An Interview With The People’s Band…
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…
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?
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…
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.
30 August 2010
Interview With Zach Condon, of Beirut, For Dazed Digital (Musical)
Accordians at the ready, we’re off to Poland – but probably not Lebanon…
Having changed the way the world thinks about the ukulele forever, Zach Condon and the rest of Beirut have earned their places among the greatest musical innovators of our generation. Shoulder to shoulder with The Shins and Arcade Fire, Beirut can stand proud for having given something new and interesting to music. But what does the unassuming twenty-something year old from Santa Fey have to say about his European style and his Global success?
Dazed Digital: Things have really taken off for you in the last few years, Zach; since 2006, your solo project has become a full on band playing shows and big-name festivals around the world – did you ever think it would pan out this way?
Zach Condon: I suppose some of it was luck and a few good people helping me out at the right time…it is interesting though, to think back when I was frustrated by the thought of trying to work my way up in the music business piece by piece. Interesting because there was never a
question in my mind of pursuing another career. I was a pretty stubborn teenager…
DD: So: you’re an American from Santa Fey, but we know you best for producing a
sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a street corner in Vienna or somewhere in the Mediterranean – it’s kind of surreal when you stop to think about it. What’s the story behind that? Where did that all come from?
Zach Condon: I read a quote from a band I liked many years ago, I’ve forgotten who; the quote was something along the lines of “we’re trying to make the music that we wish was already out there to be listening to.” as in, they were filling some sort of void in sound combinations and ideas. I like that thought. I’m trying to justify the world of music that I love with my simpler sense of a great “pop” tune, and filling a void in the process. Hopefully. And yes, I’m obsessed with Mediterranean music. Greek rebetiko, Sicilian brass funeral music…. the list goes on.
DD: I read once that you bought your ukulele as a comedy prop – is there any truth to that?
Zach Condon: There is truth to that…
DD: How did it go from being a joke to being part of the sound we think of when we hear the name ‘Beirut’?
Zach Condon: I thought it was a silly little guitar – a novelty. But within a week I was practically bringing it to bed with me just to be near it. You can choose to use an instrument in the fashion it may be most famous for, but banjos don’t have to sound Appalachian, and ukulele’s don’t need to sound I dunno, islandy? And when i found that out it changed every instrument I ever touched.
DD: Beirut are playing all over the world these days – it’s kind of a loaded question, but where do you get the most satisfaction from playing?
Zach Condon: I’m a Francophile, so I get certain sense of pride playing in prestigious Parisian venues.
DD: I’d imagine you go down pretty well in Eastern Europe…
Zach Condon: Playing in a circus tent in Poznan Poland was fucking transcendental. And Brazilians are not shy about enjoying live music. T’was beautifully insane.
DD: Do people ‘get it’ so much back home?
Zach Condon: Sure… I suppose there’s a heavy allegiance to the guitar and “rock” in the states but that hasn’t stopped people from embracing us here as well.
DD: You’re playing a lot of festivals this year, and I imagine you’re music’s quite suited to open air, but I also get the feeling that the intimate shows like Blogotheque are where you really get your kicks?
Zach Condon: True- we do love our odd little acoustic shows. The instruments we love are supposed to be kind of intimate and amplified at least historically… I remember a PA system blew out during one of our first shows ever in Brooklyn, and we just stared at each other for a moment and carried on without the wires and it felt right. Pure.
DD: The whole Blogotheque thing has become kind of a phenomenon – they’ve had bands like The Shins and Arcade Fire do shows for them in some of the oddest settings imaginable. I even think I remember Grizzly Bear playing Shift in a bathtub – what was that whole experience like? Who approached who?
Zach Condon: Chryde (Christophe Abric) found me a long time ago and we had traded emails for a year before we finally did a take away show. Again, the set up and adaptation worked very well with our band and we all became friends. Chryde is now a good drinking buddy of mine and it was fun to let our hair down and do something weird and beautiful in the streets of Paris and Brooklyn. And they’re (la blogotheque) pushy in a way that makes you try things you normally wouldn’t go for.
DD: We’re a year on from your last release now and you’re touring pretty extensively – is this a pre-cursor to a new release or one of those dreaded pre-hibernation tours?
Zach Condon: Its a pre cursor for the most part, I’ve been writing over the winter but don’t want to release the next full album until I’m good and ready for what that entails. We’ll play you some new songs in the meantime.
DD: I’m curious – out of all the names of all the cities you could have chosen, why ‘Beirut’? What does it mean to you?
Zach Condon: Hmm…I almost went with Bilbao…and Pompeii was a runner up as well. Beirut stuck with the intensity that comes along with the name and the history. I feel like I come from a family of storytellers and the name is just another tall tale I’m adding to my story. After all- I’ve never been to Lebanon….
30 August 2010
Interview With Sage Francis For Dazed Digital (Musical)
Little late in posting this one, but still totally relevant…
It’s an unassuming basement, down two flights of fire escape, where I sit down (sopping wet) with heavily bearded indie-rap pioneer Sage Francis; he’s fresh off a full US tour and a brand new album but these modest surroundings are to play host to his uniquely incomparable style for tonight’s sold out show at The CAMP. Something of a rap-renegade, Francis’s new album is as tinged with country as it is with hip-hop – it’s not your typical record and Sage Francis isn’t your typical rapper – after a thirty minute taxi ride, less than two hours before the show, he talks to Dazed Digital about LI(F)E, his schoolboy infatuation with a certain French composer and the rumours these could be his last efforts as a performer.
Dazed Digital: Your new album’s just come out and it’s pretty different to anything else out there that’s tagged as being rap – now it’s out there how do you feel about it? Is it everything you wanted it to be?
Sage Francis: No, but I’m never happy – not with this stuff anyway. I don’t think I’ve set out to make my masterpiece and achieved it with this record. There’s really a lot going on, production wise, and when I do it again I’ll probably change that and go for a more stripped back sound. If I do it again…
DD: Yeah, I read that at the end of one of your US tour shows, I think it was Chicago, you announced (and I hate to use the dreaded H word) that you’re going on hiatus?
Sage Francis: Every show; I said it at every show. I’ll say it after this show. There’s going to be one more European tour and one more Australian tour.
DD: You’re back here in September for that, right?
Sage Francis: Yeah, September. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that just disappears without saying anything, but I didn’t want to do a press release or anything like that either – I just wanted it to be between me and my fans. They’re the ones who I need to tell. But, yeah, after this that’s going to be it for a long time.
DD: Why now?
Sage Francis: I’ve been a road dog for ten years now – that’s been my life. It’s not a bad life, but I just want to take a step back; I remember when I used to write music just because I loved it – there’s a lot more to it than that for me now and, at the moment, I don’t need to do this any more – I’m comfortable. If I really wanted to, I could pack up and sail the world.
DD: You’ve got your own label (Strange Famous) – is that something you’re going to work more on now that you’re not going to be doing your own thing so much?
Sage Francis: I’ve worked so much on it already. I don’t think there’s much more I can put in to it right now. Really, I want to cut down the eighty-hour weeks I’m doing right now, take a step back from all of it and let some of the other people who work on Strange Famous take charge. It’ll always be my baby and it’s already changed so much from what it was intended to be, but it’s the business side of music I’m actually frustrated with. It’s a difficult time for the music industry in all respects and I don’t want to be responsible for people not getting paid or anything like that.
DD: Yeah, I read about your video being taken down from YouTube?
Sage Francis: That’s a whole other business thing. That wasn’t even about me. That was some discrepancy between Epitaph and Anti, who I’m on; I just wanted the video to be up there. Apparently they get money every time the video gets played, which I wasn’t aware of, but if they kept it up we could’ve just used it to sell some fucking records and make everybody happy. I think I’ll study law and just become an entertainment lawyer…
DD: You’ve changed a lot of people’s perceptions of rap music by putting your words over music that kind of leans more toward indie or folk than hip-hop. Was that a conscious thing, I mean, do you want to show people that you’re capable of more than just fitting in with something that’s already so established or did it just kind of evolve that way?
Sage Francis: That’s definitely something I wanted to achieve. It’s not a sound I worked to cultivate as such – but it just sort of happened. I’ve done the straight up rap – I did it for years. I get a lot of people say to me ‘Man, I wish you’d do this kind of song more’ and I’m like ‘I’ve already done that, a lot’. Because I’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of great and really different composers, especially on this new record, it shows in the music.
DD: That’s right – it’s Yann Tiersen’s composition on The Best of Times, isn’t it? That probably surprised a lot of people. Did you always know that collaboration would work out?
Sage Francis: Did I know it would work? I never really thought it’d happen. I never listened to a Yann Tiersen song and thought ‘Fuck, I should sample this in one of my songs’. It was something totally separate and I didn’t want to…pollute it. I definitely never thought Yann would compose anything for me so it never crossed my mind. But when he sent through the music to me I knew I could do something with it.
DD: You’re a big Yann Tiersen fan, then?
Sage Francis: Definitely. I actually got to see him perform live and was lucky enough to have him play violin on one of my songs too. I was a total fanboy though, I actually got him to autograph loads of stuff for my girlfriend – it’s kind of embarrassing. I even got to go out to dinner with him – he doesn’t speak much English, but he’s a really cool guy.
DD: Thematically, looking at the wider picture, you’re quite alienated from most of mainstream hip-hop – do you think that makes your music harder for people to market?
Sage Francis: I guess it probably does, but I think hip-hop in general is harder to market. The fact that I’m offering something different might make it more marketable in a way. And that’s what I want people to find when they come to Strange Famous – I want them to know what to expect from that label, but what they expect to be something they won’t find somewhere else.
DD: If you took away the music and just showed someone a page of words from songs like ‘Little Houdini’ or ‘The Best of Times’ they could be forgiven for thinking it was a short story…
Sage Francis: Yeah, sure, those two work on paper definitely. But I’m a rapper – I never thought any of my songs would work on paper – I always thought you’d really have to hear how I say the words for them to make sense. But those two would work as stories. Well, Little Houdini is the only story – Best of Times is just a stupid poem. It’s a confession. And I don’t think I’m the best writer, but my writing has always been my strength.
DD: So, it’s the words that come first with you then the music comes later?
Sage Francis: Not always…and it definitely didn’t used to be that way. It just happens the way it happens, though. Like I said with Yann’s composition; sometimes you just have a piece of music and you know you can do something with it – but whatever that is comes naturally.
DD: I read that ‘The Best of Times’ is basically a recollection of your own childhood memories – was it hard at all making those so public?
Sage Francis: No, it wasn’t hard at all – I’ve put much worse stuff out there in my career. Much worse. It was kind of embarrassing, though. These moments from my childhood always seemed so trivial; too trivial to write a song about and too self-serving. Maybe they still are, you know? But they’re out there now.
DD: A couple of tracks on life and some from the past are more like a spoken word track than a rap – what do you think of yourself as being fore mostly? A rapper, a spoken word performer or a poet?
Sage Francis: I’m definitely a rapper. I always have been. It’s my craft. I mean, I won’t get upset if someone tells me that I’m not a rapper – I used to – that was my identity. These days I’ve lost all sense of identity…
18 June 2010
Free Track from New Album ‘All We Grow’ by S. Carey (of Bon Iver)
As a precursor to his forth coming solo album ‘All We Grow’ S. Carey (Sean Carey of Bon Iver) is issuing a free single track to download. ‘In The Dirt’ is one of the finest songs I’ve heard so far this year and I’m certain that, when the end of the year rolls around, I’ll still be saying that.
You can download ‘In The Dirt’ here.
Full information on the album will be available in Issue One of Alchemy Index Magazine which will be released in early August.