- Interview by
- Garrison Lovely
Conor Oberst is one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of the last twenty years. Best known for his work with Bright Eyes, Oberst has also collaborated with Flea, Jim James, Alt-J, and Phoebe Bridgers. His most recent song, “Miracle of Life,” featuring Phoebe Bridgers, raised money for Planned Parenthood and opposed Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
Oberst sat for an interview with Jacobin’s Garrison Lovely this fall. They talked a bit about politics (Oberst made public stances against the Iraq War and supported Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs) and a lot about music. You can listen to an unabridged audio version of this interview on Lovely’s podcast, The Most Interesting People, here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How are you doing?
With COVID and everything, it feels like you can’t really win, but I’m just trying to keep it positive. Just stay on the sunny side of the street as much as possible, I guess.
It’s funny hearing that coming from you, based on your music. I don’t know if people associate Conor Oberst or Bright Eyes with “stay on the sunny side of the street” . . .
Yeah, and these are tough times for optimism. Never in my life have I known so many people on unemployment. I have a roof over my head, I have food in my fridge, but there’s just so many people that, on top of all the health scares, are completely terrified about what they’re going to eat or if they’re going to lose their apartment. So I can’t imagine having the stress of the pandemic and then to have that financial stress on top of it. That’s enough to break a lot of people’s spirits.
Yeah, and [Mitch] McConnell just adjourned the Senate until after the election, so there won’t be any additional relief.
We’ll get into politics in a bit, but I just wanted to start off with a story of, I think, the first time I really connected with a Bright Eyes song. I was doing acid with a friend of mine in college, and we were in a park, and “At The Bottom Of Everything” came on. We were having a conversation, and the spoken word intro took over, and we both stopped and just listened to this song straight through. And it’s this incredible, bizarre story of these people on a plane. There’s a massive mechanical failure, and then there’s this apocalyptic folk rock anthem. Could you just tell me a little bit about what your mindset was when you wrote the song and what you were trying to do with it?
We have, I guess, a tradition, you could say, for all the Bright Eyes records, of starting them with some kind of slightly pretentious either sound collage or, in that case, it’s just me telling a story. We just have always done that, and, to me, it’s sort of like it’s setting the stage for — okay, they all thematically tie into what’s going to happen on the record, but also, it’s a way to, I don’t know, test people’s attention spans and be like, “Okay, if you can kind of walk through this weird doorway with us, then there’s going to be all this music on the other side and a whole record to . . .” Hopefully, it’ll put you in a better mindset to absorb whatever.
So, for that one, since the whole idea of that record was to make what we would consider a ’70s folk rock album. And it’s definitely the album of ours that the most people know or whatever. It’s the most commercially successful, and some people just think that’s what our band sounds like, and all the other things we’ve done are weird side experiments, and it’s really not true. It was conceptually intentional to make something we hadn’t done before, which was a very traditional-sounding record, and let’s get Emmylou Harris to sing on it and let’s make whatever, our weird version. Of course, with all these things we try to do, it never ends up being what we set out to do, which I think is also cool, that there’s always an element of kind of failing at what you’re going for, so it doesn’t sound like a Jackson Browne record or a Joni Mitchell record or whatever, because we’re kind of weirdos, and we couldn’t do that if we wanted to or we tried.
So I guess the reason the story is told like that is that it seemed like an organic way to have that intro quality, because a lot of the other records are more sound collage and weird effects that wouldn’t probably have fit on that record.
Yeah, I also found a music video for it, which I didn’t actually know existed. It reminds me of this genre of early YouTube videos where they re-created songs based on the music video and just did a very literal interpretation of it, which is very funny. That’s basically what happens in the video, and the song is so bizarre that the video is also really bizarre, and people are making out on the plane as it goes down, and they’re just having all these weird interactions, and it’s just really wonderful.
Yeah. That’s cool. Cat Solen is her name. Man, I haven’t thought about her in years, but that was such an old or such a pre-internet or whatever time. I remember at my first house, she had made a little short film for a song off Lifted, which would have been a couple years before. And I got a VHS tape at my house, and she was an art student, and I was like, “Put it in,” and I was like, “Wow. This is really cool.” And then I just asked her, which is nice. I feel like stuff like that doesn’t happen that much anymore.
Yeah. I mean, the video’s 240p. It’s from a different era.
So the new album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the Bright Eyes album that came out a few months back, as you mentioned, also has this experimental intro with a monologue in Spanish by your ex-wife and then a conversation with your mother while you’re on mushrooms. Can you just talk a bit about how that new album came together and how it was different from some of the stuff Bright Eyes has done in the past?
Sure. I think the biggest difference is that nine years had passed, and so Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and I, we’re all just at different stages in our lives than the last time we made a record. But in one sense, that makes it sound like it was more difficult than it was. I feel like once we started making the record, we did spend two years making it, so there was a lot of time to revise ideas and think about things and cut songs and all of that, but I would say, it was a surprise to me that, fundamentally, our approach wasn’t that different, even after nine years. I just think that maybe we’re all a little better at what we do and a little more discerning, because it’s not like we stopped making music that whole time. We just hadn’t made a Bright Eyes record.
So we wanted it to sound like us in 2019 or whenever we were making it, but we also wanted it to, if it sat on your shelf with the other Bright Eyes records, it would make sense, and it wouldn’t sort of stand out like a sore thumb. So we were kind of aware of the nostalgia in it and pulling out some old instruments that we used on past records. There’s this thing called a hammered dulcimer that Michael plays that we probably haven’t put on a recording since 2002, but it was like, “Let’s get out the hammered dulcimer. Let’s make it sound like a Bright Eyes song.” So just, stuff like that, just kind of aesthetic decisions and trying to walk the tightrope of what it means to make a record at our age now, but also what it means to kind of be connected to . . . Because we made a lot of records, and I’m happy to say that they mean something to people, even the ones that I feel a little cringey about. It’s like, they mean something to somebody out there, and in a weird way, we’re trying to be cognizant of that or make something that hopefully they like and we like and we can all like. You know what I mean?
Yeah, this is something I’ve seen in some of your other interviews, where a song that you might not have thought much of at the time just becomes a huge thing, like your most famous song is “First Day of My Life,” which doesn’t necessarily reflect the Bright Eyes sound. I love the song as well, but . . .
No, not at all. It’s one of the biggest outliers ever as far as all the music we made. Yeah. Again, it’s like, I feel like that stuff is really unpredictable. I think when artists attempt to, I don’t know, make things that they think the audience will like or go out of their way to . . . I guess I’m contradicting what I just said, but to kind of re-create the same thing over and over again, I think that starts to get — just, as a fan of other people’s music, that starts to wear on me. Even bands I really like. It’s like, if they keep making the same record, I’m not going to necessarily pay attention four records into their career. I think you’ve got to keep it moving.
It kind of reminds me of Father John Misty, who’s also a lyrically driven, dark, brooding indie artist. His biggest song is called “Real Love Baby,” and it sounds kind of like a 1950s pop song. And it’s a good track, but it’s totally different from everything else he’s made. And I think of that with you guys.
Do you resent having to play some of these songs live, or is it just a thing like, “Yeah, this is connecting with people, and we’re happy to do it”?
I would say there’s some songs that I think stand up, and there are some, even if they’re recordings of them, that embarrass me a little bit. Mostly it’s the sound in my voice, because I never was a trained singer by any means, and I just learned to sing from years of doing it. And so, yeah, if I hear a recording when I’m nineteen singing, it’s not my favorite sound in the world. But the actually nice part of being able to play some of those old songs live is you get a chance to do it again and either reinterpret it with the band, because our band always changes, or just the sound of me singing it is — I think, at least for me, I like it more. Maybe some fans would disagree. And then there are some songs that I don’t have much interest in playing at all. But we have so many songs that that’s okay.
I now want to switch gears a little bit into politics and your music. When did you first have a sense that your opinions on politics were different from normal opinions on politics or the mainstream?
Well, I honestly didn’t pay much attention to politics until I remember very specifically, I was on tour in Europe, and it was after the Bush/Gore election, and I just was confused. I was like, “Wait a second. This isn’t lining up with my civics classes, and why don’t . . .” You know?
Yeah, like, “why do we not have a president yet” and the hanging chads and all that business. So I started reading more or consuming more news. And then — I don’t know how old you are but, of course, 9/11 happened. I was twenty-one. We had just made the first Desaparecidos record, and I would say it’s mildly anti-capitalist and critical of American empire.
That was the next thing coming out, and that was when there was an American flag on every house, and it was a pretty inopportune time to go sing punk rock songs about whatever. But we did it. We put the record out. I remember playing the old Knitting Factory back when it was down on Church Street or whatever, Lower Manhattan, and having to park our van or go through a checkpoint and everything. I mean, everything’s crazy. The Pentagon was still smoldering. It was fresh.
After that, like a lot of people, I was terrified and confused and felt like one of the ways to deal with that was to educate myself and read more and just try to have a wider understanding. And then also the fact was that it was for my job — I was always going to Europe and other places that weren’t the United States, and you end up having conversations. You kind of end up, in a way, having to defend things that are happening with journalists. So it just got to the point where it entered into my life in a way that I felt like I had to form opinions, and then the more you learn, I guess, the more I felt the lead-up to the Iraq war . . . I was living in New York, and that was a very intense time, and then the second election and having [George W.] Bush get reelected. Those all felt like huge things to me, and they were huge things to me.
I think you’re right. They were huge things [laughing].
But they were, yeah. It was very formative, and I was living in New York. I was hanging out with you crazy lefties. So, yeah, coming from Nebraska, it was a very different world than what I grew up in.
I want to talk a bit about Desaparecidos, because that music is definitely the most political that you’ve put out. You have a 2015 album, Payola, that I really liked — you’re spitting fire there. And one song in particular really stuck out to me: “MariKKKopa,” about Sheriff Joe Arpaio. You were talking about family separation and the treatment of immigrants in this country well before it was on most people’s minds. So how does it feel to see some of these issues that you’ve been aware of for a bit longer coming to be more in the mainstream now?
It’s great. I mean, I think that, again, it’s hard to say that there’s a silver lining to Trumpism and what we’ve all been living through, but I think if it’s anything, it’s younger kids getting more involved at an earlier age and being more active in using whatever the tools are at their disposal to organize themselves. They’re not as apathetic as I think I remember me and my friends being at certain ages, and that’s very encouraging.
I mean, the immigration situation, that was really important to me. My ex-wife, who’s still one of my best friends, is from Mexico City. And that song first came out when SB 1070 was going on in Arizona, which is the “show me your papers” law, basically trying to make it more or less very difficult to be Mexican in Arizona, which is crazy. Have you ever been to Arizona? That’s an impossible ask.
And then there was essentially a copycat law that they were — because they started passing the same kind of law all over the country — so there was one in this little town, Fremont, which is outside of Omaha, and we ended up teaming up with the ACLU and putting on this big concert called the Concert for Equality, which basically raised all of this money, sued the shit out of this town to the point where they just couldn’t enact the law, and now there’s a lot of meatpacking plants. There’s a lot of undocumented workers that live out there, so that was a success, and I met Zack de la Rocha and Tom [Morello] from Rage Against the Machine.
I opened for Rage Against the Machine at the Palladium — it’s actually one of the scariest things of my life. It was 2010, and they hadn’t played a show in LA for a long time — and the Palladium holds, I think, maybe 4,000 people, and Rage is good for 40,000 people in LA. So there were riot gear cops surrounding the building with shields. There were helicopters. Oh, man. I mean, it was off. It was just insane.
The Machine showed up?
They showed up big time, and then my band — I had to get up there with an acoustic guitar and play while their fans are just really ready to see Rage Against the Machine play. They weren’t that stoked to see me up there but, hey, the band was happy to have me. And then the day before, there was a press conference, also at the Palladium, and it was truly a traditional press conference, like with the long tables. Probably some of the most cameras I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s every news outlet, just cameras pointed at you, and it was Zack and Tom, a couple different lawyers, Dolores Huerta. She’s a famous activist, just amazing. And I’m just sitting there thinking I’m just going to sit at this table and be like, “Hey.”
It’s five minutes before, and Zack’s like, “Oh, yeah. Everyone’s going to talk for five minutes and say why they’re here.” I’m the most nervous I’ve maybe ever been, and I scribbled some shit down really fast in my notebook, and I don’t know. I didn’t talk that much, but I just was like, “Hey, this is my personal story. This is what I believe in, why I’m here, basically.”
And the show was raising money to fight the SB 1070 law. And then there was this whole thing called Sound Strike, which was basically getting bands to boycott playing there, which is pretty controversial. We ended up doing it, but I don’t know. A lot of bands and promoters were upset. They’d say, “If you want to make a difference, come here and play. That’ll make more difference than not playing,” but that’s the way that Zack and Tom wanted to do it.
So they organized it. They got some pretty huge bands. It doesn’t matter if my band plays in Arizona or not, but they were getting not only bands but whole conventions to cancel. And they were actually causing economic damage, which, sometimes, that’s the only way you get them to listen to you at all. And then, not to mention Sheriff Joe and all that insanity.
Sheriff Joe has since been pardoned by Trump. He’s an absolute monster. One of the worst humans alive.
There’s another lyric from Desaparecidos. You have a line like, “If one must die to save the 99, maybe it’s justified. The left is right. We’re doomed.” Off the first track, The Left is Right. And I’m guessing it’s a 1 percent–99 percent dichotomy.
Yeah, it was. Obviously. Occupy Wall Street wasn’t that old. I mean, that album’s weird, because we hadn’t been a band for a long time, and then we started putting out these seven inches, so the first one, the MariKKKopa one, was whatever year that would have been.
Could it have been 2012?
Yeah, something like that. So we’re writing these songs over a period of time. It kind of encapsulates, I guess, five years of things that we were thinking about and that were in the news and whatnot. And I was obviously such a huge [Barack] Obama supporter. I played at the primary. I met him, actually, on January 1 in 2008, in a classroom in Iowa, because we were playing rallies for him, and he walked in by himself into this room. There were probably five of us standing in there, and he was so funny, because it’s New Year’s Day morning, and he’s like, “I’d like to thank you for coming out on a day of recovery.” We must have looked like hammered dog shit, but we were there at 8:00 in the morning to play for him.
I remember running out in the streets. We were in Boston on tour, and we took the night off, but the night he won, we’d heard people singing in the streets. We look out the window. We run down. There’s that big reflecting pool by Harvard in Boston — and there’s pictures of it. We’re all in the water with hundreds of people. People are on everyone’s shoulders. It just felt so amazing and incredible. And then there are the policy decisions, like all the drone strikes and all the deportations. I don’t know. There was a level of me that started to feel betrayed, and so there’s a little bit of that kind of messaging, I feel like, on that record.
That’s kind of like what that song “Underground Man” is about, where they slowly strip you of all your idealism. That said, I’d do anything for him to be in office now [instead of Trump].
Yeah, I have a bit of a different view on Obama’s impact and legacy. I do think, especially with how the financial crisis was handled, there was a huge missed opportunity there.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, his coziness with Wall Street and corporate America is obviously not in dispute at all.
But yeah. I guess these lyrics got to me a little bit as well, because I’d imagine you are part of the 1 percent. Do you feel any tension, being personally very successful and doing good things with your fame and your music, but still having resources that a lot of people don’t?
I’ve tried to use whatever platform I had to kind of advance the way I think about the world, but yeah, I am part of the 1 percent, I’m sure. I feel like it’s a strange thing because, I don’t know, for lack of a better word, I feel like I paid my dues. I slept on all the floors, and I did all the shitty tours, and I earned my money, but at the same time, I look around and I see people that just didn’t have that kind of opportunity or that privilege to be able to have those experiences. And yeah, I think that’s part of the course correction that needs to happen in general in this country, making it more inclusive and making it easier for more people to follow whatever dreams they have.
My mom, she’s retired now, but she was a principal in Omaha and worked really hard at really poor schools, and just seeing how much those people give their lives to trying to help kids . . . Most of my family are teachers. My brother was a teacher. Just those little things, where it’s like, they’re spending their own money to buy whatever.
Exactly. It’s heartbreaking. It’s like, our priorities are so upside down that it’s really frustrating.
Totally agree. I heard a story the other day about how, in Kansas, they elected a bunch of libertarians around the state, and teachers there were working as teachers to get health insurance and then working at Walmart or something to actually make enough money to pay their bills. That’s just insane.
Yeah, exactly. When the richest people in the country literally just push money around and don’t provide any real, tangible good in the world.
Yeah, I mean, the net worth of [Mark] Zuckerberg and [Jeff] Bezos has gone up by tens of billions of dollars since the pandemic started. It’s unsustainable.
Amazon, yeah, they’re definitely the biggest winner of this whole thing, it seems like.
I’m guilty of [using] it as well. It’s very convenient. I wish there were better options, but this is what politics is for. We solve the collective action problem together.
I want to talk a bit about the Iraq War and your opposition to it back when it actually meant something. I think nowadays it’s pretty much universally agreed upon to be this huge mistake [upon further investigation, not as universally agreed upon as I thought]. “Mistake” is too light of a word, I think. It’s a massive crime, and there’s a collective sense of regret for this decision, but at the time, it was so overwhelmingly supported in media, politics, and in the public — but you were speaking out against it. What did that look like for you, and what were some of the responses like at the time?
It definitely wasn’t a very popular stance in the whole country, and certainly not in Nebraska. I’m always blown away when people like my band or come to my shows and then get upset if I go on some kind of political rant on stage. We’re like, “Who did you think you were coming to see?”
Yeah. Right? “Stick to the music, man!”
It’s just like, “Really?” It’s like, maybe you only have heard “First Day of My Life” and that’s all they know, which is possible, but that always blows my mind.
I guess the biggest negative reaction I got is when I played “When the President Talks to God” on The Jay Leno Show and that got a lot of hate mail. When we did the Concert for Equality, like I was telling you, in Omaha, there were people dropping death threats in my actual mailbox.
There’s a great piece of Desaparecidos merch that we made from a show. There were protestors — not that many of them — there’s thousands of people that came to the show, but there were a handful of protesters across the street, and one of them was holding up a “Deport Conor Oberst” sign. And, no shit, it’s my friend Tim Kasher on the sign, who’s the singer of that band Cursive. It’s like they didn’t even get their Google search right. It said, “Deport Conor Oberst,” and had a picture of Tim. And so we made T-shirts of that with a picture of Tim.
When you played “When the President Talks to God,” which is about George W. Bush, on Leno, was there pushback? They wanted you to play “First Day of My Life,” right?
Yeah. It slowly went up the ladder. They were like, “No, you can’t play this song. Play this other song.” And we’re like, “Okay. Well, we’re not going to play.” And then it’s another phone call, like, “No. You should really play this song.” And it’s like, “Oh, we’re still not going to play.” And I just said no three times, and then whoever’s the head producer, I guess, changed their mind.
And then I went in there and Jay was actually really nice. They don’t always talk to you that much, all the TV hosts. I’ve played all of them at this point. But he was really sweet. He came in and was like, “Really happy you’re doing this,” and told me a story about when he and his comedian buddies were protesting the Vietnam War. Anyway, he was very kind and made me feel good about being there — and a lot of people were like, “Did you surprise him?” That’s not how TV works.
Yeah. They have to hear it ahead of time, right?
Yeah. And they tape the show at 4:00 in the afternoon, so there’s no real surprise . . . Maybe Saturday Night Live, it’s live, but every other show, they know exactly what you’re going to do, and if they want to cut it later, they can. So, in the end, they agreed to it.
It was funny because I sound-checked in my little black hoodie or whatever I was wearing, and I felt so nervous. I remember talking to Bill, my tour manager at the time, and I was like, “Bill. I think I need a cowboy suit, like ASAP.” And we’re in Los Angeles, so he gets one delivered in an hour, and I put that baby on, all the rhinestones and the hat. I was like, “Now I’m ready. Now I can do this.” And, yeah, my thought was how amazing it’d be if some guy in Middle America with the sound down on his TV was like, “Honey, turn this up. This looks like a fine, outstanding young man. Let’s give him a little volume here.”
Oh, my god. Undercover. No, it really works. That’s awesome.
As a song, I think you’ve said it’s not even a song you think is that interesting, but at the time [in 2005], it seemed like the right thing to do.
Yeah, I mean, it’s really just like a commercial for a way to think about things. It’s, I guess, in the tradition of a talking blues song. It’s two chords and not much of a melody. So, yeah, it’s not the pinnacle of my songwriting career or anything, but at the time, it felt important to do, I guess.
Yeah, I was thinking about this. I think there’s a trade-off between how political music can be and how artistically interesting it can be — like the band Flobots has this song “Handlebars” that’s super popular. It’s a fairly subtle metaphor for the Bush administration that you wouldn’t even get from listening to it. And then they have other songs that they just list out policies that they want to see enacted. It’s harder to misinterpret but it’s not as interesting. And “Born in the USA” may be the most famous example of this, where it’s seen as a patriotic song but it’s actually a Vietnam War protest song that’s constantly misinterpreted . . . If you want your stuff to be understood, it just won’t be as good, I think.
Not to keep talking about Rage Against the Machine, but that’s what I always thought was amazing as a kid in high school, because I did not have the same musical tastes as most of the people in my high school. I didn’t really like what was on the radio, but there was one band everyone could agree on, and the bros liked it, and it’s aggressive enough to whatever . . . But I always thought, what’s so genius about that band is that it’s so subversive lyrically, but when some kid takes it home to their suburban home and puts it on, at first, they don’t realize that they’re being indoctrinated into pretty far left politics. They’re just like, “Killing in the name of . . .”
But yeah, I mean, another one of my all-time favorite bands is The Clash. Same thing with The Clash. It’s like, those are just awesome pop songs, and then you realize what they’re singing about, and it’s cool when you can do it. When you can have your cake and eat it, too, it can be really cool. But yeah, it’s funny what people can get out of a song.
Do you remember that song? “Pumped Up Kicks” or something like that.
Oh, yeah. “Pumped Up Kicks,” by Foster the People. Yeah, about the school shooter.
Yeah. I remember, it was getting banned from the radio and all that stuff. I’m listening to the song. I was like, “I can’t even tell what this is about at all.” You know what I mean? It’s cool that they did it, but I just was like, “I don’t know. He’s talking about some shoes, and maybe he says the word ‘gun,’ but I don’t know.”
Yeah, there’s a whole class of songs that sound really nice and kind of schmaltzy and are actually very dark and disturbing in their content.
Yeah. We had an active shooter song on the Desaparecidos record, which also actually happened at the Von Maur in Omaha, and this guy, Phil, who was our guitar tech for years, his brother got shot and lived, but yeah. That kid killed nine people. It was Christmastime at the mall, and Phil’s brother was walking with his wife. Their kids weren’t there. They were Christmas shopping for their kids. And the kid starts shooting. He had been separated from his wife. He sees this other woman who’s pregnant. He hides her in a dressing room and then he goes back out to look for his wife, and only at that point does he realize that he’s been shot.
It was crazy, and he ended up being on CNN and all this stuff and telling his story. Jumping topics here, but the hypocrisy of young, white males that kill more people than any kind of religiously motivated attack in America, and the fact that they can’t even utter the word “domestic terrorist” when it comes to all these things — and especially with all the white power shit that’s going on now. [Since 9/11, far right terrorists have killed more people than religiously motivated terrorism.] I mean, if the people that had the plot to kidnap the governor aren’t domestic terrorists, then what the hell are? You know what I mean?
Yeah. I’ve actually heard some interesting interpretations of that specific situation, because there’s a strain of the Left that doesn’t want to expand the definition of who a terrorist is, because then you can justify anything. Like torture to find a ticking bomb.
And there’s a lot of cases of the FBI entrapping people, getting a young Muslim kid to be interested in ISIS or whatever, then arresting him and saying, “Hey, we caught a terrorist.” And that helps juice their stats.
But yeah, it’s really not good to try and kidnap governors you disagree with.
Yeah. I mean, they sound like a pretty organized situation, these paramilitary groups. That’s not a deranged young kid that’s confused about whatever ideology they read about on the internet. That’s grown-ass men with warehouses full of military-grade weaponry, and they go out and train in the woods. You know what I mean? That sounds like an organization to me.
Yeah. It’s terrifying. There’s a lot of discussion on the Left of political violence and whether it’s justified, and it’s like, “Well, guys, if you haven’t been paying attention, they have all the guns and all the people that know how to use them.” And I don’t know if that’s a norm we want to change too much.
But I wanted to switch gears to Saddle Creek, the record label that you helped start. The most recent Bright Eyes album didn’t come out through Saddle Creek, right? And it started to be a communal project, but now it’s a bit different?
Yeah. It’s a long story, and I don’t want to talk shit on any of my old friends or anything like that but, yeah, it started very much as a collective, literally pooling our money from mowing lawns and putting out our friends’ seven inches. This is in 1993.
And then we were very lucky. It built from there. Things got more successful, but it was always completely independent. I can’t tell you how much time I spent stuffing envelopes and trying to get people to care at all about what we were doing. But we benefited because the internet was kind of breaking in, but people still bought a lot of CDs and stuff like that. So we were lucky to make a lot of money on our own terms — not just my band but, like I said, Cursive, this band The Faint — a lot of the bands that were on the label. We had a voting system, and there was no real A&R —the other bands we signed were just bands that . . . all the bands on the label would go on tour, and then they would meet someone on tour, become friends, and then it’s like, “Can we put out your record?” That’s how we met Rilo Kiley and the kids out here in LA. I’m saying “kids.” All these people are forty years old . . .
But like it goes with money, at some point, one of our friends ended up magically with their name on all the paperwork, and stuff started getting weird, and then we, myself included, and a lot of the main bands, once we kind of realized what was going on, everyone was just like, “Fuck it.” And we started putting out records on other labels, basically. And there were lawyers and contracts and . . . again, the idealism we grew up loving Dischord, Fugazi’s label in DC, who couldn’t be more ethical in the way they ran their program, or Merge from North Carolina. Those were our idols of what we wanted our label to be like, and really, we pulled it off for a lot of years. But it gets messy when people start making money and start having managers and whatever. It gets harder to keep that idealism and that innocence intact.
What do you think the music industry in a different, more egalitarian society could look like? How would it be different from how it is now?
That’s a great question. I think that if you look at sort of the social-democratic model of Scandinavia, and even Canada to a certain degree, I was always blown away by just the support for the arts that are there — where these bands that were not, I would say, no more popular or relevant than any of our bands, but somehow the government’s giving them grants to make their records, and there’s a venue that you can play that’s basically like a squat, and all these cool things that only exist in other countries. They don’t exist here.
So, I don’t know exactly what kind of world you’re looking at having, but even stuff like that. I mean, even having more support for the arts and being able to not make it all about what makes the most money. See art as more of a service for humankind that makes society better.
Yeah. A global public good. It’s been cool to see you have this influence on a whole generation of musicians that are coming up now — obviously Phoebe Bridgers has collaborated with you a bunch of times, and then also Lil Peep and Post Malone and Young Thug, all these guys have sampled you or cited you in some way. How’s it feel to be a kind of godfather now of the next generation of music?
Makes me feel old! No, it’s great. I think that that’s how music should work. I had a lot of people I looked up to and felt supported by or included and took inspiration from. And so I think that if my music can do that for other people, that’s a very rewarding thing. I love it. And it’s cool when it’s hip-hop stuff or things that are kind of out of our general wheelhouse — that’s even cooler because it’s like, “Wow! I wasn’t seeing that one coming.”
I mean, if I were to pitch you to somebody who didn’t know your stuff, like a twenty-year-old or something, and say, like, “Oh, Post Malone likes it,” I think that would be a way of connecting with the new generation. And Phoebe is obviously very popular with young people as well, but her music is much more in the same vein as Bright Eyes.
I never want to be the cynical old rock guy. That’s so annoying, and I think there’s always going to be new music, and some of it blows by me, and I don’t really understand it, and then some of it sticks, and it’s so fun and rewarding to discover a new band that I hadn’t heard of or a new artist. I’m not much on the internet or following music blogs, and so the way that I normally find out about new music is just through friends, basically word of mouth. I found out about a lot of newer bands from the people that I’ve been playing with out here that are all ten years younger than me.
Any recent favorites?
Well, I guess she’s not exactly new, but I’ve been saying my favorite record this year is that . . . You ever hear of that band Waxahatchee? I love that record [Saint Cloud]. That’s been on steady rotation. My friend, who played in Better Oblivion Community Center with us, Christian Lee Hutson, just made a really cool record. Obviously, Phoebe’s record is awesome. It’s been such a crazy year to try to put out music. I feel so bad for young bands — and, you know, there’s so many of them out there — that were like, “We get to play South by Southwest this year,” or whatever. It’s a tough time, but I think it’s got to get better.
I love live music so much . . . all these online concerts, it’s great, and I guess it’s helping fill the void a little bit. But it’s funny. There’s this place, the Bootleg Theater, here in town that, for whatever reason, I would end up there. One of my friends or somebody would be playing there twice a week, and it’s like, “God. I really don’t feel like going to the Bootleg tonight, but so-and-so’s playing, so I should probably go.” And now it’s like, I’d give my right arm to go to see even a kind of shitty band at a kind of shitty club. Bootleg’s not shitty, but you know what I mean, right? I’d love it. I’d be over the moon just to see a band play. So, hopefully, it won’t be too long.