- 11 Sep 20
As indie trio Bright Eyes roar back with their first new album in almost a decade, frontman Conor Oberst talks to Ed Power about personal loss, life in Trump’s America – and how Peaky Blinders is getting him through the lockdown.
"My God, he’s got a beautiful arse!” It’s a weekday afternoon in Omaha, Nebraska, and Conor Oberst, voice of a generation and clear-eyed chronicler of America’s woes, is speaking from the heart.
The subject at hand – in theory at least – is the gripping and moving new record by Oberst’s trio, Bright Eyes. The group sort of broke-up in 2011 – they’re still all friends so it was more a low-drama drifting apart – but have now reunited to release Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was.
The 40-year-old is justifiably proud of the LP he made with long-time collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Down In The Weeds is a clarion call for hope, courage and just not giving the fuck up when it feels the walls are about to tumble in.
Yet he is equally as enthusiastic discussing his favourite TV series which, rather shockingly, is brass-balled Brummie gangster romp Peaky Blinders. Are sensitive songwriter types allowed to watch shows like that?
“I just love Cillian,” says Oberst, referring to Peaky’s Cork-born leading man, Cillian Murphy. “I love the part where he cries when he has to shoot his horse.”
This prompts an anecdote about a close friend and fellow Peaky Blinders aficionado who texted Oberst late one night to reveal that Murphy had bared all on screen. Actually he wrote, “he’s got a beautiful arse”. Oberst dissolves into laughter, which seems sensible given the context.
This, it is fair to say, is not the conversation Hot Press thought it would be having with the composer of ‘When The President Talks To God’ and ‘Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come’.
Still, who can blame Oberst for wanting to look on the lighter side of life? Heavens knows he’s gazed into the darkness. Four years ago his older brother Matt passed away suddenly at 42, leaving behind a wife and two children. And then Oberst’s marriage to Corina Escamilla unravelled (though the split is apparently amicable – she is knocking about in the background when Hot Press calls). There was also a false rape allegation, with the accuser later recanting her statements which she admitted were 100% false.
“I lost my brother, Matty. My marriage ended. It took a while for those things to... I don’t know... manifest themselves in songs,” he nods. “But there was a lot of happy stuff that happened too. Falling in love. Watching kids get born [Bright Eyes bandmate Nate Walcott had a child]. Just all of these life events that keep happening. Obviously on a more macro level, seeing all the craziness of the world and living in Trump’s America.”
He’s kept busy since Bright Eyes’ previous LP, 2011’s The People’s Key. Oberst revisited his punk-folk project, Desaparecidos and put out three solo albums. He also formed “super-duo” Better Oblivion Community Center with Phoebe Bridgers (this interview took place before she declared intergenerational warfare by slamming Eric Clapton’s catalogue as “extremely mediocre”).
Oberst became famous – or at least “indie rock famous” – in his teens and had soon been anointed the voice of his generation. A contemporary of the emo scene, the assumption was that music was his wailing wall. The place he went to vent when life got too much. He smiles. It was never that straightforward. Songwriting doesn’t occupy the position in his world that strangers often appear to think it does.
“I’ve heard people describing music as ‘oh it must be cathartic’. I suppose it’s a form of therapy. People say, ‘It must feel so good to scream that song – you must feel better afterwards’. And it’s like – ‘No, it really doesn’t work that way’. A lot of the time you feel worse.”
Bright Eyes never officially broke-up. Their return was largely spontaneous with Oberst suggesting a reunion to Mogis at a party. He was up for it, as was Walcott.
“We’ve always been deeply involved in each other’s lives,” says Oberst, pointing out that he and Mogis are neighbours in Omaha (Oberst has a second residence in LA, where he frequently sees Walcott). “It wasn’t as if we had to rediscover one another.”
If there’s a difference it’s that they’re all slightly older now. Oberst turned 40 in February, just before the lockdown by which time the new record was already recorded and mixed.
“I do feel old,” he smiles. “I feel like I’m 105.”
Here’s the surprising thing about Oberst. He isn’t the guy you see on stage or hear on record, communing with his demons or gazing towards the horizon. Face to face, he’s grounded and dry. If the wunderkind label that has rested on his shoulders since adolescence weighs heavily he convincingly conceals the burden.
Still, there are flashes of earnestness here and there. Oberst famously excoriated George W. Bush with 2005’s ‘When The President Talks To God’ – a sort of millennial answer to ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’. And here he is 15 years later sitting in his living room in Nebraska, a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
“The thing people have brought to me is, ‘Why not write the ‘President Talks To God Part Two’ about Trump?’ My answer to that is, ‘He doesn’t deserve that’. He doesn’t deserve me writing a song about him. He’s such a pathetic, disgusting piece of shit. I don’t want to immortalise him in a song. I’d rather have him disappear from history completely.”
Even if he did wish to skewer the President, there is the obvious problem of Trump being beyond satire.
“You can’t exaggerate him. He’s already the worst. Bush was… not to excuse the Iraq War and all the crazy things that happened around that time, but Trump is a completely different animal. He’s just a psychotic maniac.”
• Down In The Weeds, Where the World Once Was is out now.