Conor Oberst :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Near the top of Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the first album Conor Oberst has made under the Bright Eyes banner since 2011, the Omaha-based songwriter declares he comes bearing good news: “I’ll grieve/What I have lost,” he intones. “Forgive the firing squad/How imperfect life can be/Now all I can do/Is just dance on through.”

OK, so it’s tempered good news. But what other kind should be expected? Oberst’s blown-out folk rock ballads, twitching electronic pop songs, and raging political punk jeremiads have always been laden with grand pronouncements. But on the new album, fashioned with longtime collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, along with high profile guests like bassist Flea and Jon Theodore of Queens of the Stone Age, he writes with heavy resignation and a simple determination to survive. His rangy voice rings out from the middle of a thick and complex swirl of noise, shifting atmospheres, and surprisingly heavy tones. Often, it feels like he’s shouting to be heard over the wall of sound, until you realize it’s more like he’s singing while climbing over it to face whatever new weirdness is on the other side.

“I’m just trying to figure out how to tell you the truth,” Oberst says over the phone, prefacing a slowly unfolding answer to a difficult question. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was finds him navigating difficult questions over and over, trying to articulate cruel realities and the transcendent joys that persist in spite of them. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: You’ve never been afraid of apocalyptic lyricism, and Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is fueled by visions of the Anthropocene and systems breaking down. The opening line of “Dance and Sing” is “Got to keep going like it ain’t the end.” Does it feel strange to release a Bright Eyes album at a time when everyone else is feeling as apocalyptic as Bright Eyes albums sound?

Conor Oberst: In my writing there’s been a lot of dystopian viewpoints. I’ve been obsessed with death and the end of the world and all that shit since I was five years old. It’s been my whole life. It’s not really surprising that those same things would reappear on this record, but you know, we wrote these songs two years ago. I’m not Nostradamus, I’m no clairvoyant. I’m not a spiritual person, but I do believe in the connectivity of people. I believe there’s a zeitgeist, an unconscious level that human beings are experiencing all the time without knowing it. I think we all, to some degree, are dreaming the same dreams and we’re fighting the same internal battles in our minds and hearts.

Art and music—that’s the purest way humans known how to express these intangible things we can’t necessarily express in a math equation. It makes sense to me that if I was having these premonitions or preoccupations, it’s not surprising to me other people are having them too. There’s a reckoning, we’re all face to face with this catastrophic and painful reality that no one was prepared for. 

AD: There’s a sense of revelation threaded throughout the record too. In “Mariana Trench,” you declare you’re “ready for the war.” Right now, it’s not easy to be hopeful, but for so long it feels like we’ve been arguing as a culture about whether or not anything is even wrong. The fact that so many people are on the same page now, does that make you feel hopeful at all?

Conor Oberst: It’s very encouraging that people could get educated and get awareness in a way that they just didn’t have even a few years ago. But we wouldn’t have this uprising, this recognition of the racial injustice in America that’s been here for 400 years, without the pandemic. I think people are realizing all this shit is fleeting and futile. You have to come to account, step up to the plate and change your life. You know, this shit has been bullshit since for-fucking-ever. We’ve been able to brush it under the rug for centuries, but you can’t do that any more. Everyone realizes their life is temporary. Nobody’s got a guarantee of tomorrow.

AD: You had a rough couple of years in the last decade. There were terrible false allegations, your brother passed away, and your marriage ended. That’s a lot for a person to take. In the same way we’re talking about the societal need to come up with the kind of hope that isn’t fake or phony—hard rooted hope—did going through those hard years force you to personally imagine what that kind of resilient hope in the face of bleakness looks like?

Conor Oberst: [Pause] Those are all beyond painful situations. I can’t tell you the amount of times that I just was going to give up on everything. I honestly don’t know. I wish I could give you some kind of hopeful sermon on the mount and tell you I learned a bunch of stuff and I’m better. [You realize] this stuff doesn’t end. It’s never going to end. I can’t tell you the amount of people I’ve loved I’ve had to bury. I don’t see that ever changing. You’re just going to get older, you know what I mean? It’s about coming to some kind of peace with it. 

AD: On “Just Once In the World,” you crystallize the feeling of playing music. Did reconnecting musically with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott put you in a place where you were able to feel not only peace, but some joy?

Conor Oberst: Yeah. We spent almost two years making the record, and there were a lot of life changes. Michael got divorced, I got divorced. Nate had a kid. He was touring with the Chili Peppers. I was doing my thing with Phoebe, Mike was producing records. I think we were all just at a point where we, I don’t know a better way to say it other than to say we needed each other again.

AD: You’ve known these guys a long time.

Conor Oberst: There’s deep history there. Mogis brought an 8-track recorder over to my parent’s house when I was 16 or 17; we set it up on top of the laundry machine in the basement. We recorded Letting Off the Happiness down there. Nate joined the band in 2002, with Lifted.., and we’ve been together ever since. There’s a level of trust and understanding. I’ve been in plenty of cool situations with hot shot musicians who were supposed to bring out the best in me, bring something incredible to the table. And I can say in all honesty that none of them compare to Michael and Nate. Those two guys are the most genius musicians I’ve ever worked with, and they also care more about me and my music than anyone I’ve ever worked with. It was kind of a no-brainer, like well, if we’re all feeling like shit and don’t know what to do with our lives, let’s do the one thing we know how to do, which is make these records.

AD: What do you think that 16-year-old would have said if you told him that one day Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers was going to play on his new album? 

Conor Oberst: [Laughs] I probably would have laughed. On paper, it sounds so ridiculous, but it was the most natural kind of thing. Nate had been playing with the Peppers for three years on tour. They just developed a great friendship. Flea brought it up. Nate told him casually, “We’re going to make a new Bright Eyes album,” and he asked, “Do you have a bass player? Just saying, if you want one, just call me up.”

I really wanted to work with him and Jon Theodore, who’s always been one of my favorite drummers. He’s been in Queens of the Stone for the last five years, but I met him when he was in the Mars Volta. De-Loused in the Comatorium—an album I love—the rhythm section on that record is Jon and Flea. It’s one of my favorite records so I thought, shit, why don’t we get those guys?

I wanted to bring a different flavor to it. They’re essentially modern rock royalty. That isn’t really our style, but for years, I’ve played with all kinds of drummers. Everyone is into this retro let’s all play like Levon Helm feel. I love Levon Helm, but I’m not interested in being in Bob Dylan fantasy camp, where everybody’s wearing hats and we all gotta play “The Weight” at the end of every concert. I hate that shit. It drives me fucking crazy. I got no interest in that. I know I can do it better than any of those fucking people, but I don’t want to do it. It’s not interesting. I’d rather make a weird prog-rock bizarro record than show up at Newport Folk Festival and wear a cowboy hat and make believe like I’m in the 1960s. 

AD: Bright Eyes albums sound different from record to record. But by using the Bright Eyes name, it’s unavoidable that people will bring their own nostalgia to their listen. Somebody’s favorite record is I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or Lifted… or The People’s Key. In returning to Bright Eyes, did you have to contend with any of your own nostalgic baggage? 

Conor Oberst: We talked about all that. We really wanted to make a record that sounded like a Bright Eyes record, one that when it’s sitting on your shelf with all the other Bright Eyes records, doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. We wanted it to be cohesive with the catalog. A lot of that is nostalgia. A lot of the orchestral elements of Cassadaga or Lifted… are in there; the hyper tricked out Mogis’ magic powers at the mixing desk with crazy delays and bizarre processed everything, that’s Digital Ash, People’s Key kind of stuff. Even going back to Letting Off the Happiness or Fevers, this blown out, lo-fi experimental shit. That’s represented. 

It’s hilarious to me that Wide Awake is our most popular record. It’s our only gold record. But that’s just as experimental as all the others. We intentionally made a ‘70s folk album. It was funny to us to say “let’s make a record that sounds like Jackson Browne and see what people think about that.” People think that’s what they really sound like, then they made all these other weird records. I’m so proud of that. So many bands repeat themselves. We never did that. 

Everyone’s just gotten better over the last decade. Nate and Mike went and made film scores; I made a bunch of albums. I made a crazy political punk album in 2015 with Desaparecidos. When people are like, what’s up with your political music, I’m like, did anyone listen to Payola? That’s the most overtly political album I made, and I feel like no one listened to it. It’s like guys, I already did that. It was five years ago, and every song on it still holds up. And then, you know, doing the Better Oblivion stuff with Phoebe, that was was a totally different experience. I felt rejuvenated. I loved working with her, making cool indie rock. It reminded me of being a kid again. Working with a great songwriter I love and respect did a lot for me psychologically. It made me happy, and now I’m doing this which is totally different. It’s heavy and weird, but I like the record a lot.

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