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It’s Been a Hard Year, But Bright Eyes Aren’t Giving Up Yet

After nearly a decade of hard losses and new joys, Conor Oberst, Nate Walcott, and Mike Mogis knew the time was right to get the band back together

Bright Eyes, from left: Mike Mogis, Conor Oberst, and Nate Walcott.

Shawn Brackbill*

A few years ago, Conor Oberst was attending a Christmas party at Nate Walcott’s home in Los Angeles when he told his Bright Eyes bandmate he had an idea. “It kind of just came out of my mouth,” Oberst, 40, recalls: “’Let’s do it. Let’s make a record.’” 

To Walcott, the decision to end the band’s unofficial hiatus of nearly a decade felt organic. “It wasn’t like I was standing in the kitchen and dropped a pound cake,” the 42-year-old musician cracks. “Schedules were aligning. Also, there’s just the simple fact that we like hanging out with each other. We like making records together.” 

That night, Oberst and Walcott huddled into the bathroom to call their bandmate Mike Mogis, who was back home in Omaha. “I honestly don’t even remember that call,” Mogis, 46, admits. “I think that it woke me up. Or if I was up, I was probably a little drunk.” Mogis agreed right away, but Oberst called the musician and producer again the following day just to confirm that he was on board. “I was in the mall doing some Christmas shopping with my kids,” Mogis says. “I think it was probably the right move to call me the next day to make sure I understood that it wasn’t a dream that I had.”

The album that resulted from those calls, Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, marks Bright Eyes’ first new release since 2011’s The People’s Key. It’s a stark collection of 14 songs that’s simultaneously heart-wrenching and joyous, as Oberst grapples with divorce and the loss of his late brother (the album is dedicated to him), while staying optimistic about the future. 

In the last decade, Oberst has released several solo albums, as well as a second record with his best-known other band, Desaparecidos (2015’s Payola). He’s also become a major influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters who favor melancholy honesty. Last year, Oberst formed the band Better Oblivion Community Center with one of his clearest stylistic heirs, Phoebe Bridgers, who grew up listening to Bright Eyes. “I was super-nervous when we were making Better Oblivion, because I just didn’t feel like a peer,” Bridgers, 26, said earlier this year. “He tried his fucking hardest to make me feel respected and listened to. He’s a very fun person to collaborate with, because he’s so receptive to new shit. He’s not a guy who makes the same-sounding records.”

In a sense, all these projects have been leading up to Down In the Weeds. For Oberst and his bandmates, it’s a welcome return to their home territory, with themes appropriate for musicians approaching mid-life struggles. On “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts),” Oberst recites a conversation with his ex-wife, Corina Figueroa Escamilla, where she said living with him was exhausting. “I’ll ask my love/What will she say?/What’s it like to live with me here/Every fucking day?” he sings. “But she stays/’Agotante, agotante, agotante’/In her most gentle way.” 

Mogis notes that he also went through a divorce of his own in the years since Bright Eyes’ last album. “That’s a thing on the record: losing a love that is really special to you,” he says. 

There were other losses, too, that echo through the songs. “I lost my dad,” Mogis continues. “He lost his brother. Inside the band, even though we all know what he’s talking about, I still internalize it and interpret it in my own life. That’s how everybody relates to music. It’s the most universal fucking thing on the planet.”

Down In the Weeds opens with the wonderfully bonkers “Pageturner’s Rag,” the last song they recorded for the album. It begins with Escamilla speaking Spanish — “Démosle la más cordial bienvenida al escenario a Your Most Vivid Nightmares!— before she starts to converse with his mother, Nancy, over segments of piano and Walcott’s trumpet. They recorded the song inside Pageturners Lounge, the bar Oberst owns in the band’s Omaha hometown.

“All our records have some kind of strange sound-collage intro,” Oberst says. “So we knew we had to do it. My friend Dan McCarthy plays ragtime, Scott Joplin stuff, every Thursday happy hour. I always associate that with feelings of happiness, when you open the door and you hear all your friends and you hear the music. To me, that represents some of my happiest memories of the last years.”

All three members of Bright Eyes cite Down In the Weeds as the band’s most collaborative album. Typically in the past, Oberst would write songs and bring them finished to the band, and they’d arrange them together. This time was different. “Nate and Mike would send me little bits of music, and then I would mess around with it and then write the vocal melodies and the lyrics to their musical ideas,” Oberst says. “Even with some of the ones that I brought in more finished, I would turn them over to Nate and he would do chord substitutions. He went to music school, and his musicality is much more sophisticated than mine.”

“In this case, we started from the ground up,” adds Walcott, whose side gigs include touring with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and composing scores for TV and film. “One thing I love to do is write interesting, weird chord progressions, so that worked out well. And also, Conor was bringing in some songs and he expressed interest in retooling those in a similar way.” Jokes Mogis: “Maybe Conor was just being lazy.” 

With orchestral arrangements and synthesizers, Down in the Weeds evokes the sounds of the band’s earlier records without directly copying them. The song “Tilt-A-Whirl” is a direct nod to the approach of 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness: “Let’s make this kind of shitty-sounding, low-fi, home recording-esque!” Mogis says of the track. For Oberst, the decision to recall the band’s past was intentional. “I was trying to walk the line of having it sound like a record that would be in our catalog,” he explains. “I wanted to reflect where we are in our lives now, and not be trying to be some kind of time machine or just like, hyper-nostalgia. We’re obviously all getting older, so I wanted it to be age-appropriate.”

During the sessions for Down In the Weeds in Omaha and Los Angeles, Walcott recruited Flea to play bass. “He and I had been on the road together a lot, and we had bonded over a shared interest in jazz music,” he says. “We spent a lot of time on days off playing Bach trumpet duets together. He has a vast understanding of harmony and his melodic sense is wonderful.”

The band also asked Queens of the Stone Age’s Jon Theodore to lend a hand on drums. “It seemed like a wild idea,” Oberst recalls. “I really love the first Mars Volta record, [2003’s] De-Loused in the Comatorium. I was like, ‘Well, the rhythm section on that record is Flea and Jon Theodore. What if we just get those guys?’” He laughs at the somewhat improbable choice. “It makes no sense with Bright Eyes music. I met Jon in passing and had a couple of mutual friends, so I just kind of cold-called him. I was like, ‘Is this something you’d want to do?’ I have no idea if he even knows who our band is, but he’s such a sweetheart. And then Flea rolled up to the studio and I didn’t really know what to expect — but nicest, nicest guy. Having the two of them in there was a real dream.”

Down in the Weeds often feels apocalyptic, but there are lighter elements on the record, particularly on “Dance and Sing,” an uplifting track about persevering through the darkness. “I’ll grieve what I have lost/Forgive the firing squad,” Oberst sings, backed by a choir. “How imperfect life can be.”

“I think of it as resilience,” Oberst says of that song’s mood. “We all obviously have challenges in our lives. I guess at the end of the day, your choices are to give up or to carry on and fight on. That’s trying to capture that feeling of not giving up.”

“‘Forced Convalescence’ is another song,” adds Walcott. “When we were in the studio, I remember sitting next to Flea and we were talking about Sly and the Family Stone. We weren’t talking about [the] apocalypse. We were talking about, ‘It sounds fun! This is fun music!’ No matter how heavy the material is thematically, we strive to make something that sounds beautiful and occasionally joyous and exciting.” 

“Mariana Trench” contains political overtones (“It takes a lot of gall/To try to please/These dehumanizing entities”), but they’re not as overt as, say, the ones on the anti-Bush protest song “When the President Talks to God,” which Oberst famously performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno 15 years ago last spring. It was a star-making moment in his career, but the singer says he looks back on the song with indifference. “I was never really proud of it,” he says. “I think it’s honestly one of the least interesting songs I’ve written. But at the time, it felt important. I think of it more as a commercial for a way of thinking than I think of it as a good song. We got invited to play Leno, and they were like, ‘Play “First Day of My Life!”’ And I just didn’t want to do that. I felt like if I was gonna be on TV, I wanted to say something more than a love song.” 

At the time, he recalls, he felt nervous before performing the song. “I did the soundcheck in my little hoodie, and then I freaked out afterwards. My tour manager at the time was like, ‘All right. I got an idea. I’m going to get you a cowboy suit, baby.’ He had it there within an hour. Once I put that on, I was like, ‘This feels a little better.’ My idea was, if you’re some guy in Arkansas watching your television in your recliner, you’ll be like” — he puts on a country accent — “Turn this up, honey! This young man looks like a fine, upstanding young man!” 

Like many artists, Bright Eyes were scheduled to kick off a tour this summer in support of Down In the Weeds. Instead, they rescheduled the shows for next year, and performed a socially distanced “Mariana Trench” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in June. Everyone’s parts — including a horn section and vocals from the singers of Lucius — were shot individually and overdubbed after. “The little bit of music I’ve played since this whole thing started has made me feel so good,” Oberst says. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing for anyone to do, but I personally didn’t want to sit on my bed in my underwear and play acoustic guitar into, like, my iPhone. We’re definitely not gonna do that.”

In the meantime, Mogis and Walcott have been working on the score for The Stand, the upcoming miniseries based on Stephen King’s 1978 novel about a pandemic that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population. “I’m curious about how it will be received,” Walcott says. “I suppose it has always resonated — this fear of some sort of contagious disease that’s going to kill us all. It’s an uncanny coincidence that we’re working on the show right now.” Adds Mogis: “Are people going to want to see this shit? Maybe so.”

With Walcott and Mogis busy composing TV music, Oberst is open to working on another side project — possibly another Better Oblivion Community Center album with Bridgers. “I’d love to make another record with her,” he says. “When Phoebe and I decided to make the first record [2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center], we were like, ‘Let’s make a Pixies or the Replacements [album]. Let’s sound like that.’ But then when we ended up making the record, it ended up being a lot softer than that. When we toured the record, everything got cranked up, and we got all the distortion pedals and we played everything louder. So when we’ve talked about it since, we know how to do it: We want to make a rock album. We don’t want it to be folky at all. We want Pixies, Breeders, all that shit.” 

Lately, Oberst is trying to make the best out of quarantine, seeing if he can stay motivated while residing in Los Angeles and Omaha. “It’s weird, because I have all this time that I didn’t think I would have, because we were supposed to be obviously on the road,” he says. “To me, it’s a good day if I take a shower and make my bed. Yesterday, I had one of those days where I didn’t really get out of my pajamas, and I feel guilty about that.” 

When he thinks about aging and his own mortality, Oberst cites his late friend, the artist Gary Burden — who created iconic album covers for Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and more before his death in 2018 — as an inspiration. “I have always been preoccupied with death my whole life, even as a kid,” Oberst says. “So I think about it all the time. I looked up to Gary a lot, because he was this really creative, artistic man that just seemed like he was always vital. He was always himself, backstage at the show rolling a joint, still talking super coherently [about] art and music. When he’d hug you, it was like the strongest hug you’ve ever felt. I was like, ‘Man, if I could end up like Gary, I’d love that.’” 

He looks up from under his black snapback hat as he continues: “I don’t know if I’ll be that lucky. It sounds a little corny, but I really do think so much of it is staying young at heart and keeping that zest for life. Once you lose that, you grow old really fast. So for me, it’s a constant concern just to make sure I don’t slip into some super-depressive, cynical mindset. And part of that’s being around younger people, or just different people, and trying to keep an open mind. There’s nothing more annoying than some old, jaded rock guy that thinks they’ve seen it all. I never want to be that.”

From Rolling Stone US