OMAHA, Nebraska (Billboard) - Conor Oberst sits in a dive bar, pulling on Winston Lights and throwing back intermittent gulps from a beer bottle.
This isn’t the downtown New York- or Los Angeles-variety “dive” with the beautiful people and the perfectly curated juke box. This is the suburban Omaha sort, where a handful of pear-shaped, geriatric regulars sit drinking, solo, at two in the afternoon, mumbling conversations to themselves. The juke box plays only AC/DC.
Oberst, better-known as Bright Eyes, is here -- away from his handlers, bandmates and friends that dot the frigid Omaha landscape -- to confront the perception, more or less, that he is selling out.
It’s a sensitive issue for an artist like Oberst. This is the guy who swore off playing Clear Channel venues, before the touring division of that corporation spun off to become Live Nation. Oberst is so identified with the Omaha-based independent Saddle Creek label that has released all of his albums stateside, that many mistakenly believe he has an ownership stake in the label. In short, Oberst’s career, from his first four-track recordings as a young teenager in the early-to-mid ‘90s, to his last breakout pair of albums -- the acoustic “I‘m Wide Awake It’s Morning” and the electronic-y “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” -- have embodied the DIY indie ethic.
But as he prepares to release his sixth proper album, “Cassadaga,” changes in Oberst’s career approach are coming fast and furious. In January, fans and blogs caught on that the official thisisbrighteyes.com site was run by Universal Music Group, and it soon came out that Oberst had signed Bright Eyes to a deal with the music giant’s Polydor arm for overseas distribution. In February, he shot the first music video of his career that would actually feature him performing. He’ll stop by AOL -- a first -- to record a “Sessions” performance and also play a couple radio promo shows. Notably, early last year, once the touring and media attention paid to “Wide Awake” died down, he signed on to the Ravenhouse Ltd. management company. His new manager, Juan Carrera, oversaw Modest Mouse’s transition from indie darling to selling more than 1 million copies of its last release.
Oberst doesn’t blink when confronted with these developments, doesn’t fidget. There’s no dramatic pull from a Winston Light.
“Why don’t we take them one at a time,” he says. “Then you can draw whatever conclusions you will.”
First things first. Whether you think Conor Oberst now shills tunes for The Man or not, you have to hand him this: He’s doing a hell of a job at it. “Cassadaga,” to be released April 10, represents a sensible evolution for those who have been on the Oberst train from its early days.
Earlier in the day over lunch, Oberst and new bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott discuss the making of the new album.
“In the past, I’ve gone in with a real set idea for what I wanted it to sound like,” Oberst says. “This one was much more, ‘Let’s just record as many songs as we have, whatever style, and then kind of pick.'”
It’s odd to call Mogis and Walcott “new,” as producer and multi-instrumentalist Mogis has worked with Bright Eyes for more than 10 years and Walcott, master of strings, for much of this decade. But Oberst says he wanted to take the focus off of himself and felt that making the pair “official” would help. On “Cassadaga,” Mogis says, the lack of a preconceived, consistent concept meant he had the opportunity to take inspiration from his favorite recordings -- everything from “Animal Collective” to “Pet Sounds,” T Rex to the Mamas & the Papas -- to create new cuts. “Sometimes we would just stop working and listen to records,” Mogis says. “Not in their entirety, but just little pieces.”
“Make a Plan” clearly channels Phil Spector, for example. “Make a plan to love me,” Oberst sings quietly, before the song swells to grandiose moments of strings and horns. The band even created a girl group to sing backup on the track and elsewhere on the album.
At varying moments, “Cassadaga” veers from rockier segments like the guitar-driven, honky-tonk stomper, and first single, “Four Winds,” to quieter, contemplative songs laden with strings, piano and Oberst’s trademark, wavering voice. And of course, the tunes are scattered with metaphor-riddled, self-referential lyrics.
One of the album’s prettiest tracks, “Cleanse Song,” invokes the sunshine-y ‘60s California rock of the Mamas & the Papas, and seems to speak to Oberst’s own experiences. “If life seems absurd, what you need is some laughter,” he sings above what sounds like quiet bongos and those sweetly cooing backup girls. “And a season to sleep and a place to get clean.”
It’s a new tune for old-school Bright Eyes fans, who may be most accustomed to the singer’s seemingly endless cycles of substance abuse and self-loathing. There are no shortage of stories -- some in Oberst’s own songs -- of the singer getting out-of-his-mind drunk. “You never knew which Conor was going to show up in the old days,” Saddle Creek label manager Jason Kulbel says.
Oberst says he started cleaning up around age 20, but that life on the road is still tough. “You pull into a new town,” he says, “and everyone there is like, ‘This is the night to party!'”
Oberst spent 2006 recording “Cassadaga,” and traveling, including, he has claimed, a trip to the album’s namesake town, a place in Florida with a high density of psychics and fortune tellers. He bought a new home near Mogis and the recording studio, and, according to those close to him, has a nice relationship in place with singer (and fellow Saddle Creek-er) Maria Taylor.
What will it mean for his songwriting? He says, “I’ve thought about the idea of, ‘Can happiness and creativity co-exist?’ So much of what I’ve done, I think, has been based on being dissatisfied or incomplete or lonely. The answer is, ‘There isn’t an answer necessarily.’ ”
To understand the importance of Oberst’s business changes, one needs to know his roots.
He first picked up the guitar at 9; his dad and brother were musicians. By 14 he was playing and singing in Commander Venus, a band that included eventual Saddle Creek label president Robb Nansel.
In fact, Saddle Creek’s roots can be traced to 1993, when Oberst’s brother Justin started Lumberjack Records, to release Bright Eyes cassettes. The Oberst boys hung with a group of friends including Nansel and Ted Stevens, who now plays in Saddle Creek band Cursive. The friends would pool their cash to make the tapes. Finally, in the fall of 1996, Nansel and Mogis had to develop a business plan for a class at the University of Nebraska, and Saddle Creek became official.
The first album released? Bright Eyes’ “A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.”
Nansel is soft-spoken as he sits behind his desk and clearly warms recalling the early days.
“He was always mature for his age,” Nansel says. “Ted and I were roommates in college our first year in Lincoln, like 45 miles away, and Conor and Justin would come up and hang out with us in our dorm room every weekend. We’re like 19, going to college, and we have this like 14-year-old kid hanging around.”
The next year, Commander Venus was started, ultimately releasing two albums. Nansel and Oberst recall the decision to end the band as mutual. “Commander Venus just seemed boring,” Nansel says. “But we wanted Conor to keep writing his acoustic songs.”
Oberst steadily built a following, but polarized critics. They worshipped his songwriting and called him the next Bob Dylan, or ripped him apart for being overwrought, apocryphal, and sounding, vocally, too much like, well, Dylan.
He readily acknowledges some of the criticisms. “When you’re an 18-year-old kid, writing songs ... all I could ever do is write from the point where I was at as best as I could ... Maybe the same people that would hear one of those records would like our new record. And vice versa -- I’ve definitely heard a complaint that, for our older fans, the music’s not emotional enough.”
But he objects to those who would call him a poseur. “You can say, ‘That’s silly, adolescent melodrama,’ and I’ll agree with you, because it was . . . But to say it was crafted, like, ‘Put on this show and try to make some money or have a popular band’ ... to me that was the only thing I really took offense to.”
His albums have generally sold more and more, and always for Saddle Creek. He released his albums overseas on Wichita, an indie partner secured by Saddle Creek, until his last pair of releases, which he put out on the newly minted Saddle Creek Europe.
But that may have turned out to be the last straw for Oberst’s traditional relationship with Saddle Creek.
“We were going on these tours, and we weren’t coming home with any money,” Oberst says. “It was just this really frustrating cycle. The first times you go to Europe, it’s exciting -- you don’t really even care if you get paid. But then ... it’s hard to go be freezing in Germany in the winter, playing mediocre shows to people that haven’t heard of your band.”
Oberst says he actually spoke to manager Nate Krenkel about finding “a better situation” overseas before the release of “Wide Awake” and “Digital Ash,” but then Saddle Creek announced it was opening a European label, and he stayed out of loyalty. But Oberst felt the situation didn’t improve.
Meanwhile, early in 2006, he signed Carrera to co-manage. “Nate needed some help,” Oberst says of Krenkel, who has been Oberst’s manager since 2003. Krenkel signed Oberst to his Sony ATV publishing deal before coming on to manage. And he is still Oberst’s partner in running Team Love, the New York-based indie label that released Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis’ successful solo debut last year. Team Love is distributed through Warner Music Group’s Alternative Distribution Alliance -- via Saddle Creek.
Oberst says he trusts Carrera’s experience. “He can say, ‘I’ve done this, this is worth doing, or this isn’t worth your time.’ I don’t mind doing these things ... promotion has never been a real strong suit, ‘cause no one’s ever spent any time thinking about it.”
Krenkel and Carrera worked on the two-album Polydor deal, which, Carrera says, was actually completed in August 2006. Polydor beat out XL to sign Oberst.
“It’s really a pretty incredible deal,” Oberst says. “We had a couple of lawyers in the U.K. look it over. And they were just kind of like, ‘How did you guys get this?'”
Oberst recorded “Cassadaga” with his own money, he says. So he didn’t sign the album to Saddle Creek, but rather, licensed it. It’s a not-so-subtle distinction with business and personal implication. For one, the label no longer shares in sync licensing opportunities.
The move has not been easy on Oberst’s relationship with Nansel. As for the latter, he will talk about understanding artists’ needs to move on and to grow, but when pressed, he simply averts his gaze and says to ask Oberst about it.
Oberst is rather more direct.
“He probably did feel hurt, ya know? And it wasn’t the easiest thing to bring up obviously,” Oberst says. “But the situations with Saddle Creek changed . .. all decisions were done by committee . . . it just wasn’t practical. That was kind of the impetus to start Team Love. I felt we were missing opportunities.”
One thing that hasn’t changed: Bright Eyes won’t tour with Live Nation (which declined to comment). He says, “It’s just so important to create competition in a town and support those that have been responsible for our success.”
The Polydor deal has meant more money -- to shoot videos, to record with an orchestra for the first time, to take a 12-piece band on the road, instead of a six-piece like last time. Oberst says he’s comfortable with it all and looking forward to taking the show on the road; a month-plus long North American tour begins April 22.
“A lot of what kept me from (more promotion) early on was fear of getting in some position I couldn’t get out of ... of being controlled by someone or put in this box where what I was doing artistically was no longer valid because it was just a commodity,” he says. “And all those things now, I‘m not afraid of ‘cause I don’t think anyone can ever do that to me.”