Friends being friends: Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott on the origins of Bright Eyes

Friends being friends: Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott on the origins of Bright Eyes

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This interview was hard to pin down. I cancelled. They cancelled. It took about two months to actually get it one the books. (I also had an infamous interview in 2016 with Conor, and I thought he might have been avoiding me.) But we got it together and this time it would be the whole band. Mike Mogis, who is an absolute legend. We should write a piece on him alone some time. He’s the connective tissue of a much wonderful music. Then there is Nate Walcott, probably the hero of this record. Bright Eyes’ new one, “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was,” is big and soaring with what sounds like an entire philharmonic orchestra, but that’s mostly Nate Walcott. And of course, Conor Oberst, the rascal himself.

I wrote a bunch of questions about the album and how it sounds, why it’s so big and what it’s about. But when you have three people sometimes it’s difficult asking those questions to everyone and not just the lead singer. Plus, these guys have known each other for years. I wanted to hear them talk like old friends, sharing old stories, with details that they only know, but somehow don’t matter because they are having so much fun.

So that’s what we did. In the interview there is cross talk and it strays, sometime into an area where none of us are familiar, including a too-long side bar about The Doors, who, we all agree, none of us really like. The best parts are where they are talking as old friends though. Mike says he met Conor because he saw him playing acoustic guitar in a dorm room in Lincoln, Nebraska when Conor was 13 years old. And Nate, who has toured with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 and Beck recalls playing trumpet at Yia Yia’s Pizza Parlor (also in Lincoln, Neb.) and starting a project called The Jazz Thugs with James Valentine of Maroon 5 back before either of them were broke out of the city. And at the end, Conor gives an inspiring stump speech for his candidate of choice.

Watch the interview and read the transcript below.

I’m so glad that I have all three of you because I want to understand this dynamic. Mike, what is your first memory of Conor?

Mike Mogis: He was in a dorm room at UNL in Lincoln, Neb. That’s my first memory. He was staying upstairs with Robin Ansel and Ted Stevens, who I had just met that year. He had his acoustic guitar and he was going to play on campus. I thought it was a little weird.

Conor Oberst: Because I was like 13.

Mike Mogis: He was a 13 or 14 year old boy in this college dorm room and he was sleeping there with these two guys that I just met. And I’m like, this feels potentially illegal. But they all seemed cool. He’s actually got good songs, what the f***? That kind of thing.

What were you doing there, Conor?

Conor Oberst: They were just my friends. It sounds crazy, but we were already friends. Ted Stevens, who now plays in Cursive, him and Mike here used to be in a band called Lullaby for the Working Class. He was the first guy that came over when I was like 13. He heard some of my songs and recorded me on his 4-track, and that became my first album, which was a cassette tape. I had this group of older friends that all played in bands and I tagged along. Why my mother let me go to Lincoln, which is an hour away, and then stay in a dorm room?

Mike Mogis: She trusted you.

Conor Oberst: She trusted me, but I think more than anything she trusted those guys. She also let me go on tour when I was 15, and these guys are all four or five years older than me. We got in a van and went on tour when I’m 15, they’re 20. I remember her making Rob sign a thing, or she signed a thing for Rob, so if something happened to me he could take me to the hospital.

Why did she trust them?

Conor Oberst: She knew him really well. My parents’ house was always the house that people hung out at and we had a band practice there. She knew them all really well. It does seem wild, but I guess if you knew these guys and you knew my mom it would make more sense.

Conor, what’s your first memory of Nate?

Conor Oberst: I saw him play in Lincoln ’cause Nate grew up in Lincoln. I grew up in Omaha, but I saw him play in a band at — what was that cafe place called?

Mike Mogis: Was it Yia Yia’s?

Nate Walcott: The pizza place?

Mike Mogis: Or the coffee shop? Mudslides?

Conor Oberst: It was called something cafe.

Nate Walcott: What kind of music was it?

Conor Oberst: You were playing trumpet. Was it Kid Quarkstar?

Nate Walcott: Kid Quarkstar, yeah.

Conor Oberst: Got it. Either we played the show also, or I was just there. I saw Nate and I was like, God that guy’s handsome and he’s playing trumpet. It seemed very exotic to see someone playing trumpet.

Nate Walcott: I was in high school at the time.

Conor Oberst: He was in high school. I’m a couple years younger than him. I was like, oh, there he is.

Mike Mogis: Who was in Kid Quarkstar?

Nate Walcott: The other one of the other main guys was James Valentine, of Maroon 5 fame. He and I grew up together and we had what started as a jazz group. We would play standards tunes and then we started writing our own music by the time we were in 11th grade. It became a little more fusion oriented and we started writing our own material. We became Kid Quarkstar. We started as the Jazz Thugs.

The Jazz Thugs!

Nate Walcott: That’s James from Maroon 5, myself and a couple of other folks from the university.

Do you still have CDs of that group?

Nate Walcott: Yes, absolutely. That was very much our project that we focused on, primarily in high school. We had a Thursday night gig at a pizza place that Mike’s talking about, Yia Yia’s.

Mike Mogis: That’s where I thought you saw him. ‘Cause we used to go there.

Nate Walcott: That was my first experience writing. We would get horns sections and that was my first experience writing charts for horn sections and things like that. Lincoln, it is what it is, but I will say the university scene had a cool little music scene going on. That’s when I met Mike.

Mike Mogis: Did we ever record Kid Quarkstar in the basement ?

Nate Walcott: With your brother.

Mike Mogis: Okay. That’s what I thought.

Nate Walcott: Our second recording was made in Mike’s basement, with his brother engineering,

Mike Mogis: That’s when I was learning how to engineer. I just watched him, and you and James Valentine.

Nate Walcott: Every once in a while, these special gigs would come up, like the one that Conorr’s talking about, opening for a rock band or something like that. We got very excited about that sort of thing.

There’s usually one person that wants the most to make a group happen. When you three came together, who was pushing the group to form and pushing it along?

Conor Oberst: It happened gradually. The very first Bright Eyes record, which I don’t even consider a record, was just me with my 4-track making terrible acoustic songs. The second record, Letting Off the Happiness is when Mike offered to record me, basically joined the band and helped me. We made everything happen. That’s when we started. Then we made Fevers and Mirrors. And when we made Lifted, Nate came into the picture. That was 2002. I remember at some point, maybe at the end of that tour, I assumed — Nate talks more now, but at the time he barely said anything. I was pretty convinced that he didn’t even like my music, but he was really talented and could play everything. I was like, I’m going to keep him around. He’s here to get paid and he wants to go on tour. At the end of the Lifted tour, I just assumed he was going to go back to Chicago where he was living and play jazz music or do something more interesting. We were sitting on the back of the bus and I was like, so what are you gonna do now? I’ve got to set a tour. It was the first time that he got really sweet and let his guard down. He’s like, my favorite thing to do is to play with you. I wanna do the next tour and I wanna keep playing with you. He was in the band after that.

Nate Walcott: After high school, I moved from Lincoln to Chicago because I was really into jazz and classical music and all that stuff. I went to music school and I loved being in Chicago very much. It was great. I was dividing my focus between a lot of different things, but one of them was playing with Connor and Mike. I was very much going in two different directions at once, but there’s a lot of overlap there, so it worked.

Conor Oberst: You made the right decision, let’s just put it that way.

Nate Walcott: We will never know.

Conor Oberst: There’s no future in jazz. There’s no money in jazz.

Nate Walcott: I will say I’ve been fortunate enough to get back into that a little bit more lately because there’s been a lot of great stuff happening in LA. A bit of a resurgence in the jazz world that has allowed me to get back into it.

Was this album a bit of a dream of yours? It sounded like you had free reign. The production is so big and there’s so much that you put into it. It sounds like the album that every producer or instrumentalist wants to play because it’s so beautiful and so big.

Conor Oberst:  Thank you.

Mike Mogis: I think that since we have our own studio space and nobody was expecting a Bright Eyes record we just took our time.

Conor Oberst: No one knew we were making it and we didn’t have a label. We spent two years making it and we could take as long as we wanted, do whatever we wanted. There’s a lot of layers to it, a lot of steps in the process.

How did you decide to make it so big? Which one of you was involved in the expansion of the sound?

Mike Mogis: All three of us.

Nate Walcott: It’s something we collectively have an interest in. It’s definitely a group effort as far as that stuff is concerned.

Mike Mogis: It’s kind of a boring answer, but it’s the truth. The work dynamic between the three of us is very collaborative.

Conor, you’ve written a lot of songs. Have you written a song about Mike or Nate?

Conor Oberst: I wouldn’t say an entire song, but there’s definitely lyrics along the way. I name check Michael in, what’s that song on Lifted?

Mike Mogis: “Method Acting

Conor Oberst: “Michael, please keep the tape rolling.”

Mike Mogis: You’re welcome.

Conor Oberst: There’s a song on Digital Ash that when I was writing it I was thinking of Nate, and I always still think of him when we sing it, “I Believe in Symmetry.” The one about the up and down the treble clef, that whole song. I was kinda thinking Nate, ’cause he’s the Maestro.

Nate Walcott: I appreciate that.

Mike Mogis: And it’s a great ending. One of my favorite parts of that record is hearing the outro to “Symmetry.”

Conor Oberst: I also wrote “First Day of my Life” about Mike as well. But that’s a different story. That’s a longer story.

Mike Mogis: Little known fact I actually ghost wrote “Lua” for Conor. [Laughs]

A lot of people feel like Bright Eyes is like the band that they connect their identity with. What was a band like that for you?

Conor Oberst: There were a lot of them over the years. I never had a favorite band. I had bands I was really into for a period of time. I can’t say that I had a favorite all time.

What about The Doors? I remember you bringing up The Doors once.

Conor Oberst: That’s amazing. Yeah, it was The Doors. [Laughs]

Mike Mogis: I never heard you talk about the Doors.

I did an interview with you, me, and Phoebe [Bridgers] one time. I can’t remember what you said about The Doors.

Conor Oberst: I was probably f***ing around. I’m actually positive I was f***ing around. Sorry.

You said you had differing opinions, but I can’t remember whose was which.

Conor Oberst: Phoebe and I fight about music a lot. I hated The Doors when I was a teenager. But now when I listen to them, what they were doing was interesting. It was cool. I appreciate them for what they are, but by no means would I put them in my top tier favorite bands.

What do you think?

Mike Mogis: I think he’s hiding something.

Conor Oberst: I’m hiding the tight leather pants I’m wearing right now.

Mike Mogis: What do I think about Conor’s love of The Doors?

What about The Doors as being a prototype?

Mike Mogis: It’s pretty groundbreaking stuff in some sense, musically speaking, with Ray Manzerek.

Conor Oberst: First band to ever have a billboard in L.A. Gary Burton told me that. Our friend Gary Burton designed a lot of their artwork. He passed away a couple of years ago but he made all the cool California artwork. Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Johnny Mitchell, The Doors and Mama Cass. He made some of those classic Doors covers.

Mike Mogis: None of us really went through that Doors phase. I think that’s something that we have in common. I can appreciate it from a distance.

Conor Oberst: I kind of remember this now, I think I was intentionally trying to piss Phoebe off.

The election is coming up and we want our artists to talk about the importance of voting, especially because we are in Wisconsin. We are in Milwaukee. Wisconsin was decided by less than 23,000 votes, and 50,000 people in the City of Milwaukee didn’t vote in between the two elections. We have the power to change the entire election. I think it would be important to hear what your thoughts are on voting.

Conor Oberst: My thoughts are please vote, and please vote for Biden and Harris.

If you’re going to vote for Trump, just stay home. It’s totally fine to stay home, just eat some chicken wings and stay home. Take the night off. You got my permission to take the night off. But if you’re going to vote for Biden and Harris, get out there. You got no excuse. Literally every element of our democracy is on the line. The basic concept of truth and reality is on the line and we’re letting a complete charlatan and a megalomaniac and a psychotic person run our country. If we let him have another term — I’m not being hyperbolic — I think he literally could completely destroy this country. That’s my sincerest belief. I know I’m a bleeding heart liberal and I say crazy stuff sometimes, but this is not a joke.

This is the realest thing. Anyone out there, I don’t necessarily think you should respect my opinion, but this Conor from Bright Eyes and please vote this maniac out of office before it’s too late.

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