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The Innovators: Conor Oberst

What did you take away the Vote for Change tour you did last year with R.E.M. and Bruce Springsteen?
It was nice for me to see how Bruce has conducted himself — he’s had the same crew, the same guys who put on his show, for like, 30 years. I’ve been rolling around touring with the same group of guys for just a couple years, and I already feel like they’re my family more than anyone. It’s been awesome to be friends with Michael [Stipe] and to hear his practical advice — “This is the way it is, a lot of things are terrible, but you can make the best of your time and still feel like you’re making art and not just a consumer product.” Which I think, at the end of the day, is the hardest thing for a lot of people to get over, that leap of, “Okay, I’m selling something, I’m promoting myself, blah, blah, blah.” It’s okay to do those things to get to the next place in the pyramid of things, but it doesn’t take away from what you’re really doing, which is making music. I struggled with that for a long time, and I still do. But also the whole idea of what the concerts were for — there were no egos involved, everyone who was doing it was completely scared of what the world would be like if George Bush had a second term…. If all goes the way it usually goes, there’s a natural balance to public opinion, and hopefully extremism won’t win out anywhere in the world, including America, where it seems to be winning at the moment.

How do you compare the way people find out about music now to how they used to?

I think it’s good and bad. It’s glorious to be able to go onto the Internet and hear any kind of music anywhere, from anywhere, and get it instantly. But there’s also something glorious about having a record with a sleeve and looking at the artwork, putting it on the turntable and playing it, there’s still something romantic to me about that. I don’t know why. Our record store was like a social epicenter — a place to go to talk to people and see flyers and talk shit about music. I guess you have the same thing kind of on the Internet, you have web boards and postings and all that shit. It is more convenient, but it’s less personal and, in a way, less real.

Do you feel any divide with your younger fans about any of that stuff?
It’s a different world than when I was growing up. Fifteen years old and they’ve got their cell phone and their own website on Friendster or whatever. It’s such a gap. I guess it’s the way it’s always been: People get older and whatever’s new just seems strange.

What are you proudest of?
I’m proud of just being able to be myself and not worry — that’s not true, I do worry, but I haven’t fallen into a lot of the traps that I think are easy to fall into. I’ve fallen in a few, but I think I’ve had the really good fortune to do what I want and believe what I want. At this point, even if everything stopped tomorrow, I already feel I’ve achieved what I thought was impossible when I first started playing music.
Interview by Alan Light