Interview:

You As Someone Else

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Conor Oberst on his Ruminations

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words by tom johnson

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Ruminations is a word that perhaps best describes my own relationship with interpreting and writing about music. When hearing music for the first time it’s often within the frame of what it stirs in me, where it takes my head and my heart. It also happens to be the title of Conor Oberst’s latest album, a collection of songs from a distinguished songwriter who has always had a very definite impact on both mine, and many others, musical journey. I first discovered Oberst’s Bright Eyes projects, as many did, at a time when I felt like I really needed those songs; when the shape of his words and songs and furious sentiments could lend a little light to those corners of the house where the light’s still never been.

Those gnarly, impassioned early recordings eventually led to 2005’s ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning LP; Oberst’s career-defining, breakthrough record. The country-esque landscapes he so beautifully sculpted on that record would send his career down something of a new path, the dead-of-night confessions that felt like they could fall apart at any given moment replaced by a beautifully considered take on the classics. Perhaps what makes ‘Ruminations, released at the tail-end of 2016 such a thoroughly rewarding listen is the way in which it feels like new-age Conor but with the cracks there for all to see. Initially recorded as a set of demos to present to The Felice Brothers, who were to be his backing band on the full record, Oberst’s label, Nonesuch Records, loved his skeletal recordings so much they became the album we hear today; as raw and unadorned as the day they were recorded. “The label, who I love dearly, don’t like me to refer to Ruminations as demos but that’s really what they were – they just happened to be recorded really nicely,” Oberst tells us as we sit down with him before his recent Edinburgh show, for a chat about his recent record and the wonderful ones which preceded it.

Fans of The Felice Brothers fear not, however. Said demos still got made in to a full record – and Oberst will release ‘Salutations’, the full band version of Ruminations, at the end of March. “I’m sure some people will talk shit about paying for the same songs twice, but I think it makes for a really interesting journey,” Conor says of the forthcoming album, which features the Felice Brothers alongside legendary drummer Jim Keltner (George Harrison, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Neil Young) who ended up co-producing the whole project. “The Felice’s were in between drummers and I was speaking to a good friend of mine, Gary Burden, who’s an artist who did all the great album covers from California in the seventies – Neil Young, Joni, Jackson Browne – and he told me he’d been having dinner with Jim Keltner and that he’d been singing my praises; which was surreal! So I just cold called him,” he continues, “and we ended speaking for about an hour; just about life. He’s the fucking raddest guy.”

The two ended up heading to Malibu’s Shangri-La Studio, now owned by Rick Rubin but a previous home to The Band, among many, many others. “We spent a month there and made plans to come back to finish later in the Summer,” Oberst says of the initial plan. “In between that, the label heard these rough cuts that we’d made and they pitched the idea of doing it as two releases, and it really worked out. Typically labels don’t really have interesting ideas but they really cared about these songs and I’m stoked that they did.”

The tour we find Conor in the middle of plays in to the haphazardness of the Ruminations recordings. It’s a brilliant show; Conor bashing the piano, slamming the guitar, spitting the harmonica in a brazen, blazing performance, accompanied throughout by his touring partner MiWi La Lupa, with the occasional, striking accompaniment from tour support Phoebe Bridgers, who very nearly steals the entire show. Mostly playing songs from the new record, Oberst is in fiery mood, lamenting his country’s new President, who hadn’t been inaugurated when Conor left to play these shows. “I’ve kind of been able to switch off, to some extent,” he says about the political situation elevating back home, “or at least I’ve tried to pretend it’s not real, in attempt to stop myself from falling in to despair while I’m away.”

The day of the Edinburgh show happens to be the same day as Bandcamp’s incredible day of support for ACLU, and Conor says he certainly sees the musical world playing an important role in the fight against the rising tide. “I think there’s always been that question of ‘do people do things to make themselves look and feel better’ but I don’t care about that anymore. Whatever people can do at this point, they should. Hopefully that can have an accumulative effect, and places like ACLU and Planned Parenthood are certainly going to need to be able to function while Trump tries to strip away every fucking human right that he can.”

Oberst has never been one to shy away from showing his political stance. In 2005 he appeared on the The Tonight Show to play ‘When The President Talks To God’, a song aimed at George W Bush and his policies. “It’s not even a choice for me; I have such visceral disgust for that man.” he says of speaking out against Trump during his shows. “The fact that he can already make you nostalgic for George W is pretty fucking amazing. He was just a dumb-ass surrounded by some evil cats, and I’ve heard people say that if he was a dude that just ran an old bar somewhere he’d probably be fun to hang out with; he just happened to be running the country. Trump is way different,” he continues. “I’m not sure he’s an evil mastermind as much as he’s just a huge ego and a showman. Although he certainly has the ability to charm and control a crowd, so in that respect maybe he is. And there’s certainly something sinister in the fact hat he pulled this off. I know people use ‘unbelievable’ a lot in hyperbole, but I literally find all of this unbelievable. It’s unbelievable in the literal sense of the word. And it only just fucking started.”

Later that night, as Conor’s wonderful show begins to draw to an end, he closes with three Bright Eyes songs: a show-stopping version of ‘Lua’ as a duet with the aforementioned Bridgers, which has the entire hall transfixed, a powerful rendition of ‘The Big Picture’ from 2002’s Lifted LP, and a rousing finale of ‘At The Bottom Of Everything’ which literally has the audience up off their comfortable seats; grown adults throwing their arms to the immaculate cornicing above, spitting those wildly affecting words back at Oberst on-stage. It’s a very special moment within a special concert; a powerful reminder of just how much power Oberst has brought to the musical world over the years.

“I’m definitely open to it,” Conor says, when I ask him about a potential next-chapter in Bright Eyes’s illustrious story. “Mike and Nate are still two of my best friends and I basically live with Mogis still; we hang out all the time. He’s always busy producing records and he’s got his two girls now too, but he would definitely love to get back on the road, I think. Nate is a different story because he’s basically in the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at the moment! They hired him for eighteen-months for their live show, so he’s playing stadiums and flying around in private jets and shit like that. He says they’re super nice dudes, though, and he gets to travel all over the world and I think that’s super trippy for him. He’ll call me from like a football stadium in Sao Paulo and be like “Oh, we’re just sound-checking” and shit like that!”

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While Conor was the central piece of the Bright Eyes puzzle, it was always the three of them that conjured the magic that led to their success. “Bright Eyes has, more than anything, always been a studio project. We always had different bands playing live but it’s always been the three of us, equal parts,” Oberst admits. “Those records sound the way they do because of Mike and Nate as much as me. It’s a little bit more of a chess game with those boys, they’re both super neurotic when it comes to music and I love it. I feel like, as a band, we’ve made so many different sounding records that I don’t even know what kind of music would happen now, and that’s exciting in itself,” he continues. “I know it wouldn’t sound like anything else we’ve ever made. I’m not saying it would be some fucked-up polka shit but I think we could get really weird with it.”

For now, though, it’s just good ol’ Conor Oberst – though I point out that there is a glimmer of those early Bright Eyes albums in Ruminations’ unprocessed recordings. “That’s what’s funny about this record; it really does feel like it’s come full-circle, to some extent,” he agrees. “This is kind of how it all started for me, just playing the piano in a room. Although, granted, there are nicer microphones involved this time around,” he adds with a laugh.

While his on-stage persona still has a wry tempestuousness to it, in person Oberst is warm and humble, in spite of a reputation that has often preceded him. He talks about how excited he is to play at Willie Nelson’s ‘Luck Reunion’ festival later this year (“I’ve been so lucky to meet so many of my heroes, and they’ve always been totally cool”) and there’s a charming sense of self-deprecation to many of his anecdotes, none more so than when talking about current touring partner Phoebe Bridgers: “I’ve told her that when she’s fucking headlining stadiums everywhere to occasionally remember her little old buddy Conor and to give me a shot!”

It’s this openness that makes Ruminations Oberst’s most endearing and affecting record in a long time. There’s a real-world sense of wooziness to the whole thing that joins some of the dots between his old persona and his new, somewhat wizened ways. “I’ve kind of had to get over myself with this record,” he says of Ruminations. “I mean, it is what it is. We didn’t even mention making sure the vocal takes were good, or redoing some of those sloppy harmonica parts you can hear, because they were just demoes at that point, and that’s very akin to the records I made as a teenager. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is how I sound when I sing and bash the piano,” he adds with a wry smile, “and even if I’m not proud of all my performances across the whole record, I’m still really proud of these songs.”

On ‘When The Breakman Turns My Way’, a highlight from Bright Eyes’ 2007 Cassadaga’ LP, Oberst sings “I never thought of running / My feet just led the way.” A decade on from that, and two decades on from his initial emergence, those feet are still doing him proud, despite the odd stumble along the way. Here’s to hoping they’ve got many more miles in them yet.

‘Ruminations’ is out now, via Nonesuch Records

‘Saluations’ is released on March 17th

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conoroberst.com

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