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Next Stop Nowhere

I’ll leave behind dull care / I’m going there, and I’ll not be alone…. I’m going back to dear old Omaha–“I Want to Grow With Growing Omaha,”Albert Adair and Julius K. Johnson, 1923

It’s a 12-degree Friday night in Omaha–a beige city of 390,000 perched on the Missouri River bluffs. It’s the birthplace of TV dinners and our most awkwardpresident, Gerald R. Ford. Omaha is predominantly white, with a low cost-of-living index and a higher-than-average median household income. It’s a hub fortelemarketing and credit-card processing, the food is filling, and the people are friendly. In the films of local auteur Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt),the city is depicted as the epitome of everything dull and repressed about middle-class America. Aside from the new-age wallpaper of Mannheim Steamroller,it’s never been known for its music.

And yet major-label moguls have been haunting its quiet streets, trying to buy into what has quickly become the hottest indie-rock scene in years. The guy atthe center of it is 23-year-old Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes, this year’s New Dylan), and at the moment, he simply wants to drink in peace. Normally, thismeans the hipster rock-scene watering hole called the Brother’s Lounge. But tonight, the slight, hazel-eyed man-child has summoned his immediate crew to theHomy Inn, an obscure junk shop of a pub near his house that serves champagne on tap and warm peanuts in doggie bowls.

He’s been here four nights running.

“I wanna hang out with my friends,” he says, uncorking a split of merlot (Oberst is a red-wine devotee) as his cohorts amble in. Overhead, the NebraskaCornhuskers do battle on a jumbo screen despite the fact that the football season ended three months ago. “[Brother’s] is like hanging out with everyoneI’ve ever known.”

That Oberst should be lying low in Omaha is odd, because it’s been his muse since he was a precocious 13-year-old trying to capture what he described in anearly song as “the sound of the hopeless kids as they scream from the basements of the houses of their parents.” This bleeding-heart-on-sleeve storytellinghas made Oberst an object of extraordinary worship, even by emo standards. It’s gotten to where obsessive fans ring his mom’s doorbell, tearful with love.”We never give out his address, of course,” Nancy Oberst says, cheerfully. “But we’ll chat with them. They’re very sweet.”

At the same time, Oberst is surrounded by a tight community of indie-rock players–many of them friends since childhood. The Faint’s new-wave emo album DanseMacabre landed them an opening slot touring with No Doubt last year, and Cursive’s lacerating The Ugly Organ is among the year’s most intense rock records.Alongside Oberst’s punk-busker-meets-high-school-orchestra epic Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, which topped countless critics’lists, country-laced Los Angeles popsmiths Rilo Kiley, transplanted dream-folkies Azure Ray, and anticonsumerist punks Desaparecidos (Oberst’s other band) allreleased some of 2002’s best records on the tiny, co-op-style label Saddle Creek. According to Joel Mark, vice president of A&R for MCA who worked with Oberst’searly band Commander Venus, Saddle Creek is putting out “some of the best records being made in the world right now–period.”

As you might expect, the scene is mightily incestuous. Across the bar, Saddle Creek chief Robb Nansel whispers to his girlfriend, who formerly dated Oberst.Roger Lewis, drummer for Cursive relatives the Good Life, discusses his roommate Maria Taylor, Oberst’s last girlfriend and half of Azure Ray. And Faint frontmanTodd Baechle’s brother Clark (the Faint’s drummer) is listening to Oberst’s older brother Justin, who seeded this entire scene a decade ago with a bedroomcassette label called Lumberjack, before deciding to finish college and try law school. In fact, this afternoon, he had his first-ever interview for a job at alaw firm. “It was weird,” he says. “I had to wear a suit and everything.”

It is this crew, one gathers, that Oberst praises in near-spiritual terms on Lifted: “They will lift me up out of darkness / Now my door stands open / I aminviting everyone in / We will drink / We will laugh until the morning comes.” There is a collective loyalty to this Midwestern art bubble that is beautiful andunwavering. But the record’s pledge of communal devotion might also be read as a kind of farewell note. In spite of everyone’s best intentions, change–in the formof big labels and personal growing pains–is creeping.

For tonight, though, they will drink. Oberst will congratulate his brother on his interview, console a friend whose grandmother has died, repeatedly threatento unplug the TV (he is not a “sports guy”), and eventually head home with Clark and others to bust out the two-foot glass bong and laugh until morning–swappingDUI stories and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska without any apparent irony or regret whatsoever.

“Spray-painting your genitals really burns, dude. I wouldn’t recommend it.” Todd Baechle, 29, is rocking a shredded sports coat and neckerchief as he issues thisadvice from inside the Faint’s downtown rehearsal space, a stone’s throw from the seedy, but reliable, 11 Worth Cafe. The spray-painting in question took placelast year at his band’s final show opening for No Doubt and was followed by a nude dance routine with Gwen Stefani and his subsequent arrest by New Mexico policefor indecent exposure.

The band’s flamboyance sets them apart from their Saddle Creek mates. While Oberst and Tim Kasher (gut-spilling frontman for Cursive and the Good Life) may getemotionally naked onstage, they keep their pants on. Begun as an emo-style guitar crew, the Faint morphed over three albums into spikey synth-pop revivalists,complete with a light show and choreography. They kept their diary-page lyrics, though, and as a result, they are a genuine anomaly: a sort of electroclash actwith soul. It’s no surprise that they were the first local act to draw serious money-sniffers. “All the major labels came out,” says bassist Joel Petersen. “Itwas flattering but also a little insulting. They were like, ‘When you want to get serious, let’s talk.'”

The group snubbed them all, at which point the majors tried cutting deals with Saddle Creek itself. “There were some pretty big-time offers, but we decided itwasn’t the right thing,” says Robb Nansel, a laconic guy with perpetually weary blue eyes (who played guitar in the Oberst-fronted Commander Venus, which wassigned to Wind-Up, home of Creed). “Things operate so differently at that level–the amount of money that’s spent, the way you’re promoted. It just isn’t thatinteresting to most of us.”

Considering Lifted sold 75,000 copies and Danse Macabre only 42,000–very small potatoes by multinational-conglomerate standards–one might wonder what themajor-label fuss is about. “I think Conor and Saddle Creek are part of the future of music–he’s touched a lot of people,” says Bright Eyes fanatic Frank Callari,head of A&R for the Universal-owned Lost Highway label, a home to genre mutts like Ryan Adams and Lucinda Williams that would love to sign Oberst and his pals.MCA’s Joel Mark admits that “major labels are not here to release records that sell 70,000 copies. But I think these bands could be bigger if they wanted to be.Would MCA want to do a deal with Saddle Creek or Conor or with the Faint? Of course. I’d do anything they wanted to do. But I completely respect that they wantto keep it in the family.”

Despite the happy-hour-powered indie ethos, Saddle Creek has a daunting Midwestern work ethic. Nansel is at the office by 9 a.m. every day. When not on tour, theFaint convene daily from noon until 9 p.m. Between his bands Cursive and the Good Life Tim Kasher tours virtually nonstop, despite having suffered a collapsedlung last year. Producer Mike Mogis, Saddle Creek’s multitasking go-to guy, works around the clock at Presto!, the studio he runs with his brother A.J. in thenearby college town of Lincoln. Oberst–the group’s self-professed slacker–has written an average of a song a day for years.

“I’m glad to be working in such rarefied company,” says Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, 26, a reformed child actress who had her left breast tattooed by AngelinaJolie in the sweetly corny bad-girl pic Foxfire. Kasher introduced her band to the Saddle Creek scene when Rilo Kiley co-opened a Superchunk tour with the GoodLife. And though the band is still based in L.A., Lewis thinks about relocating. “David Cross puts it best when he speaks of the ‘parade of delusion’ in L.A.People come here to become famous: They want to sign to Capitol, get a high-powered manager, and tour with Coldplay. We just wanted to make music and take ourtime to become good songwriters, and we feel supported in Omaha. There’s like 40 musicians doing what we’re doing, and they want to tour with us and put out ourrecords. We don’t have that here.”

The idea that anyone would consider relocating to Omaha remains astonishing because the Saddle Creek “scene” has yet to change the cultural landscape. Thereisn’t even a decent rock club. The label books most of its own bands at the Sokol Auditorium, a rental hall, and while Nansel wants to buy a club near the office in the working-class neighborhood of Benson, plans are stalled.

But spend time in Omaha and the truth quickly outs: The scene has less to do with the city per se than with an amazingly dedicated crew that might’ve cometogether anywhere. Sure, long winters with nothing to do and cheap rent help. Seminal bands like Kasher’s Slowdown Virginia, a short-lived, heartland Pavement,can inspire (“We all wanted to be like Tim in Slowdown,” says Todd Baechle). But it’s ultimately about a very rare thing: the collective decision by a bunch oftalented kids that making art together and building a community–even when it means you’re going to be mostly ass-out broke–is more important than enrolling inthat middle class. Oberst howls about this on Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish.

Of course, the next decision is what to do when the outside world finally begins noticing.

It’s 4 p.m. at La Buvette, a small wine bar in Omaha’s almost-trendy Old Market area, and Conor Oberst is slowly coming around. He lights a yellow American Spiritoff a votive candle and curls his trembling fingers around a third cup of coffee. He is talking about his growing love affair with New York City, where he spenta lot of downtime this winter. He’s thinking of getting an apartment there–maybe Brooklyn.

“The memories stack up here, you know? Sometimes that’s comforting, but sometimes it’s not what you want.” He’s talking about his hometown, eyes peeking out fromunder a black watch cap. “When I told my friends here how much happier I felt in New York, it was weird–it’s like they took it, you know, personally.”

Oberst confesses that he’s working on some short stories. He would love to score a film someday. He has a modest deal with Sony Publishing, and Saddle Creekreleases now go through the Alternative Distribution Alliance, a part of Warner Music Group. Mike Mogis, meanwhile, is thinking about getting an agent tonegotiate a growing list of major-label production requests. The Faint released Danse Macabre Remixes through EMI affiliate Astralwerks. The tracks(reworked by Paul Oakenfold, Junior Sanchez, and others) quickly became must-haves for international DJs. This upward mobility is somewhat inevitable. The Omahascene is staring down the age-old question: Can you hold on to your allegiances and friendships without arresting your own development? Everyone here seems tothink you can. In fact, the new anthology Saddle Creek 50–half vintage tracks, half unreleased new stuff–is the scene’s greatest statement of unity. And yet lifehere feels a bit like those late-spring off-campus parties where you drink all night and try to sidestep the fact that not everyone’s going to be around nextsemester.

“Things amongst the crew are really pretty much the same,” says Oberst, hopefully, fingering his trademark string necklace, an old gift from Todd Baechle. “I cansometimes get nostalgic for the good ol’ days. But they weren’t all that good, really. I mean, we’re not playing empty rooms anymore.”