Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Like many a future rock star, Oberst -- the singer, guitarist and all-around creative force behind Bright Eyes -- picked up his instrument at a young age. In his case, it was a guitar at age ten, lessons provided by his dad, an insurance-company manager who played Three Dog Night covers at weddings and picnics. Unlike many a future rock star, though, young Oberst was already playing gigs and writing original songs three years later. He released his first album -- well, cassette -- just before he started eighth grade at St. Pius X/St. Leo Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska. His "label," Lumberjack, eventually became Saddle Creek, currently one of the hottest indies on the scene, with a roster that includes Bright Eyes, Cursive and the Faint.
It was Bright Eyes' sprawling 2002 album Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground that made Oberst a critics' darling. Lifted is excessive in every sense of the phrase, from the title on down. Verses pile upon verses, jackknifing on the cracks in Oberst's doleful voice. Songs go on far too long. A cacophony of instruments -- oboe! vibraphone! timpani?! -- crash around galloping folk-rock melodies. And amazingly, it all sort of works, thanks largely to Oberst's lyrics, which tend to focus on stuff like, say, the fleeting and ultimately meaningless nature of existence rather than why his girlfriend never called him back. Age was certainly a factor here, allowing Oberst to muster a fury at the injustices of life the way only a very young person generally can, and also surely contributing to the winning sincerity of even his bleakest compositions. But Oberst's youth was ultimately beside the point, as Lifted placed him among the most ambitious lyricists writing pop songs today.
After that album's numerous accolades, Oberst moved to New York's East Village, initiated a high-profile battle with Clear Channel, in which he publicly declared he would never play a venue operated by the monopolistic entertainment giant, and joined last summer's Vote for Change Tour, sharing the stage with R.E.M., John Fogerty and Bruce Springsteen. (Oberst on Springsteen: "Such a true bro.")
Now Bright Eyes are back with a pair of simultaneously released new albums: the country-rock I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, which features guest vocals by Emmylou Harris and continues in the vein of Lifted, and the darker Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, on which Oberst's musings on death are mirrored by a chilly electronic production.
Oberst spent the holidays with his family, and on the second day of the new year we stroll through downtown Omaha's Old Market district of shops and restaurants, eventually settling in the backroom of a pub called Mr. Toad's. It is jazz night. "I've never been to jazz night at Mr. Toad's," Oberst says dryly. "Maybe it pops off." Outside, a man in a top hat drives by in a tourist-trap horse and buggy. "It's a lot different out here," Oberst says, putting some mock twang into his voice. "Things don't move as quick." He watches the cart clop by and adds, deadpan, "That's my dad, actually."
A far cry from his anguished stage manner, Oberst in person is funny, unfailingly polite and an enthusiastic, if ironic, employer of slang terms not found in the OED (e.g., "This salmon salad looks gang-starr!"). His older brother Matt (now married with kids and a day job but still a member of the Saddle Creek band Sorry About Dresden) played guitar in bands throughout high school and turned Oberst on to the world of alt-rock. "He gave me that Cure Standing on a Beach singles tape," Oberst recalls. "I remember wearing that shit out." Soon Oberst discovered bands such as Pavement and Superchunk on his own and began hanging with his brother's friends. "We started going to this coffee shop, Kilgore's, every Tuesday or Thursday," says Saddle Creek co-founder Robb Nansel. "One night, Ted [Stevens, of Cursive] invited Conor up to play a song. Everyone was kind of worked up by it, this little thirteen-year-old playing a song. It was just impressive, you know, and a bit of a novelty, almost. But not. You could kind of tell there was something there."
Oberst says he has trouble listening to his earliest compositions these days -- particularly as his voice had not yet changed -- but he recalls certain songs with a clear fondness. "I had one called 'Space Invaders,' " he says. "I guess it was about people trying to come and bother you with their presence. Invade your space! I guess I was smart enough to put that little metaphor together."
Most of Oberst's classmates at his Jesuit all-boys high school weren't even aware he was spending his summers doing DIY punk tours with his band Commander Venus; most, in fact, probably would have assumed the term "DIY" involved failing a breathalizer test. "Once in a while I'd run my mouth off to some big-ass dude and get pushed into a locker, or go to a party and get called a fag and get punched," Oberst says of his high school years. "But mostly I was more like invisible."
Oberst spent three semesters at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, until his booking agent told him the best time to tour was when college was in session. By that point he'd discovered that singing in a rock band didn't have to solely involve expressing one's innermost fears and desires in rhymed verse. "I wasn't very suave when I was way younger, but by the time I got to be eighteen, nineteen, that was when I realized there were girls all over the place who I'd like to make out with," Oberst says. "I was all about it. Pretty girls are cool. It's right up there with music when it comes to things that make life worth living." Because of the age thing, Oberst has always dated older women. "I think I'll keep doing that until I get old and then flip it around," he says. "I've never dated an eighteen-year-old girl. I wanna try it."
The following afternoon, Oberst and his cousin and roommate, Ian McElroy, pick me up at my hotel. Oberst doesn't have a car, so McElroy is driving -- a slightly beat-up Corsica with a photograph of the Statue of Liberty taped to the dashboard and a Lauryn Hill cassette jammed into the stereo.
"Uh! Uh!" Oberst says.
"That's where Conor's dad works," McElroy says as we drive past the towering Mutual of Omaha corporate HQ. "That's what we're most known for here: insurance and beef."
I ask for an amusing childhood anecdote, and McElroy lights up and says, "It was funny when we were kids and Conor was wrestling somebody, and then this neighbor girl jumped on him and broke his leg."
Oberst glances over from a cell-phone call. "That was funny?"
"It was funny. He had to wear this cast that covered his leg, and they had to cut out this little pee hole, and then he had to ride around on this little cart thing. Remember that? It was kind of like a skateboard, but it was padded."
"I was, like, three years old," Oberst says. He's wearing a green knit cap that's stretched up so high it resembles a costume horn.
"Too bad -- it's going in there!" McElroy crows.
Soon we arrive at the new Saddle Creek offices, tucked away in a tan-brick industrial park behind a strip mall and across the street from a Chuck E. Cheese. The label's rapid growth has forced an expansion; much to Robb Nansel's consternation, when he finally had a chance to go through the pile of demos on his desk, he discovered a tape from one of his favorite new bands, the Arcade Fire, though by that point they had signed to Merge Records.
Inside, there are framed posters for bands such as Desaparecidos, Oberst's harder-rock side project (McElroy, a preschool teacher's aide by day, plays keyboards), as well as various press clippings, including a Time cover featuring a soldier in battle and the cover line THE VALLEY OF DEATH, next to which is the inside feature on Saddle Creek, titled NEBRASKA'S BUMPER CROP.
Besides the new move, Saddle Creek's biggest project for the first quarter of '05 will be the Bright Eyes records. Oberst recorded I'm Wide Awake first, as a reaction to Lifted. "That was such an enormous, layered thing, so I wanted to do something stripped down," he says. The initial concept for Awake was simply guitar and vocals, and tracks such as the haunted love song "Lua" don't stray far from that formula. For Digital Ash, Oberst wanted to emphasize the atmospherics. "Rhythm's not my forte," he admits. "I wanted this to be driven less by the words and the guitar, and more about you hearing it and just nodding your head.
"Because of the way these albums are coming out, juxtapositions have been forced upon them," he continues. "So I can see why people extrapolate things like, you know, 'human' vs. 'inhuman.' But I don't think of Digital Ash as inhuman."
Both records deal with fairly heavy themes -- even the anthemic "Road to Joy," a twanged-out reworking of Beethoven's Ninth that closes I'm Wide Awake, features lines such as "The sun came up with no conclusions" and "I read the body count out of the paper/And now it's written all over my face." "You don't want it to be a completely cold reality," Oberst says. "You want life to make sense. I believe in God. I just don't know if it's a personal thing, where it's a God who gives a shit about me. But it has to go beyond this."
On a less metaphysical note, Saddle Creek has had numerous offers from major labels but so far has resisted any buyouts. "For me it's always been 'Let's see how far we can take it on our own,' " says Nansel. "I always thought there was no way we could sell 100,000 records. I think I looked up The Lonesome Crowded West, that Modest Mouse record, and that's what they sold, so that seemed like the indie peak. But Lifted sold 250,000. So as long as we can continue to move forward and not feel like we're hurting the record with things we can't do.... I mean, we talked about having a major [label] help us get a Faint song on the radio. But Conor doesn't really want a radio hit."
Oberst, who is standing in the office but is not really listening to the conversation, murmurs, "No."
"I'm sure if it happened without throwing a bunch of money at a radio station, he'd be happy."
"Exactly," Oberst says, looking up. "The more money you spend..."
"Mo' money, mo' problems," says Nansel.
Oberst nods and grins. "Puffy said it best," he says. "The more money you spend" -- Oberst holds up his arms in the universal gesture of an obvious statement. Today's sweater has numerous holes, and he is wearing his hat and scarf, despite the fact that we are indoors -- "the longer you have to wait to get your royalties."
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