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A Musical Vision Comes Into Focus

"I don't really plan ahead too much of what I'm going to write about," says Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. (By Butch Hogan)

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Those words started coming when Oberst was in seventh grade. Raised in a family of musicians -- his father was a computer tech who played guitar in cover bands on weekends, and two older brothers had bands -- Oberst found that writing was something he was "always drawn to from the point when I could put any words together. But I wasn't the type that learned a bunch of cover songs or tried to get very good at guitar by practicing the scales or anything. The first few chords I could play and switch back and forth between, I wrote a song with those chords."

More important, Oberst received encouragement early on from slightly older Omaha musicians who let him sit in at folk clubs and coffeehouses. "When I try to explain to people the big influences in my life, or at least when I first started, the most important ones were my friends who were also writing songs and were typically four or five years older than me," he says. "Knowing them and seeing the way they wrote songs, just the way that they dealt with the creative process, took the mystery away from it, and it seemed really easy to obtain the same process that they were using."

Playing primarily for themselves, those musicians started peddling one another's cassette tapes until 1993, when Saddle Creek precursor Lumberjack was founded by Oberst and his older brother, Justin, Tim Kasher (Cursive/Good Life), Ted Stevens (Cursive) and Nansel. The first Saddle Creek release was a split single by Drip and Commander Venus, a band featuring the 14-year-old Oberst, Nansel and Todd Baechle (later of Cursive), followed by the first Bright Eyes album, "A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997." The "uber-indie" label is now distributed by the Warner Music-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance, but its mindset remains clear: "Motion Sickness," a new live album drawn from this year's Bright Eyes album tours, is available only in indie stores.

"Fortunately we were blessed with a little bit of patience and work ethic to just keep going and really take every little step of success, be grateful for it and always find success in little things along the way," Oberst says. "I can't imagine back then having the label as well put together as it is now in terms of distribution and selling records. Along the way, we always celebrated everything as 'This is incredible,' the most important thing being 'Wow, we're making music,' no matter how few people are listening to it, and how great that is. That's definitely a product of having a community of people all doing it together, not doing it alone in whatever moment you're in."

There have always been crossovers and entanglements among the dozen or so mostly Omaha-based acts on the label, amusingly recounted in "Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek." The label's first decade is revisited through interviews, home movies (including some of a very earnest young Oberst), rare live performances and archival footage, but the film ends before the recent commercial successes, which are mentioned in an endnote.

The film also doesn't explore Oberst's emerging political voice. (He was the indie-est rocker on last year's Vote for Change tour.) It's really nothing new, Oberst suggests: As a 10-year-old during the first Gulf War, he wrote an antiwar song. "Old Soul Song (for the New World Order)," from "I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning," was inspired by a 2003 antiwar march in New York the day Oberst turned 23.

In May, Oberst caused a media furor when he performed a scathing new song, "When the President Talks to God," on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," imagining a deity who might be a president's equal in terms of callous, small-minded ignorance: "When the president talks to God are the conversations brief or long?/Does he ask to rape our women's rights and send poor farm kids off to die?/Does God suggest an oil hike when the president talks to God?"

"I don't really plan ahead too much of what I'm going to write about," Oberst says. "It's just things that are on my mind that I'm thinking about at the time. Definitely, it's always there, and you can't really escape it -- it's just how much time you give it in your thoughts and how much it affects you on a daily basis. For me, starting around the 2000 election, and obviously accelerated by 9/11, this new war has made it be something I wrote about a lot more."

Despite being so closely associated with Saddle Creek and Omaha, Oberst has established some independence: He and his manager, Nate Krenkel, last year started a New York-based label, Team Love, though its first signing was an Omaha band, Tilly and the Wall, whose singer Neely Jenkins was Oberst's childhood sweetheart. The two labels, Oberst admits, are similar, "but we can do different things, or smaller things, that we couldn't get everyone to be into at the same time" at collectively run Saddle Creek. Oberst is not involved with a club Saddle Creek plans to build in Omaha, though he and longtime producer/Bright Eyes constant Mike Mogis are building a recording studio there. But Oberst will have to visit to record, having settled in New York a couple of years ago.

"Although Omaha is my birthplace and the place I grew up, I don't see myself spending extended amounts of time there," he says. "I feel almost more comfortable and more at peace in New York. I've been going over it in my head a lot, because next year I don't have anything going on as far as obligations. To be honest, this year there's been so much traveling and other things that I don't necessarily know where I want to be."

BRIGHT EYES -- Appearing Friday at DAR Constitution Hall with Magic Numbers and Feist.


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