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Omaha Emotive

An Interview with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes

Photograph by Emily Evans

For those not familiar, Bright Eyes is essentially the umbrella that Omaha, Nebraska-based songwriter Conor Oberst performs under. At twenty-one, Conor has written some of the most impressive albums in recent years. A total of three full-lengths - Oh Holy Fools - The Music of Son, Ambulance and Bright Eyes (January 2001), Fevers and Mirrors (May 2000), and Letting Off the Happiness (November 1998) - two EP's, and countless seven-inch singles rest snuggly under his prolific belt. All songs are bathed in a healthy mix of haunting melancholy, fragile harmonies, and emotive bursts. Often fleshed out by a multi-instrumental band, Conor recently headed out on a series of more intimate solo shows with fellow Omaha native Simon Joyner. I caught up with the always affable singer just before one of his two sold-out performances at Schubas to talk about his publishing deal with Sony, his new rock band the Desaparecidos, and some of the history behind him and his home-based label Saddle Creek records.

DL: So why the recent decision to tour solo?
CO: Well, basically because of Simon Joyner, who's a folk singer from Omaha and an old-time friend of mine. We'd always wanted to do a couple of shows together, but since he has a family he can't really go on big tours. So the idea was to do these little weekend things. We did New York, Boston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, L.A, and Chicago. It's been really fun and laid back with no hassles.

DL: Do you feel that there is a downside to your recent success, that perhaps since the release of your latest full length you've been more open to backlash from the press or audiences alike?
CO: Well, for every person that embraces it there's another person that wants to put it down just because it's becoming popular. And that I think is true, unfortunately true, of the indie scene or indie kids all across America.

DL: Does that translate to press as well?
CO: Not so much big press, but smaller magazines, fanzines and stuff have more potential to be trite. I guess my policy is to try and ignore it as much as possible. What I'm doing is pretty much what I've been doing my whole life and it's all I really know how to do. So to let people's opinions affect what I do would be a disservice to myself and to my fans who enjoy the music. I do my best to ignore it, but in a way it has affected my songwriting. I guess subconsciously it's hard to be as forthright and honest. You become aware of the audience and you know people are gonna hear these songs that you're writing.

DL: In the same respect do you feel like your movement from your earlier "basement" four-track recordings to the more recent hi-fi, studio stuff has an affect on how you write and think about songwriting in general?
CO: I think there's a place for all kinds of recordings. I've found that depending on the song it can be just as powerful to have a four-track recording as a big studio thing. For us it's great because Mike Mogis, who plays with us, has a studio. So it's essentially like recording at home, but in a really nice studio, yet there's no pressure or time constraints. It's like you're among family, kind of the best of both worlds.

DL: Tell me about your new band?
CO: It's called Desaparecidos and it's a rock, pop rock band. Sort of hyper screaming, anthemic stuff. And it's just a good old time. We write all the songs together, which is nice for me and I play guitar and sing. We've got a record coming out on Saddle Creek during the beginning of next year.

DL: How did Saddle Creek Records start and what knowledge did you have of the record business in the beginning?
CO: Well it started with my brother and this guy Ted Stevens. We just started releasing tapes and seven inches of my first solo shit and our friend's bands in '92, so I was about twelve. Then it just grew and grew until Robb Nansel, who played in Commander Venus with me, took it over and made it more into an official business. We learned a lot along the way when Lullaby [for the Working Class] signed to Bar None, Cursive signed to Crank, and Commander Venus signed to Grass. So you learn a lot about the record business and after you realize what it's all about you know it's just much better to just kind of do it all yourself.
DL: And protect your own interest?
CO: Yeah, exactly.

DL: You recently signed a publishing deal with Sony records, how did this come about and how do you feel publishing affects musicians?
CO: There was this guy, Nate, who signed us to Sony. He was sort of, I guess, the silver lining to dealing with such a big corporation. He had worked with tons of good bands and had great taste in music plus I had friends who knew him outside of his job as a good guy. To be honest, it is a trade off and you get money and maybe you get the opportunity to work with film or something kind of cool, but nothing has really happened for us yet. This deal covers Fevers and Mirrors and if Sony wants to continue they need to renew it and renegotiate the deal.

DL: How do you feel this deal or publishing in general helps the artist?
CO: Publishing is a good way for people that aren't interested in big record contracts to make a living playing music. For us it's nice because we do sell some records and we do okay on tour, but it's on a pretty small scale. So, a publishing deal affords us the luxury of doing what we love without having to worry about holding down a steady job per se. We can play music for a living without any real compromise which, in some respects, was always the goal.

You can find out more about Bright Eyes or Desaparecidos by going to www.saddlecreekrecords.com.

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