Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga was released April 10, 2007. Steve Kandell’s interview with singer Conor Oberst originally ran in the April 2007 issue of SPIN. In honor of the album’s 10th anniversary, we’re republishing it here.
At the grizzled old age of 27, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst bounces back from a self-professed “dark time” with a little help from his psychic friends and settles into his role as an indie-rock elder-isa statesman. “I don’t feel like a kid anymore,” he says. “Not at all.”
Unshaven, with his floppy bangs now grown out scraggly, Conor Oberst doesn’t look much like a teen heartthrob. Nor does he look like a teen, for that matter. Now 27, Oberst is still more famous for being indie rock’s precocious prodigy and standard-bearer for the Omaha-based Saddle Creek label (and erstwhile Winona chum) than for any particular piece of music. Until now—although the duo release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn in January 2005 heralded Oberst’s ascension to Serious Artist and made a healthy ding on the Billboard charts to boot, the new Cassadaga is as focused as those albums were far-flung. Infusing the languid country rock of Wide Awake with Digital Ash‘s sonic experimentation Cassadaga, named for a community of psychics in central Florida, is the sound of a kid—sorry, a man—who has been a lot of places and isn’t sure where to go next. Coiled on the floor of the cluttered East Village apartment that serves as the office for Team Love, the label he started in 2003, the native Nebraskan tucks into a bowl of miso soup and a mahimahi sandwich, and though his pouty disposition was lampooned in The Onion two years ago (“Nation Planning Surprise Party to Cheer Up Conor Oberst”), none of the self-doubt that inspired either the trip to Cassadaga or the record that bears its name is visible. What is visible: issue of Q and Mojo in the kitchen, each with Bob Dylan on the cover.
What goes through your mind when you listen to the records you made when you were 13?
It’s funny to hear the old songs, even if they’re terrible. My voice hadn’t even changed. And what are you writing about when you’re 12 years old? But it’s not that far from what I’m doing today. You may have a different frame of reference or different way of expressing yourself, but the essence of it is the same. Which is strange.
You spent your teens making records and playing in bands. What was high school like?
I went, I did my shit, I got good grades. I didn’t have a lot of friends there and pretty much just wanted to be invisible. I spent my afternoons and nights with my friends I played music with and always had older girlfriends, so high school wasn’t really much like high school.
Do you think the situation you had in Omaha in the late ’90s, with this tight network of friends working on each other’s records and putting them out, is already antiquated thanks to MySpace?
Someone was just telling me that thought Saddle Creek was the last indie-rock scene, in the geographical sense, anyway. It’s all so computer-based now. I’d like to believe these scenes still happen, but it’s sad to think that kids aren’t going to go to record stores anymore. Or go see a band not knowing what they look like. The mystery is starting to dissolve.
And nothing dissolves master faster than tabloid exposure, which you experienced a couple years ago when those photos of you with Winona Ryder were everywhere. Was that surreal?
It left a sour taste in my mouth. But I guess it’s just a by-product of what I do. There’s a segment of people interested in the music, and there are also people interested in the person making the music, the celebrity. It’s hard for me to relate to that—I’ve read articles about bands I’ve liked, but I’ve never been obsessed with their personal lives. I’ve just been obsessed with their records.
As the influence of major labels wanes, has the anti corporate spirit that fueled Saddle Creek waned a bit?
The whole ideology of indie rock doesn’t hold any water anymore; it’s not that clear-cut. Every time we sell a record, Time Warner gets a dime from our distributor. I already give a ridiculous amount of my income to the United States government, which is probably the most evil organization on the planet as far as killing people; I don’t know how many bombs I’ve purchased with my tax dollars. Unless you’re gonna live on a mountain somewhere, you’re not gonna be free of the modern world and all the evils that go with it. What you can do is operate with intelligence and be compassionate, help people when you can. Do things not just for money, but for the craft of it.
Are you ever frustrated that other artists your age aren’t as vocal about politics?
It is a little frustrating. But now it seems every band has an anti-Bush song. Because you can’t dispute it anymore: His presidency is an absolute failure in every aspect, and anyone who is at all connected to reality can realize that now.
Yeah, but they realized it too late.
I know. But the further we get away from 9/11 and the beginning of the Iraq War, the more acceptable it is to be dissenting. Before, there was this fear. I don’t want to accuse anyone, because it could have been a true mistake, but when we did “When the President Talks to God” on The Tonight Show, we had both Letterman and Conan booked. By the time we got to New York, mysteriously, Conan turned out to be double-booked and Letterman said they were dark that week. That could have been a coincidence, but I don’t know.
Do you think it would take a draft to trigger full-blown rioting in the streets?
I’m sure that would change things dramatically. But it’s hard to galvanize any kind of movement; there’s just this cacophony of stimuli that doesn’t amount to anything. In the 1960s, there was protest and music and this amazing force that shaped the policy of the country and society itself. It’s not that the music was so much better or that the people were more motivated; it was just a moment in history when everything was aligned for that to be possible.
If you had to do it all over again, would you have released two albums simultaneously?
I don’t know. I don’t regret it. When you put out two records at once, you’re inviting comparisons—people trashing one, liking the other. I think maybe people didn’t give Digital Ash a chance because they almost felt obligated to choose the one they liked better. I’m really proud of it, and we spent a lot more time on that one than Wide Awake. The word “digital” in the title made people narrow-minded, but that was more a lyrical theme than a musical one.
You’re 27, which is the age Hendrix, Cobain, Morrison, and Joplin were when they died. Do you feel you’ve outgrown your self-destructive tendencies or that you’re more mature now?
Well, I don’t want to die. And I don’t feel like a kid anymore, not at all. I see young bands playing or kids hanging out, and I don’t act like that. I don’t have a MySpace page. It doesn’t seem like much fun to interact with people that way, and I already know too many people.
After your sloppy performance at 2005’s Glastonbury Festival, when you insulted the late English DJ John Peel from the stage, heroin rumors started up. What happened there?
I was just fucked-up and talking nonsense. I had taken some mushrooms, and it was in the middle of this constant traveling and partying. I actually love what John Peel was all about and I regret defaming him, but it was totally a joke. As for the rumors, I don’t care; it just makes me sad that my mom might ever see anything like that. But the whole Digital Ash tour was a dark time—we had already done the whole world for the Wide Awake tour, came home, reheard day and night for two weeks, and went back out. We were shot but we couldn’t stop. And it felt like people maybe didn’t understand the record and we had to go out and prove it to them. By the time we got to Europe, we were hitting on all the cylinders. At Glastonbury, there’d been insane storms that washed away the whole site, and we were the last band on that stage for the weekend. It was like walking into a war zone. We’d just flown in and didn’t have any English money to buy food or drinks, so we made a poor decision: It’s a shitty day—let’s get really wasted and everything will be better. But as we know, that doesn’t work, and it just went from bad to worse.
What drug would you never try again?
Acid. No way. That gets you so fucked-up. I’m kinda over drugs. It’s weird to hit that point where you realize the fun isn’t worth the repercussions.
“Cleanse Song” on the new album equates 9/11 with some sort of personal purge of bad influences.
I think it’s about rebirth. I was in L.A. for about a month at the beginning of ’06 doing this cleanse: You don’t drink anything but water or coconut water and this ash stuff that sucks the toxins out of your bloodstream. And you can only eat raw fruits and vegetables. I was just feeling bad in every way.
How did you wind up going to Cassadaga?
A friend of mine told me about the town, and I was immediately interested—I’m always looking for something. About a year ago, I went and not to get all weird, but the energy was very palpable to me. It’s a little town with over a hundred psychics. You go into the bookstore and there’s a board listing everyone who’s working that day. So you call one of ’em up and make an appointment and then walk down the little street, and they all have little houses with the front parlors converted for reading. At the time, I had a lot of anxiety and thought I had to make some big change in my life. But the woman who gave me my reading basically said, “Hey, you’re on the right path—you might be winding around, but you’re moving in the right direction.” I got a lot of comfort out of that. The anxiety hasn’t dissipated entirely, but I feel more at ease. There’s also a Cassadga in upstate New York—they fled Protestant culture in the late 1800s and relocated, just headed south until they felt the vortex.
And what place could be more open-minded than Florida? Speaking of spirituality, there’s a line on [Cassadaga’s first single] “Four Winds”: “The Bible’s blind, the Torah’s def, the Koran’s mute / If you burned them all together, you’d be close to the truth.” Is it safe to say you’re not a fan of organized religion?
That is safe to say. Religion can be a positive force in people’s lives—whatever gives people what they’re looking for. But if you look at history, it’s pretty clear religion has done more harm than good.
Are you worried that lyrics like this will encourage people to come at you with rocks and torches?
I suppose, but I don’t think about that when I write the songs. People have said a lot of nasty things about me, but that goes with the territory. I respect everyone’s right to believe what they want as long as they’re not forcing their will or hurting other people. But there’s a lot of extremism in every religion. People using it for their own ends, and it’s not about worshiping God; it’s about power. It’s perverted.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
I get “arrogant” and “pretentious” a lot. Seems like a weird critique—how do you be less arrogant? I’m certainly not rude to people in person. Maybe people are confusing confidence with pretentiousness, but I don’t even feel that confident. If this is what you want to do with your life, you’ve got to take it somewhat seriously. I think as a band, we have a pretty good sense of humor. There’s certainly no lock of having fun.
So, are you going to take a crowbar to the next person who calls you ” the new Dylan”?
Nah. I don’t have enough energy to hit anyone.