Conor Oberst released his first album in 1994 at the age of 14, as lead singer and guitarist of the Omaha, Nebraska indie-punk group Commander Venus. He and his friends formed their own label, Saddle Creek, to release the record, and during the last nine years, Saddle Creek and Omaha have become the center of a rock movement. Though often lumped in with emo bands, Oberst and his Omaha peers have an even less definable style, though they draw from the same sources: the DIY ethos and refined aggression of '80s D.C. punk, and the diary-like openness of '90s indie rock. Fellow Commander Venus veterans Tim Kasher and Matt Bowen have carried the flag into such musically diverse acts as Cursive, The Good Life, and The Faint, but it was Oberst who became Omaha's semi-reluctant figurehead. Since taking on the moniker Bright Eyes, Oberst has written and recorded increasingly complicated, confessional folk songs, to which he's added elaborate orchestration. Last year, he wowed critics and fans with Bright Eyes' most accomplished record, Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, as well as embarking on a new project with the noisier, more political Desaparecidos, which released its incendiary debut Read Music/Speak Spanish in 2002. Recently, Oberst spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about growing up in public, Midwestern pride, and how a recreational pastime became a full-time job.
The Onion: Do you feel any sense of urgency or pressure to follow up two well-received records?
Conor Oberst: Sure, it affects me. I try to keep the idea that there's an audience in as little space in my mind as possible, but you can't erase it entirely, the idea that when you're sitting down to write a song, people are going to hear it. No matter which way it falls, whether people praise or criticize, it's only going to make me more self-conscious. One way of dealing with that is to write about it. Writing in general gives me clarity. Even on Lifted, there's some writing about there being an audience. If you can't avoid it, you can write about it.
O: The most recent Cursive album, The Ugly Organ, is the same way: A lot of the songs are reactions to reactions to previous Cursive songs. Do you guys worry about how far you can go with that kind of reflective self-analysis?
CO: Yeah, actually, Tim Kasher and I have talked about that, like, "No more writing songs about writing songs." [Laughs.] But at the end of the day, I don't have much say over what I write. I can throw something away if I don't think it's good, but there's not a lot of premeditation about "I want to write a love song today," or "I want to write a song about the music industry today." Whatever gets written is just… how it comes out. And I want to keep it that way. If that means writing about the same topics for a while until I find myself caring about something else, then I guess I'll just have to do that.
O: When you use the word "I" in either a Desaparecidos song or a Bright Eyes song, is the "I" always you?
CO: No, not at all, actually. Pronouns are weird. "You" and "I" interchange a lot in my songs, and I don't necessarily feel the need to keep it consistent. All the songs have a logical thread through them in my mind. Maybe it's not always apparent to the listener, but that doesn't bother me too much.
O: What about the fans who write you letters about how your songs reflect their own experiences? Are they misidentifying?
CO: Well, it all comes from me. I'll write about myself, or people I know, or archetypal characters, but the goal is to get at some truth, not to necessarily convey my own experience as an individual to the world.
O: Most musicians get to knock around for several years in the club scene before putting a record out, but you've been putting records out since you were in your teens. Do you ever wish you could go back and erase that early stuff?
CO: [Laughs.] Yes. Definitely. It's weird, because almost all of my first songs are out there. Granted, they're on a 300-copy cassette tape released extremely locally… Not even the city of Omaha, but a part of the city of Omaha. Nonetheless, my friends still have those tapes. And when I started singing and playing, I didn't know much. I still don't know much about music, but I knew very little then. Didn't know how to sing or play guitar. I basically just jumped right in and started doing it all the time. And yet the whole process is documented, for the past 10 years. It's pretty embarrassing. [Laughs.] But on the other hand, it's like, "Well, got nothing to hide," you know?
O: If you could do it over, what would be your debut album?
CO: Probably the last Bright Eyes record.
CO: Yeah. [Laughs.] I don't know. I kind of love 'em and hate 'em all, all the same.
O: Was there much of an Omaha scene before you and your friends started playing around?
CO: Yeah, there were always bands growing up. It wasn't called indie rock back then. Punk rock, I guess. There were always kids putting on shows, but it was pretty contained within the city. Not many bands broke out and started touring. There was a band called Mousetrap, long-forgotten by most people, but they put out a couple of records and toured. I thought they were really great. But Omaha is a hard place to get out of. It's pretty isolated. Minneapolis is six hours, Chicago's eight. We did play a lot in Lawrence, Kansas, which is only like three hours away. We used to go to shows a lot there, too… Because of the university, they'd get some good shows that would pass us up. But to get to either L.A. or New York, you were in the car for a long time.
O: How did you make the transition from making music as a hobby to doing it professionally?
CO: It was a real gradual thing. We put out a lot of records, with not very much touring, in my old band Commander Venus. We toured when I was still in high school, so we would tour in the summer. In my second year of college, I had already released the first two Bright Eyes records, was about to put out Fevers And Mirrors, and we had a chance to go on a tour that was basically right in the middle of the school year. For the music we play, college radio is a big part of it, so it makes the most sense to tour while school is in session. I remember having to quit school and quit my job. I just sort of moved all my stuff into other people's places. Within like six months, I was able to earn enough money from touring to rent a place again. From that standpoint, it's just gotten better, selling more records and playing better shows. So it was gradual, but I do remember a slight panic right when I did all that.
O: Do you want to go back to college someday?
CO: Well, in theory, I always think I should totally go back to school, because I don't want to start sinking slowly… I want to learn, blah blah blah. Then I think about actually going and sitting in classes and, man, it sounds terrible. [Laughs.] Sometimes I romanticize it a little bit, but then I snap out of it.
O: What were you studying before you dropped out?
CO: I guess I was an English major. It was real early, just the first three semesters, so I'd only had core classes and the bullshit you have to do. I guess I didn't get to find what I wanted to do exactly. I'm sure it would've been somewhere in that world of English or literature or writing.
O: What would you have done with that?
CO: I don't know. Besides writing, which would be another dream job. I used to work at a school as a teacher's assistant, and my mom is a principal at an elementary school. I don't know, I think that's a pretty good life, teaching kids. You can go home feeling good about yourself, I think.
O: Do you read a lot?
CO: I do. I kind of go in waves with reading. Sometimes I read all the time, and sometimes I can't get settled enough to focus.
O: What's in your book pile right now?
CO: Let's see, what's in my bag? I've been reading A Confederacy Of Dunces for the first time. Someone gave me a book… God, what's it called? It was like The Life Of… something. It was some bestseller. An airport book. [Laughs.]
O: I ask because on Read Music/Speak Spanish, you offer fairly strong political and social comment, and I wonder if you ever feel underqualified to deal with those broader subjects?
CO: To critique? I guess I don't. I mean, it's not like going around and lecturing, or anything like that. At the end of the day, it's still a rock song, and although of course I would like people to take in what I'm singing about, it's also okay just to hear it as a rock song. I don't think the message has to be the entire point. I also feel that I'm singing a lot about people living in the modern world, so the language is very plain. You want it to be articulate in its own way, but the medium is a three-minute pop song with distorted guitars. A certain style of language is going to prevail.
O: That record is raw and angry, but it's also got a lot of empathy for its subjects.
CO: Yeah, I didn't want it to come across as preachy so much as, like, examining the people that I see around me. A lot of it was about Omaha, where I'm from, and the patterns in people's lives that I see.
O: Have you lived in the Midwest all your life?
CO: Yep. Born and raised in Omaha.
O: Do you see yourself moving away at any point?
CO: Well, I have an apartment in New York City, but I also have my place in Omaha, so I kind of did the half-move.
O: When you were a kid, did you fantasize about moving out to the coasts, or overseas?
CO: I guess there were some moments when I was growing up where I was like, "I want to get the fuck out of here," you know? But I was consumed with my little group of friends and making music, and I really liked the environment there. It's a little different now–;everyone's older and really busy–;but it's still pretty great in Omaha.
O: As Bright Eyes, why are you attracted to that big, orchestrated sound? Does it come from any kind of music that you gravitated to in your pre-music-making days?
CO: The first music I ever got into was the '80s alternative bands that my brother listened to, like The Cure and The Smiths and R.E.M. and Fugazi. I can remember specifically saying The Cure was my favorite band back in second grade. Just because I thought my older brother was really cool. I think the songs I write are so simple and so basic that I try and employ different styles of instrumentation and recording techniques to give each song its own identity. You can do a lot to shape the feeling of a song by the way you record it. It's always been my view that the more different things you can try, the better.
O: Does running a record label affect how you hear music? Are you always on the lookout for new prospects?
CO: I mostly listen to older records now, but I'm always wanting to hear new music. I listen to a lot of '60s and '70s songwriter-type stuff, but not exclusively. The label is interesting because we don't have an A&R department. The bands are our A&R. They go on tour and meet other bands, and kids give us demos. We meet a lot of bands, see a lot of shows, whatever. Although we haven't really signed a lot of bands outside our group of friends. The only band that we didn't know at all before we asked to put out their records was Rilo Kiley, the L.A. band. And that happened because Tim Kasher's band The Good Life was on tour with Rilo Kiley, and they were like, "Man, these guys are awesome." It was real natural, like, "These guys can be in the crew for sure."
O: Is the club exclusive? How big do you want to get?
CO: It's strange. We talk about that, and we still haven't really… We don't know. Robb Nansel, my friend who really runs the label, he's hesitant to have it get too big, and I totally appreciate that. There's a lot of records that I want to put out that we don't end up putting out, because even if he thinks it's good, he has this real… I don't know what his problem is. [Laughs.] He's really careful, and that's a good thing, but I hope the personalities balance each other out so that we make the right decisions.
O: Are there any musicians that you would fawn over if you had the chance? Anyone you'd really like to meet?
CO: I'd love to meet Leonard Cohen. I'd love to meet Paul Simon. I'd love to meet Elvis Costello. I don't know. Tom Waits. There's some older bros that would be cool to meet. Neil Young. I'd love to meet Neil Young. That would be rad. [Laughs.]
O: What would you say to those guys?
CO: I don't know. I'd probably just sit there, you know?
O: Would it make you feel good to know that they'd heard of you?
CO: Yeah, I guess if they liked it, I'd feel good. [Laughs.] If they just heard of me and didn't like it, I'd feel kinda bad.