Bright Eyes, the indie faves out of Omaha, visit Paper Mill Island on Sunday
By Jessica Novak
He`s been called the Bob Dylan of his generation by publications including the Wall Street Journal and New York magazine. And like Dylan’s switch from acoustic to electric, Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes float between folk and electronic or mix them both together, never too picky when it comes to musical genres.
“I guess to a big extent whatever I do is a reaction to what we just did previously,” Oberst explained in a phone interview from his home city of Omaha, Neb. “It’s like, ‘Oh, OK, we’ve been doing a lot of the more folk sound, so let’s get away from that. A lot of the time it’s just reacting to the last thing.”
On Sunday, July 31, 7 p.m., Bright Eyes will visit Paper Mill Island, 136 Spensieri Ave., Baldwinsville. Oberst and his bandmates Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott will be accompanied by additional musicians Andy LeMaster, Laura Burhenn, Clark Baechle and Scott McPherson. Although the show will span the band’s LP catalog on Oberst’s Saddle Creek label, the new album The People’s Key, released Feb. 15 on Oberst’s 31st birthday, will be heavily featured.
Bright Eyes began as a solo project for Oberst, who made his first appearance in the music world in 1998. He released A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, 20 tracks that were defined by experimentation with various instruments. More albums featuring a rotation of musicians quickly followed: Letting Off the Happiness (1998), Fever and Mirrors (2000) and Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002).
Bright Eyes had begun garnering national attention, but it was the release of two starkly contrasting albums in January 2005 that set the band on fire. The folk-heavy I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and the electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn sent Bright Eyes into the top 20 on the Billboard charts. But due to the vast differences in instrumentation, the extensive world tour planned was split in half, each part in support of one album, a problem the band has overcome in subsequent years.
“I think we’ve just gotten better or smarter or something because now we’ve figured out how to do it,” he says. “We play songs from all our various records. Some of the songs changed, they sound a little different, but I’m actually surprised how they all fit together in the same show because it’s weird to play a song off the new record right next to a song I wrote when I was 16 years old. They kind of work together. That was a happy discovery when we got going on tour.”
Although Oberst first released an album when he was 17, he started writing songs at age 12. Being surrounded by his father and brother, both musicians, spurred him to write on his own. “Basically, right away I knew I loved it and I would want to play music forever,” he says. “I never really thought I could have a job doing it, but I knew I really enjoyed it.”
Bright Eyes solidified members with Mogis and Walcott in 2006 and released Cassadaga in 2007; the album, heavily centered on ideas of cleansing and renewal, is appropriately named after a spiritualist community in Florida. Then the music of Bright Eyes was shut for the next four years.
In the meantime, Oberst immersed himself in other projects including solo work, activity with independent labels Saddle Creek and Team Love, both of which he co-founded, and the super-group Monsters of Folk, also featuring Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward (She & Him) and Mogis.
“After we finished Cassadaga, I think we all were ready to try some different things and go into our separate corners a little bit” Oberst explains. “Then it just kind of felt like it was time to get together and make another one. I guess the timing was right.”
Bright Eyes reconnected in 2010 and spent most of the year working on the album, which features Oberst-led additions including recordings from his personal Dictaphone, something he has always carried around since high school, and monologues from friend and El Paso, Texas, musician Denny Brewer. Recorded conversations from a night in New York City are thrown into the song “Approximate Sunlight” and Brewer makes several appearances talking about a variety of topics.
“I’ve always appreciated in music when sounds or just little things create more of a 3D experience for the listener. They put the song in context,” Oberst says about his sonic samples. “Sometimes I’ll have a specific idea, like I’ll hear a song and think, ‘Oh, I wish I could hear someone walking through dry leaves,’ or something like that and record it intentionally. Other times it’s just you hear something interesting or record something kind of randomly and you just have that lightbulb moment while you’re recording. A lot of it is just experimentation.”
Brewer’s additions to the record came later in the recording process when Oberst was thinking of long, late-night conversations the two shared while Oberst was working on one of his solo albums just outside of El Paso. Oberst was fascinated by Brewer, a friend of the studio owner, and his far-out musings.
“I guess we have a tradition with the Bright Eyes records that they always start with some kind of sound collage or monologue, surround-sound type things,” Oberst says. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this record, but as we were making it I realized somehow subconsciously these songs had started some way with those late-night conversations a year or more prior to the writing of these songs. So it kind of popped into my mind one day, like, ‘That’s it! That’s perfect!’” The standout track, “Ladder Song,” captures Oberst at his best. He weaves deep thoughts, simply stated into a painfully melancholic yet beautiful song about a friend lost to suicide. Oberst’s quivering voice sings ethereal poetry: “No one knows where the ladder goes/ You’re gonna lose what you love the most/ You’re not alone in anything/ You’re not unique in dying…Well, I know when it’s finally done/ This whole life’s a hallucination/ You’re not alone in anything/ You’re not alone in trying…to be.”
The comparisons to Dylan strike appropriately on the latest Bright Eyes effort. Sunday’s Paper Mill Island concert may very well bring a future legend right to Baldwinsville.
Doors for the all-ages Bright Eyes show will open at 4 p.m. Music from Professional Victims, The Brilliant Light, Arison Cain and The Mountain Goats will start the evening. Admission is $32. More information and tickets are available at www.dansmallspresents.com.