CONOR OBERST is in retreat from a world that has shifted on its axis.
As with so many musicians, his year has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Right now, he should be touring with Bright Eyes, the band he formed in the mid-Nineties as a baby-faced, prodigiously talented teenager.
But instead, the 40-year-old is back in his home town of Omaha, Nebraska, kicking his heels.
“Me and my girlfriend spent the first months of quarantine in Los Angeles,” he reports. “Then, in July, I drove here to see my family and check in with everybody.
“Now I’m literally standing in my living room — we call it the fun room — looking at one, two, three, four guitars, two pianos and a bunch of other miscellaneous s**t.
“I haven’t picked up any of that stuff for months. I feel totally unmotivated and, I guess like everybody, I feel a certain amount of despair.”
With his distinctive, quavering vocals and raw, literate lyrics, Oberst has long been regarded as the angst-ridden poster boy of America’s indie scene.
Driven by an incredible work ethic involving band, duet and solo projects stretching back 25 years, he adds: “Weirdly, this is my longest period of not doing anything.
“It’s not good for me, making stuff always makes me feel more useful.”
Lockdown has also given Oberst more time to think about turning 40 on February 15.
“I cannot claim that it didn’t affect me,” he says.
“Who knows what kind of future is in store for me? But I feel it’s a safe assumption that I’ve lived more years in the past than I will in the future.
“I guess I could make it to 80 but that seems really hard, so there’s recognition of the clock running down. Also, I feel like I’m 105, as if I’ve lived a lot of lives.”
At least, on a more positive note, the new Bright Eyes album, recorded last year after a prolonged hiatus, has come blinking into the sunlight. Released last week to rave reviews, Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was captures the unsettled mood of 2020.
It combines elements of previous records such as folk-rock big seller I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or the more expansive Cassadaga to create an atmosphere all its own.
I take no joy in being right about any of this s**t
An intense soundtrack to our troubled world, the 55-minute album is graced with sonic wizardry by the other core band members, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott.
There are guest appearances from what Oberst describes as “an amazing rhythm section and such sweethearts” Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and drummer Jon Theodore, once of The Mars Volta and now with Queens Of The Stone Age.
Theodore’s thundering presence is key since Oberst has grown tired of drummers wanting to sound like the late Levon Helm of The Band (“Don’t get me wrong, I love him.”)
He says: “If I ever have to be at another f**ing festival where 30 people get on stage and sing The Weight (The Band’s signature song), I’ll have to like shoot myself in the head.
“I hate Newport Folk Festival and all that bulls**t.
It’s like Bob Dylan fantasy camp. We don’t need this any more. Do something more interesting!” This helps explain why a choir, horns, strings, even bagpipes on the bruised Persona Non Grata, are thrown into the dramatic mix on Down In The Weeds, along with conventional rock instruments.
As for the lyrics, few songwriters summon the sense of jeopardy as keenly as Oberst, whose latest efforts draw on bitter personal experience against the backdrop of Trump’s divided America and a planet threatened by climate change.
The fact that the pandemic swept in after the album was completed makes the singular frontman seem like a prophet. “I’ve always had a penchant for apocalyptic, dystopian, doomsday lyrics, so maybe right time, right place,” he muses. “It’s like I’m finally where I should be.
I take no joy in being right about any of this s**t. I’m not like Nostradamus but I’ve always been obsessed with death and issues like this.”
As one monumental new song suggests, Oberst is not the type to stare forlornly into any old abyss.
For him, only The Mariana Trench will do . . . the deepest place on earth, roughly 11,000 metres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. In the same breath, he’s also looking up at Mount Everest, the highest point.
“I guess it’s not the most creative metaphor in the world but the idea is the juxtaposition of the highs and lows of everything,” he says.
And, if all else fails, Oberst knows there’s genuine comfort to be found in music. “All I can do is dance on through . . . and sing,” he intones on Dance And Sing.
He says: “On a macro level, everything’s going totally to s**t and, in my personal life, I’m pretty miserable a lot of the time.
“But rather than lie down and give up, music has always been a transcendent thing that’s got me through.”
He senses he’s not alone among songwriters in tapping into the zeitgeist.
“I think we’re all eager to connect the dots because it’s such an unprecedented time,” he says.
It’s safe to say that Oberst has been through the mill since the previous Bright Eyes album, 2011’s The People’s Key.
In 2013, he was accused of sexual assault only for the accuser to retract her claim as “100 per cent false” as cancel culture was about to kick in.
Being exonerated didn’t prevent a spiral of stress, depression and physical health issues, including a cyst on the brain and high blood pressure.
In 2017, his schoolteacher older brother Matty died suddenly and he separated from Mexican wife of eight years, Corina Figueroa-Escamilla.
Then, as that difficult year drew to a close, something really good happened. Oberst attended a Christmas party at the Los Angeles home of his old Bright Eyes mucker Nate Walcott.
They huddled in the bathroom and discussed getting back together. A FaceTime call to Mike Mogis in Omaha sealed the deal.
“Nate had been touring with the Chili Peppers for three years and their schedule was winding down,” says Oberst. “We realised we could use each other again.
“Myself and Mike both went through divorces and I lost my brother. We’ve also had to bury a bunch of friends.
“Nate had his first little daughter and she’s about four now. We’ve been going through big life stuff and we all felt, ‘Let’s do the thing we know how to do,’ which is make records.”
The resulting Down In The Weeds, dedicated to Matty Oberst, begins with Pageturners Rag, recorded in and named after the bar Conor opened in Omaha.
Woven into the sound of ragtime trumpet and piano in front of a live audience are separate voice recordings of Oberst’s mother and his ex-wife.
He picks up the story: “Corina and my mom sat around the coffee table here and I got my mother to drink some special tea with psychedelic mushrooms in it.
“In fact we all took mushrooms and we talked for three hours. I recorded the whole time.”
You can hear Nancy Oberst talking about driving past her deceased son Matty’s old house, taking comfort from a rosebush suddenly reappearing in a spot where it used to be when he lived there.
And you can also hear Corina talking in lilting Spanish, which brings this response from Oberst: “I like the sound of their voices.
“I was married for eight years and I still totally love Corina but I can’t help feeling that if I was going to have kids, if I was going to have a family, I’ve had my chance.
“Then I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to be 60 and alone?’ All that scary s**t.”
As for the other person close to his heart to try his mushroom-infused beverage, Oberst says: “My mother’s a loose cannon. You never know what she’s going to say and I knew that if we hung out long enough, she would say interesting stuff.
“We all grew up as Catholics but when the st hit the fan and all the priests were abusing kids, she basically invented her own religion.
“I think she still worships the Virgin Mary, but she also talks to birds and looks for signs.
“With my brother Matty passing, the rosebush was a pretty great example of her version of religion. It meant everything to her.”
Though he has no children of his own, Oberst speaks fondly of his nieces and nephews, in particular Matty’s student son John.
“He’s in college now doing global studies. You might hear he’s in the Dominican Republic or Australia and he’s super motivated to try to make the world a better place.”
One of the new Bright Eyes songs Calais To Dover, recalls the trip made by so many touring musicians on one of those vast cross-Channel ferries.
Oberst explains: “Particular lines are about Simon Wring, who was my tour manager and one of my best friends for years and years.
“He played in Gallon Drunk with a guy from the Bad Seeds (Nick Cave’s band). Si was Welsh, from Cardiff, and we lost him back in 2011.
“We did a lot of good and bad things together and one time we were both very sick on that ferry. We were in the stalls next to each other, both throwing up.
“I guess it’s not the most heart-warming story but when I think of Si, I remember this sweet, sweet man.”
Talking to Oberst, I sense that everything he says is said with passion, whether it’s about family, friends, music or politics and that includes his blunt opinion of the White House incumbent.
Yet he maintains that none of his new songs are “overtly political”. People ask him whether he’s written a new When The President Talks To God, a protest song from 2005 about George W. Bush.
“My answer is that he (Trump) doesn’t deserve me to write a song about him. He should be so lucky.
“I don’t want to immortalise him. We’ve worked really hard on a beautiful record and it shouldn’t remind us of that orange rat.”
Finally, I ask Oberst what motivates him to keep going despite his setbacks and his reply is typically uncompromising.
“I’m always doing my best to articulate the human experience as much as possible,” he affirms.
“There’s a lot of beauty and there’s a lot of horror.”
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