Reviews

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

Author: Tim McMahan
01/12/2005 | Omaha Weekly Reader | Feature
Conor Oberst's publicist made it very clear in the e-mail: There would be no face-to-face interviews with Mr. Oberst. Not this time. Are you still interested in talking to him?

Message: You need him more than he needs you. His Jan. 14 show at Sokol Auditorium is already sold out and has been for weeks. And this isn't the same Conor Oberst that you interviewed six years ago.

That interview, back in 1998, took place in a semi-rundown apartment somewhere around 38th and Farnam where Oberst lived with a handful of musicians his age, including then-Bright Eyes band member Joe Knapp (Son, Ambulance). Between sips of soda, a wide-eyed Oberst talked about his early days, when at age 13 he had been called on stage at local watering hole Kilgore's by Omaha music forefathers Ted Stevens, Bill Hoover and Tim Kasher to play a few songs. That was before he made his first waves nationally fronting the short-lived emo-core band Commander Venus. In '98, Bright Eyes' album Letting Off the Happiness had peaked at No. 105 on the College Music Journal (CMJ) charts -- a respectable achievement for an Omaha band -- and Oberst was still satisfied if 50 people showed up to see him play at Sokol Underground. "All's I want is to make enough money to live - which is having an apartment and a shitty car," he'd said of his music aspirations. "I don't need a house, but it would be nice."

Two years later, I interviewed Oberst while he reclined with a glass of wine on the back balcony of his parent's mid-town home. He'd just returned from Japan where he'd been treated like a young Elvis, doing in-stores and interviews in support of Fevers and Mirrors, a CD that would chart in the CMJ top-20.

By 2002, the star machine was in full motion, but Oberst still had time to meet over coffee at Caffeine Dreams. Jittery but lucid, he talked for almost two hours about the making of Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, and the tour that would involve driving around the country with 13 musicians and six crewmen in two vans. Lifted ended up being his breakthrough release, selling more than 100,000 copies by the end of 2003 and landing him on David Letterman and in the pages of every major music publication.

Now at the close of 2004, Oberst no longer has an appetite for face-to-face interviews, at least not with the "local" press regardless of being in town for the holidays. After tracking down his number (his publicist had sent out the wrong one), we finally got down to our "phoner." The first question: Why no more face-to-face interviews with the "local" press?

"I've done so many over the last two months," he said after a brief pause. "It's a full-time job. I just got done doing interviews eight hours a day for two weeks in New York. I did the same thing in Europe for two weeks."

So you're burned out?

"Yeah, you could say that. On one hand, it's been overwhelming, but I brought it upon myself just to get it out of the way so I won't have to do them next year when I'm on tour."

The Politics of Oberst

I tell him that it doesn't matter. I remember what he looks like. Anyone who lives around Dundee is bound to run into him during the holidays, either down at The Homy Inn or in a restaurant. Though he's approaching his mid-20s, he hasn't changed much since our first interview (though he no longer wears nerd glasses).

But in spite of owning a house in mid-town, Oberst spends much less time in Omaha these days. He began renting an apartment in Manhattan in May 2003 after spending months in New York living with friend, business partner and former Sony Music Publishing VP Nate Krenkel. "Somewhere along the way I decided it would be a good idea to get a place of my own there," he said.

So he made the move, which didn't surprise anyone who knew Oberst and his aspirations and ideology. New York is a bigger fishbowl of talent than Omaha. It also sports a much more liberal political environment.

"If anything bums me when I come back here, it's being in the minority politically," he said. "It's just a strange dynamic. I live here and I understand the way people think, but even in that context, I can't believe people can think that way."

Oberst's political views took center stage in '04 when Bright Eyes was asked to take part in the Vote for Change tour. Organized by political action group moveon.org, the get-out-the-vote concert series featured superstar acts performing in critical swing states with the goal of unseating George W. Bush from office.

"Michael Stipe had asked us to be involved. At some point they combined Springsteen with R.E.M.," Oberst said. "It was amazing playing with people I admire and listened to growing up and being involved in something that transcended entertainment. Even though it didn't turn out the way we wanted it, I don't regret it."

Springsteen, he said, went out of his way to make the bands feel as comfortable as possible, even giving a pep talk before the first show and coming back stage afterward to say how well everyone had done. "The first night was crazy," Oberst said. "I've played in front of audiences that big before, but it was a lot different playing to a crowd that was mostly there to see him. But after a couple nights of it, I realized it's only as weird as you want to make it. It's just people singing songs and the mystique surrounding the people who have been doing it for a long time."

While the concerts took on an almost historic flavor and gave Oberst a chance to call Bush a "madman" in front of thousands of people, at the end of the day the madman got re-elected. Oberst sounds like he's still reeling over the election's outcome.

"The day after, I went through a gauntlet of emotions -- from disbelief to wanting to wake up to that feeling of hopelessness, fear and anger," he said. "The immediate temptation was to run and hide or to move to Canada or Europe, but that would be wrong. It's more important to get smarter and louder and more active, and really try to help people understand that half the people out there feel the way I do about it.

"I don't see this working that much longer, this sort of spell the current administration has cast," he added. "It will take time, but it'll change. People will realize it when the jobs that are lost don't come back, and when more neighbor kids go off to war and don't come back. I have to believe that people here (in Omaha) understand the value of logic and peace and life over money."

Despite his passionate words, Oberst kept a fairly low profile throughout the Vote for Change publicity circus. He didn't even take part in the Rolling Stone photo shoot that featured most of the Vote for Change performers. How could he pass on an opportunity to be on the cover of Rolling Stone? "I was recording in Lincoln," he said. "I would have had to fly back to New York to get my picture taken. If I didn't have anything going on, I would have done it. We finished mastering Digital Ash the day before we went out on that tour."
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Acoustic Vs. Digital

Surrounded by the election turmoil, Oberst spent much of last year working on the first Bright Eyes full-length releases since 2002's Lifted. I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn -- two distinctly different sounding records -- are slated for release simultaneously on Jan. 25.

I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, is a more traditional Bright Eyes album featuring Oberst and a slew of musicians centered around multi-instrumentalist and producer Mike Mogis -- the only consistent member of Bright Eyes other than Oberst. The album is filled with laid-back, almost countrified personal folk tunes done up on acoustic instruments -- it's a style that's defined Bright Eyes since the days of Letting Off the Happiness -- the stuff that gets him compared to Dylan, whether he likes it or not.

Wide Awake is arguably Oberst's strongest collection of songs to date -- pure, perfect melodies merged with lonely ideas sung in his ever-cringing voice. Standout tune "Lua" is classic Oberst -- his voice and guitar capture a musical snapshot of what must be his everyday life in NYC, right down to the flask in his pocket that he shares on the train with one of his many emotionally fractured companions. "First Day of My Life" is a lilting acoustic love song, where our hero rasps upbeat lines like "Besides maybe this time is different / I mean I really think you like me." After a spoken monologue done Woody Allen-style, "At the Bottom of Everything" cranks into full hoe-down mode driven by Oberst's shuffling guitar. The quiet "Poison Oak" builds like an anthem, and recalls Jackson Browne in his heyday (with Mogis as Oberst's David Lindley).

And then there's the three songs Oberst sings with country music legend Emmylou Harris, where the duo harmonizes like brother and sister on stage at the Grand Ol' Opry. "We had recorded those songs and sent them to her," Oberst said. "A couple months passed and she got back to us and said she liked them. Mike and I flew to Nashville in April and spent a day in the studio recording the parts. She's just amazing."

Oberst admits to being a bit star struck during the sessions. "It was a little overwhelming, kind of disarming," he said. "She goes out of the way to make you not feel intimidated. I was sitting on the couch listening to playback and she was talking to me, and then she started singing. Going through my head was that I was hearing her voice right from her mouth, singing my words. It was pretty overwhelming. I had to kind of excuse myself and take a breath."

Then there's the second full-length, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. And digital it is. The beats aren't drums, they're sampled explosions. The instruments are keyboard-fueled electronic tones, hollow and cold and floating beneath a layer of chaotic blip-click noises, throbbing hiss, ticking clocks and other found sounds. At times, the album comes off as Oberst's version of Ben Gibbard's Postal Service.

"Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" chugs along on top of a chorus of whip-cracks and pong tones that would make any Casio proud. "Down a Rabbit Hole" sounds like something off of a Ric Ocasek solo album, while the electric-guitar driven "Light Pollution" sounds like a Desaparecidos song with less screaming. Digital Ash will be called a rhythmic departure for Oberst, but strip away the electronic doo-dads and add an acoustic guitar and "Gold Mine Gutted" would fit in just fine on Wide Awake. The same can be said of the rather straight-forward "Hit the Switch" and "Theme from Pinata" (but only after you remove the sound effects on Oberst's voice).

Oberst disagrees. To him, there is absolutely nothing similar about the two LPs, which goes to the heart of why they weren't released as a double CD.

"We did the Wide Awake record first, in February. We'd been playing those songs live for the last couple years," Oberst explained. "We didn't release it because Mike (Mogis) and I were more excited about working on this other batch of songs that were more rhythm based. We could have put out Wide Awake and not played any shows, but Robb Nansel and Saddle Creek weren't stoked on that idea. So we just held off."

Oberst said Saddle Creek would have preferred to have the two CDs packaged together as a double album, "but they are two very different records in my mind. The only thing they have in common is the musicians playing on them and that they're coming out on the same day."

In fact, don't expect to hear any Digital Ash songs on Friday night. That concert launches a tour that's dedicated solely to Wide Awake. A joint Faint/Bright Eyes tour will be launched in late spring specifically in support of Digital Ash, with members of The Faint acting as Bright Eyes band. Oberst said he still hasn't figured out how they'll play Digital Ash live.

"I'll let Clark (Baechle, from The Faint) figure it out," he said. Oberst will even use The Faint's large multi-media projection screens for his portion of the show, projecting videos created by local filmmaker Nik Fackler, who has worked with The Faint and directed videos for The Good Life and Azure Ray.
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Beyond Bright Eyes

In between all of that, there's Oberst's other projects, not the least of which is a revival of a band many thought to be dead -- Desaparecidos. Formed as a side project at the end of 2000, Desaparecidos (or Desa for short) released one full-length CD of loud, screaming indie rock before Oberst's busy schedule and a sudden lack of enthusiasm put the project on hold right before the band was slated to go on tour.

Now it seems the project is being lifted from its ashes. "We have some songs written and will record a few," Oberst said. "It will be hard to get them done because I'll be touring for six months, but we have a traveling set-up now that allows us to record on the road fairly easily."

Plans called for recording some Desa tracks while Oberst was in town prior to Friday night's tour launch, and recording more on the road and this summer. "We don't want to say we're putting out a record," he said, "but we're working on it. I miss playing with those guys and rocking out and screaming. It's not something I can do all the time, but I do enjoy it."

Then there's Team Love, Oberst's record label launched early last year with New York pal Nate Krenkel. Their releases already include debut albums by tap-dancing indie rock sensations Tilly and the Wall and Martha's Vinyard singer-songwriter Willy Mason, with plans for future releases by local hip-hop acts Team Rigge and Mars Black, and a solo project by Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis.

Oberst was one of the founding members of Saddle Creek Records and continues to be one of the label's most influential partners. How does Team Love fit into the equation?

"It's in the Saddle Creek family," Oberst said. "Saddle Creek does all the manufacturing, distribution and mail order, while Team Love has offices with Nate in New York, where we do promotions, press and radio and make decisions concerning talent."

Oberst said Team Love afforded him a chance to release music without having to deal with what appears to be Saddle Creek's bureaucracy. "Some stuff fell through the cracks with Saddle Creek," he said. "It's hard to get everyone on the same page."

For example, nationally recognized singer-songwriter M. Ward was feted by Saddle Creek to release his last record. "It wasn't as if anyone at Saddle Creek was opposed to it as much as things moved so slow. He finally ended up on Merge, which is a great label."

A similar ordeal played out with Tilly and the Wall. "I always felt there was something really special about that band. Not everyone there saw it that way." So far, Tilly and the Wall's debut has sold more than 7,000 copies. Not bad for the label's first release.

With that, our phoner had come to an end. Oberst was late for a holiday family gathering. I had time for one last question: Was it as much fun as it was back when we first talked in '98, before New York and Springsteen, before Letterman and the New York Times and eight hours a day of interviews, back when all he wanted to do was make enough money to buy a shitty car?

"Yeah it is," Oberst said. "Music is still the main thing. I feel the best when I'm playing and recording. The rest of the world just kind of washes away, and I feel good and safe and happy. That's what I do it for. The rest of itů it gets crazy and sometimes unpleasant; exhilarating and sometimes terrifying. But that's what living is -- all that stuff at once, and you have to do the best you can with it."


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