After a lengthy four-year hiatus from the band that launched his career, Conor Oberst has reunited with his longtime Bright Eyes collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott for The People’s Key. Oberst recently caught up with Paste about the new record, his experiences playing with The Mystic Valley Band, the power of science fiction and the future of the human race.
It’s been quite a while since you did a Bright Eyes record. How did the experience of leaving Bright Eyes behind for a few albums, and then coming back to it, affect the new album?
Conor Oberst: I guess after the last Bright Eyes record, Cassadaga, it felt important to me to make a record without Mike Mogis, just because he’d been such a safety net for me. It seemed like something I should do, and that was kind of what the last couple solo albums were about. Obviously, we did the Monsters of Folk thing, which involved Mike, but that was a whole different experience. But to get back with both Mike and Nate, and make a record in our home studio, it just felt really—it’s the most comfortable situation. And I think the time away from it made us all appreciate each other more.
In that period of time, over the last few years when you were doing other things, how do you feel like you grew, personally and artistically?
Oberst: Well, I think every record and every touring incarnation is a learning experience. And doing the records with the Mystic Valley Band is such a different experience than Bright Eyes. Bright Eyes is really a studio project more than anything. I bring the songs in, and then we decide together how to best arrange them and how to approach them from a recording standpoint, whereas Valley Band was really a live band. I’d start playing the song in the room, and everyone kind of knew what to do—it was really immediate. That kind of experience, I think, just the differences made me appreciate the other way of doing it more. Obviously, working with Jim James and M. Ward with Monsters of Folk—that was a really great learning experience because it was a front-row seat watching two of my favorite modern artists working. I think I took a lot away from that, which I can now apply to my own records.
Cassadaga had this rootsy, tethered-to-earth feel, but the new record is very spacey and cosmic. How would you describe the differences in sound between the two, and the way you approached them?
Oberst: I think we’d all grown a little weary of the folky/rootsy aesthetic, and that was one thing we talked about before we started recording this record—that we really wanted to stay away from those sounds and color with a different palette. There are a lot more analog synths on the [new] record, more electric guitars versus acoustic guitars. One thing I’m proud of with the band is we always have managed to make different-sounding records, and experiment as much as we can within our own limitations, and this record is no different. We just made the record that we wanted to make at the time, where our interests guided us to. And that’s sort of what we do every time out. But, yeah, there was a decision to steer clear of some of those sounds we’d been using on the last few records.
There are these great, long, spoken segments on the album from Denny Brewer of the band Refried Ice Cream. Were those spontaneous speeches, or did you guys write them and he read them? And also, what purpose do they serve on the album?
Oberst: You know, I’d heard him talk a lot of times about similar topics, and we have a tradition of these long, awkward intros to our records, and we knew we wanted to have one on this record. Plus, a lot of the ideas for the songs stemmed from these conversations that took place a year or so before. So I just called Denny—who lives outside of El Paso, Texas—and asked him if he wouldn’t mind going into the studio down there, this place Sonic Ranch, where I’d met him, and recording some of his ideas, monologue-style, and he was gracious enough to do it. I was expecting, I don’t know, 10, 15, 20 minutes of him talking or having a conversation with Josh, his son, and they went in there and recorded 90 minutes. And then we obviously edited it, and added the musical components to it. I think it’s a nice way to slow the listener down, and get them hopefully to take a little break from whatever they’re doing and listen to the record straight through. At least that’s the way we made it. We intended people to listen to it as one piece. Obviously, that’s not going to happen every time, but that’s how we approach making records. We’re old-fashioned like that.
With Denny’s parts, do you see him as almost the narrator or tour guide for the record?
Oberst: Yeah, I mean, he bookends it, and also serves as a way to tie songs together and transition the songs and make it more smooth. And I just love the sound of his voice, and what he’s saying is, I think, interesting.
How did writers like Margaret Atwood and Kurt Vonnegut influence The People’s Key, and what do you relate to about their work?
Oberst: Whether it’s through a book or film or conversation, everything that I absorb goes into whatever subconscious swirl of brain function, and [eventually] finds its way into the music. I don’t know—the first few songs I was writing, I didn’t know what kind of record we were gonna make, but after three or four were complete, themes started to appear, and then the rest of the record was a little more deliberate to stick with these ideas. And the writers you mentioned are just two fantastic writers. I really like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and After the Flood, which are kind of companion books, and take place in the future, and deal with a lot of similar themes that are on the record. ... I appreciate science fiction in the same way I appreciate magical realism. Even though they both take liberties with reality, they actually can communicate human truths sometimes better than a work of strict realism because it gives the author more freedom to communicate the idea without being constrained by what people think is possible.
I interviewed Janelle Monáe recently, and she talked a lot about the Singularity, and Ray Kurzweil, and she writes songs about this futuristic society of androids, and it’s something I heard you discuss recently, too. Do you look forward to a future in which we’re living with these spiritual machines or become these machines? Or does the thought scare or depress you? How do you feel about it?
Oberst: Kurzweil obviously thinks of it as a positive thing. I’m not so sure. I would like to believe we’re heading toward a new evolutionary step where we’re more peaceful and more empathetic and compassionate toward each other, and other life in general, but all indications that I see around me do not point to that. And it is kind of depressing. There are a lot of times I wish I could live in the past. Obviously, I want to make the best of whatever happens. But it’s scary, you know? I think with every technological advance, we lose a little bit of our human nature. I’m not a big fan of the Internet, in general. I don’t do any social networking or blogging or anything like that. I mean, there’s stuff to promote the band—we have sites and stuff like that, but on a peripheral level, I don’t really find that interesting. I’d rather talk to someone, and touch them, and that kind of thing.