- 15 Feb 19
On his 39th birthday, we’re revisiting the former Bright Eyes frontman's 2007 interview with Hot Press’s Ed Power.
Conor Oberst, the eerily youthful strummer who trades as Bright Eyes, is explaining why being the hailed ‘the New Dylan’ can test your sanity.
“Back in America,” he reminisces, “someone wrote a really mean editorial piece about me in a right-wing newspaper – something along the lines of ‘This guy thinks he’s the new Bob Dylan! Why he’s not even fit to lace Dylan’s boots.’ And I was like, ‘Man, I never compared myself to Bob Dylan. I’ve spent my whole career trying not to be compared to Dylan.’”
It's easy to see why Conservative America might bear a grudge. Uniquely among his generation of songwriters, Oberst, an Omaha, Nebraska-born purveyor of eloquent, if occasionally over-cooked torch songs, has shown a tireless appetite for Sticking It To The Man. Since the very start of his career, Oberst has led a boycott of Clear Channel, the shadowy uber-corporation that owns a fair chunk of the major live venues in the US (and has lately fixed its beady gaze on Europe).
“We don’t like what Clear Channel stand for. The guys who run it are pretty much toe to toe with the Republican party,” says Oberst. “I’m lucky because my manager and my booking agent have always supported me [in the boycott]. People think it’s just me taking a stand. Without those people backing me up it wouldn’t be possible.”
He’s also demonstrated tremendous political courage by writing stridently left-wing songs (it’s one thing for Bruce Springsteen, a ‘legacy’ artist with millions of fans, to flaunt his liberal beliefs, another matter entirely if you're as young and relatively unestablished as Oberst). And if his sincerity sometimes gets the better of his song-craft (his best-known anti-Bush anthem, ‘When The President Talks To God’, is cringe-inducingly right on) at least Oberst has shown the cojones to step up to the podium. “Funnily, I don’t think I’m necessarily taking too huge a risk in expressing those sort of sentiments,” he insists. “You know, millions of Americans agree with me. We did ‘When The President Talks To God’ on the Jay Leno show and, beforehand, he came into our dressing-room to hang out. He told me was very supportive of what we were doing. I have no sense that we’re somehow taking an extreme position.”
Oberst’s activism has seen him literally sharing a bandwagon with Springsteen and Michael Stipe. In 2004, he joined the elder statesmen of protest rock for the Vote For Change Tour, an anti-Bush jaunt around America intended to ratchet up support for the Democratic party’s John Kerry.
“To observe those guys work close-up was very educational. They wear their fame lightly. If you meet them they don’t let it get in the way. You start talking to them and you forget they’re these huge stars. And Michael is just so amazingly magnetic. He has a natural charisma in front of a crowd. He can just walk out there and make them want to watch him. I don’t have anything like that.”
Floating on a bedrock of folk violins and campfire guitars, Bright Eyes’ latest album, Cassadaga, is a paean to a renegade Florida community of the same name, a swamp-shack hamlet populated by self-proclaimed mystics and psychics.
“A friend of mine who lives in Gainesville told me about it a few years back,” explains the singer. “I was immediately fascinated. The thought of going to a town with such a high density of psychics, mystics and mediums was just irresistible.”
Should we conclude that Oberst is a believer in the supernatural? “I’ve been to psychics but they’ve always been really touristy. Cassadaga is completely different. On the way there I felt kind of nervous: like, ‘What have I left myself in for?’ As soon as we got there, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm. One of the psychics I went to, an old Wicca lady, told me she could read auras. If any of the spirits approached me, she said she’d let me know.”
Did she tell him what the future holds?
“She said I shouldn’t fear death, and that I was going in the right direction, despite the fact that I might not always think so. Something like that really stays with you.”
In early 2019, Oberst teamed up with Phoebe Bridgers to form a new group, Better Oblivion Community Center. Take a look at their music video for 'Dylan Thomas' below: