Every Day and Every Night
Further making Oberst look the part of a bush-league indie folkie is his stage presence, or lack thereof. Nervously strumming his guitar, his eyes rarely make contact with the audience before him. His right foot silently pounds the floor to the beat of the chords he strums, while the right one nervously twitches as if sitting on the contact points of an industrial-strength battery. All in all, the 19 year old looks like such a fragile bundle of nerves it's hard resisting the urge to march onstage, give him a big hug and assure him everything will be okay.
That is until he begins singing.
Jumping between a hoarse dirge and a piercing wail, Oberst unleashes everything needed to immediately kill every bit of doubt arising from his appearance. Coupled with his no-holds-barred delivery, Oberst vents a stream of compelling lyrics, touching on self-doubt, mortality, suicide and substance abuse. Sharply contrasting his more downbeat musical side, Oberst's lyrics sharply contrast every outward appearance he projects. It's a songwriting process even he can't fully grasp.
"I don't know why that happens," he said. "I always have trouble explaining that, why all the songs are either scary or sad, but it's just the way it happens. I try to keep as much of the writing process an impulse."
This time touring as a simple two-piece combo, playing either the guitar or keyboard with tape loops as backup, Bright Eyes sports a sound more stripped down than the one found on its most recent EP, Every Day and Every Night (Saddle Creek). In fact, instability turns out to be one of the band's hallmarks, with Oberst serving as both the band's driving force and only stable member. It's an uncertainty Oberst seems casual about, confident in his songwriting ability to transcend lineup turbulence.
"I just pretty much get whoever is around," he said, explaining the ever-shifting Bright Eyes roster. "My friend Mike (Mogis) helps me record a lot. He's pretty consistent. I try to stay with the same people, but stuff comes up."
Grabbing on-hand talent to use as needed may seem a sketchy method in which to run a band, but it proves effective for Oberst. Sporting a cut-and-paste lineup of seven additional members on the last EP, Oberst pulls in a wide range of talent to polish off Bright Eyes tracks and round out the lineup for tours. It's a situation enabled by the strong indie scene in Oberst's hometown of Omaha, Neb.,
"We're a pretty incestuous group of musicians," Oberst said. "There's just a lot of good music going on in Omaha, so I play a lot. I'm only playing in one other band right at the moment, but I played in tons of other bands. Whenever we're doing a Bright Eyes tour we just grab whoever is around."
The vitality of the Omaha scene may come as a shock to many unfamiliar with the city's wide-ranging stable of styles, though a look through its offerings should change the mind of any skeptic, with bands like the Faint offering new-wave techno to Cursive's hardcore. It's a scene as close-knit as it is diverse, Oberst said.
"All of our friends have been playing together in bands and hanging out for years and years and years," he said. "I was probably 12 years old when I started hanging out with them.
"There was definitely a time when all our bands sounded alike. We were all into hard, indie pop stuff, and we all had bands that sounded like that. Then it just happened pretty naturally, where everybody went their own direction."
Since splitting off from the proto-Omaha pop sound, Oberst laid down a small singer/songwriter empire, drawing inspiration from the likes of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan as well as local folkie Simon Joiner. While pulling on past songwriters, Oberst puts a distinct spin on his music, as any listener will quickly notice. With spiraling, poetic lyrics, Bright Eyes' strength lies in Oberst's knack for turning out a few hundred words of lyrics for each song.
"I guess my top priority is the lyrics and vocals. That stuff is kind of where the song starts," he said offhandedly describing his writing process. "Maybe there'll be one or two lines that I'll be like 'Wow! That's really what I want with that melody,' and I'll just write the song around a couple lyrics that just popped into my head."
With immaculately crafted lyrics, Bright Eyes' musical side often gets put on the back burner, a natural response to Oberst's more poetic leanings. Oberst, for his part, recognizes the limitations of his personal style and his need for collaboration.
"The guitar and the music part of it, though I'm trying to get more into that stuff, it ends up being just chords to sing over, just because I've never really been interested in the technical aspect of playing," Oberst said. "All the friends who are around me assist in putting it together."
In addition to his active membership in the Omaha indie scene, Oberst also leads an active life outside the musical crowd, both tutoring English as a second Language students at the elementary school where his mom works as a principal, as well as slowly working his way through the University of Omaha, possibly with an eye on a Russian major, despite its shortcomings.
"Russian is one of those things that's really fun to study, and I'm interested in it, but what are you going to do with it?" he mused. "That's sort of my lot in life—everything I like you can't make money with."
Since the release of the band's latest EP, Bright Eyes slowly gained momentum, along with the entire Omaha scene represented on Saddle Creek records. While both his band's and his label seem to be garnering a larger share of attention in recent months, Oberst seems reluctant to speculate on the future. Playing his cards close to his chest, he only ensures fans a continued commitment to the scene's original ideals.
"I know things have definitely been improving since the first tape came out. It seems like it's constantly building, little by little. For years we've all been trying to do this," he said. "I just know we'll keep doing it the way we've always done it, and if people like it more and more, it'll probably get bigger, but maybe it already reached all the people who are going to be into it. I don't know how well suited it is for everyone."
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