AS PUBLISHED IN SKINNIE MAGAZINE, MAY 2011.
It began when he was 13, recording pre-pubescent croons on a four-track cassette tape in his parents’ basement. Over the years, it progressed into acoustic guitars and sentiments like “the sound of loneliness makes me happier.” After a four-year break, Bright Eyes has returned with less angst and more liveliness, bringing the album “The People’s Key,” to be released on frontman Conor Oberst’s 31st birthday, February 15, 2011.
KE: Tell me a bit about the process you went through in making “The People’s Key.”
CO: We started in January of this year and we finished around Thanksgiving, so it was about nine months. We weren’t in the studio the whole time, we were taking a lot of breaks, and coming back and revising things. A few years ago, we built a studio in Omaha and really did it up, spent all the money we had on a nice place to make our records and it was really cool because it was the first time we really got to make a record start-to-finish there, and that was enjoyable.
KE: And how about the actual songwriting?
CO: Most of my songs start with a vocal melody and usually it’ll be the melody with a couple lines of lyrics and I’ll just kind of hum that to myself and daydream and fill in the rest of the lyrics. Depending on the song, it may happen fast, but other times it could be humming part of a song to myself for a couple of weeks, filling in the words and then usually I’ll make some kind of quick little demo of it, and send it to Mike (Mogis) and Nate (Walcott). Bright Eyes is very much a studio project in the sense that we start with a song and then we get together and figure out what direction we want to take it in and how we want to dress it up and what instruments to use. It’s sort of a cerebral process where we – between Mike, Nate, and I – we all kind of get our opinions heard about how we think the song could best be presented.
It’s always been that way with Mike and I – a collaboration – and Nate at this point five or six years ago had already been playing with us live a lot, and at a certain point Mike and I just looked at each other and went, “Yeah, Nate’s in the band.” We haven’t necessarily said it, but it’s true. So I guess starting with “Cassadaga” and now with this record, what you hear is now truly a summation of all three of our ideas and it’s a true collaboration.
KE: Has that always been the process?
CO: The very first record was just me on a four-track when I was sixteen, and then with the second record it became a collaboration between Mike and I. As with anything I guess I was maybe more defensive at first, but then we just kind of grew up and learned to trust each other more and trust each other’s instincts and then Nate joined, so it’s definitely a complete work in progress still.
KE: I know that years ago your music was considered “depressing” and a reflection of how you were feeling at the time. Since your music is much more upbeat now, does this reflect a change in how you feel day-to-day?
CO: I think, you know, I definitely have grown up, or grown old, or whatever you want to say… Aged. I think with some of the early records and the fan-base that it drew and the way it was perceived, I think it’s totally justified in the sense of, I was an 18, 19-year-old kid making records for 18, 19-year-old kids. There’s a reason those records sound like that, and I think that that’s a part of growing up, you know, those emotions that maybe people see as depressing, but I guess when you’re young, I think everything feels more intense. And I think that’s reflected in those early records. As time goes on, I’m going to still feel sad sometimes and happy and of course all the spectrum of emotions but I guess it’s just the way I process that now or the way it comes out in my writing is definitely different.
KE: Have any favorite songs on the new album?
CO: I like the third song, “Jejune Stars,” because it features a double bass drum which I had always been trying to get into a Bright Eyes song and I thought that one came out cool. I like the title track one, “A Machine Spiritual.” That’s kind of, somehow, an anchor of the record. I like the first song, “Firewall,” I think came out good, I like the way the music sounds in that, especially.
KE: Do you think your work with Monsters of Folk and the Mystic Valley Band affected the way you recorded and composed another Bright Eyes album?
CO: I think Bright Eyes versus Mystic Valley Band especially, it’s a very different approach. I write my songs the way I write my songs, but when it comes to arranging songs with the band, like I said how Bright Eyes is very much a studio project, Valley Band is the complete opposite of that. I basically start playing the song in the room with the guys and they all know what they play. They start playing along and it’s very immediate and visceral and organic and it happens quickly without a lot of decision making. Everyone just sort of goes for it and that’s a lot different than the deliberation and building a song from the ground up in the studio which is the way Bright Eyes typically does it. I would say Monsters of Folk is a whole different deal and is just something I feel lucky to have been a part of and learned a lot from just seeing two of my favorite musicians up close, making a record.
KE: There have been some rumors going around that you’re going to retire Bright Eyes after this album is released. Is that true?
CO: That came from an interview a couple years ago and I was feeling different at that point than I feel now, and I guess I’ve learned that it’s foolish to never say never. I think there’s a chance we’ll do another record in the future, but it could be awhile. For the foreseeable future I think it’ll be, what do they call that? A hiatus.
KE: What are you proudest of when it comes to Bright Eyes?
CO: I’m proud that we always manage to make different kinds of records. We’ve always had a fear of repeating ourselves or just mailing something in. Getting stuck in a pattern is something I’ve always been scared of. I think, as a band, we’ve always done a good job to experiment, at least in our limitations. I’m not saying that we’re always doing something groundbreaking but for us it’s a new thing, and we try to approach every record with fresh eyes. We try to think of the possibilities as limitless and then see what we come up with.
KE: So, does that mean the next Bright Eyes album is going to be all hip-hop?
CO: Exactly. It’s gonna be like, all salsa or something like that. We’ll see.
KE: I know Bright Eyes has some really hardcore, dedicated fans. Was there anything that happened with them that stands out as memorable?
CO: I had a doll made in my likeness once, which was very scary, but sweet. Oh, and it wasn’t Bright Eyes per se but on the Monsters of Folk tour we had this hippie kid roll up on us and he gave us four glass pipes and each one was adorned with a different member’s face. So, we had a collection of four different Monsters of Folk pipes. You can smoke out of M’s face and it’s like one sort of thing, or you can smoke out of Jim’s face. It all makes you feel good.
KE: Are there any mistakes associated with Bright Eyes you would take back if you had the chance?
CO: Sure, I’ve made some mistakes. Not so much musically, in the sense of, sure there’s things I’m embarrassed of but I guess I’m in somewhat of a unique position, because my whole musical life from the time I was 13 and made a cassette tape to now, because of the miraculous internet, you can download any of my music, even things that are out of print. So, I guess it’s like I have nothing to hide, which is a liberating thing. I think if people go through something where they want to change who they are, and pretend like they were never in this kind of band and did this or whatever… that wasn’t possible for me because all of my stuff is pretty much out there. Yeah, I made a fool of myself a hundred times, but they’re all chances to learn.
KE: Although you were influenced by REM and Elliott Smith earlier on, are there any current bands or musicians that inspire you now?
CO: I really like this guy, Farmer Dave Shcer of LA. He used to be in that band Beachwood Sparks, if you remember them. He made a record called “Flash Forward To The Good Times” a couple years ago in 2009 that I really loved. Felice Brothers, of course, a band from New York. I think Ian Felice is one of the most gifted poets. This band Evangelicals out of Oklahoma, I like them a lot. There’s a lot of good music but it’s the same kind of thing, you’ve got to remind yourself to really listen to stuff, because there’s so much going on, so much music that it’s easy to become desensitized and not give it a real listen. If I start feeling like that, I try to catch myself. It’s still great. Music is still great.
Original link: http://issuu.com/skinnie_magazine/docs/skinnie_may2011 – pages 54-55.