Conor Oberst Q&A: Lockdown Life, Bright Eyes’ Return, BBQs at Neil Young’s Ranch and More

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

In the midst of the coronavirus-imposed lockdown, Conor Oberst and alt-rock darlings Bright Eyes made a surprise return. The band’s excellent new album Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was – its first in nine years — sounded as fresh and re-energized at it did joyous. But a planned world tour, of course, wasn’t meant to be.

Instead, Oberst, the band’s guiding light — and a solo star in his own right, with a laundry list of collaborations and production credits to his name — has been spending lockdown in Los Angeles and his native Omaha, Nebraska, and recently released a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, “Miracle Of Life,” in support of Planned Parenthood.

Here, Oberst tells Rock Cellar what he’s been up to and what comes next, when the pandemic ends.

Rock Cellar: Where are you right now? Talk to me a little about what you’ve been working on lately, before we get to the Down in the Weeds the album.

Conor Oberst: Actually, it’s pretty cool. I just did a pre-interview for a podcast with a tarot guru. I’m going to be on the podcast, and she’s going to give me a dope tarot reading.

Rock Cellar: So you’re going to get your tarot read in front of thousands of people? How do you feel about that?

Conor Oberst: I mean, that’s I think why I did the pre-interview. Like, is there anything I don’t want to be asked? [Laughter] And I was like, I don’t really care. But I need to come up with questions to ask her.

Rock Cellar: Wow, you have homework.

Conor Oberst: Exactly. I got homework!

Rock Cellar: No homework here. But it begs the question. We all live in a very transparent world these days, but when you and I grew up, musicians were relatively mysterious figures. It was a very different time. Do you grapple with that at all, letting it all hang out there, like your tarot and so forth?

Conor Oberst: Yeah. When I was growing up, it was different. And I’m kind of nostalgic a little bit for pre-internet world. Because I remember when we had one cool record store called The Inquiry in Omaha, where I grew up, and that’s where we learned about all the underground music and whatnot. I don’t even know what magazines would have been going on then, but it was the nineties. Fanzine world. And we had one punk rock club called the Cog Factory, and so Archers of Loaf would come to town and it would be like, I wonder what Archers of Loaf look like. And you’d show up to the show, and some shitty van would pull up and we’d be like, is that them or is that the opening band? And you often didn’t know until they got on stage, and you were like, oh my god. That’s what the singer looks like? There was some excitement to that.

For most of my favorite bands I’d maybe seen one picture of them in one magazine or something. Or, if you had their records, there might be some pictures in there, but you were like, is that the bass player? So not really knowing created a whole different relationship with the experience.

Rock Cellar: This isn’t what I was planning to talk about, but it’s interesting. You have been able to balance that. You’re obviously extremely prolific. You have many different irons in the fire at all times. Do you think that’s helped you remain a bit enigmatic? Do you think about it in those terms or are you just doing what you do?

Conor Oberst: Yeah, I mean I think I have benefitted from my natural personality of the fact that I just didn’t ever care about the internet stuff, even when it started happening. I’ve never had a personal Facebook. I never had a Myspace. I never had any of that stuff. I don’t know how many years it’s been, but I got a personal private Instagram to look at my friends’ dogs and shit. But that’s it. That was literally my first experience of dipping my toe into the social media world.

Obviously, the band has always had that stuff, but it was always run by management or the labels or whatever. I don’t even have the code to get into them! So I think part of it is just my inherent disinterest in it. But yeah, I have obviously, like everyone, noticed the new reality.

I never want to sound like a curmudgeonly old guy, but I think there’s just a different mindset where, if you’re a public figure, musician, et cetera, now you’re not only asked to make your work or your art, you’re also asked to basically be available at all times to project yourself into the culture and interact with your fans or give them constant content, as they say, in the music business.

And I think that’s asking a lot of anyone. Some people are really good at it, of course. Phoebe (Bridgers), my friend that I have a band with, she’s great at it because she grew up with it. She knows how to be genuinely herself. If you hang out with her, if you see her on stage, if you see her on the internet, it’s actually all the same person. She just knows how to be herself in those situations.

Rock Cellar: I interviewed her for the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago, and I’ve got to say, that was exactly my experience. She was exactly what I imagined.

I wanted to talk about the artwork for the albums, because there’s a lot packed into them, and always has been. The art for Down in the Weeds, that is content. That is something that people and reviewers and fans talk about. Is that your way of getting around having to deliver content 24/7? To give people something to talk about that’s unique and different and special, even when artwork is different now than it was when we were kids.

Conor Oberst: Yeah. I mean, I’ve always thought album art is super important. Growing up with getting a record and reading along with the lyrics while you listened, looking at it aesthetically; I think so much is conveyed by what a band or an artist puts out in that — on that level. I’ve been really lucky with two different people in my life. One is this guy Zack Nipper. He made all the Bright Eyes stuff from the beginning, and then he ended up doing a lot of art for other bands.

Rock Cellar: For the new album, did you send him the tracks to listen to?

Conor Oberst: Yeah. I’ve always worked with him, but he’s since got a regular nine to five job. But when we were making the new Bright Eyes record, I was just like, “We’ve got to get Zack.” So I called him and said, “I know you’re kind of out of the game, but you got to get here.” And like I said, we conceptualized stuff together, and then it takes a while to go back and forth till we get there. He’s always been amazing.

In 2005 I played the Bridge School Benefit with Neil Young’s band, and it’s such a cool vibe —  I was lucky enough to play it a couple of times — and on the Friday they have a big barbecue hangout at their ranch in northern California. I always thought it was so cool because not only did they invite all the bands and artists, but they were like, everyone’s crew was welcome to come too, which is so cool. And of course, us being us, I was kind of embarrassed, but we definitely showed up with like, the most people. My guitar tech, my mom …

Rock Cellar: You’re that guy.

Conor Oberst: Exactly! Everyone was like, you’re going to go to Neil Young’s house? I don’t know, they said we could bring whoever. But anyway, the first year I played it they had a big bonfire, and I was sitting around and this dude cruises up, sits down next to me and is like, do you want to smoke this joint? I’m like yeah, sure. So, we’re smoking this joint.

Turns out it’s this guy Gary Burden, who made all Neil’s artwork. But he also made basically every cool piece of art in California in the sixties and seventies: Jackson Browne, Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell, the Doors. Anyway, he’s one of the most famous art directors ever and we just hit it off. He became one of my best friends. I talked to him almost every week for 12 years. He just passed a couple years ago, but he became basically my spirit guide. And post-Bright Eyes, he ended up being the guy that made a lot of my artwork.

Like when we went down to Mexico and recorded, he came down. So yeah, artwork is super important, and I feel like you’ve got to find people that you can collaborate with. That’s a special relationship.

Rock Cellar: Let’s start with the album. It starts with this musique concrète audio collage and then things kick off. I thought, there’s so few people, certainly at your level, who are willing to indulge in — and I don’t mean indulge in a negative way — and who will follow their muse and begin an album in such a left-field way.

You have a lot of different creative outlets. You have your collabs, you have Bright Eyes, you do your own stuff. Do you think about them in terms of being different? How does it work for you?

Conor Oberst: I would say it’s pretty compartmentalized. Making a Bright Eyes record is definitely different than making a solo record or a Desaparecidos record or a Better Oblivion record. The main reason is because of Mike and Nate, obviously. There’s other musical contributors to the project. But yeah, we started that tradition of always opening every Bright Eyes record with a super pretentious sound collage thing.

I always think of it our way of people paying at the door. If you can sit through this and you have an attention span to deal with our bullshit, then you’ll be ready to listen to the rest of the record. It puts the person in the right mindset, because we still make records with the idea that — and I know it happens very infrequently these days — someone’s going to sit down and listen to the whole thing at once, and it’s an experience.

Rock Cellar: Does it ever occur to you when you’re creating in terms of — whether it’s your collabs or solo stuff or Bright Eyes — not I need a hit single, but I need something that’s going to get the programmers’ attention or get on playlists? Or are you really just I’m creating 50 minutes of music and this is where I’m at right now?

Conor Oberst: I think that we make the records we want to make. Not much of that enters into the creative process, thank God. We’ve mostly been on indie labels that leave us alone. We did have a deal on the last couple — not this one, but the previous couple of records, Cassadaga and People’s Key — where we were signed to Universal UXS, so we were still on our label, or Saddle Creek here, but we were on Universal everywhere else in the world. And that was my first experience of a guy from Universal’s dropping by the studio to check in. He happened to be a cool guy. I liked him. It wasn’t a big deal.

But that was probably the most “record company” thing I’ve had to deal with. And then you end up having these meetings. [Laughter] Even with Dead Oceans and Secretly Group that we’re on now, one of the things I like about them is they are totally an indie label, but they’re one of the biggest indie labels in the world because of their five different labels. They have hundreds of people that work for them all around the world. They really do take it seriously.

But we had to have a meeting to talk about the single; talk about the radio thing. But we don’t really make anything with that in mind. When we get to the stage of the game and it’s like, here are the songs, what do you think?

Rock Cellar: It sounds like they probably listen more than someone else would, too.

Conor Oberst: Yeah. I think with our music, it’s not like there’s a bunch of options. It’s like, “Mariana Trench”? Kind of short, it kind of has a chorus. There’s your single. It’s a they take what they can get kind of thing. I actually think it’s hilarious. I feel like not a lot of people will listen that hard to it, but when we were making People’s Key — not for any reason with the labels or anything, but we just wanted to make a really like, pop record – when I listen to that record or think about that record compared to our other records, we thought we were making, like, a Killers record when we were making it.

Turns out we’re way too weird to make any music like that. But you know, they’re all short songs with choruses and they’re all pretty hook-y. We were like, man, maybe we finally made a record that people will play on the radio. And no one did. [Laughter]

Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about where you’re at right now. We’ve all been dealing with quarantine in all different sorts of ways. Some of the musicians I know who haven’t been playing live are freaking out, but a lot have adapted incredibly well and have been writing a lot and are inspired and making records. What have you been doing over the last couple of months and how has the current situation affected your creativity?

Conor Oberst: I have a house here in LA and a house in Omaha where the studio with Mike Mogis and all of that is. And my family is obviously out there. So I spent the first four months in LA, super scared, super depressed, super not doing anything. Then I went to Omaha for two months in the summer, just to check on my parents, check on my friends, my dogs, et cetera. Then I came back here, I guess, in the beginning of September, and I’ve been back here [since].

That’s the trippy thing, though: The difference between how seriously people were taking quarantine in LA versus Omaha. It’s like night and day. And now Omaha’s getting totally hit with it, which is another whole subject. I guess to answer your question, I have not been very productive.

The record came out in August, so I was doing a lot of I guess my version of work, which is just like Zoom calls and a few online performances. I feel like there’s two camps in quarantine, and one is like, I have all this time and I’m feeling so productive. And the other camp is like, I can’t get out of bed. It’s hard to brush my teeth.

Rock Cellar: Well, a lot of people are both. They ping pong back and forth.

Conor Oberst: Yeah, definitely. I haven’t done much, but I feel like since I’ve been back in LA, I’m starting to feel those feelings again of just like, use this time wisely and try to do something. Write some songs. I have some friends here, like my really old friend Tim Kasher, who’s in the band Commander Venus, who was in my first band in high school back in Nebraska, who happens to live out here.

He and I and our other friend Stephanie and this guy named Freitas, we’ve gotten together a couple times. It’s fun. It’s just like high school shit where it’s like, “Can you practice Tuesday?” Oh, the Dodgers game is on. “How about Wednesday?” It’s the first time I’ve played music for no reason in a long time, but it’s literally just a reason to get out of the house and drink beer and play guitar. That is it. Zero expectations. It’s definitely not like a new band. There’s not even been any discussion of, let’s play a show or let’s make a record. It’s literally an excuse to get out of the house.

Rock Cellar: Do you think out of 2020 — whether it’s in Bright Eyes or your solo stuff or the collaborations with Phoebe — and this is a moment in time, that the music you will be writing in the next six months or year, that the times we’re living in are going to seep into them directly or more opaquely?

Conor Oberst: Oh, absolutely directly. I’ve always thought of my writing process or style or whatever, that when something intense happens in my life, there’s a delayed effect. That it doesn’t get into my songs right away. It lives in my subconscious, and it’ll appear in my songs a few years later. The new album is actually a good example of that. I lost my brother Matty four years ago this Thanksgiving. I went through a divorce with Corina — my ex-wife, who I talk to all the time, because she’s like family forever and one of my best friends — but those were traumatic things that started happening three years ago and they appear on the new record.

It took that long to manifest itself in a song.

Rock Cellar: I would like to get one last thing in, which is, live performance has disappeared off the map. Do you miss that? Do feel like maybe that’s the spark that gives you some of your inspiration and that is gone, at least for now? Because playing with people in a live setting has to make you want to make more music. Do you feel like other than your post-Dodgers games get togethers [laughter] that that is the missing piece? That maybe without live performance, you’re feeling less creative generally? That maybe it’s not just the malaise of the lockdown and being stuck inside and so forth?

Conor Oberst: Yeah. I’ve been really cognizant of not being, “Boo-hoo me,” because obviously, I am so fortunate. I have money in the bank. I’ve got food in the fridge. I have a roof over my head. All that shit. There’s so many people that are suffering so much more.

But we spent two years making this record, and we hadn’t made a record in nine years. We got a new label and we set up essentially a two-year plan of touring the world. And it all — as with everyone’s plans — evaporated in a matter of seconds. We were literally supposed to go to Japan to play our first show of the quote unquote campaign in March, and it was like, okay, that got canceled. And then the next thing got canceled. We were supposed to play in New York, at Forest Hills. We sold 10,000 tickets, which for us is crazy. We were like, oh my God. It was going to be such a big deal, especially for the other dudes in the band, Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis.

Walcott’s been in the Chili Peppers for the last three years, so he’s had his fair share of stadium concerts. But Mogis is in Omaha at his studio, making records and dealing with all kinds of life bullshit, and he hasn’t really toured that much since we stopped touring as Bright Eyes. My heart kind of breaks for him, because he was like, alright, I get to go on tour again. He was so stoked. And then it was just all gone. I didn’t even know what to say. I don’t know when we can do it again.

I played with Phoebe at the Troubadour for the Save Our Stages campaign thing, which was kind of the closest I had done to doing a show, because we had her whole band and most of the people in her band were in Better Oblivion, too. But there was no audience. There were a couple of guys with cameras.

It was satisfying in some way, but it was also surreal. What the fuck is the world like now? It’s really bonkers. I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to keep it positive. I think we’re going to know so much more just mental health wise pretty soon, post-election. Because if we can get over this fucking Trump nightmare and hurdle, and at least get some adults in the room to deal with COVID and start to put the pieces back together, we can go back to normal life.

I think it’s going to happen. And I will be over the moon when it comes to being able to play rock and roll shows again. This is my whole life. I’ve been touring in a rock and roll band since I was 15 years old.

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