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Bright Eyes - Interview with Conor Oberst

  by Julia Willis

published: 17 / 2 / 2003

Bright Eyes - Interview with Conor Oberst


At only 22, Conor Oberst is already being proclaimed by many as being a musical genius, and fronts both the Desparicodos and also his own solo project Bright Eyes. Julia Willis chats him about Bright Eyes latest 'Lifted or The Story is in the Soil'

Prolonged, gentle rhythmic tapping on the back of my chair. My back tenses. I suck in my cheeks, pout and clench my teeth. "God will you just STOP? Jesus…" I return to reading my magazine, flicking the spine out angrily, as if reading purposeless fashion magazines was practically a duty these days. The tapping continues… I whirl around furiously, my coat swishing and crackling to see a kid, grinning and tapping its feet. Sweetly, not maliciously, just enjoying the sensation of having its foot absently connect with something. I freeze and turn slowly back to face the rear of the chair in front of me, with its dirty white plastic tray stowed in the upright position for my convenience, pondering. Then I turn, gradually this time, my eyes playfully half closed and piercing, my mouth scrunched into a comical angry shape. A grin slowly creeps across my face. The kid lifts a tiny upright hand and moves its wrist mechanically forming a nervous wave, not sure whether to look at me or the floor, fighting back a smile. I turn back to my plastic view, readjusting myself further back into my seat laughing inwardly. I gaze out of the window, noticing the scenery for the first time. I leave one pointless fashion magazine lying on the seat, ready for its next victim. Sometimes you’re so caught up in the details you don’t have time to remember what’s important… Conor Oberst hailed as a child prodigy and genius walks into the bar, clutching his coat around him, pulling his beanie hat low over his brow, his piercing eyes scanning the room for anyone he can coax a cigarette from. He says hello to everyone in the room but me. I turn back to the paper, my renewed faith in human kindness already ebbing away, fickle soul that I’ve become. As he’s told who I am he walks towards me slowly, shaking my hand and eyeing me suspiciously as we wander off somewhere quiet to sit down. I realise that all I wanted was his attention, just as everyone else in the room had done. What IS it about this kid? In the last few months he’s released a stunningly acclaimed album (well, what else did you expect?) 'Lifted or The Story is in the Soil', with the rolling lineup he calls Bright Eyes. Having already released an album this year with his rock outfit, the Desaparecidos, belting out observational urban commentary, it’s difficult to know where his roots are. "I’ve been involved in lots of musical projects and they’re always deliberate experiments. It’s like - I’ll do this awhile cos I’m interested in it whereas Bright Eyes is the most natural. I don’t have to think about it, it’s just the songs I write when I’m not trying to write some other way." His usual painful introspective catharsis has been written so I’ve heard, with an audience in mind this time. His slight frame hunches into a seat, his gaze not leaving mine for a second until his hair flops into his face and he brushes it aside, only for it to gradually fall back down again. "Before, the music was obviously for myself or my friends but once I realised people are going to hear it, especially strangers, it made me want to have something in the music that’s more universal, that people can relate to. When you find yourself in that position it’s like – what do I do with that?" So he’s looking around this time, not looking inside. "I think for a long time it was definitely me me me. When you get a little bit older you start to realise that anything you can see in yourself you could also learn that by looking at other people." Given his private school education, his own admission that he never wanted for anything materially as a child and that people have always treated him well, it’s difficult to find a source for his angst. I guess though, everyone has their thing. "I try to write in all states of mind, not just times of trauma. I guess that being said the next question is why do so many of the songs end up like that? In the universe joy and sorrow make the world go round, I guess some people are more attached to one than the other. Maybe it’s partly me being an introspective person." A native of Omaha, Nebraska, just about as slap bang in the middle of the States as it’s likely to get, he’s faithful to the place he calls home, not yet tempted by the excesses of LA or the bohemian New York. Most people spend their whole lives trying to get out of their hometown. "It’s my home. It’s where I grew up and where I feel the most, I guess, in tune, although I actually feel very alienated from the main culture. Nebraska’s a pretty conservative place. Most people vote Republican and it’s not very conductive to trying to make art. Things move slow. Trends very casually creep in from the coast to try and infect us but as a whole it’s possible to remain true to yourself and just do whatever your craft is. No one’s really cool there and that’s definitely one virtue of the place. If I didn’t have to travel and be away all the time I don’t know if I could stay there forever. At the same time I know I will always go back there and if there’s anywhere that I would say I’m from or call my home, it’s Omaha." The attention surrounding Conor and Bright Eyes has gained pace. They now get press on an international level. He describes the experience as having people talk behind your back amplified ten times then printed for other people to read. Positive press though, has got to affect the way you think about yourself, even though most people would never admit to it. "It’s always a balancing act between knowing who you are or who you believe you are. I guess I know the way my friends and people I love treat me. My relationship to them provides some basis for an identity rather than a public persona, which does affect you. You start to wonder, am I all these things people want or perceive me to be? I think it fucks with your head to people portraying you in a certain light depending on the demographic of their readers. There’s all just a circus around it. I want to sing and play music. The rest of it’s smoke and mirrors." He admits he hasn’t developed any particular stage persona to deal with the pressures of performance or to just get some distance from it. "I never feel like I have to do something to appease other people. If I feel like not talking to the audience, playing songs and getting the fuck off stage that’s what I’ll do or sometimes we joke around and say stupid shit into the microphone like kids playing around." "Do the audience ever piss you off, heckling you?" ‘If you begin to get a buzz surrounding your shows you get people that want to come and be seen and mingle. That’s always the worst. It has a detrimental effect on the musicians. All of a sudden it has nothing to do with the music. We’re just making a topic of conversation for these two scenesters and you think – I never wanted to be that to you. It’s not why we’re here. It’s way easier to deal with the indifference of people who don’t know who your band are than people just coming to spread their fuckin’ feathers." At twenty-two years old with a definite buzz surrounding his music, hailed as a genius and achieving so much at such a young age, it’s no wonder he’s treated differently and not always fairly. When not lauded as a prodigy he’s constantly lambasted for being too philosophical too young. "A lot of older people really don’t want to hear someone that’s way younger than them singing about anything even slightly philosophical. Even before when it was purely basic singing about young feelings they didn’t want to hear it. I guess that’s easier because (in a mocking tone) –oh they’re young and everything’s like sooo dramatic. Now people ask me what right I have to sing about how I see the world. I think that’s the only age you can really do that. When you’re young everything affects you. Everything is hyper real. As you grow older suddenly the way you feel and interact with other people isn’t as important as how much equity you have in your house, how much interest you pay on your credit card. The worst part is, you can’t even remember when it was you started caring about that shit. Jesus, what happened ? Kids are less poisoned by society, by history and the media corroding your brain. Unless you stay on top of it and maintain focus you could easily be swept into this mediocrity of thinking what everyone wants you to think and behave. Your beliefs are handed to you by previous generations and society, when you’re young you have the ability to think outside of that. You get bogged down with insignificant things I guess that’s what being an adult is all about, being chained to everyone else’s ideas of things." As I squeeze into the crowded rush hour tube to Waterloo - held in place by the pinstriped suits around me and the self importance of holding the 'Financial Times', pretending to be concerned by what the paper says – I feel a rhythmic tapping. My teeth clench, then unclench as I catch myself. I put my headphones on and smile. Come on then Conor, what have you got to say to this? He sings to me, beautifully. The photographs that coompany this article were taken by Matthew D. Williams

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Bright Eyes - Interview with Conor Oberst

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Noise Floor 1998-2005 (2006)
Oddly accessible collection of B sides and lost tracks from Bright Eyes, the project of Conor Oberst, whose ability to craft songs of heart-rending delicacy and razor sharp bitterness remains unmatched and unquestionable
Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground (2002)

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