Published Jan 01, 2006It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the early 90s, teen melodrama Beverly Hills 90210, in an effort to boost its hipster credibility, started booking rising alt-rock bands into its faux nightclub, the Peach Pit After Dark. In 1995, the Flaming Lips led by a pink-haired Wayne Coyne performed their then-hit single "She Don't Use Jelly." (Sample dialogue: "You know, I've never been a big fan of alternative music, but these guys rocked the house!" from supporting character Steve Sanders.) The show's desperate grab for underground credibility flopped, but the Lips emerged unscathed, and continue to use the clip as an opening bit of comedy at shows.
For the most part, network television slunk back to the pop charts and for scoring even its most teen-oriented programming relied on nothing more challenging than established hits. That is, until last summer. When a similarly California-set, teen-cast prime time soap opera called The O.C. hit the airwaves not far from Beverly Hills' famous zip code comparisons came cheap and easy. But very quickly, The O.C. proved it had something that Beverly Hills 90210 never did: taste.
In addition to supporting up-and-coming bands like Rooney, Death Cab For Cutie and Spoon, young uber-geek Seth Cohen he of the witty/nerdy banter and comic book obsession name-dropped one of his favourites in Omaha, Nebraska's Bright Eyes.
The O.C. didn't break Bright Eyes to the world, but it did send a signal to in-the-know music geeks that the show had more than love triangles on the brain.
For Bright Eyes main man Conor Oberst who contributed a cover of "Blue Christmas" to the show's "The Best Chrismukkah Ever" episode his influence on The O.C. (or vice-versa) isn't much more than a curiosity. "I don't know if it was helpful or not [for Bright Eyes], it'd be hard to say. But it was definitely amusing. The music director is this young girl who is super into indie rock and puts all of the bands she likes into the show. That's cool and it's better than having some old guy Joe Blow doing it."
To be sure, the boost of credibility meant much more to the show than the band. For Bright Eyes, it was just icing on the cake after the successful ride they'd enjoyed since the 2002 release of their breakthrough record, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.
An Attempt To Tip The Scales
Before Lifted saw light of day, Bright Eyes had already built a strong following on the indie rock scene with the release of Fevers And Mirrors in 2000. Widely acclaimed for its brutally emotive wordplay and outrageous storytelling (he admits to his mother drowning his five brothers in a mock interview at the album's conclusion), it opened many eyes to the ingenious orchestral arrangements, the beautifully sparse production and the peculiarities of Oberst as a vocalist and lyricist. The record put Oberst and Bright Eyes in a remarkable position as an independent act, selling more records than their previous two and creating enough interest to justify a world tour. All as Oberst was just entering his 20s.
Oberst began 2002 fronting Desaparecidos, a riotous Nebraskan super-group of sorts he formed as an outlet to embrace his inner punk and crank up the amp past his usual Bright Eyes folk hiss. Their debut album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, was a well-received fiery rock album that also served as an effective primer for the ensuing Bright Eyes effort.
When Lifted was released in August that year, Bright Eyes were not the same little band they were even 12 months before. At the age of 22, Oberst had recorded an album that allowed him to escape his wunderkind status and emerge as simply a great songwriter. His quivering vocals became an instant Bright Eyes trademark, and swooning indie rockers had found a new poster boy. "I do feel I have a pretty awkward voice that I have been trying to make the most of it's not a very pristine thing," Oberst admits. The heartbreaking emotion of his mini-folk rock symphonies and painfully introspective lyrics were certainly focal points but it was little cracks in the music, background noise that sounded like forgotten mistakes in the studio, that set it apart from contemporary singer-songwriters. "I've always been into found sounds and atmospherics, so we've always felt that with the music you can always have a great song or a great arrangement, but if it just exists in a studio silence it's just sterile."
Tastemaking music press jumped on the album immediately; by the end of the year, major publications like Spin, Rolling Stone, NME, Uncut and Mojo were including Oberst's unique vision in "best of the year" wrap-ups. While he became the object of affection for a devout fan base and his tours which featured an orchestra of up to 15 musicians became must-see events, Oberst found himself in some unusual situations: a hero in an online game (www.emogame.com); tabloid fodder (like many musicians, he briefly dated Winona Ryder); a tour-mate of Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M.; and an outspoken, controversial music biz advocate (see sidebar).
Lifted... sold more than 200,000 copies on Oberst's own, Omaha-based Saddle Creek label, but his ambitions weren't about to be tamed by success. Instead, this month he's releasing two new, very different Bright Eyes albums simultaneously. It's a risk, to be sure, but last autumn the band and label received unexpected assurance that their gambit would pay off. Two teaser singles "Lua" and "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)," one from each album were released three months in advance of the albums and in their first week, they reached number one and number two on the Billboard singles chart. "This was a pure sales chart, which took us a while to figure out, but then once we found out that it was true we were super surprised," Oberst says. "I felt that it was a testament to music fans out there who seek out bands they like and support them. It's not all about how much money you have for advertising and promotion." Not since Sean "Puffy" Combs in 1997 had an artist achieved this feat, but Oberst remains modest. "I called up Puff and we had a good laugh about it," he jokes. Bright Eyes were officially in good company.
The Story Is In The Soil
Conor Oberst is a product of Omaha, Nebraska the conservative, Midwestern land of agriculture and insurance companies. Growing up, his house was filled with music; his father and much older brother played in bands and left instruments lying around the house. "It was pretty natural to just pick one up and start fucking around. I never had any lessons, but my dad would show me chords and I would sit in my basement and watch my brother's band play and think, God these guys are so cool!' I had a first-hand introduction to music; I was just fortunate."
He wasted no time composing his own songs of lo-fi sorrow; by age 13, he was already becoming a well-known songwriter in the blossoming Omaha music community. He began putting his songs to tape almost as soon as he wrote them, crafting his unique style early on. Quite a few of them have seen a proper release (and are still available) under his own name or by his first rock band, Commander Venus. "The early stuff, I kind of cringe when I hear it but at the same time I'm glad it exists. I wouldn't want to take it back. It's like looking through old pictures and you may look stupid but you're kind of glad you have a picture to remember it. I was in an unusual situation because pretty much every song I've written and for every phase of my development I was releasing music and it's all out there to be ridiculed. It's kind of a blessing and a curse, I think."
One of the reasons for Oberst's premature development is the support he felt from musician friends. A supportive exchange of ideas created a unique environment rich with motivation for the budding artist. "I don't think I would have taken what I was doing seriously if I didn't have people like Ted [Stevens, of Mayday and Cursive] and Tim [Kasher, of Cursive and the Good Life] encouraging me because I didn't really know what I was doing. They're all a few years older than me, and it means a lot when you look up to someone that writes songs you think are cool and then tell you that they like one of your songs. It means a lot when you're 13 or 14 years old," he says.
It was with friends that Oberst founded what has become one of the more successful and diverse American indie record labels, Saddle Creek. The label was first conceived early in Oberst's teenhood, when he, his brother Justin, and Ted Stevens got together to make cassette tape albums for Oberst's first solo record and Stevens' band at the time, Polecat. "We put out Tim Kasher's first band, which was the first CD we did, and we started doing seven-inches. All of this was done really loosely, selling them at the local record store and local shows," he recalls. It quickly became a collective operation, with various friends contributing money and lending support.
The label's close-knit roster of Omaha-based bands now includes the Faint (who have tasted their own new wave revival success), Cursive, Azure Ray, Son, Ambulance and Now It's Overhead. Each Saddle Creek record is a collaborative effort filled with familiar names, many of whom play become part-time or full-time members, including Oberst himself. "We were lucky because there was a group of us who were really into music; it was all we cared about," he remembers. "For me, it was a really supportive and awesome way to learn about music and become better at what we're doing."
In 1996, when Oberst was just 16, Saddle Creek found its captain in Rob Nansel, a member of Commander Venus who put working at the label ahead of playing music. Nansel's determination converted Saddle Creek into a full-fledged and eventually flourishing operation. "He's the one who turned it into a real business, found distribution and worked hard to make it into what it is now. I think they have six or seven full-time employees and interns. He's really the one to credit with all of the success. I mean everyone's worked on it a lot, but he turned it from this super lazy local label into the real thing."
After two albums, Commander Venus disbanded; in 1998, Oberst released two Bright Eyes albums (A Collection of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997 and proper debut, Letting Off the Happiness); from the outset, Bright Eyes blurred the line between solo artist and band. Quickly, it became the flagship act for Saddle Creek.
Letting Off the Happiness brought Oberst together with the second, mostly silent member of Bright Eyes: local engineer Mike Mogis. "Whenever I say we, I'm talking about myself and Mike. He's one of my best friends. He and his brother ran a studio, but around Letting Off the Happiness, he wanted to start recording on his own without his brother," he recalls. "He liked my songs and knew I wasn't a stickler for good recordings; I was basically recording on my four-track and I didn't care if it sounded weird or fucked up. It allowed him to learn without any pressure and it allowed me to work with someone who could take my ideas and make them better."
Mogis's unique style of open mic recording relies heavily on found sounds (a baby crying, a car door slamming) that makes for an engaging and unexpected listening experience. Not only a whiz with the sound board and mics, Mogis plays a wide number of instruments: mandolin, baritone, glockenspiel, hammer dulcimer, theremin and guitar. Mike and brother his A.J. have been designated as de facto producers for all Saddle Creek artists at their Presto! Recording Studios, recording the most recent albums by the Faint, Son, Ambulance and even recent Saddle Creek expats Rilo Kiley, who left in 2003.
Going For Gold
Conor Oberst is about to launch his most ambitious project yet two simultaneously-released, completely different Bright Eyes albums. In a nutshell, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning is a folk-ish country record and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn is an electronically enhanced rock record. And both present a clear picture of his artistic vision to offer a poignant energy through song that compels an assortment of thoughts and expressions deep in love and disgust, joy and pain, hope and failure.
It wasn't initially planned this way. "It was actually a practical decision, because we recorded the folk record first last February really quickly, in about a week and a half. We could have released it in the summer, but I had a lot of ideas and sketches for the Digital Ash record. We were just afraid that we would get caught in the touring/ interview cycle and we wouldn't have time to finish what we were inspired to do at the time. We decided to finish what we were excited to work on. Obviously once we got through the first month of recording the Digital Ash record there was no way it was going to make sense together so we finished them both and were left with another decision do we put them out a few months apart? It sort of seemed ridiculous at that point, like why not put it all out there for people to hear so it was all done."
For Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, he called up his good friend Nick Zinner, guitarist for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the work quickly became a partnership between the two friends. Zinner's input isn't the usual blast of riffage that backs up Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer, Karen O. Instead, his parts are more subdued and atmospheric, displaying how versatile he is with his instrument. "He came out to Nebraska for a couple weeks working on it. Not only did he contribute his guitar parts, but he also has a great musical aesthetic, so he gave his opinions on a lot of other aspects of the songs. It was definitely a collaborative effort."
To complete I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, however, Oberst searched outside of his circle of friends for assistance. Thinking of voices to fill the background, there was only one he wanted: Emmylou Harris. "We had finished the folk record but I felt there were a couple of harmony parts that were missing. When I thought about it, it was really her voice that I was hearing, a more traditional, higher kind of country harmony," he tells.
After a mutual friend introduced him to the legendary songstress, Oberst and Mogis flew to Nashville to record the vocals. "She's so incredible and such a sweet person and easy to work with. She would sing the harmony one way and then sing it another way and ask which way we liked more. You could tell she had done this a lot."
Oberst isn't afraid to admit he felt the nerves upon encountering his hero, but he managed to collect himself before any embarrassing displays of "fandemonium." "I remember we were sitting in the control room playing Land Locked Blues' over the speakers and I was sitting on a couch next to her talking and she said, Well the song's kind of I'm thinking of something like this.' Then she started singing and it kind of freaked me out just hearing her voice not coming from a record, but right there singing my words," he admits. "It was kind of overwhelming and I had to excuse myself for a moment to catch my breath in the hallway. And then it was totally cool after that. She's really funny and nice, but there was a moment where I was like, Whoa, this is pretty strange.'"
By the time his two records arrive in stores, Oberst will already have embarked on the first of two world tours. Instead of trying to cram two albums and older material into one show, his performances will match the albums. Following the acoustically-inclined first tour, the Faint will join as backing back for a spring rock tour. "For the most part we're going to play the whole record [for each tour] and if there's more time we'll do some older songs," he predicts. "With the Digital Ash record, it's kind of the one chance to play the songs the way they were recorded and concentrate on that."
To be sure, it's going to be a big year for Bright Eyes. But whatever their fate, Conor Oberst is sure to take it in stride, always adapting his art to the moment. "To me a lot of what we've done have been happy accidents. I've always felt the imperfections in the music have been an asset and not a detriment to what we do, so I feel like embracing your imperfections can make you stronger."
Bright Eyes Vs. Clear Channel
In October of 2003, Bright Eyes joined fellow nominees to be honoured at the Shortlist Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, an award given out to the most creative and adventurous album of the year that sells less than 500,000 copies. Playing alongside the likes of Cat Power, the Streets, Interpol and the eventual winner, Damien Rice, Bright Eyes captured the spotlight but not in a celebratory way.
During the band's set, Oberst used the opportunity to show appreciation for the nomination but also to lash out against mega-conglomerate Clear Channel, the world's largest promoter and marketer of entertainment, which helped present the ceremony. The move prompted mixed reactions: one concert goer jumped onstage and bowed down in praise, while another stared Oberst down and spat at his shoes in disgust).
Oberst is still freewheeling when it comes to unmasking the corruption behind commercial radio and Clear Channel is still his main target. "Anyone who won't accept how Clear Channel is ruining popular music has their head in the sand. There's no excuse for one company controlling the majority of entertainment and information in a given country. I think it's completely in opposition of what I believe America should be about."
Like Pearl Jam's bid to rid Ticketmaster of its iron grip, Bright Eyes is now faced with picking and choosing gigs where independent promoters book venues. "It's hard from a concert standpoint there are cities we now have to skip because we refuse to play for Clear Channel and that's sad because there are still kids that want to see shows there. The fact that Clear Channel has driven out all of the competition and you have to either get in bed with them or not, and if you don't, now people can't see a concert.
"People don't get played on commercial radio because of the merit of the music they're making," he continues. "It's whether or not they hire the right radio promotion companies that basically give kickbacks to Clear Channel. That's how you get on the radio and that's insane. People that work in the music business at these huge music companies don't listen to the music, they don't care what it sounds like. They just give them the same thing over and over again. I think it's completely disgusting and strange."
Oberst feels someone needs to step in and fix the problem and right now he feels that the wheels are in motion. "There's some pressure coming from Elliott Spitzer, the Attorney General in New York, who is moving towards filing some motions against the record companies. He's a fucking badass and they're getting scared right now. I've read that some of the companies are already cutting their ties with these radio promoters; that's kind of where the payola comes in. They're trying to cover their tracks as fast as they can."
Saddle Creek's Greatest Hits
The Faint Danse Macabre (2001)
The Faint's third record was the first Saddle Creek release not written by Oberst to make a big splash for the label. Danse Macabre turned the band into an overnight indie sensation, flirting with pop, electro, goth and rock to help kick start that '80s new wave revival bands like the Killers are breathing more life into.
Desaparecidos Read Music/Speak Spanish (2002)
Oberst's angry fuzz rock band with Denver Dalley (Statistics) created the perfect "fuck you" letter to their hometown's obsession with consumerism and materialism. As for a follow-up Oberst says, "We have some songs written that have yet to be recorded. I don't know if we're going to make a full-length or just kind of slip out one song at a time, but yeah, it's not completely over."
Bright Eyes Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)
Oberst's epic breakthrough garnered a Shortlist nomination, a date with Winona Ryder and a mention on The O.C. Mike Mogis's skilfully lo-fi production is complemented with a strong cast of characters from the Saddle Creek camp, mini-orchestral waltzes and some of Oberst's best tales and pop hooks.
Rilo Kiley The Execution Of All Things (2002)
Smart lyrics and a great sense of melodic timing made this fine indie pop record a critical favourite for one of the label's only non-Nebraskan bands. Led by former child actors Jenny Lewis (Postal Service) and Blake Sennett (Elected), Rilo Kiley eventually left the label for a major, but not before releasing this, their finest album to date.
Cursive The Ugly Organ (2003)
After years of playing in various bands, Tim Kasher's finest moment was achieved on Cursive's fourth album. A mesmerising thematic album filled with weighty drama and cathartic intensity, there are moments where you think he's going to break down and smash Gretta Cohn's cello. This is where Cursive went from being a simple angry indie rock band lost in the shuffle to a blindingly great one leading the pack.