At 27, Conor Oberst no longer has to become anybody else. He isn't Bob Dylan. He's no savior. He's a folk singer and an adult in a world that has plenty of both. With six full-length recordings under the moniker Bright Eyes—starting almost 10 years ago with the warbly, hiss-filled oddity Letting Off The Happiness and continuing through this year's mostly brilliant Cassadaga—Oberst effectively dealt with the early genius-baiting idolatry of critics and fans alike, coming out on the other side with something solid intact. He's doing the quiet work of a traveling songwriter these days.
That makes people restless. At a largely triumphant orchestral performance at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic this fall, someone up front shouted, "C'mon, Conor! You can do better!" Scowling, Oberst carefully made his way through the maze of monitors to douse the heckler with spring water. Only minutes later, a female fan yelled, "I want to fuck you!"
Precisely in the middle of this polarized nonsense, Oberst works on becoming a better songwriter. He's an unapologetic idealist and a thoughtful music fan who just wants to write songs. The A.V. Club recently spoke to him about the current state of Bright Eyes.
The A.V. Club: Some people predicted that Cassadaga would be your big crossover. Has being on your own label taken you as far as you can go?
Conor Oberst: I don't even know any more. Obviously, Saddle Creek has grown and grown and grown and become its own thing, and I have less to do with it as an entity on a day-to-day basis. I'm pretty much just a band on the label at this point. I try not to think about the idea of reaching more and more people, because once you get in that mindset, I think you lose the point of why you're doing it in the first place. Still, the best feeling I ever get is when I finish a song, and it exists, and it didn't exist before, and now it's there, and it makes me feel a certain way. That's kind of it, and everything after that, from the recording to the releasing to the performing—those are all interesting in their own ways, and challenging, but I guess it's not where my passion lies. Just the writing of the song—it's still when I feel the best, really, ever, is when I have a new song. So I try to always just remember that. I've been part of running a label since I was a kid, so I understand how it works. But the more and more I learn about it, the less and less interested I am in it.
When you look at what people consider success in the music industry, it's just terrible music. In a way, to have whatever people talk about as "crossover success," I think it means you start making bad music. I mean, when I'm flipping through the channels and see the VMAs or something, I don't really see any music there. I see TV personalities. Which is fine, it's entertainment, fair enough. But it doesn't seem to have much to do with what I consider actual music, what I want to listen to. I want to be enriched by the music I listen to. That's the reason it never really exists in the mainstream. Because that's not what most people are after. I think they're after entertainment. I think truly, most people want to see Britney Spears look foolish on TV, and they get a kick out of it. But if they were to, I don't know, watch John Prine play a song or something, it wouldn't do much for them. So I guess it's just whatever you're into.
AVC: Do you feel as scrutinized as you once were, or have you reached an age where it seems like you can be taken on your own terms?
CO: Honestly, I don't know. I've given up trying to understand what people think about me. It seems like a lot of people don't like the music we make and don't know me, or something. It's always the negative things that seep through into your consciousness. Most of the positive things just roll off real fast. I just try not to pay attention to it, because I've never read anything about my band that's accurate. It's either totally glorified and exaggerated, or it's completely malicious and sounds like it was written by someone who never even listened to the music. And so at that point, what can you do? There's nothing for me there. It makes me feel self-conscious, whether it's nice or terrible.
AVC: Do compliments from fans make you uncomfortable?
CO: No. When I run into a person or a kid that comes up and gives me the spiel about, "Hey, I got your record at this time in my life, and it really helped me," that stuff totally still rings true. If you're standing there talking to someone, it's really easy to tell if they're being authentic or not. And that's great. That's the reason to share music. Art is essentially communication. It doesn't exist in a vacuum. That's why people make art, so other people can relate to it. That's just part of the deal. But from where I'm standing, putting it out there, I'm kind of shooting it down this wire, and I have no idea who's on the other side of it. I just hope that it gets to them intact, and that maybe someone, somewhere, it makes them feel better, or makes them feel something. That's as much as I can do, I guess. And beyond that, it's like, try to have fun and do things that I'm interested in, and that sound cool to me. And maybe people will relate to it.
AVC: You're an idealist even when it comes to sharing music instead of selling records. When you started your other label, Team Love, you began by offering all the music free online. Did that turn out to be a bad business model?
CO: No, we're actually still doing it. We leave it up to the bands. There's been a couple of releases where the band didn't want to put their whole record up, so obviously, we don't force them to. We just put a stream up or a certain number of songs. But most of the records are still available. You can either click on one button to pay for the download, or you can click on the other button to get it for free, with an explanation to the user that, "Hey, we're trying to pay these artists for their music." Because at the end of the day, if they want to find it for free, you can pretty much find it for free. But I think if you put it in front of them, "Here's one choice, here's the other choice," kind of the honor system, hopefully it works. If there's ever a kid out there that can't afford to buy the music, I still want them to hear it, and hopefully they'll go to the show, or buy a T-shirt from the band. That's the idea. I don't think it works for everyone on all levels, but for the bands we work with, because of the size they are, I think any exposure helps.
AVC: You put a lot of care into making cohesive albums, especially with Cassadaga. But someone who is 5 years old right now might never know what an album is. Are you ever worried that albums might become extinct?
CO: It is a little sad to me, just because I really like that art form. I like the length of it, and I like the look of it. I still prefer to buy my music as much as possible on vinyl, and that's what I listen to at my house. That's just what I grew up buying and listening to, and that's what I associate with music, and that's where it sounds the best to me. I like watching it spin around, and there's something romantic about it to me. It's sad to think that not everyone will experience that. But I'm sure that the horse and buggy was romantic to someone, and they eventually had to say goodbye to it. I think it keeps moving, and if you never had it, you probably won't know to miss it. But I do think it's become such a specific art form, making an album, and now the possibilities are wide open, the length—because the whole idea of it was dictated by how much music could fit on a piece of plastic, basically. Now that there's not that physical space required, it really opens the doors for all kinds of things. Hopefully, new creative styles of albums will emerge, and people will make the most of the technology. But I guess I'm still, whatever, old-fashioned.
AVC: It wasn't that long ago when people were saying that about CDs, that they'd change how we define what an album is.
CO: It's definitely strange. I believe that vinyl will outlast CDs. There's already no reason for it, but it stays around because there are still people that want them. I guess audiophiles and people like that will continue to want vinyl. But the CD, I don't know how much longer that's gonna be around.
AVC: Flipping through an iPod doesn't make you want to listen to one record more than another one. Everything is the same, as opposed to a stack of records, where one feels and smells older than another one, or is heavier and has more artwork.
CO: It's also scary to me, just because I'm not the most technically savvy person in the world. Like, I'm not good at troubleshooting when stuff happens to my digital music. One day I went to my iPod, and there was just no music on it. It was completely gone. I just bought a new iPod and started over, but I didn't have that stuff saved on some hard drive, you know? Just random things I'd accumulated on my iPod, and what do you do at that point? There's some reassurance in having some type of physical thing you can go back to.
AVC: Plus, holding an album makes listening to it seem like more of an event. Like you're holding a program, a guide or something.
CO: Yeah, and what do you roll your joint from?
AVC: Do you regret releasing I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash In A Digital Urn simultaneously? It seemed like some people felt one was the "real" one, and the other one was an experiment.
CO: I don't regret it. A lot of times, I'm frustrated with the pace of the music industry, what people expect. Okay, you make a record, turn it in, the publicists and the label need four months to arrange everything, and then it comes out, and you gotta tour it. There's this whole sort of mechanism to it. It doesn't really compute with the creative process, which is like, "Hey, I wrote a song today, I'm excited about it today. I want people to hear it." And by the time people hear something, you're almost not excited about it any more. There are new songs, you're on to something else. There's just such a delay in the way it goes, it's hard to plan it out the best, where people will understand it. I just keep putting it out. But I will say that my favorite kind of records are the ones that unfold slowly and kind of peel away layers, and you can listen to them a lot of times and keep getting things out of them. If that's the way it is with our music, I'd be happy. A lot of times, you hear something and it sounds great. And you play the shit out of it for a couple weeks, and then you never want to listen to it again.
AVC: Some of my favorite records ever, I hated at first.
CO: I think that can be great. And it's also good to hear something you don't expect, and to have to open your mind up. It leads you to something else that you would never have heard. That's happened to me a lot of times. That's exciting: the discovery.
AVC: Is being an outspoken folksinger as effective as it used to be? Is it a vehicle for change, or is it just frustrating?
CO: It's totally frustrating. I understand why people get desensitized and roll their eyes when they hear a protest song, or even a politician making some flowery speech. It doesn't really change anything. Maybe you might get into someone's mind, and they might start thinking differently. But just as a country, as a civilization, we are so entrenched in this thing that in order to make any kind of real change—whether it's environmentally, or socially, the way we interact with poor people in America, or the way we interact with other countries around the world—to make those changes, to where I would see an equilibrium where there might be peace and prosperity for all In order for that to really happen, the changes would be so drastic that no one would want to do it. Absolutely no one. Maybe I wouldn't even want to do it. I guess I am an idealist in a lot of ways. I believe that people have the capacity to be as good as they can be to one another, but when it comes down to it, would I want to live like that? I don't know. I'm a fucking American, you know? I like my convenience. Like all the shit that I talk about giving up, would I really give it up? Who knows? And I think that's the crux of it all. There's the theory of change, and then there's actual change. And there's such a huge divide between those two. I hate to be defeatist about it, but right now, I don't see there being any answers other than complete and utter revolution, which people really don't want.
AVC: Are you happy with where you are, with who you are? Or is it day-to-day?
CO: I'm definitely in the day-by-day category. I feel like a lot of things are changing and rearranging right now, for everyone I know, especially personally and musically and everything else. I guess I've got that healthy mixture of excitement and fear, you know, to see what happens next.