Fevers and Mirrors
On stage, where white lights bleach bodies and nudge the temperature up twenty degrees beyond boiling, Conor Oberst is freaking out. He is barely visible, sunk down low on the stage, wiry frame slung like melted plastic over a folding chair, eyes like charcoal staring helplessly at the guitar string hanging like a loose wheat stalk from the instrument's neck.
"Does anybody know how to change an acoustic guitar string?"
And it's the wrong time for all of this to be happening, and he knows it, here in front of bodies so glimmering with moisture it seems they will presently lose all form and go melting between the floorboards. Oberst is only two songs into his set, string snapping midway through a particularly manic rendition of "Sunrise, Sunset"from Bright Eyes' latest, Fevers And Mirrors. And he is inwardly collapsing as the gathered wait expectantly through Grand Canyons of silence, staring stupidly at the stage where Oberst and the rest of the band stare stupidly back, waiting, hopes hung on this one audience member suddenly separate from the anonymous mass, who has snatched the guitar and is presently laboring over a strand of copper in the club's antebellum.
After a million little eternities the guitar is returned to Oberst to the tremendous relief of both he and the audience, all of whom are wanting to be swept up in the performance, waiting patiently through the unfortunate fumbling but now starting to gnaw impatiently on back teeth and make meandering conversation with the sweaty stranger next to them.
But Oberst has the guitar back now, and he's gripping the neck between his spindly fingers, striking a slow chord that reveals the instrument's tuning to be a half-note askance. And so he reaches slowly up to the neck and twists the tuning knob of the offending string and with a loud, horrifying pop, that string goes snapping in two, diving down from the neck of the instrument and sending up a beleaguered groan from the once-pleasant but now more-than-a-little-impatient audience who are sick and tired of watching a twenty year old prodigy twiddle with his instrument and wishing to God he would just fucking play something already.
When I find Oberst after the band's mercifully truncated set (a mere four songs) he is hiding in the rear of the club, gaunt body tipped over onto the shoulder of a consoling roadie, moaning ruefully "the gods are against us... the gods are against us."He's trying to be comical about the whole thing, even as insincere strangers pat him on the back and lie "great show"into his ear. I am half thinking about abandoning the whole interview when he looks up and smiles wanly and says, "I guess we should go do this thing, huh?"
"We had a horrible show in Boston the other night,"Oberst confesses, collapsing into a folding chair in the abandoned, ramshackle apartment above the club. He seems oddly in his element, deep-set eyes scanning ten-year dust caking wooden floorboards, cold fireplace that is home to thin sticky cobwebs and little tumbleweeds of dust. He smirks. "It's all been breaking strings, sound men that turn things off in the middle of songs..."
It's a troubling pattern, especially for a singer Oberst's age, already saddled with the weighty mantle of child prodigy. It's the sort of awkward fumbling that press-types usually hope for - the sudden savior of indie rock forced to fit into the clothes critics have sewn for him. Anything less than a snug fit yields wry chuckles and the smart, sighed "oh well, I guess the old boy wasn't up to it."
The perversity of the whole situation is that by ordinary standards, Oberst is doing fantastically, almost mind-bogglingly well. At 20 years old, he has crafted the kind of record his peers waste careers fruitlessly pursuing, a record where an initial perception of simplicity belies the taut, complex layers of instrumentation. It is emotional without being over wrought, morose without prattling and sniveling. It is eerie and unsettling to listen to Oberst's quivering voice yelp, "Stay with me, Arienette, until the wolves are away."It is distressing to hear him desperately beg for a clean coffin, to eavesdrop as he steadily trades liquor for blood.
And it is difficult to assimilate that voice - that lonesome, tragic, howling voice - with the disarmingly sincere and congenial young man sitting in the chair opposite me, the young man who is brushing aside follicles of bedhead brown and leaning almost impossibly forward in his chair as he speaks.
"There have been times I've been kind of aggravated,"Oberst says of the recent, clamoring attention. His speech pattern is one of constant stammers - speaking, backpedaling, starting again, stopping - selecting words with Hamlet-like deliberation. "I'm of the opinion that the music should kind of stand for itself, and people just seem to want tabloid information."
Oberst is feeling claustrophobic from being circled not only by press mavens anxious to see their savior crucified, but also by gossip vultures who hone beady, greedy eyes on the intimations of psychosis and personal trauma that inform almost his entire canon (their most treasured carcass is "Padriac My Prince", where Oberst's baby brother drowns in a bathtub while his mother sits quietly in the next room. Oberst has disgustedly, repeatedly branded the tale an artistic invention).
"I'd like to believe that people interested in this kind of music would be above that but", he sighs, slumps back in the chair, "they're not."
Fevers And Mirrors was a Neil Armstrong for the former pocket change home-recorder, a chance for Oberst to emerge from the basement-fi of his previous recordings and construct his woozy fuzz-folk in an environment that afforded a few more luxuries. He didn't drift far for the venture, instead holing up in the twenty-four track home studio of a longtime friend where he could devote himself slavishly to the record without feeling strangled by time or financial constraints.
"We thought about the songs for so long. We spent two months just literally recording like 20 hours a day. We knew it was going to be different from the other records."
Said other records are 1997's A Collection of Songs and1998's Letting Off the Happiness, the bulk of which were recorded in Oberst's bedroom (with a fistful of frantic studio jaunts for assorted tracks on Happiness). The records were received amiably but with the sort of neutrality that critics reserve for the anonymous new artist offering up crumpled compositions amidst masses of similar songsmiths. While both records proffer clear suggestions of the sort of sweaty (and pardon the pun here) feverish songs Oberst would later construct, most of them bark like baby birds for a worm just finger-lengths beyond their beaks.
But so it is Fevers that is the coup de gras. Oberst's clammy-hand nightmares finally spring forth in full color, all collapsing bridges, closing coffins and lying lovers. And though they seem to be the product of a singular vision, Oberst refers repeatedly to the gaggle of musicians clocking in at the studio over the record's two-month inception, creating a vision of communal creation that jars with the album's personal, confessional tone. It would seem Oberst would huddle protectively around his compositions rather than exposing them to outside input.
"I'll definitely get defensive,"he admits when I cautiously question his ownership of the material. "And we've had fucking blowouts, where sometimes I just say 'Well, it's my song!' But ultimately that's unfair because [the other musicians] put a lot of effort and energy into it, too. Once we get into the studio it becomes collaborative, and I accept that as the way it is."
The band on the stage downstairs, the same stage Oberst occupied just an hour earlier, is loud - drum kicks rattling the floor like a 8.5 on the Richter scale, swollen bloated bass lines rising up zeppelin-fat - and intersecting Oberst's spiraling monologue. They are so loud, in fact, that Oberst has to lean even further in his chair, practically kissing my tape recorder now, bony shoulders shrugged decidedly forward.
"There were only 300 copies of Letting Off The Happiness pressed on vinyl,"he says, glancing constantly upward, "and the other day somebody told me there was a copy on eBay selling for like $50. There's no reason that record needs to be sold for fifty bucks. For this kind of music, that seems like a contradiction."
He shouldn't be a stranger to this kind of adulation. At 15 years old Oberst was a member of the oft-mentioned, little-heard emo band Commander Venus, tripping early on the tour treadmill, retreating to his bedroom with his father's four-track during off-hours to record what would eventually become A Collection of Songs.
"For so long, I was like 'I'm not gonna let [the press] affect me.' But I have noticed recently when I'm sitting down to write a song, it's in the back of my head, the idea that so many people are going to hear this. Before, I never thought about anyone else. Now I'm aware that there's a large amount of people that are going to end up hearing it. It's made me more self-conscious; it's made me not want to be as honest. I'm starting to cloak things in metaphor. I don't like to be under the fucking microscope all the time."He sighs and slings back suddenly in the chair.
A steady stream of people are threading through the apartment now, headed for a dark rear corridor. Oberst eyes them warily. "It sucks that it's come to that. That it's actually affecting the way I write songs."
He's tipped his hand here, unconsciously acknowledging that the Conor that inhabits his songs, despite his loud and frequent protests to the contrary, is in fact the same Conor sitting across from me in this apartment, and that perhaps while the frequent critical nosing between the verses is nervy and presumptuous, it's not completely unfounded. Oberst relents quickly and easily.
"To be honest, the reason I try to be defensive and keep people guessing is maybe because it is a little too close sometimes. It's not stuff I want to talk about."
And what is he referring to now? The scattered allusions to psychopharmacology? To the miserable suicidal evenings? To the brother in the bathtub? It is horrible and cheap and gauche, but I find myself wondering, wanting to ask those same blunt and heartless questions but held back by the sudden, unguarded manner in which Conor is speaking. The answer to my questions is obvious: it's none of my damn business.
"Expressing myself in music is the only way I know how to deal with things,"he continues. "There's certainly an aspect of storytelling, but it all comes from the same pool of feelings."
And here's the kicker about Conor, the beautiful golden secret that lays buried beneath layers of sound, the one single polished pearl at the bottom of the gray and gritty ocean: he believes it will all work out in the end. It's there in the songs, his declaration at the end of Fevers that "there still is hope/ I can be healed."It's here in the apartment, in his coy smile, in the way he pats me warmly on the shoulder when the interview is over. "There is so much I hold sacred,"he says. "It doesn't seem right to me to waste a lot of words on things that don't matter. It's not easy for people to deal with - they want to call you a fake. They want to say that you're acting."He stares off. "It makes sense to me why people go hide off in cabins, why they don't want to be seen."He pauses to redirect himself. "In Boston last night, there was this one girl in the back, just loud as fuck. And at one point I heard her go 'Do I have to sit here and listen to this fucking kid cry all night?'"It makes him wince to recall it. "I heard that, and I forgot the words."
It's a Bright Eyes sort of moment now, the awkward, unflinching raw nerve kind of pain Oberst mines for his songs. But suddenly, he smiles. "But then there was a girl in the front row that turned around to her and said: 'I drove six hours to be here, and I'm going to kick your ass if you ruin this show!'"
This is the way it works for Bright Eyes: moments of bare, brute pain tempered finally and firmly by warmth, by absolution, by hope. To exclude that, to cut the lining from the cloud, is to miss the music's true beauty.
"I don't feel as desolate and as hopeless and as meaningless as I used to,"he says. "Because yeah, there are bad nights,"and he's talking here again about his concerts, but it's more than that and we both know it. "We're always on the brink of something bad happening to us. But then there are nights like New York City at the Bowery Ballroom where there are 700 people dead silent the whole time."He looks up and smiles again, and the correlation is clear. "And that's the way it is,"he says. "Just back and forth."
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