Fevers and Mirrors
He has contributed several albums of work, most notably 1998's "Letting off the Happiness," 1999's "Every Day and Every Night," and most recently "Fevers and Mirrors" (which features a mirror on both the cd cover and disc) ,each full of pretty acoustic melodies and painfully revealing lyrics. A young Elliott Smith or Nick Drake, if you will. Oberst's lyrics unfold his struggle with his art, set to familiar chords made fresh in his the way he belts the words out.
In "Touch," he writes, "You are new and near now/ to someone you used to love/when you were young/when al was gold and you two touched/and felt the flutter under your skin/you stood in glowing rooms/the light dripping from both of you/and nothing since has felt as radiant or real/and there is nothing more I want than just one night/that's free of doubt and sadness." Oberst is a natural born story-teller.
As he performs, he lets the music speak for itself, often screaming and strumming so hard that he nearly falls out of his chair. He travels with a fresh group of musicians each tour, making use of whichever sorts of musical talents each may be able to contribute. At a March show in San Francisco, tour-mates Azure Ray joined him on stage to play back up for his set. Between songs, they shifted between piano, bass, trumpet. You couldn't help but get the sense that this is what music is truly about.
However, in songs such as "The City has Sex," Oberst battles his nihilism. "They say it's better to bury your sadness in a graveyard/or garden that waits for the spring to awake from its sleep/and burst into green/and I've cried/and you would think I would be better for it/but the sadness just sleeps/and it stays in your spine/for the rest of your life." Ironically, his touching poetic confessions are enough to convince any jaded person of the value of music.
Bright Eyes is currently supporting "Fevers and Mirrors" on a European tour followed by one-off US dates. Before Conor's show in Berlin on May 17th, I talked with him sitting cross-legged on a balcony overlooking pieces of the former Berlin Wall.
I've noticed your music is lyrically pretty heavy. Have you written poetry since before you wrote music?
Yes, I think I've written poetry and short stories the whole time I have written songs, but I haven't devoted enough time to it. I don't have any confidence in it, so I don't show it to anyone ever. One of my older brothers is a great writer. He went to graduate school for writing. There's a couple other friends of mine that I'll show stuff to, but I don't know, it takes such diligence to be a writer. It doesn't come as natural to me as songwriting.
That's why you choose to write songs instead?
I guess. I still write, but I'd love to be a writer. A real writer. I don't know if I have what it takes.
What do you think about the difference in audiences between short stories/novels and music?
There's similarities, but there are also worlds of differences. For one, music I think is—I don't want to say it's easier to understand—but it seems more readily available to people of all ages and walks of life. Music seems a little more accessible to a common person. Obviously anyone who's literate can read a book, but it just seems like listening to records and going to see bands is a little easier, especially for young people, to get into. Just because it seems more leisurely than picking up a book. Not really for me, but I'm just trying to think of it as an overall scope. I suppose it's a wider audience.
Do you think the fact that music appeals to younger and a broader spectrum of people adds or detracts from it's value?
Once again, I think there's positives and negative to it. I think it's cool when young kids get into the music I make. A freshman or sophomore in high school coming up and being super excited about your band. To me, it's a better compliment than coming from someone who's a jaded scenester who's listened to all these bands and has opinions about everything. It seems more pure. Music made me feel so good at points in my life when nothing else made me feel good, so I like to think of doing that for other people. But I guess books do that too. It's a good question. I'm just rambling. I'm not even answering your question. I'm just rephrasing them.
Sometimes I worry that it's difficult to compete with the industry that just puts out a lot of crap. And here you are putting out something that has a lot of depth. Your music is sort of like a novel, the way it's layered. How do you feel about having to compete with industry? You want more people to have access to your work, but you don't want to compromise.
It's something that I still struggle with. I try my best to not let it affect the way I write. I don't write things on purpose that I know people will like, but along those same lines, I don't stop myself when I have a catchy melody that I like but I know it's catchy in maybe a conventional way. A part of me is always like don't do that, but I think it's stupid. I've always written music the way I like it and how it comes out. I think the best thing to do is to disregard the audience to a certain degree, and write not necessarily strictly for yourself but what you enjoy, and in doing that you will certainly reach some segment of the population that is likeminded to you and your tastes. As an artist, I think that's all you can do. You can't write for other people. Did I not answer your question again? [Conor grabs my sheet of questions and reads them to himself] What number are we on?
They're not really in order…I lost my place! I don't know….I'm still struggling with the idea of competing against the industry.
Well, the way we deal with that, in America it's our friend's label that puts out the music, so we are in total control. Saddle Creek is a label we started as kids. Me and my group of friends, we all played in bands and it started out real small with cassettes, 7"s. Now it's a real company but at the same time it's still just us putting out our friends music purely for the love of music. We've learned to be smart enough to where we are making money off of it, which helps us to continue making more music. My only frustrations with the industry, because we don't really deal with that. We have a publishing deal, and essentially all that is, it doesn't affect anything we do, basically they take your music and try to make more money off of it by getting it into films and commercials, but the way it's worked out, they can't seem to sell a single one of our songs to anyone.
You have the deal with Sony?
Yeah. It doesn't affect anything as far as the actual records. It's still all on Saddle Creek. I'm very fortunate that I don't have to deal with that stuff. I was in another band when I was in high school and we signed onto a label and that taught me a lot about how it's horribly messy. We've turned down lots of deals where we could have made a lot of money up front, but the things we would have lost in return wouldn't have been worth it.
So you never plan on signing onto a major label?
It's hard to say never, but I don't think anytime soon and maybe never. And over here, we've lucked out by meeting these great guys who run this label called Wichita in England. I totally trust them, because I know what they're in it for. It's not to make money. One of the guys in there right now is this guy Dick Green who is really high up at Creation Records, which put out the Smiths, My Bloody Valentine. He's made all the money that he needs to make and now he's running this label exactly how he wants to do it. He still wants to be involved in music but he doesn't want to deal with any of the bullshit. It's not a big scale, which is perfect for us. I think for a lot of people that do get involved with big labels, it can damage what you're doing. If you don't think it will, even if you think you will be the exception to the rule, it almost always does. Every one of my friends who has signed to a major label has thoroughly regretted it later on. I used to be more idealistic and radical about it, but now it just seems practical. It would have been a disaster if we had signed.
How do you then define success, and what do you want from your music?
I just want to keep making something that I find quality in. With everything I've ever done, I have regrets about it. At the same time, I can stand behind it. I did the best I could, and I was doing it for a pure reason. I hope I can continue to do that. Right now I'm making a living as a musician, which is only the last 9 months I can say I'm a musician, that's what I do. It's something I never thought would happen. I hope it keeps going so I don't have to get a job. At the same time, I'm not willing to change anything in order to make sure it happens. I'm not scared of going back to college. It's fun and all to do this, but I keep in mind that what's hip and interesting one minute is going to be not the next minute. I don't necessarily feel like I'm going to be able to do this for a living forever. I'll always make music, but not necessarily on this level.
Is there anything else you would want to do, since you are so young still?
It would be amazing to write a book. I've thought about teaching. My mom's an elementary school principal, and that seems like a pretty good thing to do. I could go home feeling pretty good about myself doing something like that.
Why do you keep a sliding line up of musicians in your band?
It's nice to always have new interpretations of the songs, and it's nice to always travel with new people.
Do you feel like if you found the right people you would want to have a solid band?
I think for Bright Eyes it makes sense to keep it this way, because it keeps the focus on just the song. I always want it to be about the song. I've been in bands and I am in other bands now.
I saw you play with Azure Ray in San Francisco. Are they a sister band?
Yeah, I love them, as people. I love their record. I love everything about them. Andy, one of the guys who's playing tonight, he lives in Athens and he's got a band called Now It's Overhead with Maria and Orenda. Saddle Creek is going to put that out next year. And we're going to put out an EP for Azure Ray too. Of all the tours and bands, that was one of my favorites. And I got to play an Azure Ray song. That was a dream come true.
How did you meet them?
Through friends. They're the type of people that immediately upon meeting them I felt something. I could easily fall in love with either one of them, other than the fact that there's two of them and so you can't ever pick one.
What would you say most drives your music?
I just have to write to feel good, or really to feel normal. I learned that when I was about 12, and as soon as I learned that, I never stopped writing. Music has become the easiest and best way to release a certain part of yourself…you know how it is. It's more of a need, more than it is a desire to succeed in a band.
I've noticed in your lyrics, you write a lot about confronting meaninglessness. In writing your music, is it a dependency, how you get your feelings out, or is there something about music and art that drives you to do it?
It's both. I am such a scatter-brained person. I can never make sense of myself, and the only time I ever feel like I'm having clarity with what I'm thinking is when I put it into music. Finishing a song is the best feeling. It's like, wow, I really do make sense to myself. So much of the time I just walk around confused.
Why did you choose the name Bright Eyes?
I was staying up real late one night watching Turner Movie Classics. I can't remember the name of the movie, but the main Humphrey Bogart type dude kept calling the girl 'bright eyes.' A term of endearment.
How has wandering around the country affected who you are?
It's made me really appreciate my home. The big joke about living in Nebraska is that everyone's trying to leave. Ever since I started travelling, I realized there's no place like home. The only place I've slightly thought about moving to is Athens. It's a lot like Omaha, but I don't have as many close friends. It's made me realize that no matter where you go, everywhere is kind of the same and everyone is kind of the same. It's a comforting feeling.
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