As the curtain rises seductively on the new album from Bright Eyes, a women's voice informs you that you got the death card but - she says like a science teacher talking about evolution - that can just mean change. A choose life type of change, like that scene in Fight Club where the imaginary Brad Pitt is holding a gun to the back of some petrol station attendant’s neck. Nihilism as inspiration? Where Conor Oberst is concerned, this reminder of mortality as way of an introduction is expected.
Welcome to Cassadaga - title inspired by the place in Florida (wiki it), "Psychic Center of the World."
Prologue: Now the times have (a')changed, things are no longer about promise, we've got it so darn good. At least this is true in the just-stumbled-outta-bed world of indie-rock and its special relationship with our generation's big soap The OC. It's funny how something so deeply ingrained in modern times as pop television has replaced the power of radio, but it's great that it has taken our bands to its bosom and splattered posters of Death Cab, The Decemberists and Bright Eyes over Dawsons Creek-like bedrooms the world over. So then, it's little wonder the Conor Oberst sat before me today is in a very different place to the pale, shaky, ever so drunk one I shared a bottle of whisky with on a tour bus three years ago. His trademark hair is different, for a start...
“I just haven't found a reason to cut it yet. I had a haircut, I had the same haircut for a long time,” he says in that eloquent northern-American-cum-SoCal-surfer drawl that permeates his records. “Everyone else has it now, so I gotta get a new one.”
Send your fashion suggestions on a postcard, or just post it in your blog in the hope he'll read it (you know he won't, right?), especially if you're miffed because you spent years learning how to straighten your dyed fringe just so. Bright Eyes fans, the devoted ones at least, are a funny bunch, but they're often easy to spot: just look for a mix of geek chic replete with book bags. The trouble is they can often get lost in the flocks of My Chemical Romance and Marilyn Manson kids. In fact, The God of Fuck isn't too odd a comparison, at least lyrically, this time around...
“The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Qur'an is mute!
If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth...”
...And so boldly spits the second verse of the first single from Cassadaga. Three monkeys and three wrongs don't make a right, right? Course not, but they don't half make for one big tragic fight (don't call it a World War), and he's maybe not screaming for you to kill your TV but there's seemingly pressure for Conor to step up to the plate with this, his fifth record and major label debut (outside of America).
Some are calling it a breakthrough album...
“Is this a breakthrough record? I dunno. If that's what they're saying! I dunno, I just keep writing my songs, then we record 'em, then we go out and play 'em for people. That's kind of where I try to leave it. That's my part of it. Then everything else is decided outside by the media.”
And now, with fans becoming the media or some-such web-two-dot-oh clap-trap, many an angry blog kid would say signing with Polydor is 'selling out'…
“It's just a licensing deal, it's for a whole lot of reasons. Mostly because we weren't happy with our situation.”
One of the main reasons for this fanbase disdain is because Conor, over the years, has been a rather outspoken beacon for independent culture, especially as he's one of the founders of the label Saddle Creek (Cursive, The Faint, Azure Ray, etc), with whom he remains in the USA. He also runs his very own independent label, Team Love (Tilly & the Wall, Willy Mason, etc). He explains:
“Saddle Creek we all started it together - it's sort of belonged to my friend Rob, in the practical sense, for the last five years at least, so it's his thing. So really we wanted to improve our situation over here (UK/Europe), the way we travel and so that we can do the same show that we do in America over here. There are a lot of people we need to consider at this point, y'know - all the people in my life, all the people who kind of work for me, I suppose. Like Mike [Mogis] and his wife and child, and just a lot of things. I've been asked the major label question almost constantly, since like 2000, and the answer was always simple: it just didn't make sense for us and there's nothing they can offer us. If it's not broke, don't fix it. It just reached a point where it did make sense. We talked to all kinds of labels and Polydor was the only one where we had the contract written the way we wanted it to be. We had this deal and when we showed it to people at labels they were like, 'you're crazy'. Polydor were the only ones who were like, ‘Sure, whatever you want’. So, yeah...”
Cassadaga is Conor’s ‘America album’, if you're looking for a skinny concept summary. It's the sound of Americana, folk and modern indie-rock colliding, not unlike the vibe of a bleaker Back to the Future III or that sci-fi western video Muse made if Chris Cunningham directed it. It features brilliant production and grand, sweeping time changes. Perhaps the fact it was recorded all across America, in Portland, Chicago, New York and LA, make this record; it follows ‘the New York’ album, which was the tremendous I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and ‘the experimental album’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. At the epicentre of it all, however, is the one constant you can rely upon: the cynical, broken heart of Conor Oberst, enraged by a senseless modern world...
“You know war, it has no heart, it will kill you in the sunshine or happily in the dark. Where kindness is a card game or a bent up cigarette, in trenches, in the hard rain, with a bullet and a bed. He says 'Help me out, hell is coming'”
…'No One Would Riot for Less'
Conor, would you say this new record is an evolutionary step that combines the best bits of Wide Awake… and Lifted...?
“My whole thing is just to try not to ever repeat myself - I feel like if we're always interested in what we're doing, then hopefully other people will be and just to try to explore sounds. I wanna be an explorer. I think those are my favourite kinds of bands. Y'know, I’m just looking for that next sound that inspires me, the next song... We don't really pre-meditate very much, we just do it.”
So you’re varying and confounding people, a little like Bowie?
“I really respect that - he's made a lot of music and some of it's great. I think all the people who really last and have longevity in music do wander off the tracks, to some extent.”
Rather like your last two records?
“They were received very differently. Wide Awake… is a little more straightforward and kinda easy to digest, and more what people expected us to do. And Digital Ash… is not as easily categorised – people tried to say it was an electronic record, but that was only because it had the word ‘digital’ in the title. It wasn't really digital at all – there were a couple of songs where we made the beats on the computer, but for the most part it was acoustic instruments just filtered and going for more of a dub aesthetic and more delay and effects on everything, as it was something we were all interested in, Mike especially. He loved a lot of this old vintage outboard gear, so we could do all these trippy loops and that kinda thing. He's extremely passionate about musical equipment.”
Do you think the latter especially allowed you to cleanse that palette for experimentation a little and move forward without feeling like you're compromising yourself? Especially getting Wide Awake… out there which satisfied a lot of those Neil Young tags people seem to want to hang on you?
“With the last two I had a more specific vision, and we obviously wanted them to be pretty homogeneous and cohesive as records, y'know: one kinda purist folk-rock ‘70s type record and this other record, which was more driven and centred around the beats and bleeps. Even the songs themselves I had picked out before we began recording. But with this record we had a lot of material, and it was a much freer process where we tried to record all the songs and we tried to follow each to its own conclusion. Then we just looked back and found the common thread which, in an abstract way, held it together for us. There are a lot of songs that I like that I think came out well that just didn't fit in with this record. I think some of them will get released in the future, on a later release or in movies… it seems like a lot of stuff creeps out.”
Conor pauses for a second and stares into the Dictaphone.
“The three of us, Mike, Nate and I… Bright Eyes is now the three of us and we wanted this to be something we're all proud of and we were all coming at it from different perspectives. We ended up with something we all really liked. Which is great, because in the past it’s been just me – well, it's always been Mike and I, but I dunno if people really realised that. I guess over the course of the past few years we added Nate, but we didn't really think about it or talk about it – we just kept asking him back on every tour and recording session and eventually said, 'Hey man, do you wanna be in the band?' I was surprised because I thought he just treated this like a good-paying gig and his passion was his composing and his music and his jazz bands and all this cool stuff. I figured there was no way he'd wanna work on my songs all the time, but he turned around one day and said this is what he likes doing best.”
Talking of side projects... we hear the new Desaparecidos (as whom Conor has released an incredible Pinkerton-esque album, Read Music, Speak Spanish, with Denver Dalley aka Statistics) record is just waiting for your vocals?
“It's not quite like that. We did start working on the record… erm… and then we sorta stopped. I dunno, it's strange… That was a special time and everything sorta aligned and we were all really into it. I think we made a record that was perfect for that time, for all of us, and was this spontaneous thing. I guess now it's a little bit like if it doesn't happen like that again, I'd rather it didn't happen. There's no immediate plans, let's leave it at that.”
So, back to Cassadaga: you've seemingly not been forced to write anything on this record which leaves you bending over for radio playlists, have you?
“No. There was a little bit this time around, with letting a few more people in to the process like management and Rob [from Saddle Creek] and asking for their opinions, which we've never done before as it was always this insular thing. We tried to let them say what they thought, but while we were making it we didn't think about radio at all.”
Do you ever have the urge to write dumb and universal, or rather universally acceptable, pop?
“It's nothing I'd know where to begin with, and isn't something I'd wanna do, I don’t think. On the other hand I am really interested in really catchy hooks and I've discovered I really like that about music, when something is just catchy. I know it's not my forte, though. I'd like to able to think I could write catchy music, y'know, for when you've got your windows down in your car and you're listening to some sweet pop song. I think that's a great thing. There's a lot of cool stuff that people would just consider pop or disposable.”
Conor looks over, but DiS is daydreaming about that LCD remix of Justin Timberlake and thinking about Girls Aloud dancing to it… where were we? Carry on...
“I honestly don't have much control of what comes out. I just try to stay open to whatever creative muse or energy I have, and that's where the songs come from.”
What's the process like for you?
“It's two things, really: the first is the mysterious part which I don't really have any control over, which is just the essence of the song, maybe the first few lines or the melody, that just kinda come and it's magical and that's the greatest thing. Then once that essence exists and I have a structure and the beginnings of the song, then it becomes a method or a craft. So now that I've written a lot of songs I know what I like and I don't like, and that's where it becomes a little more of a conscious thought process, rather than it just flowing through.”
It can't help if the rumours are true that you're being a good kid now?
“I'd like to say I was sober, but I...”
“Yeah. I came to a point where the hangovers weren't worth the fun I was having or the escape or the joy or sensual pleasure or whatever I was getting out of getting super wasted; it wasn't worth the loneliness and anxiety and all the terrible hangover feelings, so it's all about balance, y'know?”
We hear you buddy, we're just a little busy sipping coffee to soak up last night’s whisky to admit it, so we'll hide behind another question. Do you think this has calmed you down a bit and made shit like talking to us scribbling observers a bit easier?
“I had a tough time promoting the last two records. I kinda went a little crazy. I'm just planning it out a little more and spacing it out a bit more, and feeling less obligated to tell the truth...”
Then our time is up. We don't get the chance to ask anything about that John Peel moment at Glastonbury, any of the lyrics on the album, his name resembling something outta Asterix or whether he'd ever consider starting a reality TV show to win a deal on Saddle Creek and to become a member of his band. That'll all have to wait 'til next time...