. That’s just what we all have to do for each other, especially now. I don’t think any of us, collectively, have experienced this much tragedy and pain in one consolidated amount of time. Whatever you can do for your fellow human beings, now’s the time to do it.

Bright Eyes in 2020. Photo by Shawn Brackbill

The day you dropped your album, the Killers dropped a new album, and Secret Machines dropped an album. Then the Flaming Lips dropped an album. The Strokes were supposed to be touring this year with a new album, and My Chemical Romance were supposed to tour. The 2000s seem to be… coming back. Are you nostalgic for that era, or does this resurgence feel strange to you?

I don’t know how overly nostalgic I am for the music from that era. But, I mean, there’s some great music from that era, [and] that time in my life was pretty formative. I moved to New York in 2003. [From] 2000 to 2010, I didn’t really ever stop touring or making records, so it was definitely one of the most creative productive times in my life. And obviously, being in your 20s, it’s a little easier to have fun. You’re a little more carefree… although I don’t know how carefree I ever was.

On the album, you sing about catastrophizing your birthday. What has getting older, and getting past the 40 mark, been like for you?

It’s weird, obviously. To some degree, it’s just a number. But, I’m not ashamed to admit that when the day came… it just makes you think about things, like the idea that I haven’t lived the most healthy life. I don’t know, statistically — I’m definitely not trying to manifest anything bad, because you never know — I could have a lot of time ahead of me. But there’s a chance more of my life is behind me than ahead of me. That’s just a fact. A little disconcerting and trippy to think about, but also, you can’t really think about that, because as we all know, [you could] step off a curb tomorrow and fucking get hit by a car. Anything could happen. My grandpa, my dad’s dad, is holding on; he’s doing pretty good at 97. There’s that too.

The most played song on your Spotify page seems to be “First Day of My Life,” which has been covered by Mac Miller, Lisa Loeb and even Sarah Silverman. Are you comfortable with that being your most well-known song?

I think it’s funny. It’s not very representative of all the music we’ve made, but for whatever reason, it struck a chord with a larger audience. I can’t tell you the amount of times someone’s come up to me and said, “That was our first dance,” or, “We walked down the aisle to that song,” or, “That song means so much to me.” Of all my songs, I’m not particularly attached to that one. It’s cool that people have responded to it. The funny thing about Wide Awake is, it’s obviously our most popular record, our only Gold record, all this-and-that. But it was just as much an experiment as all our records.

All our records sound different, and when we were making that record, we were like, “Oh, this’ll be interesting to deliberately make a 1970s-sounding folk record,” like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young. We recorded it onto tape to make it sound like that, and we got Emmylou Harris to sing. I think people think, That’s what they normally sound like, and then all these other records are weird. But truth be told, [Wide Awake] is one of our weirder records.

Bright Eyes, 2020.

Is the public perception that you are the only guy in Bright Eyes frustrating to you? 

No, I think that that’s always been a misunderstanding. The very first Bright Eyes record, which I don’t even really consider a Bright Eyes record, was just me and a four-track recording [A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997]. Mike joined for Letting Off the Happiness in 1998. Nate came into the fold around Lifted and never left. I think to anyone who pays attention to what the records sound like, there is a big difference when Mike and Nate and I make a record, because all three of us have to be happy with it, and we’ll all three be pretty equal contributors. Just listen to some of my solo records, and then listen to any Bright Eyes record. It’s pretty obvious to me.

Was there any worry that when the three of you got back together, you might not be able to recapture the feeling that makes it Bright Eyes to you?

I didn’t really have that fear, to be honest. I share a backyard and our studio in Omaha with Mike; we’re next-door neighbors. It doesn’t make for a super-sexy story, but it was definitely not as dramatic as some bands that really don’t see each other for long periods of time and then try to get the magic back.

I think for us, it just felt like the right time, where we’re all at in our lives, both personally and professionally, to make a record with the most comfortable people. It made a lot of sense to, for lack of a better term, go home.

It’s not like a Jawbreaker situation, where you guys broke up after a fistfight.

Yeah, exactly.

While you guys were gone, Bright Eyes and your songwriting has become an influential touchstone to the next generation. Obviously, there’s Phoebe Bridgers, and you were also covered by Lorde. When did you first get the sense that you were becoming an elder statesman, and how do you feel about that?

Well, I don’t know. I started getting a little estranged from some of my friends. Nate Krenkel [and I] started Team Love, which was an offshoot sister label of Saddle Creek — essentially [so] we could keep signing bands that were maybe weirder, smaller or didn’t have as much “commercial potential.” I’m really proud of the first self-titled Felice Brothers record, I think it’s one of the greatest records ever. And we put out Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat solo album. When you’re in that position, where you’re trying to help develop other friends, it still felt like I was in a position where I could use whatever clout or opportunities or money or whatever to promote music that I believed in.

[Then], obviously, just getting older, and meeting [musicians] over the years who expressed to me how much my music meant to them — Phoebe, First Aid Kit, Dawes, Hop Along — these bands that, unbeknownst to me, at least to some degree, grew up listening to my music. That totally makes me feel good, because I had that too: I was always supported by older bands when I was growing up, whether it be Cursive, or local people like Simon Joyner, people who made me feel like my music was worth something. Then later on, someone like Michael Stipe became a great friend of mine and took Bright Eyes on tour. And even crazier things later on: getting to play with and meet and talk to Neil Young [and] Bruce Springsteen — all these people who are obviously so much farther down the road than me, life-wise and music-wise.

To have them extend generosity, share a stage or give advice: I think that’s how it all goes around. And if I can do that in any small way for someone coming up, I’m really happy about that.

What do you think the future of live music is going to look like? When would you feel comfortable touring again?

We’re still holding dates in late spring of next year. It’s all just going to depend on, obviously, the rules of the different cities, and we’ll be obviously ecstatic if we have a new president, and there’s some kind of national strategy to deal with this thing.

I actually drove out from Omaha a few weeks ago and saw Phoebe play.

Oh, cool. 

Like, this internet show. I caught a ride back to L.A. with her and her band. At the time, it seemed kind of crazy. I was like, “Really? I’m going to go…?” There was no audience. It was just film. But everyone — all the sound people, everyone in the band — got rapid COVID-tested going into the venue. Since we’d all been tested, none of us wore a mask, and I was just sitting in the lounge and looking out the window. I can’t tell you, something as simple as that made me so happy.

Speaking of your influence, are you surprised you’re now a hip-hop touchstone? You’ve been sampled by Young Thug and Post Malone, covered by Mac Miller, and rappers like the late Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert draw from the 2000s emo aesthetic.

I think that there’s a natural parallel between hip-hop and folk music, because it’s obviously driven so much by the lyrical information. I always loved that, and hip-hop, just as a kid in high school. I’m not a huge connoisseur, but there’s always been rap artists that I’ve loved since I was a kid — A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Nas and Wu-Tang Clan. All the stuff that we listened to growing up, I still think is amazing music. Even beyond the lyrical emphasis, I think even production-wise, Bright Eyes has, in our own way, borrowed some hip-hop aesthetics with our production and beats and things over the years. I think it all blends together.

When people call you an emo touchstone or an emo godfather, do you embrace that? Have you made peace with that, or do you still bristle at that term? Because I know a lot of people, back in the day, really didn’t like being called emo.

Without a doubt, my music is definitely emotional. But unless you’re Devo, or someone who’s very specifically and deliberately trying to extract human emotion from your music, most music could be considered emo or emotional. But it’s also one of those terms that got bastardized. When I think of emo, I think of an off-shoot of Midwestern hardcore punk music. [It] usually involves a scream-y vocalist and that kind of winding style of guitar playing, melodic hardcore. Cap’n Jazz, or — they weren’t from the Midwest — Sunny Day Real Estate, their sound. We definitely were influenced by that music. My band in high school, Commander Venus, we definitely would fall into that category — whatever the fuck that was back then.

I don’t mean this disparagingly, but I think it’s fair to say, when that style got incorporated into a more popular mall culture, you’ve got your My Chemical Romances, and your Panic! at the Discos, and your Hot Topic, which was really more of a fashion thing than anything. It was so Top 40, so driven by other forces, that I definitely don’t think we ever could be mistaken for one of those bands.

Oberst performing at Outside Lands 2009. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve been singing about apocalypses for a long time, about the state of the world being not so great. Is there anything that gives you hope?

There are plenty of things to be hopeful about. The way regular people — unfortunately, not so much our government or policymakers — have stepped up to the plate and done their best to help their neighbors.

I live in this house with my girlfriend, and then my neighbors live in the little guest house. We try to throw up boxes of food and drop it to some of our older neighbors, senior neighbors, [when] it was going to be hard for them to get to the store. Stuff like that. It’s such a small thing, but I feel like there’s a million examples of that that have been happening all over the country.

I’m really encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement. The progress of America — finally, after 400 years of systemic racism and oppression — to begin to look in the mirror and see what it is. Acknowledge what’s happening in a more meaningful way.

To me, after George Floyd and the hundreds of other examples that unfortunately have occurred, it feels a little different this time. I’m obviously in no position to say, because I’m not a person of color, but just from observing, it does feel like there’s awareness, and hopefully it’s moving into the right direction. Obviously we, as in everyone who’s a citizen, needs to help turn this moment into actual policy changes. We’ll see how that goes. But at least it’s on the table and being discussed. That’s something to be encouraged by.

We have a case in Omaha. This young guy named James Scurlock was at a protest downtown, and this white shithead bar owner who didn’t have a license for his gun came out and killed [Scurlock] in the middle of the street. [Editorial Note: The gunman was facing four felony charges. He later died by suicide.]

God, that’s terrible.

We obviously have a Republican governor, and we’re a pretty red state, so it’s an uphill fight there. I don’t think there are many communities in the country that don’t have a similar story, or haven’t been affected by all this. So my hope is that the momentum continues, and we all realize that it’s time to make some actual changes.

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