Bright Eyes: Looking Outward, More than Ever
One of the most lauded American songwriters of his generation will turn 31 on February 15th—which happens to be the release date of what may be the final Bright Eyes album. Conor Mullen Oberst appears ready for a change—not that he hasn’t been evolving all along. Since the turn of the century, the one-time teen folk phenom from Omaha has expanded both his worldview and the scope of the albums released under the Bright Eyes name. He’s catalogued life in the big city (I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning) and on the open road (Cassadaga); he’s gotten politically outspoken (“When the President Talks to God,” “Four Winds”) and active (Obama rallies, immigration-rights benefits).
Now—after nearly four years, during which he released two albums with the Mystic Valley Band and recorded and toured with Jim James and M. Ward as the indie godhead Monsters of Folk—Oberst returns with The People’s Key, the most outward-looking Bright Eyes record yet. Taking its cues from science fiction, faith, and politics, rife with references to the Holy Trinity, Haile Selassie and Rastafaris, Sisyphus, Caesar, the second coming, and ultimately, enlightenment and non-violence. It’s a record that asks the big questions. We got into some of them when I sat down with Conor Oberst recently in New York, including a still-unanswered one: whether he’s really ready to retire the Bright Eyes name.
JOHN NORRIS: Conor, it’s been nearly four years since the last Bright Eyes record. But you’ve hardly been idle in the interim, what with two Mystic Valley Band albums, an EP, and, of course, the Monsters of Folk record and tour. Do you think all those projects were an important break to take?
CONOR OBERST: Yeah, definitely. They were all great, and yet I think having done them gave me a renewed appreciation for Bright Eyes and helped remind me of what I love about it.
NORRIS: And did those other experiences change the way you approached this record?
OBERST: Yeah, all those experiences were a chance to learn more about music. Playing with the Valley band is like such a “live” band. I mean, really, in many ways Bright Eyes is really a studio project. We form bands to tour, but it really is—you know, we take the songs and we figure out how to decorate them and it’s all in the studio, we build the songs that way. Whereas Mystic Valley Band was the exact opposite, where everybody knows what they are gonna be playing on the song and there’s sort of a general stylistic approach, and then it’s just plug in and play. And that’s great too, but it’s just so different. And then Monsters of Folk was definitely a chance to learn from Jim and M.—you know, I can’t think of two people that I admire more, among modern songwriters and musicians. So to just get a ringside seat to seeing how they approach a song, approach crafting it in the studio and the live shows too, it was wonderful.
NORRIS: Your Mystic Valley bandmate Jason Boesel tweeted recently that he thought this new album The People’s Key was a “sci-fi emo” record, and there is a science-fiction thread in this album. Is it in a sense a continuation of some of the paranormal stuff on Cassadaga?
OBERST: I suppose. I like science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick and Vonnegut, and I really like Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. And you know, so much of science fiction has to do with predicting what’s to come, so I think that’s really interesting.
NORRIS: And that aspect, along with a theological one, is driven home by this spoken-word narrative that runs through the record, a guy who’s going on about positive and negative forces, some really crazy-sounding prophecies, space, tyrants, enlightenment, and a lot more. Who is he, and how did that all come about?
OBERST: His name is Denny Brewer. He’s a friend of mine, and I met him when Valley Band recorded at this great studio called Sonic Ranch, it’s outside of El Paso. And he and his son have a band called Refried Ice Cream. It’s really awesome, trippy, homemade, crazy music. But I just had a lot of nights having these conversations with them, and he’s just an interesting person. And then as we were writing the songs for this album, I realized that a lot of those ideas still resonated with me. And some of it was coming out in the music. And we have this thing where we always have intros to the Bright Eyes records, so I was thinking to myself “Well, what are we gonna do this time?” And so I thought of him, and I called him up and I was like, “Would you mind going in and just telling some of the stories that you always tell, or just talking?”
NORRIS: My favorite track at the moment is “Haile Selassie.”
OBERST: I wore my Rasta shoes today. [shows his red, gold and green sneakers]
NORRIS: Oh, nice. And there’s another track, “Firewall,” on which you reference the “Lion of Judah” [part of Emperor Haile Selassie’s official title while in office]. Can you talk about your interest in him?
OBERST: I liked the idea of having a record that’s reggae-influenced but not musically. You know, just lyrically. I think there’s so much about Rasta culture that’s interesting. Just the idea of preaching one-ness, that we’re all in this together. Which I suppose is at the root of most any religion. You’re gonna find it, if taken in the right context.
NORRIS: Selassie was obviously a towering figure politically in the 20th century, but also a complicated figure—a liberator and to some, a messiah; yet by the time he died, a lot of people had turned on him.
OBERST: And also, you know, a lot of the mythology that sprung up around him, it’s not like something he asked for, having people deify him.
NORRIS: An entire faith, a movement named after you.
OBERST: That’s pretty heavy. I don’t know what you do in that situation.
NORRIS: Has your own faith, your relationship with spirituality changed over time? Or are you pretty much a humanist?
OBERST: Yeah I would say I’m a humanist. I like that. I mean, I don’t claim to know anything, but I’m curious about it all. I’m always fascinated when people really fervently believe, because I have such a hard time believing anything. When people have real faith in something, it’s fascinating to me. And the fact that so many people, in surveys, so many people say they do. It kind of blows my mind.
NORRIS: Well, particularly this country. It is such a faith-based country—probably after the Muslim world and maybe Latin America, it’s the part of the world where religion is the most deeply rooted. So do you tend to view religion as a crutch? Opiate of the masses?
OBERST: Well I definitely think it’s responsible for a lot of the evils of the world. I mean that’s not really in debate, you know? But at the same time, I think whatever gets you through the day, whatever helps you make sense of life you know? I’m not gonna begrudge my grandmother with her rosary beads. It works for them. And at the end of the day, I don’t claim to know the answer to anything.
NORRIS: You were as big an Obama supporter, from day one, as anyone I can think of in music. How do you feel now, nearly two years into the administration? It hasn’t been easy for him.
OBERST: No, and I don’t hold anything against him. I just think the system is so corrupt, it doesn’t matter how well-intentioned someone is, as I believe he was and is. At the end of the day, I think it just comes down to money. This is all about class warfare. All of our political problems. I mean, you just go down the line, and with any of these issues, it’s about rich people staying rich. And using poverty as a weapon against people. That’s what we see every day. And I’m not an economist, so I can’t speak to the nuances of it, but just common sense tells me the whole thing is corrupt.
NORRIS: You said in mid-2009 that you might very well be ready to put Bright Eyes to bed. Has that changed? Or will this be the last record?
OBERST: You know, I’m leaving it open to whatever happens. I’m kind of like, “never say never.” I think it will be the last one for the foreseeable future. But we’re definitely not making any absolute statements. So, I love Mike and Nate and I hope to make music with them in some capacity in the future, whether it’s under the Bright Eyes name, or something else.
NORRIS: So it’s not like you’re going away?
OBERST: No, I’ll hopefully keep rolling.
BRIGHT EYES’ 2011 US TOUR KICKS OFF MARCH 2 IN MIAMI. YOU CAN WATCH JOHN NORRIS’S VIDEO INTERVIEW WITH CONOR OBERST AT NOISEVOX IN JANUARY.