After a four-year hiatus, Conor Oberst is back with his band, Bright Eyes. The group’s seventh full-length album, “The People’s Key,” is an uncharacteristically glossy and undeniably mature studio release, with themes that range from science fiction to Rastafarianism. Reverb caught up with Oberst between legs of the current tour that will hit the Fillmore Auditorium on Sunday night.
Q: How’s the tour going so far? How has the new album been received?
A: Really well. I think it’s been a success so far. Playing longer shows and trying to mix up a lot of songs from the old albums, and obviously playing a lot off the new album but blending all the songs from the catalog together. We’re putting on more of a stage show, I guess, light-wise and all that, than in the past. It’s a full-on rock show.
The tour is supporting the new album, but you’ve been delving into the older songs — is there anything that you’re totally sick of playing? And is there anything that you like to play that’s really old?
We definitely made a concerted effort for the tour to learn as many songs as possible as far as just being able to mix it up because we knew we’d be on tour for a lot of the year. And we’re still adding songs, rehearsing ones in sound checks and adding more. We know a lot more than on a typical tour, but because of the nature of the band –- because it’s Mike, Nate, and I, and then the rest of the band usually changes –- we have to kind of teach whoever songs for the tour. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to learn a lot, but not this time so…I guess my point being, as far as being sick of the songs, we don’t really get sick of them because we can mix it up a little bit. We’ve been playing some really old ones, like this song “Falling Out of Love at This Volume.” I wrote that song when I was like fifteen years old, so it’s a little strange to still be playing it, but it actually stands up, you know? With the new arrangement of the band it’s still fun.
“The People’s Key” is one of your most glossy records to date. Do have any plans to do any more lo-fi recordings like your old stuff?
I’m not sure what I’m going to do next for a record, so it’s hard to say. I will say I’m always doing home recordings, demoing songs, so that’s something that’s never really stopped. It just used to be that would be the actual recording. Now we usually demo the songs and figure them out and then bring them into the studio. But I really like all levels of fidelity when it comes to recording — I don’t think there’s a right way or wrong way, it’s just what feels the best with the music you’re making at that time. I could see it being fun to make a more, as you said, lo-fi record. The record we made in Mexico was kind of like that. It was sort of a makeshift studio — we recorded it all on a one-inch, 16-track, analog machine. It was a pretty old-school approach. I don’t know about the four track days, I don’t know if those are gone for good or not.
It could be interesting to try that again. So, with your success with Saddle Creek in Omaha, what are some of the things that you’ve learned? What kind of advice would you have for people trying to establish their cities as musical hotbeds?
I would say that, if you’re trying to do that, then maybe you’re already off on the wrong foot. It’s best to make music for the sake of making music. I also think it’s good to make music within a community, so if your friends are musicians or songwriters, I would say be supportive of them, and in a way try to marry your fortunes together. I think that’s what we did when we were coming up. All the bands would support each other, and every time a band went on tour to another city, we would talk about where we came from and we’d pass along other records from our friends to all the people we met, so it grew very organically from that. I don’t know, it’s tough though — even for as good of friends as we all are still to this day, doing business with your friends and all the things that come along with even a little bit of success, it really can be a strain on friendships. I would say, be careful. [Laughs]
You just played Coachella and South by Southwest — did you have a chance to stick around at the festivals, and if so, did you see anything that you thought was interesting?
Not so much at South by Southwest, but I got to see some stuff at Coachella, I was only there the day we played. I got to see Erykah Badu, which was great — I thought she was fantastic. And I really liked One Day as a Lion, which is Zack de la Rocha’s (Rage Against The Machine) other band with this really incredible drummer named Jon Theodore. He was the Mars Volta’s first drummer. He’s truly one of the sickest drummers I’ve ever seen. That was probably the best thing I saw at Coachella, but the whole day was pretty great. Also Arcade Fire; I hadn’t seen their show for their new record yet. They’ve really come into their own as far as headlining things like that and putting on a great show that’s worthy of that many people watching it — that’s a hard thing to do.
After working with Jim James and M. Ward on Monsters of Folk, do you have any plans to get involved in any more collaborations?
I’m always open to it. I don’t have anything that’s necessarily planned at this point, but we’ve always talked about doing more things — Monsters, that is — together, which I would welcome, very much so. But yeah, I think it’s one of those things where it’s hard to plan out with a lot of people. I get the question a lot, ‘If you could work with anyone, who would it be?’ That’s a tough thing for me. A lot of the things that you think might work don’t and vice versa. I think it’s more about personal connection between the people. Being a musician, you meet someone and you become friends, and so the next natural step to consummate the relationship, if you will, I think is to play music together. It always kind of happens like that, and if I’m making new friends, that’s more ammunition for collaboration.
I know you’ve been touring with Jenny and Johnny, have you been playing with them at all?
I haven’t played with them recently but they are two of my best friends. We’ve played music together over the years in private many times. That would be fun to do something more structured with them someday.
So at Reverb we have this segment called “Long and Winding Road” where we ask about albums that have influenced you throughout your life. So there’s three parts — what was your favorite album when you were 13?
It’s hard to sum it up entirely, but I would say that one of them would have to be this guy named Simon Joyner from Omaha. The record’s called ‘Room Temperature.’ I loved that album when I was 13. He’s an amazing lyricist.
What about at 21?
21…that was 2001? Let’s think. I’ll keep it kind of homegrown and say around that time or maybe the year before Cursive released an album called ‘Domestica’ which I was very into at the time.
Then what would you say is your current favorite album?
Current favorite…I really have been enjoying that Kurt Vile album, ‘Smoke Ring for My Halo.’ So good. That’s been on pretty much constant rotation since it came out, so I’d have to say that one. I saw him play here in New York a month or so ago and it was awesome.
I know you’ve cited Leonard Cohen, Marc Bolan, and Elliott Smith amongst others as influences, but who would you say is your biggest non-musical influence?
Woody Allen. Totally. He’s my favorite filmmaker and I think he’s just one of the greatest writers, certainly alive and maybe of the last century.
If you ever decide to retire from music and you could do any other profession, what would it be?
Maybe like a zookeeper or something like that. I really like animals. It’d be fun to swim with dolphins, train a lion, stuff like that.
Last question. The rapture is Saturday (or was, when this interview took place) — Are you ready?[Laughs] It’s already here, right? The 21st. I was all prepared for the 2012 one, so this one snuck up on me. I was going to go down to the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico to wait out the 2012 Mayan calendar thing, but if it’s this Saturday, I guess I’ll be driving back from Delaware. I’ll be on some brutal turnpike on the east coast when the clock freezes. I’m going down to play this radio thing tomorrow and coming back Saturday so I guess I’ll be at a weird truck stop or something.
Bright Eyes plays the Fillmore Auditorium on Sunday, June 5. The date is rescheduled from Friday, June 3. Tickets, $44.70, are available through LiveNation.com.
Paul Custer is a Denver-based writer and regular contributor to Reverb.