World exclusive – Conor Oberst on Bright Eyes’ return: “We’re notorious for not making good commercial decisions”

Returning in the midst of a global pandemic, the alt-folker talks chemistry and working with Phoebe Bridgers – and insists the band never broke up

This week was supposed to mark the live return of Bright Eyes. After dropping their first new song in nine years with the gorgeously melancholic ‘Persona Non Grata’, they were due to make their live return in Japan. Alas, fate and the coronavirus pandemic putting the world on lockdown has forced them to change their plans.

“It’s so crazy, but our problems are nothing compared to people with kids who can’t go to work, can’t eat or get medicine,” frontman Conor Oberst tells NME from self-isolation at home in LA. “You gotta keep things in perspective. The world can live without fuckin’ rock n’ roll for a minute.”

In his first interview about the return of his seminal alt-folk band, Oberst is understandably reflective – on both getting back together with bandmates Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis, and the hyper-surreal, dystopian landscape that they find themselves in. “I’ve been reading a lot of think-pieces about how this could be the dawn of a new consciousness for humanity,” he says. “I hope that’s true, but there’s a lot of wishful thinking right now.

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“What are your choices? You can fall into despair or try and find the silver lining. I’m happy people are finding the latter. My mind isn’t really wired that way. I tend to look for the worst-case scenario!”

It just wouldn’t be Bright Eyes with a little bit of darkness, eh? To find out where Oberst is at in 2020, NME got him on the phone for a quick chat on new material, what to expect from their unannounced new album on the horizon, the tour, and if he considers himself ‘mature’.

It must feel nice to spread a little joy and drop some new music at a time like this?

“Yeah. It’s so weird to talk about it in this perspective. Everyone in the music industry is trying to keep it as business as usual. Part of me was like, ‘Shit, shall we just put the whole record out now? There’s a hope that things will get back to normal sooner rather than later. People have got a lot of time of their hands, so the more you can find to enrich your life, the better.”

What can you tell us about where ‘Persona Non Grata’ came from?

“My songs make sense to me, but sometimes it’s hard to connect the dots to others. When you listen to a song like ‘Persona Non Grata’, to some people it might just sound like words scrambled, but to me there is a logical progression to it all. If you boil it down, it’s some of attempt at forgiveness or redemption. It’s about a ceasefire amongst yourself and the world. It’s a wish list of things that I wish could be settled – but maybe it’s too late.”

Bright Eyes, 2020. Photo: Press/Shawn Brackbill

Would you say it’s representative of the album?

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“It’s really not. There’s a more obvious single, but the intention was never to put that out first. There are quite a lot of different songs to the record, but I think there’s a cohesion to it. We went with this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was like, ‘Really? The weird funeral dirge is your first choice?’ I’m notoriously a bad judge of what people like so I should never be in charge of these decisions. I hope that people can hear it in the context of the record soon.”

“As we’re seeing right now, the world is very unpredictable and chaotic. That’s the human experience and the human experiment”

What would you say the album is lyrically dealing with?

“Loss is a big theme on the album, of all kinds – personal and macro amounts of loss. There’s some hope in it as well and some love songs. It’s not overtly political. Like our previous records it’s personal with world views swirled together. Those things do affect one another. Relationships are always set against the backdrop of what’s going on out there. As we’re seeing right now, the world is very unpredictable and chaotic. That’s the human experience and the human experiment.”

When did you first feel the urge to reunite Bright Eyes? 

“Despite certain reports, we never broke up. Our last record was 2011 [‘The People’s Key’] and since then we’ve always been very close. Nate and Mike are two of my best friends in the world and there was no falling out. They went to their various other pursuits. Mike kept producing records, they both do a lot of film scoring, Nate was touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers for about four years (which is cool) and I’ve been making my records. It happened in an organic way. I was talking to Nate at a Christmas party a couple of years ago and just said, ‘We should do it – let’s make a record. We’re all getting older’. We snuck into his bathroom, called up Mike and he was fully on board. We went to Omaha a couple of months later and just started.”

Had the chemistry changed much when you got back in the studio?

“For most of our records I would have brought the finished songs and then we all arranged them together, but this time we actually had the luxury of having a hi-tech studio and wrote a lot more of it together over two years. We were able to try a lot of things, experiment and edit. I hope that shows. It felt good and we were all at a point in our lives when we needed each other. I feel like I’m in a band with two bona fide musical geniuses. Nate writes all the string arrangements and is the most qualified. Mogis has always been an insane professor with studio trickery. I just do what I do which is put my psychotic poetry to it. We’re a three-headed monster. It works.”

“We were all at a point in our lives when we needed each other. I feel like I’m in a band with two bona fide musical geniuses”

So it felt natural to be back in Bright Eyes?

“I think we’ve all changed a lot and been through all kinds of life developments. We never stopped working on our craft. When we got back together, we just thought of it as our band. We were oblivious to our extensive catalogue. We just wanted to make something that felt like a Bright Eyes record with nine years of practice. It does feel like a Bright Eyes record, undeniably.”

Would you say the new stuff feels more ‘mature’?

“That word has some connotations. Everyone can make their own judgements on that point. When we were making it, we wanted to invoke some elements of our oldest records. The sounds aren’t all pristine and super-manicured. We wanted to feel like the band we started as kids who were into punk rock and stuff like that. My favourite stuff walks the line between the human, raw, emotional and unhinged qualities, but with a little more sophisticated approach.”

What can we expect from the upcoming tour?

“There are gonna be string and horn elements and we’re working on cool ideas for the visual part of it. When it happens, it will be a big show. I’ve seen some really cool drawings and renderings for what the stage is going to look like. We’ll eventually be putting our best foot forward. I really like End Of The Road Festival [the band are still due to headline in September], so hopefully all this will have blown over by then.”

Have you and Phoebe Bridgers talked about making another joint Better Oblivion Community Center album?

She’s got her own record coming soon. She’s in the same boat where nobody knows what to do. It’s an amazing record and I’m so excited for her to release it and for people to hear it. We’re totally in contact and we’d love to make another Better Oblivion record at some point.

Anything else you can tell us about your plans for the future?

“We want to spend like a year and a half pushing this record and making it right. We got a new label in Dead Oceans and I’ve known those guys since Bright Eyes played some of their basement shows in the ‘90s. We’re notorious for not making really good commercial decisions, but we were really gonna for it this year, which is hilarious. Now there’s a world pandemic. Classic.”

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