The Return of Bright Eyes

Conor Oberst talks about the new record, COVID-19, and the good ol' days.


Bright Eyes, from left, are Nate Walcott, Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis.

Conor, where are you? Are you here?

“Yeah, I’m here.”

“Here” is Omaha, where singer/songwriter and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst has been holed up in his midtown home since July to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, surrounded (though no doubt socially distanced) by friends, family and the two dogs he shares joint custody of with his “best friend” ex-wife Corina Figueroa Escamilla.

Over the past 22 years I’ve checked in with Oberst from time to time, usually upon the release of a new album. For this occasion, it’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the 10th studio album and the first Bright Eyes release since 2011’s The People’s Key. While some thought the band broke up, faithful readers of this column know I’ve always said the Bright Eyes’ triumvirate of Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott would ride together again one day; after all, there was never a reason why they shouldn’t.

“We’ve obviously been friends the whole time,” Oberst said in a froggy afternoon drawl over the phone. “Both Nate and Mike have worked on all my various solo projects, and (they’ve) worked on their film and TV score stuff. I feel like we jumped right back in.”

It’s always fun during the weeks leading up to and following the release of a Bright Eyes album to see critics try to decipher its meaning. The consensus: Down in the Weeds… is Bright Eyes’ mid-life crisis / end-of-the-world album, though in fact it was written well before the onset of COVID-19. The themes (critics say) revolve around his divorce and the death of Oberst’s brother, Matt, in 2016.

Pitchfork, the online music magazine and arguably the most important arbiter of indie rock, gave the album a respectable 7.4 rating, with critic Marc Hogan summing it up with: “Running over the same old ground, Bright Eyes have found the same old fears.” Whatever that means.

My two cents after a few listenings: The density of the album’s ideas and arrangements make Down in the Weeds… one of the most overall satisfying — if not exhausting — Bright Eyes albums in the project’s oeuvre.

Over the course of the half-hour phone interview, Oberst talked very little about the album. Instead, we chatted mostly about how he’s riding out the pandemic. Oberst said he spent the first five months bunkered up with his girlfriend at his home in Los Angeles before driving back to Omaha in July.

“Los Angeles County was like the first place to really lock it down,” he said. “And then you get out here and it’s almost like it’s not happening, you know what I mean? You drive through Blackstone and people are going to bars and stuff. It’s a little different experience, but I guess we’re all kind of going through it in a different way.”

Like a lot of people, Oberst thinks he already contracted COVID-19, though he never got tested for it.”Me and Phoebe (Bridgers, Oberst’s partner in folk-rock project Better Oblivion Community Center) went to New York and when we came back to LA, we were both so completely sick, and I had this weird respiratory thing that lasted like two months,” he said. “I don’t know if that means I had it; I don’t know if that means I won’t get it again.”

So Oberst has been sticking close to his Fair Acres compound where he lives with a few roommates and his dogs, with Mike Mogis “just up the hill” sharing in his social bubble. You’d think he would see this as a great opportunity to work on music, but instead, Oberst sounded lost.

“I sort of feel like there’s two camps in the COVID world,” he said. “(There’s) the people taking time to self-improve and be productive and all that stuff. I’m definitely in the other camp. I look at my guitars, I look at my piano, I don’t really touch it. I have sort of, like, no motivation.”

That could be because Oberst has watched powerless while all plans for Bright Eyes’ musical world domination went up in a cloud of virus spores.

“The next potential show on the books that we could possibly do is next July, a year away,” he said. “It’s just very disappointing because we had this whole two-year plan laid out. We had a new label and everyone was stoked. We were going to play Forest Hills in New York and had already sold over 10,000 tickets, which for us is a lot. Maybe next summer we can do the shows, but who the fuck knows?”

It is here that Oberst recognized the complaints of a rock star, and went on a rant.

“I was a little bit ‘Woe is me’ sad at first, but if you just get over yourself and step out for a second you realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got a roof over my head, I got food in the fridge.’ There’s so many people that have nothing, that have no jobs, that are on unemployment that’s running out, that are getting evicted from their apartment. When you pan out the camera a little bit to see how much suffering there is, not to mention that, like,160,000 people have died. It’s fucking insane.

“And like (there’s) zero leadership. I fucking hate our fucking governor, he’s the worst. And of course I fucking hate Trump. There’s just no leadership from anywhere, and people don’t believe in science, and people are fucking crazy, so it’s just a nightmare.

“And then you have George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and this social unrest, which is well-deserved. I feel like everything coming together at this moment is unprecedented. I’ve never seen it in my lifetime.”

Oberst wasn’t in Omaha when the protests began in early July, but he was here later that month when protesters were trapped and arrested on the Harney Street overpass. “I saw that on the news and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, what are we even living through?’ It’s true insanity,” he said.

Oberst said he took part in the very early days of protests in Los Angeles, but from a distance. “I’m no stranger to protests,” he said, but he’s never been gassed.

At this point, Oberst’s publicist chimed in to say my time was up, but Conor said he had time for a couple more questions, so I had to ask if he still feels connected to the old days of the Omaha music scene. Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive were the crown jewels of Saddle Creek Records in the early 2000s when Omaha was recognized oh so briefly as the center of the indie music world.

Now two decades later, all three bands no longer are on Saddle Creek. Bright Eyes’ new album was released on Bloomington’s Dead Oceans Records, the same label that released the Better Oblivion Community Center debut last year.

“I still love everybody and we still have a community,” Oberst said. “The label is not a part of it anymore, but as far as the community of bands, and our love and mutual respect for each other, our support for each other’s music is still completely intact. We all love each other.

“That never changed and is never going to change. I get excited every time there’s a new Cursive record or a new Faint record or a new Maria (Taylor) or Orenda (Fink) record. Those are all my best friends. I love them all.”

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com

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