Conor Oberst
Rock

Inside The Inevitable Return of Bright Eyes

Why after nearly a decade away, Conor Oberst came back to his comfort zone — with help from a new label.

In the late 1990s, a then-newly formed Bright Eyes sent cassette-tape demos of what became its second album, Letting Off the Happiness, to Merge, Matador and several other independent labels. Secretly Canadian founder Ben Swanson was the only person who called back; he expressed interest, but never made a firm offer.

Instead, Bright Eyes — frontman Conor Oberst, multi-instrumentalist/ producer Mike Mogis and arranger-composer Nate Walcott — released the project on Omaha, Neb.-based indie Saddle Creek, founded by Mogis and Oberst’s brother Justin years prior as a college project. And now, after a decade of critical acclaim followed by a near-decadelong unofficial hiatus, Bright Eyes is, in a sense, back to where it all began. At the top of the year, the group signed a deal with Dead Oceans (part of Secretly Group, along with Secretly Canadian) and on Aug. 21 will release its 10th studio album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. “It’s kind of nice to be at an indie label and put out a record in 2020 and it’s that one,” says Mogis of the full-circle moment. “It’s the [label] that approached us about signing us in [the late ’90s].”

Mogis says that working with a label he has no attachment to was “refreshing” and that the enthusiasm from Dead Oceans was warmly welcomed. “To be honest, it felt like when we would turn in records for Saddle Creek, it was never met with that much excitement and positive feedback,” he says with a sigh. “And not that we really need that, but it felt kind of good. I had never had that before.”

Another first for Mogis, 46, was sitting in on a Bright Eyes marketing meeting; he recalls how a week or two before the pandemic-caused lockdown in March, everyone gathered to discuss video treatments and the band’s upcoming tour, saying that “they wanted our opinions, and I think we all like that spirit.” The band agrees that Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is its most collaborative release. The writing process continued for over a year while the members pushed one another to create everything fresh and with intention — in other words, no “voice-memo diving,” says Walcott, 42.

“[This album] is three parts equal, and to me the proof is in the pudding,” says Oberst, 40. “There’s no way I could re-create this sound with other people, and more than anything it was that desire that was a big motivator to make another [Bright Eyes] record. At that time, the idea of doing something in a comfortable and safe place with two of the people who I trust the most in the world seemed really appealing.”

Ben Scemisch
From left: Mogis, Oberst and Walcott.

The idea of a new Bright Eyes album had come up from time to time since the band’s last release in 2011, The People’s Key. (Since, Oberst released solo music as well as with his punk band, Desaparecidos, and through his Phoebe Bridgers collaboration, Better Oblivion Community Center, while Mogis and Walcott scored The Fault in Our Stars, among other projects.) By 2017 — while Oberst was still reeling from personal traumas, including the death of his brother Matt — he spontaneously expressed his urge to reunite to Walcott during a Christmas party. They immediately huddled in a bathroom to FaceTime Mogis, which they now recall with laughter due to how “festive” they were.

They all followed up with each other a few days later to make sure everyone was serious, and soon afterward blocked out two weeks for their first low-stakes get-together. Walcott recalls how, for the first time ever, “we went in not knowing exactly 100% what was going to come of it, and we left with several demos.” They continued to write and record in spurts between Omaha and L.A.

As a whole, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was unintentionally — though perhaps not surprisingly, for those familiar — soundtracks the current climate with lush and orchestral arrangements that teeter on the edge of gloom and doom. On “Dance and Sing,” the first track Oberst wrote, he opens with a line all too true: “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end.” Elsewhere, his beautiful waver cuts through on the brooding lead single, “Persona Non Grata,” while on the almost upbeat delivery of “Forced Convalescence” he declares matter-of-factly, “I’m not afraid of the future.”

He says that when it comes to considering the band’s legacy, and whether that added pressure to the recording of the new album, “it’s a bit of a tightrope walk.” “On one hand, we wanted it to fit in with the catalog and feel like a Bright Eyes record — and there are a lot of things that that means. Mostly it’s just a feeling, but obviously all the pretentious intros.” The band members also discussed using past records as touchstones, like the orchestral aspects of LIFTED or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and Cassadaga, or the hyperproduction and delays of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and The People’s Key, and even the blown-out acoustic guitar and screamed vocals on Letting Off the Happiness and Fevers and Mirrors.

Heather and Jameson
Conor Oberst photographed on July 31, 2020 in Omaha, Neb.

“We were trying to swirl it all together, but at the same time, we didn’t want it to just be a complete throwback,” says Oberst. “We’re not trying to pull one over and pretend like we’re 25. We wanted it to reflect where we are.” As Dead Oceans founder Phil Waldorf says: “The record is very much the record we would have hoped they would make.”

But now, with the album a week away from release and live shows still very much on hold — Bright Eyes had an extensive tour planned — Oberst can’t help but feel a bit despondent. He hasn’t touched his guitar in months. “It feels like we were just picking up speed and getting ready to get on the fast highway, then someone just pumped the brakes and it was over before it started,” he says. “It feels incomplete to me.”

Fortunately, Bright Eyes doesn’t plan to take another unofficial hiatus; instead, Oberst, Mogis and Walcott believe the extra time at home could actually encourage more new music — but they’re in no rush. “We always joked about it, but every time we’ve put out a Bright Eyes record, with maybe the exception of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, it felt like it took our fan base a couple of years to actually like it,” says Oberst. “Then later, we’d play the songs and they’re screaming along.”

To which Mogis quips: “Maybe this pandemic thing is going to work out for us. By the time we’re in 2022, they’re going to love these.”


New Life at Dead Oceans

How label founder Phil Waldorf brought Bright Eyes into its future.

How and when did conversations start about signing Bright Eyes?

We had been working with Phoebe Bridgers, and Phoebe and Conor [Oberst] were making the Better Oblivion Community Center record with us. We knew there was a Bright Eyes record being imagined, and when they were ready to talk to labels, a bit after the Better Oblivion record had come out, they said, “Would you guys be interested?”

Mike Mogis said he had never attended a marketing meeting prior to joining Dead Oceans. Why is it important to include your artists in business conversations?

I wouldn’t say Saddle Creek not having done that decades ago surprises me; the music business is just a lot different now. Back then, it was very traditional. Critics’ lists would drive sales, there wasn’t as much room to have that direct fan connection that there is now with social media and streaming, and the fact that music videos aren’t just for MTV. It’s so important for all the people working on an album campaign to feel invested, and there’s no better way to feel invested than to know who you’re fighting for.

How will you promote the album without the band touring?

One thing I’m excited about is these virtual in-store performances. In a world where you can’t do it at Rough Trade or Amoeba, it incentivizes multiple retailers worldwide — and indie retail is so important to Bright Eyes. I like the idea that, hopefully, people are buying the record either way, but the value add is they get access to a virtual performance. That’s a win for us if it drives extra sales, and a win for the stores that can really use it right now.

What is Bright Eyes’ future with Dead Oceans?

The intention has always been for it not to be a one-record moment. I assumed [the band would get back in the studio] after a year of touring. It may just move and some of the work goes in now and it changes the long-term timeline, but it always felt like this was more than just the dozen-plus songs on the new album, and that was exciting for both sides.

Heather and Jameson
Conor Oberst photographed on July 31, 2020 in Omaha, Neb.

This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2020 issue of Billboard.