Conor Oberst: Bright young thing

He's routinely compared to Dylan, but not even Bob achieved the chart success of Conor Oberst. Andy Gill asks the 24-year-old singer-songwriter just where he goes from here
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The Independent Culture

Late last year, Conor Oberst found himself thrust into the spotlight when it was reported that Bright Eyes, the indie band he fronts and writes all the material for, had come from nowhere to top the Billboard American singles chart. Indeed, they had not just topped the chart, they had taken both the No 1 and No 2 positions, a feat with precedent only in the dim and distant past when The Beatles, and other, similarly era-defining artists, created seismic tremours in the cultural landscape. Oberst is justifiably proud of his band's success.

Late last year, Conor Oberst found himself thrust into the spotlight when it was reported that Bright Eyes, the indie band he fronts and writes all the material for, had come from nowhere to top the Billboard American singles chart. Indeed, they had not just topped the chart, they had taken both the No 1 and No 2 positions, a feat with precedent only in the dim and distant past when The Beatles, and other, similarly era-defining artists, created seismic tremours in the cultural landscape. Oberst is justifiably proud of his band's success.

"Even apart from that fact that it's my band," he says, "I think it's really cool that an independent label can outsell all these major-label companies with bigger promotional budgets. It's a testament to the fact that people still really like music and are prepared to find something they really like, that it's not all about advertising."

The singles were totally dissimilar in style and content - "Take It Easy (Love Nothing)" utilised the synthetic tones and textures of 1980s electropop, while "Lua" was a sombre assessment of a doomed relationship, picked out in a quiet murmur over a plaintive solo guitar accompaniment. "I know you have a heavy heart, I can feel it when we kiss/So many men stronger than me have thrown their backs out trying to lift it," observed Oberst with the blend of painful honesty and sardonic attitude that has seen him described as a Dylan for the modern age.

Meeting him, such comparisons melt away. Thin and quiet, with the fragile appearance of a typical vegan, Oberst has none of Dylan's essential acidity, although he undoubtedly triggers the same sort of maternal instincts as the Bard of Hibbing did in his youth. Well, it seems to have worked with Winona Ryder, anyway, their brief dalliance affirming that he had crossed the line separating small-time scufflers from celebrities.

Not that it seems to have had an adverse effect on his personality: there are none of the airs and graces, no traces of the bumptious arrogance that usually accompanies the newly famous. Instead, swaddled in a parka in the warmth of an anonymous London hotel lounge, he just seems like an ordinary Joe, albeit one possibly in need of a hot lemon and honey concoction. It seems to fit his character: he wears his fragility like a consumptive poet's overcoat.

Now 24, Oberst has been making music since he was a child and recording his own songs since he was 13. His father played guitar, piano and sax in a covers band and his older brother's band used to rehearse in the basement, so music was a constant part of his early life. "It was pretty natural," he says, "that one day I should pick up an instrument and start fooling around with it too. We'd use dad's guitars like toys when we were young, and eventually figured out what we were supposed to do with them."

His early songs, he recalls, were about "the same stuff I'm still writing about - life, or whatever; though granted, life to a 13-year-old is a lot different to an adult's view of it, so it would be in simpler language. But even then, I was taking it seriously, really trying my best to emulate people I admired." These included parental favourites - Van, Joni, Jackson, Dylan, Creedence - and the new-wave bands his brother preferred, such as The Replacements, The Smiths, Sonic Youth, REM, and Simon Joyner, a folk-singer from Oberst's native Omaha, the midwest city best known as the nuclear silo capital of America.

"It's the biggest city in Nebraska," he says of his home town. "With all the suburbs, about a million people. The people are generally pretty conservative - the big things are, like, Nebraska football and Omaha steaks. But there's a small art community who try to make the most of what resources there are and they are really supportive of each other - they have to be because there's not a lot of outside support."

Oberst continues to release Bright Eyes' recordings through the Saddle Creek label he set up with a few friends, even though their fanbase has now swollen to around 200,000 and is growing fast. He has started another label, Team Love, to offer an outlet to artists that tickle his fancy, such as the rapper Mars Black and hotly-tipped singer-songwriter Willy Mason - who has been snapped up by Virgin for the UK.

Bright Eyes broke through to widespread recognition with the 2002 release Lifted, or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground, an ambitious concept-album in which car passengers are supposedly sucked into the vehicle's tape deck for the duration of the ride, or album, in a manner analogous to the book in the children's film The NeverEnding Story.

The results bore comparison with Nashville's Lambchop, as does Bright Eyes' sprawling cast of 15 or so musicians, a floating membership whose only stable elements seem to be Oberst and his multi-instrumentalist engineer Mike Mogis. Also like Lambchop, Bright Eyes' most recent release came in the form of two simultaneously issued albums, the folksy I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and the funkier, more modernistic Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, heralded by last year's two chart-topping singles.

"For me, it wasn't some artistic statement that I wanted to make, or anything like that," he says. "It was more that we finished the folk record first, and we could have released it last summer, but I had all these ideas and sketches for the Digital Ash record which we wanted to work on right away. So we put it to one side, finished the other record, and released them at the same time."

The albums, he claims, represent different sides to his character. "Essentially, all our songs are simple folk songs, and we've always made an attempt to, like, decorate or dress them up in different ways, using different instruments and recording techniques.

"A lot of those songs on the folk album were written a couple of years ago, when I started renting an apartment in New York, so they reflect that whole intoxicating vibe of New York," he says. "Then on Digital Ash... most of the songs are about... death! But even beyond that, the idea that something can exist without a physical form, like on the internet. And then you think about the parallels that has with things like love and fear and souls, things that are obviously present in our lives, that impact upon us, yet which have no physical shape. I find it interesting to look at oblivion and wonder whether you can retain your essence past the inevitable disintegration of this," he concludes, slapping his own flesh.

Such philosophical ruminations are rarer now in rock'n'roll than ever before. But then, Oberst is that oddity, a young American who reads books. Indeed, there's something quite enchanting about the way he applies the awed language of the MTV generation to his literary favourites.

"I like this modern American author called Denis Johnson, he's one of my favourites," he confides with the enthusiasm of the evangelist, "and I'm super-into Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that magical realism stuff. José Saramago, a Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, carries that Marquez torch these days: he's super intense, awesome."

It is this literacy, matched by intense political convictions, thatlinks Oberst with earlier generations of thoughtful rockers, something which was acknowledged when Bright Eyes were the youngest band invited to take part in last year's "Vote For Change" tour, which played at "swing state" locations before the US presidential election.

Despite the election result, Oberst believes the tour was at least partially successful in reintroducing the notion of political activism to a culture which seems to have forgotten how to make its presence felt, or lost the desire to do so, at a time when the need for it is greater than it has been for three decades. He will be out there when the next election rolls around - and I have a shrewd feeling that by then, Conor Oberst will be one of pop's more significant voices. The world is his if he wants it, and it could hardly be in better hands.

"I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning" and "Digital Ash In A Digital Urn" are available now through Saddle Creek Records

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