Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
This interview took place at Life Café in the East Village, back in the halcyon days of October 2004. Bright Eyes had just finished the Vote for Change tour with Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and John Fogerty. George W. Bush hadn't been "reelected." Hope was in the air, love was all around, blah blah blah.
Since then, Bright Eyes has released two albums simultaneously, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, which debuted on the Billboard Top 200 at numbers 10 and 15, respectively, toured the country and been featured in just about every music publication on the planet. Except Kitty Magik. I'm sorry it took me this long to type it up, but transcribing interviews is about as fun for me as a visit to the gynecologist.
Kitty Magik: Everybody's been making a big deal about how you ditched Omaha for New York City. Is that true? Do you live here fulltime now?
Conor Oberst: I have a spot here and I have a house in Nebraska. I have dual residency.
KM: Where are you voting?
CO: In Nebraska. Absentee. I already sent it in. But it doesn't matter either way.
KM: Why did you decide to get the place in NYC?
CO: I've been coming here on tour since I was 15. At first, New York freaked me out. I couldn't wait to get out. But that wears off. The chaos calms me down. With all this stuff happening, I feel more centered. When it's quiet I go crazy. A lot of the songs on the new records were written when I first moved here. I think everyone goes through that immediate immersion thing. It's pretty intoxicating. I don't know if I'd want to live here if I was poor. I would just live in Nebraska where rent is $150 a month. A lot of the music-type stuff still has to go on in Nebraska, like rehearsing, because we can go play in the basement or my friend's warehouse for free, whereas here it's like 500 dollars a day to have a little PA. Plus, all the recording is done there.
KM: That's a lot of flying.
CO: I've made the drive a lot of times. It's about 22 hours. I don't like airplanes. I've always been this way. My whole thing is, I can't fly alone. I have to have someone I love next to me so I can hold onto them.
KM: Wow. That is so emo.
KM: So let's talk about the Vote for Change tour. I went to the opening night of it, in Philadelphia. How was that for you?
CO: I was so nervous. I was in a panic. I couldn't get enough air in my lungs to sing.
KM: Had you rehearsed the big finale where you all came out and sang Patti Smith's "People Have the Power"?
CO: Only that afternoon. Michael Stipe came into the dressing room and was like, "So we're doing this encore, it's a Patti Smith song, and we were wondering if you wanted to sing a verse?" and I was like, "Whaa? Dude, I don't know if I can do that." He was like, "You can do it. You'll be fine."
KM: Did you know the song?
CO: No. Well, I had heard it, but I wasn't really familiar with it. They had teleprompters on stage, but the meter of the verse is weird, so the first night, Michael was behind me, tapping out the meter on my back.
KM: When did you first meet Bruce?
CO: When we were rehearsing. He's very kind and makes you feel comfortable. The E Street Band is all really nice. That first night, he came back to our dressing room right before we went on and was like, "You're gonna be all right" and then came back again right after we were done and was like, "That was great." He's so generous. His wife, Patti, is so rad.
KM: Are you a big Bruce fan?
CO: Yeah. I love all his records.
KM: All of them? Even Lucky Town and Human Touch?
CO: Well, he has rough spots. But compared to a lot of people, he's really consistent. Greetings from Asbury Park and Nebraska are my favorites.
KM: How did you feel about playing Clear Channel venues, after you have publicly denounced them so many times?
CO: We looked into it. They were Clear Channel venues, but Clear Channel wasn't the promoter. It was all done by America Coming Together. There were actually some people, I know for sure at the Detroit show, who worked for Clear Channel but were Democrats and volunteered their time to help out with the show because they believed in the cause. Clear Channel didn't get any money from the shows.
KM: Let's say Bush does get re-elected. What are you gonna do about it?
CO: Well, there are always things to be done. I don't necessarily have an agenda. First and foremost, I want to do my thing. I want to write my songs and record and go on tour. That's what I should be doing. But if something comes up, I'll do it. I don't really have any plans.
KM: OK, tell me about Team Love, your new record label. It's you and one other guy, right?
CO: Yeah, Nate (gestures towards the guy sitting reading the New York Times at the table behind us)
KM: Oh, OK, that's him. So the label is part of Saddle Creek, but not really?
CO: They do all the manufacturing and distribution and mail-order and all that stuff out of Omaha. We run everything else from here.
KM: How involved are you in Saddle Creek?
CO: When it first started out, I was more involved in the day-to-day stuff. But as it got farther along and I started touring and all that, I became separated from that. We still get together and talk about what records we're going to put out, and if there's a major decision, like when we switched distributors, we'll call a meeting and get together.
KM: Who's distributing you now?
KM: Oh really? They're owned by Warner Brothers, you know.
CO: Yeah. Those bastards. But, back to Team Love, there were records that I wanted to put out but it's such a slow-moving thing when Saddle Creek decides to do something-we have to talk about it forever and it's hard to bring new bands on board. It's pretty much the same people doing different projects. Which is fine, that's kind of what it was meant to be. But I felt like there was stuff going by that I wanted to get out there. It's also a much smaller scale. The amount of records we press, what we expect to sell. It's not really about making money. We put all the mp3s on the website. We're hoping to get to the point where it sustains itself and we're not spending our own money. Bright Eyes is pretty much paying the bills right now.
KM: Is it true that everybody in your scene loves each other? I've interviewed Tilly and the Wall and the Faint, and both bands swear that you are all one big happy family.
CO: I hate them all. (Laughs.) No, it's true, actually. I don't get to see all those guys as much anymore because of everybody's schedules, but when we all get together it's like nothing ever changed. You kind of forget what year it is or where you are because you're back with your crew again.
KM: So people don't get jealous when somebody else succeeds and they don't?
CO: It's never been like that. At different points throughout the years we've been doing the label, various bands have kind of carried the whole thing. First it was Lullaby for the Working Class, they were the first ones to tour nationally and go to Europe. Then Cursive really popped off, and then it was the Faint for awhile, and then Bright Eyes. So everyone has contributed to the ups and downs. And the money is going back into making records, so everyone profits from one band's success. We're looking for some way to make some sort of pension fund so that when we all get old we can get, like, a check every month from back when we were in bands.
KM: Yeah, a Saddle Creek health plan would be great, too.
CO: All the people that work at the label have health insurance, but nobody wants to insure bands on the label. It's weird. No company will let us say that these are our employees. You're considered an outside contractor unless you're in the office a certain number of hours a week. It sucks. I finally got health insurance after years without it. But most of my friends don't have it.
KM: What is up with Desaparecidos, your punk rock side-project? Weren't you supposed to tour or release a new album or something?
CO: Yeah, we kind of ... we started demoing new songs, but it was kind of uh ... I don't know. Basically, Denver [Dalley, Desaparecidos guitarist and Statistics main-man] wanted to make another Statistics record, I started working on the Bright Eyes shit and it kind of fell to the wayside. But hopefully we're gonna record a couple of songs soon. We're thinking of putting out a seven inch for old times' sake. Denver's going to be doing basic tracks for the next Statistics record in January in Washington, and they'll have, like, all the drums set up and everything, so we might sneak in and record real quick. We have maybe six songs written. Two or three of them I really like. The other ones are sort of iffy. But I don't think it's over. It's one of those things where ... we disappear. (Laughs)
KM: Do you have a publishing deal with Sony? I remember the indie police being very upset about that.
CO: That deal was signed right before [2000's] Fevers and Mirrors came out, so that's kind of an old deal. It's actually almost up. After I turn in these records, it's over. I don't know what we're gonna do. The thing about it is, you get to a certain point where you're collecting royalties from, like, radio play and wherever your song is used. It gets really hard to keep track of it, especially when your music starts being used a lot overseas. In America, you have, like BMI and ASCAP and all this stuff, and you can kind of do it yourself, in a way. But it gets to a point where you need an international company to watch all that shit. But it depends on what kind of deal you sign. Like, we didn't get much money. But we have veto power over everything. Like, "do you want to be in this commercial?" "No." "Do you want to be in this movie?" "No." So there's a lot of freedom there. Some people get these shitty publishing deals. Or you can get an administrative deal where they just collect your royalties and don't have any license over your songs. Which we might do when we re-sign. If we re-sign. Either that or just go get a shit-ton of money from some other company. (Laughs.)
KM: Would you ever let your song be used in a commercial?
CO: I don't know. I guess, never say never. It's weird, of all the things we've ever done, we get the most requests for that Christmas record [2002's A Christmas Album]. They wanted to use that in some movie, and that's what they used on The O.C. and stuff. We did that as a charity thing with the Nebraska AIDS Project, so we give all the money from, like, The O.C., to them.
KM: Wow, that's awesome. Let's talk about music videos. So far, none of your videos have actually featured you in them. Would you ever make a video with you in a dramatic role?
CO: Well, I don't have a problem with it, but I think a lot of times it comes out really dumb. If it was a cool director and a good idea, I'd consider it. It could be fun.
KM: Would you consider signing with a major label?
CO: I'll consider anything. It seems like every time we make a record, we end up meeting with lots of labels, and a lot of them are cool. Like the guy from Lost Highway, even after we told him we weren't signing with him, he still basically got us on Letterman. A lot of them, once you say you're not interested, they vanish. But there's really no reason at this point to do anything like that. I'm pretty happy where I'm at. I've got a great deal, I make plenty of money, I can do whatever I want and do it with my friends.
KM: A lot of bands rationalize signing to a major label by saying, "But it's the only way to get our music heard by as many people as possible!"
conor oberstCO: I don't really feel that way. Pretty much the only thing that they could offer us would be commercial radio play and distribution in Wal-Mart, Target and, like, the gas station. Which is ridiculous, because anyone shopping for music in Wal-Mart or Target isn't really a music fan. It's more just like, "Oh, there's that girl I saw on TV. I'll get her CD." And commercial radio just sucks. I don't want to give them a fucking quarter of a million dollars to play my song. I think that's bullshit.
KM: How do you feel about people downloading your music for free on the internet? I guess that's kind of a stupid question, since you offer Team Love's entire catalog as free downloads on the website.
CO: Basically it's just like burning a CD and giving it to your friend or dubbing tapes back in the day. I think it mostly affects huge artists that only have one song, and once people get that one song, they're not going to care about the record or what the artwork looks like. But for the stuff we're doing, we get people to hear it, and then they're gonna want it. We're hoping to appeal to music fans who have record collections. I feel like it's working. It's slow but I feel happy about it.
KM: Is your music available on iTunes?
CO: Yeah, Saddle Creek is. I don't really have a problem with it. It seems pretty fair, a dollar per song. We get a better cut and it's a lot cheaper than going through a distributor. I was a little weirded out by it at first. I was like, "Why don't we just put it up for free?"
KM: Do you have an iPod?
CO: I had one but it got stolen. I want to get another one. They're great.
KM: Did you make mixtapes when you were younger?
CO: I've made a few in my day. I wasn't the best at it. I was given more mixtapes than I made.
KM: Did you ever make a mixtape for a crush?
CO: Yeah, I've made a girl a mix before. It's been a long time. (Laughs.)
KM: I've always wanted to ask you: What is up with that weird radio interview thing near the end of Fevers and Mirrors?
CO: I guess I wanted to be funny and I wanted a break between the second-to-last song and the very last song because it's a way different mood.
KM: Is it a real interview?
CO: No! I wrote the script and then Todd Baechle [singer for The Faint] played me and our friend Matt did the radio voice.
KM: Whoa, you totally fooled me. But I guess it added to your whole tortured-poet mystique at the time.
CO: It was a way to make fun of ourselves because the record is such a downer. I mean, that's one part of who I am but I also like laughing and fucking around.
KM: Something else I've always wanted to ask about: that piece of black string you wear around your neck. Does it have any sort of significance?
CO: Todd Baechle gave it to me.
KM: Oh yeah, he wears one too.
CO: He gave the first one to me when I was like 17 or something. He was like, "wear this all the time." I was like, "It's tight!" "It's supposed to be tight!" Then a couple years passed, and I was at a show and it broke. Within, like, a half hour, I saw Todd and he unwrapped another one off his wrist and gave it to me. I was like, "That was kinda weird." And then, again like a year and a half ago in London, it broke at the hotel, and he just happened to be staying with us. And again, he unwrapped one from his wrist and was like "here you go." I don't know where he gets it from. So it's sort of my thing with him, I guess. It's our bond.
KM: Did you ever watch that TV show My So-Called Life?
CO: I didn't watch it when it was on, but a friend of mine made me watch all the reruns on MTV. We also watched that Freaks and Geeks show. That was great.
KM: Well, Jordan Catalano wore one of those necklaces, too.
CO: Really? Nice! I haven't watched that show in a long time. That's rad.
KM: Speaking of the early '90s, were you ever into grunge?
CO: No. My oldest brother played in bands and they were all like "ugh, grunge." I mean, everybody liked Nirvana, but that was kind of a separate thing. He was obsessed with Sonic Youth and all that stuff, but when it became popular they just started making fun of it. Because I didn't know any better or worse, I started making fun of it too. But as it turns out, I can't really relate to much of that music anyway. It's just not my thing, the heavy guitar and the monotone and the screams.
KM: Right, because folk music is your territory and hardcore is Cursive's territory. I heard that you sat down and divided up the genres. The Faint got new wave.
CO: Totally true! (Laughs.) No, but it's true that we all used to be in bands that sounded pretty much the exact same and then we drifted slowly into our own shit.
KM: Well, you dabble in electro on Digital Ash.
CO: I think experimentation is the best thing you can do. I hope to make all kinds of different sounding music and I'm sure it will all be tied together by some common sensibility because you can't erase your mind or your taste. I love playing with all kinds of people. That's what Bright Eyes is all about.
KM: Is there going to be a Bright Eyes hip-hop side-project?
CO: Actually ...
KM: Oh my god, there IS?! I was just joking!
CO: (Laughs.) My cousin Ian, who's the keyboard player in Desaparecidos and my roommate and best friend forever in the world, he's an MC. And he's really good. When we were in high school, we had this rap group called Team Rigge. It was kind of our joke because we were janitors at the Rigge science building on Creighton University's campus. So we'd rap while we mopped. We started four-tracking it, pretty silly shit. And he just kept getting better at it. Seven, eight years later, he's super good. So, hopefully next summer we'll put a Team Rigge album out on Team Love. We have a bunch of shit recorded. We want it to be fully realized. We put a couple of songs on the site. And then we actually just signed another Omaha hip-hop guy, Mars Black. It's really awesome old-school stuff.
KM: Wow. You will probably get a lot of shit for that.
CO: We get a lot of shit for everything we do.
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