Interview: Bright Eyes's Conor Oberst
Boy wonder no more, Conor Oberst returns to his most famous band.
Fri Feb 4 2011
Photograph: Autumn DeWilde
Radio City Music Hall; March 8, 9
There is a decisive moment in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom when the novel's resident rogue, a world-weary punk named Richard Katz, attends a Bright Eyes concert in Washington, D.C. It is a politically demoralizing patch of the early '00s and, for the first time in years, Richard finds himself marooned in what he deems a "kiddie scene." Already teetering toward nihilism, the character is sickened by the earnest young fans surrounding him. "They gathered not in anger," Richard posits, "but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die."
Flash forward nearly a decade, and into the humdrum realm of nonfiction. Conor Oberst sits in the lobby of the Ace Hotel, not far from his East Village apartment, conducting what he claims to be his first interview behind Bright Eyes's new album, The People's Key. Oberst is characteristically diffident, unfailingly polite and quietly scruffy; it is morning, but he bears a whiff of nighttime. He knows of his walk-on role in Freedom, but has yet to read the book. As the passage is recited for him, he leans forward and scrunches up his face in concentration. "Oh," he mutters upon hearing the word die. "Huh. Um. Well, he obviously associates us with a concrete enough idea that he can use it in his book. So that's a good thing...I guess?"
At 30, Oberst is far removed from the "boy genius" depicted by Franzen, yet still years away from the cynical shell embodied in Richard Katz. Like many performers who find their artistic voice early in life, he often seems torn from an earlier generation. "I try to keep up with all these new bands," he says, "but I feel like I'm an old man." Bright Eyes's last U.S. concert, at Radio City Music Hall in 2007, featured a set by Thurston Moore; when the band returns to the theater in March, Superchunk opens.
"I have a car in Nebraska," Oberst says of his home state, where he still lives part time. "When I bought it, they gave me a satellite radio, and there's an 'indie-rock' station. It's just nothing I'm interested in. There aren't really songs—it's just this sort of staticky, like, vibe. It almost seems pass to have a good song."
Songs, of course, lie at the core of Oberst's work, whether with Bright Eyes (a nom de plume--cum-band that includes Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott), the Mystic Valley Band (his backing group) or Monsters of Folk (which costars Mogis, Jim James and M. Ward). Aside from the stray political lament, he subscribes to a cryptic school of songwriting that prizes inscrutability. On The People's Key, which comes out on Saddle Creek Tuesday 15—Oberst's 31st birthday—lyrics beg for multiple interpretations. "I bought a gray macaw, named him Jules Verne," he sings at the album's opening. "He'll probably outlive me, he's a bright bird."
At times, the record strikes vaguely dystopian themes, both through Oberst's lyrics and the prominent spoken word passages by Denny Brewer, an older musician who here resembles a kind of loopy Dr. Phil. "He's true outsider art," the singer says of Brewer, whose band, Refried Ice Cream, released an album on Oberst's Team Love imprint. "I mean, acidhead biker who lives on a compound in the middle of fucking Texas. When I have conversations with him, there will be moments where I think, This is entering crazyland. But then he'll say the most profound, completely true thing. A lot of the songs were informed by these ideas."
As Oberst speaks of WikiLeaks, corporate sin and global conspiracies, he could almost pass for one of the disgruntled liberals who populate Franzen's novel. But what of an earlier cultural instance when the musician's image served as shorthand for indie wimp? That is, the eccentric character in Wedding Crashers, whose arty deportment and lopsided haircut unavoidably called to mind a certain young troubadour. "I saw that movie," Oberst says. "But I don't remember that part at all."