Eyes on the Prize
At 22, Conor Oberst is probably too young to be locked into the expectations of a fan base. After all, most musicians of his age are only beginning to figure out what they want to express, and how they plan to go about it. But Oberst's intensely emotional, confessional songs for his group Bright Eyes, and the tortured vibratos that he's brought to them, not only arouse strong reactions, they've helped to define a new, contemporary approach to the tired singer-songwriter ethos.
Maybe that's why it's such a jolt to be introduced to Oberst's new group: Desaparecidos. Awash in a maelstrom of writhing guitars in an anthemic roar, over tightly wound rhythms and driving percussion, they share little with the violins and finger cymbals of Bright Eyes. A supple Omaha five-piece, Desaparecidos races through blind alleys and hairpin turns with the steely nerves of a professional race car driver; a rack-and-pinion rock outfit that has turned the corner on its peers, thanks both to its big power-chord sound and the impassioned vocals of Oberst.
Discussing Oberst's prodigious talent tempts hyperbole, but one is hard-pressed to imagine a songwriter who has written such achingly honest, evocative songs at such a tender age, as he has for Bright Eyes. Oberst's output (three full-lengths, an EP and split EP) has brought the indie-rock cognoscenti to their knees in genuflection, and for good reason. With a wisdom that seems beyond his years and a vocal instrument that quivers and quakes with each heartfelt confession, he's earned comparisons to Nick Drake and Elliott Smith among others, and a surfeit of fawning attention that seems to make him uncomfortable.
So perhaps it's not surprising that he's enjoying a comfortable sinecure in a loud rock band with a cadre of fellow Nebraskans. Talking to New Times as the band rolls over Florida's scenic highways, Oberst admits Desaparecidos was intended as a departure from his intensely personal, emotionally wrenching solo work.
"I was looking for something a little different. I wanted to be a part of a group," as opposed to fronting the rotating cast of Bright Eyes players, Oberst says. "It's a relief to not be responsible for everything, to share the spotlight and be a member of a full-time band again."
Oberst first started making music when he was 12, thanks to the influence of his father, who played guitar and piano in area cover bands, and big brother Matt (vocalist, Sorry About Dresden), who turned him on to alt-rock acts such as The Pixies and Nirvana. A couple of years later he would form Commander Venus with friends Todd Beachle (The Faint) and Tim Kasher (Cursive, The Good Life), a noisy, melodic punk band in the mold of Superchunk. After self-releasing their first album, they were signed by the nascent label Wind-Up Records (along with a little-known Tallahassee, Florida, band called Creed). The label's profligacy bought them a new van and provided the seed money for their own label, Saddle Creek, but they broke up in '97, after the album's release, with each of the members going on to receive even greater critical plaudits for their own bands.
Oberst's not surprised that his circle of friends should find such critical success (it was recently announced The Faint will open for No Doubt on its upcoming tour), because "they're all so talented." But he does admit, "Each time someone puts out a new record, it's like raising the bar, making you work even harder . . . it's a friendly competition." Indeed, Saddle Creek's bands will often be found touring in each other's company, sharing players between bands and solo projects, and rabidly cheering and jeering each other on from the audience with a camaraderie that's rare among musicians.
Perhaps that's another reason Oberst found himself longing to be in a band again, because he and his bandmates are all such good friends. Discussing the music, he's quick to share credit, and insists that the songs are a real team effort. "Usually, Denver [Dalley, guitarist] will come up with a riff, and we'll jam off it for a while. Or maybe I'll have a vocal melody. Very rarely does anyone come in with anything very fully formed," says Oberst, who also shares some of the vocals and writing duties with bassist Landon Hedges (The Good Life).
Anchored to a big guitar sound, Desaparecidos' debut, Read Music/Speak Spanish (to be released Monday, February 11), works with broad strokes, delivering the kind of raucous, straightforward energy that drove post-punk pioneers like The Replacements and The Lemonheads.
"In the early couple practices, I'd throw out all these different, minor-chord things that I might have had or just come up with, and they'd be, 'Yeah man, that's really good, but scrap it,'" reports Dalley. "They just wanted that whole anthemic, loud, spastic-rock thing. 'Give us something with a loud, upbeat feel.'"
Like the music, the nature of Oberst's lyrics is expansive. As opposed to the soul-baring narratives of heartbreak and personal pain that inform his solo work, songs like "The Happiest Place on Earth," "Mall of America" and "$$$$" tackle society's alienating money-centric focus, as well as gentrification and the slow, inexorable parking lot-ing of America. "I wanted to write about the bigger picture, because these are things I know and care about, too," says Oberst. "I think a band's songs should have a distinct flavor, and that's what's kind of evolved."
Growing up in the moments prior to the underground's brief flirtation with mainstream success in the early '90s, Oberst admits to being a "fist-waving, anti-corporate, indie-rock kid," an attitude that time and experience have done little to soften. "I know so many people with bad major-label experiences, like my friends Spoon, and I understand that to these labels you're little more than an entry in the books," he says. With his rabble-rouser's lyrical provocations, he recalls that defiant hope of alternative's heyday, singing on "Mañana," "We will laugh, we will love, we will work, and change each other/We will spread, we will cover the earth, like air and water. If we're stuck, we'll just start again."
Yet even as the band begins its first national headlining tour, Oberst hasn't abandoned the much-admired Bright Eyes. He just got out of the studio where he was laying down tracks for a forthcoming album, scheduled for release in the fall, and he's already pulling together the tracks that will appear on a teaser EP in April or May, which he'll sell during a spring tour. "[Desaparecidos] definitely reenergized me, and got me excited to work on my own stuff again," Oberst confirms.
For a moment, Oberst -- the thinking-girl's heartthrob, the modern voice of unabashed sensitivity -- contemplates the direction his life would have taken had he never endeavored to become a musician. "I would've become a writer, or maybe a teacher," the young prodigy insists. Aware of how much he has to say, at an age when most people are just beginning to sort out their own feelings, you believe him.
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