As with several entries in their discography, Bright Eyes’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was starts with a dreamlike field recording. On the opening track, “Pageturner’s Rag,” Conor Oberst’s now-ex-wife, Corina Figueroa Escamilla, begins to speak in Spanish before switching to English for the doom-laden phrase “your most vivid nightmares.”
Oberst has always been known for his ability to turn a phrase, but Bright Eyes’s 10th album—their first in nearly a decade—finds the band trying to cope with a series of literal and figurative deaths: Oberst’s brother passed away in 2016 and both he and Mike Mogis separated from their wives the following year. True collaboration was the key to the coping process as the trio opened the Los Angeles and Nebraska studio sessions for Down in the Weeds to Jesca Hoop, Flea, and Jon Theodore of the Mars Volta and Queens of the Stone Age. They even booked studio time with the Omaha Pipes and Dreams.
Ahead of the release of Down in the Weeds, I spoke with Oberst, Mogis, and bandmate Nate Walcott via phone. They often joked with each other and reminisced about simpler times with the Saddle Creek bands. The new album is being released via Bloomington, Indiana-based indie label Dead Oceans, which once offered to release the band’s first album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995–1997, 25 years ago when they were recording in a basement. The reason for the split with longtime label Saddle Creek? “That, my friend, is a very long story,” Oberst says. “It will probably cause more problems than it’s worth telling.”
Ahead of the release of Down in the Weeds, I spoke with the trio about their origin story, discovering new ways of collaboration, and the weird feeling of being a musical mentor.
How have you guys been keeping busy this year? Normally, you would be well into the festival circuit by now and doing press for the new album.
Nate Walcott: Well, Mike Mogis and I have been working on a score for a TV show and it went into post-production about two days before all the lockdowns came into effect. So we were initially going to be doing that while we’re on tour. Now we just have that to keep us busy. So, it works for us.
I know your formative years as a band were in Omaha and the new album was partially recorded there. What do you enjoy about Omaha?
Conor Oberst: I like the thunderstorms. We had a big one last night. I don’t know, I was born and raised here. So, for me, it’s mostly about just friends and the family. When we were growing up here, there wasn’t a lot of support for the arts and music. It’s gotten a lot better since that time. I think there’s been more interest in culture outside of college football. It seems like it’s always been modernized or culturalized or something since when I was growing up, but for me [I like Omaha] mostly just because it’s home. I have a house here. I also have a house in Los Angeles, but I feel like I won’t ever sell the Omaha house. There are too many people I love here.
Walcott: I grew up in Lincoln and Omaha was kind of like the big Lincoln at around 200,000 people. That’s where I met Mike. I moved to Lincoln when I was like eight and lived there until I graduated from high school. It was a college town, which actually was cool. There were a lot of places for music and lots of musicians. I definitely got a lot out of being in Lincoln, but it was a small college town—a big-time college football city. It was sort of like the Emerald City for me and this big metropolis. I’d go up to shows, go see Conor’s high school band [Commander Venus]. A good friend of mine was playing in that band and I’d go up on the weekends.
Oberst: Damn right, you did. [all laugh]
Mike, I read in an interview you did with Fader that you first met Conor back in 1994 at University of Nebraska–Lincoln and you were really impressed by his musicianship. Do you remember anything that stuck out to you that remains 26 years later?
Mike Mogis: I don’t remember the first conversation. I remember when I met him, but we didn’t speak too much to each other that first time. I met him in April of that year where I was living in the dorms and I became friends with that group of people. I started a band later called Lullaby for the Working Class and some from that group started Saddle Creek Records together a few years after that. There was this little boy sleeping in the room and it was Conor. I think you were, I don’t know how old you were…
Oberst: Did you say boy in a college dorm? [all laugh]
Mogis: Right. I mean, is that weird? I don’t know. This kid knows how to write, like putting words together and melodies really before the internet in the time where you’re just sort of exposed to the music. Nowadays there’s like 11- or 12-year-old fingers on YouTube or something like that.
You’re all obviously more established now as a group and as individuals. Do you find yourself falling into more of those mentor roles, either willingly or unwillingly?
Mogis: Yeah, that has happened over the last five or six years. There are younger people in their late teens to early 20s who come [to Omaha], and they usually inquire about recording an album or something like that because they’re influenced by our previous stuff. So it makes me feel old in one way. That’s kind of like reaching out to those people that you listen to for some sort of connection, whether it’s to work with them or just maybe an expression. That’s been going on for a long time.
I was also reading about that Christmas party conversation you guys had on FaceTime in 2017 where you all decided to get back together and record a new album. I was curious about the conversations after that, once you came down from that high of excitement. You took more of a collaborative angle this time with the writing process.
Oberst: Yeah. I mean, I figured if we’re going to make another record, we want to make it as collaborative as possible even beyond what we did before. The only thing that wasn’t worked on together was the initial seeds of the songs. We started from the ground up with all three of us working on the writing process and that’s probably what took so long to make the record.
Did Nate and Mike contribute any lyrics to the record at this time? Or was that still in your wheelhouse?
Oberst: No, I wrote all the lyrics, but you know, a lot of times in my notebook I have a habit of making a line and then underneath it, in the margins, I’ll have a few different options for which word to use. I’m always like standing in the vocal booth and asking them, “What do you think about this word or that word?” They give their opinions. A lot of times Mike will record both options and then we’ll decide later which one to use. At the end of the day, we get a typed, double-spaced binder of all the lyrics and we kind of have to sign off on each one. I’m kidding, but yeah, there’s an NDA about it. [all laugh]
Speaking of lyrics about particular songs for this album, like “Persona non Grata,” it definitely was surprising as a lead single. It felt right for the song though. Were those recorded in Nebraska or L.A.? Who was playing the ol’ bags on the record?
Walcott: That was the Pipes and Drums. That was Connor’s idea. They ripped their parts. I mean it was great, but they clearly had never been in a studio before and it was a foreign idea to them. So, it was pretty fun. Bagpipes have a really sort of specific set of limitations as far as the notes they can play. It was a little bit of a learning curve, but they were great and, you know, cool. That was fun.
I keep coming back to “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” over and over. What was the process for putting that one together?
Oberst: Oh, that song! I think that went on quite a ride until it found its magic space. There was the chord progression first and then I kind of sat with it for a while and tried different things. Finally, we landed on a melody that I thought worked with it. We had one non-English phrase for each verse, hence the three parts. When we got in the studio and worked with Jon Theodore and Flea and everyone, it took on this whole other life that we didn’t necessarily anticipate. Jesca Hoop sings on it and she brought an amazing, cool, interesting harmony. I had an idea for a guitar part and I came to Mike and I was like, “I want it to be something like this” and then and he’s like, “Let me try something, do something weird.” I left and a few hours later I came back and it was exactly the thing I wanted but even cooler.
I’ve always really enjoyed all of the Bright Eyes album covers. Who made the one for Down in the Weeds?
Oberst: That is Zack Nipper again. He’s made all of our covers and he’s a Grammy Award-winning artist now [for 2007’s Cassadaga]. We always ask him to take our concept and then he goes and makes it, and he’s real tactile in the sense that it’s not computer stuff. For I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, he sewed the whole stitching painting and for Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, he made all those little animals. For the new album, he cut out all the little paper-doll figures and put them on a spinning metal thing to get the tornado effect. He’s amazing. We’ve been friends forever. When I first met him, he had a day job and then he started making art for me and then he worked for Saddle Creek for many years making art for lots of bands and then quit there and got a day job again. When we were making this record, I was like, “You have to do it.” I called him up and he was happy to do it, so it worked out. Rob Walters took the pictures of the cover.
“Stairwell Song” has some great imagery. There was a line about a rotting porch in Benson, Nebraska and the great simplicity of the line that goes: “Tried your best to hide/All the sadness in your eyes/But I caught you every time.” I’m guessing that’s a pretty personal one, but what was the inspiration for that?
Oberst: Well, it’s a love song. I mean, it’s kind of like a lot of my songs, which are composite sketches. It’s actually, you know, a little bit based on two friends of mine and they’re sort of a love affair, but for some of the references even if I’m writing about other people, I kind of put myself in there as a writer. I would say it’s a blend of a story, but there’s some autobiographical imagery. I guess besides the Omaha references, it’s a universal theme when your lover leaves you and someone being kind of a kind of dramatic and liking cinematic endings.
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