It has nearly been 10 years, and the last time I saw Bright Eyes perform, main man Conor Oberst had recruited 13 other musicians, enlisted two other bands as support, and charged just $12 at the door for the show. He finally returns to my part of the US (South Florida) on March 2 with Cursive as a support act. My, has Ticketmaster/Live Nation taken over! Now tickets are nearly $50 (Get them here).
Bright Eyes’ new album, the People’s Key (buy the vinyl here to support the Independent Ethos), came out Feb. 15, and it features some of Oberst’s best work to date. Dare I say, it’s much more grown up compared to the emo, albeit inventive, quality of the last album I owned from Bright Eyes: Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (buy the vinyl here to support the Independent Ethos). I received that album in advance of his 2002 performance in Miami, which I noted at the top of this post. Of course, there have been other Bright Eyes releases since that have showed Oberst exploring his creativity to various effect.
Obviously, Oberst is a man changed since 2002. With that in mind, I wanted to offer a good chunk of an interview I did with him via telephone ahead of that 2002 show. You can read the product of the Q & A below at the website for the “Broward/Palm Beach New Times.” In the back and forth below, I cut out the straight-up, dull questions that revealed Oberst was sitting at the table, having coffee and reading the paper at the Omaha home he shared with two roommates at the time:
Are you looking forward to it?
Will this 14-piece orchestra break the bank?
At full capacity there’s 14 people on stage. On the majority of the songs there’s 13 people.
There’s actually three drums, and a bass player, and, let’s see, a couple of keyboards, then a guy that does pedal steel, banjo and then all those strings and horns. We have trumpet, flute bassoon, cello violin, vibraphones and chimes. It’s quite a band.
That’s horns and strings, right?
We have it severely budgeted. If nothing goes wrong, it’ll be cool. Everyone will get paid a little bit. It’s not going to be a huge money-making endeavor for anybody, but it’ll be great. It’ll be fun, and I think we can pull it off. We made sure of that before we got all these people involved.
Doesn’t it embarrass you to spill your guts out in your songwriting in that way, in front of an audience?
I’m never embarrassed, but there’s times when I’m more self-conscious. It’s more comfortable in certain environments than others. It depends on the vibe of the show and the environment. Those kind of things factor into what kind of performance. We’ve learned to just play our songs in any circumstances. When you’re opening up for another band, you can be met with indifference or even dislike, but you kind of get over that. In general, I like playing music. I like playing the songs. It’s good to do it in front of people that want to see it.
On good nights, when you’re not distracted by things or when everything goes well, I hopefully go back to the same general moment of when I was like writing it and kind of just like channel that time. If the band’s sounding tight and everyone’s together, it can be like a really good experience.
I had some pretty cool parents. They never discouraged me from doing music or anything I wanted to do.
It just seemed like a nice idea. One of the themes of the record was what music can do for people, like what it does for me and my friends but also just like for people listening to music, not just our music but any music, the role music plays in people’s lives as like a positive force. The girl singing along to the tape in the car was just a pretty image to me, I guess, cause that’s what I do: just driving, singing along to whatever my favorite shit is. That was kind of the idea. In a way you make music for yourself and for your friends, but if you’re putting out records and going on tour you’re hoping to make a connection to people.
Where did you learn to sing with such power, you sound like your head is about to explode?
I’m trying to take care of it now. I think when I play in Desaprecidos* (read my story on Desaprecidos) I scream a lot more, and that’s when I’m pretty hard. It’s hard doing a tour with them because it’s when I’m in that range of my voice where it’s borderline damaging to it. I quit smoking cigarettes like two months ago. That never helps, either.
Does it hurt to sing the way you do?
It doesn’t hurt at the time that it’s happening, but I always feel the aftermath. I pretty much loose my voice after every show, and it always comes back the next day. It would be pretty shitty if I never get it back.
How did you discover your voice? How old were you, when did you find that way of expressing yourself?
Well, I learned to sing by trial and error. I started singing way before I knew how to do it at all. Therefore, I was pretty terrible at it for a lot of years. I think by doing it all the time I’ve gotten better at singing. I didn’t think about it too much it’s just the way it came out. It was more kind of warbley and weird before, and over the years I’ve been trying to eliminate those characteristics of my voice, even though I can’t entirely, ever.
Every record, I think, it changes. It literally did change while I was still recording music. I have recordings of me singing before I went through puberty, and that was a whole other thing. I had to relearn to sing.
So you were watching “120 minutes” (visit the “120 Minutes” archive) as a kid. How old were you? Would you say that was what made you want to be a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band?
I had an older brother that played in bands and dug a lot of music and gave me a head start in liking slightly more obscure music. Now he plays in a band called Sorry About Dresden and lives in North Carolina, but, still, he’s got babies now. They put out CDs, but he’s got a lot of stuff on his plate. He’s also a seventh grade teacher.
I always had an inclination to music but that definitely opened my mind or made me realize there was a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t know about. [“120 minutes”] just opened my mind to a lot of music I wouldn’t think I would have otherwise gotten into. Prior to that it would have just been the music my dad listened to, still, like great shit like Neil Young, CCR, frickin’ Simon and Garfunkle. Even though now I like a lot of the stuff that my dad loves, at the time it would seem way cooler to be into REM, the Smiths or whatever. Just ‘cause it seemed like some kind of big secret.
What do you think you are famous for?
I don’t know how it answer that. Playing music I guess.
You know what I mean, young, prodigy rocker…
They all write pretty much the same story: “young kid recording on 4-track since he was 12, makes a lot of angst-filled punk-indie-folk albums, now making orchestrated folk.” They talk about Omaha in all the articles: the Omaha music scene, which is still pretty funny to me. I think they all just kind of re-write what they already read. Not that that phenomenon is limited to me. I think that’s just kind of the way it works. I guess it’s easier for writers. To a certain extent it makes sense because not everyone reads the same publication.
What is the most common misconception about you?
They think I’m sad all the time. I think people just kind of… It’s a hard thing to do: to step out of your body and critique themselves. I think I’m sad sometimes. I think everybody’s sad sometimes, and just because of the music, they assume it’s just all the time. I think I just go through phases at times when I am able to socialize and do whatever with everybody and feel pretty good about the world, sometimes it feels like you just want to retreat. I think that’s common to a lot of other people.
What would you like to be known for?
I guess I would wish people would recognize the songs, music. What I’m asking for is I guess impossible because I wish people would just be into the music and not really care what I’m about or whatever.
Do you like doing interviews?
It’s not the easiest thing to just talk about yourself and obviously the fact that it’s always the same thing, same questions and same general thing, but at the same time I know it’s necessary. At the end of the day, it’s a positive thing, it’s worth it. It brings up attendance at the show. It helps us out, it makes the shows better … Just let the music talk.
And that’s, for the most part, what I got. It’s also on tape somewhere, and one day, I’ll convert my interviews to mp3s to upload them here and on YouTube.
Bright Eyes’ current US tour actually kicks off with the Miami Beach show. The other tour dates are as follows (many dates are already sold out. For up-to-date details, visit Oberst’s official site here):
03/02/11 Bright Eyes in Miami, FL Fillmore Miami Beach At Jackie Gleason Theater w/ Cursive
03/03/11 Bright Eyes in Lake Buena Vista, FL House of Blues / Cursive
03/04/11 Bright Eyes in Atlanta, GA The Tabernacle w/ Cursive
03/05/11 Bright Eyes in Asheville, NC Thomas Wolfe Auditorium w/ Cursive
03/06/11 Bright Eyes in Richmond, VA The National w/ Cursive
03/08/11 Bright Eyes in New York, NY Radio City Music Hall w/ WILD FLAG + Superchunk
03/09/11 Bright Eyes in New York, NY Radio City Music Hall w/ WILD FLAG + Superchunk
03/10/11 Bright Eyes in Boston, MA House Of Blues Boston w/ Mynabirds
03/11/11 Bright Eyes in Portland, ME State Theatre w/ Mynabirds
03/13/11 Bright Eyes in Toronto, ONT Sound Academy w/ Mynabirds
03/14/11 Bright Eyes in Royal Oak, MI Royal Oak Music Theatre w/ Mynabirds
03/15/11 Bright Eyes in Chicago, IL The Riviera w/ Mynabirds
03/16/11 Bright Eyes in Champaign, IL Foellinger Auditorium w/ Mynabirds
03/17/11 Bright Eyes in Nashville, TN Ryman Auditorium w/ Mynabirds
03/19/11 Bright Eyes in Austin, TX Auditorium Shores SXSW
04/02/11 Bright Eyes in Kansas City, MO Uptown Theater w/ Conduits04/03/11 Bright Eyes in Milwaukee, WI The Riverside Theater w/ Titus Andronicus
04/04/11 Bright Eyes in Minneapolis, MN First Avenue w/ Titus Andronicus
04/05/11 Bright Eyes in Minneapolis, MN First Avenue w/ Titus Andronicus
04/08/11 Bright Eyes in Vancouver, BC Commodore w/ Titus Andronicus
04/09/11 Bright Eyes in Portland, OR Crystal Ballroom w/ Titus Andronicus
04/10/11 Bright Eyes in Arcata, CA Arcata Community Center w/ Farmer Dave Scher
04/12/11 Bright Eyes in Oakland, CA Fox Theater w/ Farmer Dave Scher
04/13/11 Bright Eyes in Pomona, CA Fox Theater w/ Jenny and Johnny + Farmer Dave Scher
04/16/11 Bright Eyes in Indio, CA Coachella
05/24/11 Bright Eyes in Edmonton, AB Shaw Conference Centre w/ Death Cab for Cutie
05/25/11 Bright Eyes in Calgary, AB Stampede Corral w/ Death Cab for Cutie
05/27/11 Bright Eyes in Bend, OR Les Schwab Amphitheater w/ Death Cab for Cutie
05/28/11 Bright Eyes in George, WA Sasquatch Festival
06/01/11 Bright Eyes in Knitting Factory Concert House Boise, ID w/ Jenny And Johnny
06/03/11 Bright Eyes in Denver, CO Filmore Theater w/ Jenny And Johnny
06/04/11 Bright Eyes in Council Bluffs, IA WestFair Amphitheater w/ Jenny And Johnny
06/06/11 Bright Eyes in St. Louis, MO The Pageant
* Around the same time of this interview, I also interviewed Denver Dalley, co-founder of Desapercidos for another show (I took the photo at right at that show).
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)