The Game of Monogamy
Author: Mischa Pearlman
VALENTINE'S DAY, 2011. TWO of music's most broken-hearted songwriters are playing a show together at London's Scala. Headlining is Bright Eyes, whose new album, The People's Key, came out just hours before. It's their first in four years, but in that time, mainman Conor Oberst - who'll turn 31 at midnight - has managed to release two solo albums and headed up the acclaimed Monsters Of Folk supergroup. Supporting him is the equally prolific Tim Kasher, who's taking a break from his other outlets - Cursive and The Good Life - to promote his recent debut solo album.It won't be the first time the two have met. Far from it. Both have been an integral part of the Omaha, Nebraska scene, the epicentre of which is Saddle Creek Records, a label started by Oberst and his brother Julian in 1993. But the relationship between Oberst and Kasher, who is some five years older, goes way beyond music - the pair have known each other since Oberst was in nappies. Much has changed since then, but as MOJO talks to the pair prior to the gig, it becomes extremely clear how close they are to this day.MOJO: Do you remember when you first met and what your first impressions of each other were?Oberst: I remember very well. When we very first met, I was a small child and you were a little bigger child. He was good friends with my oldest brother Matthew...Kasher: The very first time is a little unfair, because I was probably more cognisant. I would have sleepovers and Conor and his other brother Justin were little toddlers running around. But there's the second time of meeting. When you were 13. Or 12?Oberst: He played in a band with my brother in high school and then, when his first band, Slowdown Virginia started, me and my other brother were really obsessed with them. We'd go watch them every chance we got and be the weird little kids hanging out.Kasher: It'd be like, 'We're Matt's little brothers, remember?' Of course we remembered you guys!Oberst: Eventually, that's how the label started, out of our obsession with his band.For a while, you were in Commander Venus together.Oberst: Yeah. I was head over heels blown away that he would play in a band with me.That was obviously a long time ago. How has your relationship with each other changed over the years? Has it, even?Oberst: Not really. I mean, like, sadly, just the way life's been, there's stretches where we don't get to hang out as much as we would like, but the sign of a good friendship is that, when you do get together, you just pick up where you left off.Kasher: Everybody got busy. I don't get to see Bright Eyes shows that often because I'm always touring, so it's great to be here doing this.Was there much rivalry in the Omaha scene?Oberst: I don't think it's a rivalry, but when I hear a record of Tim's and, pretty much without fail, I'm super impressed by it... you're inspired by your friend's creativity. You want to step your own game up and rise to the occasion.Kasher: There was a time, and we can't really get it back, when we all were very competitive in this really positive way. That was really healthy and I miss it now. I always cherish and am excited about my friends putting out new records, but - and I don't want to be too dismissive about it - I hate that it's kind of a business.Oberst: Yeah. There was definitely what I think of as a golden period, when we were all together living in the same city, hanging out a lot more, playing more shows together, playing on each others' records. That's the downside of growing up. It's hard to maintain that.You've both released solo albums and are in a variety of different bands. How does your mindset change between being in bands and writing and playing by yourselves?Kasher: Well, I was going to say, doesn't it just recharge you? It just recharges me so much.Oberst: For sure. The hardest thing in this business is longevity. And the best way to keep that going is to find ways to stay interested and in order to stay interested you have to change things up.Kasher: Let me ask you this, now you've had two records under your own name. Don't you feel that going back to Bright Eyes is so much more exciting?Oberst: Definitely. It was completely necessary to be away from that dynamic.Kasher: I just based that on my own experiences, because I'll get really tired of it. I get tired of everything.Oberst: I know, with me and [Mike] Mogis, who's one of my best friends in the world and the 100% number one musical collaborator of my life, there are some times when we don't necessarily feel like being around each other. But when you go back, you remember, 'Oh, this is what I love about this person.' Familiarity breeds contempt, distance makes the heart grow fonder - all those clich_s are true.Speaking of clich_s, it's Valentine's day. Are you aware of the irony of the two of you playing a show together on this day, when your careers have been fuelled by this pessimistic, misanthropic, heartbroken fire?Kasher: That's true! I made that joke earlier, that we're here to bum people out.Oberst: I don't know. I never minded Valentine's Day too much for some reason. Because you get candy...Kasher: My mother once - this is the weirdest Valentine's Day I ever had - my mother used to leave a Valentine's Day present at the end of our beds. It was a really sweet, motherly thing. But when I was a teenager, probably the last year I got one, it was red silk underwear! From my mum! Isn't that crazy?Oberst: That's amazing!You've both been painted at various points of your careers as Bukowskian figures who like the red wine a bit too much. How do you feel about that?Oberst: There have been times in my life when I've leaned more on those kinds of things, but I don't think it defines me or Tim at all. Obviously you can romanticize those things, especially when you're young, but I've had enough people that I know either literally lose their life or lose their quality of life to drugs and alcohol. I'm definitely not an advocate for getting clean and AA and shit, as I think that's equally weird, but it's all about finding a balance. Which I occasionally strike, but then, like everyone, you falter and you fall down.Kasher: Yeah. I don't want to be black and white and say that it's a mistake to be like that in lyrics and lifestyle, but what gets most tiresome about it is that it becomes this clich_ of personality. I am a drinker. I'm not an alcoholic, but I like alcohol. And so I do drink, but now I think it sucks to drink in public because I turn into this clich_d asshole.Oberst: I know we've both been in the situation where you're maybe at a bar before or after a show, and someone rolls up that doesn't know you but thinks they do through your music and you're like, 'No, I don't want to take a fucking shot of whatever sick shit you just had poured. I actually don't.' And then they think you're not living up to the certain standard of who they think you are.You're clearly very close. Did you take comfort in the fact that you went through the same stuff as you grew up?Kasher: I guess we've had an ongoing thread. We'd recognise that we were going through these same situations, but I don't think I've ever been able to offer much in the way of good advice!Oberst: I know I've benefited, like I think a lot of people, from Tim's songs. They've made me feel better at points in my life. And I have the added benefit of being able to pick up the phone if I want and talk to him. His other fans don't get that!Are you his number one fan, then?Oberst: I think I'm up there. I don't know. There are some crazy... I've seen some of his fans, and I think I might have been knocked from the number one spot. But I'm definitely top twenty.Kasher: There's some creeps, but you're up there. You're still pretty creepy!