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The People's Key

Author: Gary Graff
12/16/2010 | Billboard | | Feature
Three years and a new decade have brought a new sound from Bright Eyes for the group's new album, "The People's Key."

"I wanted to make a record that was modern-sounding and steer clear of some of my tendencies, melodically," group founder Conor Oberst tells about the 10-song follow-up to 2007's "Cassadaga," which is due out Feb. 15, 2011. "We're over the Americana, rootsy, whatever that sound is. People say country, but I never thought were very country at all. But whatever that element is or that aesthetic is, I guess it's worn a little thin for me these days. So we very much wanted it to be rocking and, for lack of a better term, contemporary, or modern."

"The People's Key" is the first Bright Eyes album the core trio -- Oberst, producer Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott -- recorded entirely at its own ARC Studios in Omaha, Neb. Recording began in January and continued through "many, many breaks" before being wrapped up just before Thanksgiving.

Oberst wrote a handful of the songs -- including "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)," "Shell Games" and "Beginner's Mind" -- before sessions commenced, while the rest of the songs "were closely related and tied together and more where I saw [the album] was headed." The result is a thematic piece that weaves together topical, social and political issues, using oratories by Denny Brewer of Refried Ice Cream, who Oberst met while recording the Mystic Valley Band's "Outer South" album in El Paso, Texas, to help tie things together.

"I don't think it's overtly political," Oberst explains. "There's a certain desire for, like, common ground between people, just the idea that we're all kind of in the same boat and are all the same as far as the way human beings go. There's this future that's coming that's really trying to, I think, divide us more and in a lot of ways strip us of our human nature in the sense that now when you walk into a room it's like 20 people all staring down at this little screen in their hands, typing away, not looking at each other. That's kind of scary, and it's going to just keep going that way. I think it's a dangerous position to put ourselves in because our only chance of solving problems or disagreements is by talking to each other and seeing ourselves in each other."

Oberst says he and his bandmates aren't worried about the heavy subject matter or sonic changes driving fans away, however. "It seems like everything I do musically I tend to lose a few fans and gain a few fans, and it all kind of evens out," he says. "It's never for shock value or wanting to alienate the audience in some way. We don't try to do anything other than follow our interests, which are obviously a moving target."

Bright Eyes will hit the road to promote "The People's Key" on March 2 in Miami, with a six-piece ensemble that includes drummer Clark Baechle of the Faint, Andy LeMaster of Now It's Overhead, and Laura Burhenn of the Mynabirds, all of whom worked on the album. Oberst says the band will spend most of 2011 touring North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, and the performances will echo the album's bigger and broader sound.

"We're going to kind of avoid the acoustic instruments," he says. "There's going to be two pretty deep keyboard rigs. We still want to play a lot of old songs, but we're going to rely more on nice, super hi-fi keyboard samples instead of hauling a strong quartet around or something like that. It should be good."
The People's Key

The People's Key

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Cassadaga (Remastered)

Cassadaga (Remastered)

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