Conor Oberst and company reinvent themselves once again

Could Bright Eyes be doomed? Rumors of the indie-rock powerhouse’s demise spread like wildfire when frontman Conor Oberst said in an interview that he had been thinking about bringing the band to an end. But fans can relax—for now, at least. “I was probably feeling that way that day,” he says. “But we’re just focused on getting the new record out and doing the tour. That’s going to take most of the next year—after that, we’ll see what happens.”

It’s not as though Oberst is lacking for outside opportunities. Since Bright Eyes’ 2007 release, Cassadaga, the Nebraska native has released two albums under his own name (most recently 2009’s Outer South, backed by the Mystic Valley Band), collaborated with Jim James and M. Ward in the Monsters of Folk and built a recording studio in Omaha, where Bright Eyes recorded its latest, The People’s Key. Oberst and Bright Eyes partners Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott (the only other permanent members) enjoyed the leisurely pace that working in their own studio afforded. “The only pressure or deadlines we had were self-imposed,” Oberst says. “Just being able to take time and revisit ideas let us be on our own planet for a little while.”

Previous transmissions from Planet Bright Eyes have included 2002’s acclaimed folk-rock collection, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, and 2005’s less acclaimed dalliance in electronica, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. For The People’s Key, the band paid particular attention to building songs around outlines Oberst had written. He spoke with us about creative process, embracing ’80s synths and the role of politics in songwriting.

What defines a Bright Eyes song?

Songs need to fit the album, but I don’t categorize them as solo songs or Bright Eyes songs. One thing I’m proud of with the band is that we’ve always managed to change. Some of it’s the songwriting, more is about arranging and, stylistically, trying to make different-sounding records—staying interested in what we’re doing, not just repeating ourselves or painting by numbers. This batch of songs reflects my interests at the time I was writing them.

When were these songs written?

They were written over the last year and a half, and it’s different than other records in that there wasn’t tons of material. We focused on revising and editing. We really wanted to make a record that was concise and tied together. We’re slightly old-fashioned in that we still believe in making an album somebody will sit down and listen to as a piece of music. I know that’s not common these days, but that’s still our intention. This record is hopefully something that is enjoyable to spend 45 minutes with.

Did your other projects influence you?

A lot of whatever I’m doing at the time is a reaction against what I’ve just done. The Mystic Valley Band has a good-time live feel, and there are a lot of songs about seeing the world through a windshield. That’s cool, but I knew I didn’t want this to be that. I was looking for a new language, in a way. Lyrically speaking, it’s more coded and opaque than some of my more narrative songs.

How did the sound develop?

It took a while. I had more of a sense at first of what I didn’t want. I wanted to steer clear of any kind of Americana- or folk- or country-driven sound. I felt burned out on that. On folk and country songs, there’s this circular quality to the melodies, where they come back around and start and end the same way. This time I wanted to color with a different palette, I wanted more pop melodies. So we dove in and made some aesthetic choices right away, like we’re going to use analog ’80s synths, which gives you a certain color—but we didn’t want it to sound like a retro album. We were trying to find something that maintained the essence of our band and worked with the songs, but also was new to us. It took a while to arrive at that balance, and I think we eventually got there.

How much did the songs evolve?

A lot. “Triple Spiral,” for example, started off like a straightforward Pixies or Frank Black rock song. It still retains some of that, and we lived with that version for a while. But as we were sequencing the record, there were disagreements over what songs should go on it. My goal was to have it fit on one piece of vinyl—which tops at about 45 minutes—and that was one song some of us didn’t think fit with the others. It was too normal-sounding. At the 11th hour, we started trying to make it more expansive or trippy. We put delay on the clap track so it doesn’t sound like claps anymore, and our friend Laura Burhenn sang a bunch of harmonies—and that was the magic dust we needed for it to stay on the record.

Were there a lot of those revisions?

Working with a batch of songs for nine months, you go through phases where you’re not as into things. We’d go to our corners, listen to the works in progress and get back together. Mike would want to change the drums on something, or Nate would want to redo all his keyboards on a song and have a whole new melodic motif. I don’t know what made them feel that way, but I tried to give everyone time and space to follow their ideas to their conclusions.

What did your guests bring to it?

This record, more than any of our others, was very insulated. Most of what you hear was recorded by Mike, Nate, me and our friend Andy LeMaster, who sang and helped engineer it. He was a big part of the record. Everyone else—not to diminish their roles—but they were kind of in and out. It was like, “OK, come play the drums, come play the bass,” and the songs were often in pieces. It was like having an actor come in and do their scene when they don’t know what the movie is about. They did a great job, and we couldn’t have done it without them, but there was a little mystery about what exactly was going on.

Is this a political record?

It’s probably a subtext to all the music I make, because it’s hard to divorce yourself from the world entirely. I don’t think there’s anything overtly political on this album except for a humanist stance—that we should try to see ourselves in each other, we’re all one, and all these ideas of division are illusions. That could be seen as a political statement, I suppose, but to me it’s just common sense.

–Eric R. Danton

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