The People's Key
Author: Marc Spitz
2/8/11 | Vanity Fair | www.vanityfair.com | Feature
After releasing two excellent solo albums and forming Monsters of Folk?a long-rumored collaboration with M. Ward and My Morning Jacket's Jim James?former wunderkind Conor Oberst marks entry into his thirties by re-activating his most beloved incarnation, Bright Eyes. Recorded, as with all Bright Eyes releases, in Omaha with longtime partner Mike Mogis (and third Bright Eyes member Nathaniel Walcott, plus various guests), The People's Key (out February 15) boasts every Bright Eyes hallmark: Oberst's trembling, echo-drenched vocals, biting lyrics and an air of sadness. But it mostly dispense with some of their earlier stylistic forays into alt-country, chilly new wave and prog rock. It's simply a pop-smart pop record, maybe his best yet. VF Daily sat down with Oberst to talk spirituality, aging, protest songs and the perils of writing confessional lyrics?highlights from the chat:Marc Spitz: This is the first Bright Eyes release in almost four years. After two solo albums and the Monsters of Folk record, how do you know when it's time to revisit Bright Eyes?Conor Oberst: After Cassadaga, it felt important to me somehow to make a record without Mike, because he'd been my safety net for so long?I wanted the experience of doing it apart from him. That's what the first self-titled solo record was about, and that spun into the Mystic Valley experience. I guess it's just whatever feels right at the time. We made the second [solo] record really fast because it felt like the right thing to do. Everything was clicking. It was fun and exciting to play with those guys, and simultaneously have the Monsters record in the works. After all that it kind of made sense in my mind to make another Bright Eyes record.You're playing larger venues on this?the Bright Eyes name seems to mean something to a greater community of music fans. Why do you suppose people have a stronger attachment to the idea of Bright Eyes?The name has been out there longer?I think there's plenty of people who know that name that might not even know my name, or might not be aware of the other records that I've made.Like most Bright Eyes records, The People's Key begins with an abstract sort of overture, which should please the older fans. It's a particularly strange, seven minute rant about Einstein, Tesla, Sumeric Tablets, snake people, the Garden of Eden, and the fourth dimension.It became a tradition. On every Bright Eyes record, there's some kind of sound collage that begins it. Some of them have dialogue, some don't. I like it because it can kind of slow down the attention span a bit. It's a way to draw you in to the rest of the record.Who is the dude?That is actually a friend of mine, this guy Denny Brewer. He plays in a cool band from Texas called Refried Ice Cream. I was recording with the Valley Band in this studio called Sonic Ranch outside El Paso. It's an amazing and strange place in general, this part of the country, and he's friends with this guy who owns the studio. He stopped by to hang out, and I heard him pontificate in this way?it occurred to me to ask him to record some of the monologues.On Cassadaga you seemed to express a New Age-y openmindedness towards new spirituality and the occult, and this sort of falls in line with that.I'm fascinated with anything that people truly believe in, and I don't really draw too much of a distinction between a belief like that or a belief in organized religion or any kind of philosophy. I guess I find it interesting?it's maybe a fascination more than anything, with searching and being able to put our existence, as humans, into some kind of context.Can you release a new record without some fans assuming that you are sharing the state of your personal life?Pronouns really don't matter in a song?I or he or she or even subscribing a lyric to an inanimate object. Especially with my earlier records, which were stylistically much more confessional, there's a type of person who really wants to know what parts are true. I don't know what that is in people. I try to write songs that are a little more open to interpretation these days, even though I know what the songs mean to me. I think more people project connections to their own life. Which is just as valuable as what I intended.Do you feel like you've grown up in public?I'm 30 years old now. I have a blessing and a curse, in that everything I've ever written has been documented and is available to the world if you just search the Internet. On one hand, it's embarrassing?songs I made when I was 13 or 14. On the other, it's a nice position, because I feel like some people have to hide that maybe they were in a hair-metal band in the '80s, and they don't want anyone to know about it. Or on The Mickey Mouse Club.Bright Eyes toured the swing states in 2004 on the Vote For Change tour, and your song "When the President Talks to God" got a lot of media attention. It can be argued that since Obama's election, there have been fewer artists writing protest songs, but you're not one of them (Bright Eyes' "Coyote Song" was part of The Sound Strike campaign and artists boycott of Arizona following the controversial SB 1070 immigration law).I would never judge an artist for bringing that into their art or music or not. I think it's up to each person's choice, and what they feel compelled to do. It's not something I go looking for, and not something I really enjoy doing, either, but those ideas find their way into songs and kind of become the topic in that way. With the 1070 stuff, I just felt really compelled to say something. It seemed so insane to me that this was even up for debate.How is a protest song created? Do you read something or hear something from another person and just pick up your guitar?It happens in different ways. "When the President Talks to God," was deliberate. I was extremely angry after Bush got re-elected. The whole point was to have like a commercial more than it was a song?I don't think it's a particularly good song. But just to say something that needed to be said.A protest song is almost obliged to be better than other songs, or at least to generate a catharsis or inspire action. Is that a challenge? It almost has to be "Ohio," or "Free Nelson Mandela," to really work.Yeah, I don't know. I try to make all my songs good. I don't ever write one to finish one. A lot of protest songs end up that way, driven by some kind of emotional response.How do you get your news these days?I read the newspaper online. Mostly The New York Times. I'll still buy papers if I'm getting on an airplane or the tour bus, though. I like physical things.