The People's Key
Author: Dan Reilly
12/21/11 | Spinner.com | www.spinner.com | Feature
"Problems of the future can be solved by mankind because you create them. You have to believe in the future and what we have to do: progress." That line comes from the introductory monologue on Bright Eyes' latest album, 'The People's Key.' A science-fiction-inspired exploration of time, existence and humanity, Conor Oberst's latest opus finds him reuniting with bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott to "stir the pot" when it comes to the notion of reality.On a chilly December afternoon, Spinner sat down with Oberst in a New York hotel to discuss 'The People's Key,' his favorite science fiction authors, his work helping jailed immigrants and the future of Bright Eyes.There are several monologues about space, time, humanity and existence peppered throughout the album. Who is that speaking and why did you include them?That's a friend of mine, this guy named Denny who I met when I was making a record outside of El Paso. He's a really interesting guy. He has a band called Refried Ice Cream, which I highly recommend, and he's just one of those characters I met along the way. When I was writing the songs for this record, I kept thinking about him because I realized a lot of these ideas came from conversations I had with him. I asked if he wouldn't mind committing some of it to tape to be used in the context of the album and he was gracious enough to do that.He seems pretty well-versed in scientific theory.Yeah, a lot of people could dismiss his ideas as conspiracy theories but, to me, as far out there as this stuff is, there's so much truth in it. I find that paradox interesting, reality in general. Obviously, people's perception of it is different and one person's reality is another person's fantasy and vice versa. I like stirring the pot. It seemed like a good starting place for the record and for some of the ideas and songs.Did you have the whole record conceptualized ahead of time?The songs were written all over the course of the last year, year and a half. When I started writing the first few songs, I didn't know what direction the record was going to take. Once the first three or four songs were written, I started to see the template emerge of what was going to become the record. The second half was written more deliberately with these concepts in mind.What were the initial concepts that inspired you to put pen to paper?I've been reading more science fiction in the last few years. I'm a real big Vonnegut fan. He's one of my favorites. I find it interesting that so often predictions in science fiction become true. That's really fascinating.Are there any books or authors in particular that influenced the album?I really like Margaret Atwood. She wrote 'The Handmaid's Tale,' and she has two books called 'Oryx and Crake' and 'After the Flood,' they're sort of companion pieces -- not sequels, but very similar. Arthur C. Clarke has the book 'Childhood of Man,' which is kind of a touchstone. Obviously Vonnegut, his stuff. Orson Welles, Jules Verne, all that stuff is interesting to me. Those two in particular really predicted things that were right around the corner, a century ahead.Also, I don't know if you're familiar with the theory of singularity. This guy, Ray Kurzweil, who was the inventor of early synthesizers, he has this theory -- a few other people write about it too -- but essentially there's a point where artificial intelligence reaches beyond human intelligence and we fuse in with the internet and become what he calls "spiritual machines." Essentially, you stop having to die and stop having to eat. Our physical form is no longer important because you're able to maintain your consciousness by uploading it to the next frame, which sounds spooky and weird but I think it's 100% achievable, especially when you think about how fast new machines invent newer machines, which invent the newer machines. It's exponential growth. A person doesn't have to sit down and invent every one of these steps. His vision is really utopian, like this is the way forward. Humans, we're obviously going to destroy our planet and destroy our physical form, but we'll continue in this way.Musically, what inspired this? Some of it seems influenced by the Pixies.Oh, I love the Pixies. They have always been an inspiration. Frank Black is the coolest man on the planet. He's always had a sci-fi thing going on. [His third solo album] 'Cult of Ray' was supposedly all about Ray Bradbury.There's some stuff about time travel in there. Are you someone who really dwells on the past or future?Definitely. The goal is always to live in the present but you spend time thinking about the past or worrying about the future. It's inescapable to a degree. To walk into a room and it's a bunch of people going like this [pretends to type on a cell phone] it's so depressing. I do it too, so I'm not pointing fingers. But when you project into the future and you think, 'Well, this is eventually going to be archaic. We're not going to need the keyboard anymore. We're just going to be connected.' It'll all just be information-ideas space. I don't think that's crazy at all. It's totally realistic. I'm not saying we'll see it in our lifetimes, but if you think about 100 years from now, 200 years from now, it'll be unrecognizable. This will not be here.Last summer, you did several shows to protest anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Nebraska. Did that influence the album?The album is about humanity. That's sort of the crux of that matter -- we're all human beings and these imaginary lines and borders are really silly when you think about work and families and the need for people to survive and carry on with their lives. It seems so basic to me. It's not new, but this new wave of xenophobic, barbaric nationalism is totally scary and something that needs to be stopped in its tracks immediately. This is the opposite of what I was told America was all about.In a lot of these communities that we're trying to deal with, it's not some abstract thing. It's hate targeting Latino people. It becomes something that needs action, to say "This isn't right. You can't treat people like this. You can't ask someone for their papers because their skin is a little darker than you'd like it to be." That's what got me really fired up about it. Having spent time in Mexico and having a lot of people close to me that come from there, I took it as a direct affront to people I love.We're doing the Soundstrike thing, so to spend time with Zack de la Rocha and Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine opened my eyes. They're really brilliant people and it's such a powerful band. Their level of engagement and intelligence and thoughtfulness and the way they communicate with their audience and the activists that are down there, I learned a lot from that. A lot of money we've been trying to funnel is to this place the Florence Project, which gives free legal aid to people that are in these mega prisons in Arizona.Like Sherriff Joe Arpaio's?Yeah, those guys. He's the arch-devil. These prisons are for-profit prisons. Kids ride on the tops of trains from Guatemala, go through persecution all through central Mexico and finally cross into America to be locked up in a prison with no legal representation. A lot of them are under the age of 18. Sometimes, they don't even know their last name, where their parents are or what town they came from. The prisons themselves have no incentive to let them out because they're making money off of them every day they're there. So what happens to them? They just sit there unless people go and say, "No, this is not f---ing cool. This is not how we do things in this country."In terms of the future, was any of this inspired by you possibly retiring the Bright Eyes moniker?That rumor stemmed from an interview that ... we're not really saying that. We're going to wait and see what happens. After this record and after this tour, we don't have any plans. At this point, Mike, Nate and I have pretty separate existences. We all live in different cities. Mike produces records and has a family and works really hard on that, and Nate gets hired for string arrangements and he tours with bands. He was just on tour with Broken Bells with Danger Mouse and James Mercer, so he keeps busy as a musician. I have my own things going on.