Bright Eyes – An Interview With The People’s Band (Dazed Digital)

February 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

It’s a difficult life for Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, being the flagship band of what’s probably the most respected indie label on the planet; there’s the pretty constant weight of expectation and the inescapable fact that people – least of all music fans – don’t respond well to change. With that in mind, being renowned for your deeply personal brand of brooding lo-fi folk, putting out an album that not only reeks of optimism but is also 99% electric guitar is a bold move. A move that I’m sure not everyone will appreciate. Still, perhaps the rumours of their impending retirement have eased the burden slightly…

Bright Eyes

I caught up with the indie holy trinity (on behalf of Dazed Digital) at the bizarrely plush Landmark Hotel to shoot the breeze about CD sales and sorbet.
(click the link to read the original abbreviated publication).

DAZED DIGITAL: After what I saw on wednesday, you seem at the top of everything, and still seem to be having fun with it…so are you still set on retiring Bright Eyes after this?

Mike Mogis: Wednesday?
Conor Oberst: [to Mike] He was in Nottingham.
Conor: No…probably not. Definitely not. We’re not retiring Bright Eyes. We just say that every tour.
DD: A lot of people do….
Conor: We’re just trying to get the word out…sell a few CD’s.

DD: Has it been working?
Conor: Well, we won’t know until this coming week, you know.
Mike: When we got done mastering the record, Conor said something to the effect of “we’re just starting to get good” – and I do kind of feel that way. As a live band we’re taking ourselves more seriously; we practice more and we’re getting better as musicians; we’re better than last time we toured as Bright Eyes. I think it’d be a shame to stop.
As long as everyone wants to do it we’re going to continue to do it. We’re all good friends, close, we’ve been close for years – it’s comfortable. As long as we can make good music I think we’ll continue to do it, you know?

DD: If this [The People’s Key] had been the last album, would you have been happy to end it on that – was it what you wanted it to be?

Mike: I think in and of it’s self it’s a good…
Conor: [to Mike] Wait, but you just said every album should be your first and last album.
Mike: In and of it’s self it’s encapsulated well, I think. I’d be sad if it were the last album – but that’s more for personal reasons than the content of the album.

DD: People always love to hear the old stuff, but there seemed to be a pretty positive reaction to the new songs when you played them – how do you feel people are receiving it?

Conor: I don’t have a very good idea, you know, ‘cos I don’t get on to any sort of social media at all.
Nate Walcott: They seemed to clap.
Mike: Yeah and people were yelling out new songs, mostly Haile Selassie, both nights.
Conor: I guess there’s always going to be a familiarity factor with the old material.
Mike: Yeah, people cheered songs from Digital Ash that they never cheered on the Digital Ash tour.
Conor: I definitely feel like people tend to like…
Mike: Songs that they know?
Conor: I think they tend to like our albums like two years after they come out…they hate everything we do right when we do it.
Nate: Mystic Valley Band’s gonna take a little longer. People will like that in, like, ten years time.
Conor: Well, no one hated The Valley Band more than The Valley Band…so we had that going for us.

DD: With that in mind, you’ve got a pretty huge back catalogue now – on Wednesday you were playing songs that were older than some members of the audience…

Mike: It’s true, Falling Out of Love, I think you [Conor] were even quite conservative saying that it was 16 years old, because the record came out in ’96. I remember Ted Stevens playing me that song during the first Lullaby recording.
Conor: I think I was like fifteen…sixteen.
Mike: It was on a tape he had when we were recording Blanket Warm which was in 1995 and he had it on a cassette tape – we were driving in his Oldsmobile.
Conor: Are you getting all this?
Mike: It’s not important…it’s his way of saying “Come on, shut up Mike”.

DD: Is there anything you try to avoid playing? I mean, there are things that I wrote when I was 14 or 15 that I wouldn’t be happy with people reading or hearing now…are there things you just don’t want to play?

Conor: Yeah…
DD: You want to keep quiet about that one?
Conor: No, no. I think there are some songs that, you know, stand the test of time better than others for sure.
Mike: When I was preparing for this tour I was listening to all the albums and some of them still… some off Letting Off the Happiness…some of them I can see why you wouldn’t. I mean, they’re good songs but they come from a mind, a mindset, that I don’t feel…
Conor: Still in.
Mike: Like, Pull My Hair. That can still be played today for some reason…it’s kind of fun.
Conor: I think some songs, too, go out of favour; I feel like I’ll get sick of a song for a while and I wont play it then it’ll make kind of a comeback.

DD: In that same sense, you’ve been around for so long now – a lot of your fans have grown up with you. As your records have got more stable and more focused and you’ve got more stable and more focused, they’ve (hopefully) done the same. But there’s always going to be people who hang on to what Bright Eyes was. To them Bright Eyes is like a sort of Peter Pan figure…how do you feel about that? They’re always going to want you to be that…

Conor: Yeah, I feel like there’s an inherent desire from fans of music, and this doesn’t just have to do with our band, I think it’s pretty much across the board. I mean, people resist change; if they like something then they want you to keep doing it over and over again. Which is very, like, kind of short-sighted in my opinion.
Mike: You want to see what they’re going to do next. Take it in a visual art – like a painting or a sculpture. I mean, if they make the same one…
Conor: [to Mike] I feel like that and you feel like that, but I think a lot of people feel like “Oh, I like that, give me more of this certain thing”. There’s this weird time when someone does something that’s on a new record or whatever when there might be…it takes a while to get used to whatever differences there are.
Mike: It takes a little bit of time for fans, not just of us, but of a particular artist, to accept a stylistic change. And, I guess with Bright Eyes, we purposely create change with every record. With our fans they’re either very patient or very forgiving. Very.

DD: You say a stylistic change, but I think it’s been a bit more than that hasn’t it? Since 2005 there’s been a sort of shift – in this new record I hardly heard the word ‘I’ once. It’s gone from being really introspective, and maybe self-indulgent, to being more about things that are going on externally. Was there anything that prompted that…any event? Or just getting older?

Mike: Lyrically speaking, I obviously didn’t write them, but I’m in the band and I listen to them a lot. I think the songs are written from more of a universal perspective on purpose. With the earlier records being a little more confessional and maybe having some autobiographical elements to them, there’s something just more personal about them. This is more open-ended and I think a lot of people respond to that sort of music. When it’s not so cut and dry you can put yourself in to a phrase and take something totally different out of it than anyone else would take and how they would emotively react to that; you can put your personal life and agenda in to this idea or this thought or saying and you get a lot out of it. And, honestly, you can connect with a lot more people that way. I think that that was a conscious choice with this record – to try and draw in more people – it’s a slightly more positive record. We’re trying to spread positivity. That’s not something that we’ve actually thought too much about before. Not in a bad way, because we’re nice people, you know?

DD: You’ve put something out there consistently since 1998, EP’s or albums, and this has probably been the longest we’ve gone without Bright Eyes for a long time. What was it about this record that took longer to write?

Mike: Between Cassadaga and this record Conor:‘s been a part of, and written, three other records.
Nate: I think it was necessary. It wasn’t that it took so long to write this record, but it was necessary.
DD: Do you think it helped – that time apart?
Conor: Have you ever…umm. It’s like…have you ever eaten a really fancy meal that’s like…when they send sixteen courses?
Mike: [to Conor] No…not really. I guess the closest thing would’ve been in Japan?
Conor: Oh, well, if you eat a real fancy expensive meal they send like sixteen courses or whatever – but they’re all just bite-size. And every so often they send a palette cleanser, which is some weird sorbet. I feel like we had to…
Mike: Cleanse the palette?
Conor: Eat some sorbet…in between our duck pâté.
DD: Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk sorbet?
Mike: Monsters of Folk, yup. What did that taste like, Mystic Valley Band sorbet?

DD: This record, I think, you can probably see separately in a lot of ways. It’s much more of a rock record than the others were. I’m sure that’s taken a lot of time to cultivate? I mean, it’s a progression from Cassadaga but it’s completely different to Letting Off the Happiness or Fevers. Have you tried actively to preserve any of what Bright Eyes has been in The People’s Key, or just tried to write a record?

Mike: Not necessarily. But I do remember when we did Beginner’s Mind, we did think about it a little bit…that’s the only song where Conor actually plays acoustic guitar.
Conor: That gave it an old school feel.
Mike: [to Conor] I remember you saying you didn’t want it to sound that good. You said, “make it sound like a 4-track or an 8-track recording” so we used kind of a crappy mic. But that’s the only thing I can think of.

DD: That electric guitar is sort of the first thing you notice. If you listen to the whole album for the first time you really notice that it’s electric most of the way through. When I was listening to it for the first time it sounded like a Metallica riff on Firewall.
Mike: That’s hilarious. [to Conor] That’s what you always called it.
Conor: I feel like I have enough confidence in the sort of essence of our band or, like, the sound that we all make when we get together. I think that we can use whatever instruments and it’s gonna maintain the spirit of the band…the essence of the band. I guess I didn’t worry about it. I definitely didn’t worry about it not sounding like a Bright Eyes record.
Mike: If you listen to Letting Off the Happiness, the production on pull my hair, that particular song, I’d be happy with some of that production aesthetic right now. I was like “Woah, that’s fucked up sounding”.
Conor: I think we always do the best we can with what we have. Or try to do the best we can. I don’t know…it’s funny when people describe, or act like, we’ve moved away from making lo-fi records when we were trying to make as hi-fi records as we possibly could. It’s just we didn’t know what we were doing and we didn’t have any nice shit, so it didn’t sound that good – you know what I mean? It’s not like we were saying “This is cool lo-fi music”. That’s probably the only time, on this one record, where I was like “Try to make it sound shitty”. It’s ridiculous, I think, to want to – in that sense – go back in time…I just think you do the best you can with your interests and what you have at your disposal, as far as equipment and people.

DD: Where are you at now in terms of your interests? You’re doing a lot of stuff like the ACLU show a little while back. You can feel that on this record, I think.

Conor: Umm. Well, I think, you know, that was in response to what was going on in Arizona and also in Nebraska – it’s kind of going on everywhere in America right now. This really, barbaric, shortsighted…
Mike: Backwards?
Conor: Backwards, xenophobic fucking craziness. And that…I find that repulsive and offensive.
DD: It’s kind of coming through here as well…it’s fucked up.
Conor: To me, if there’s a theme in the record, I think it’s the idea that we’re all the same. People try to make it sound like you’re some kind of idealist, a daydreamer, if you think everyone should live together. But I think you’re just practical – I mean, think of all the misery we’d save if we just got over all our stupid hangups. Im not saying we should all sit around in green grass and comb each others hair or anything. Just not murder each other for no reason. Maybe not just exploit every vulnerable segment of the world.

DD: Thanks guys – I’m going to get in the shit if I take up any more of your time. Oh, Conor:, happy birthday for Tuesday and good luck with the album.

Conor: Thanks man, really.

The People’s Key was release on February 14th 2011 – the day of their first London show in three years and one day before Conor’s 30th birthday.

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