Jun 01, 2008 Summer 2008 - The Protest Issue Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern
"In the kind of world where everything is readily available to everyone, information-wise, I think there’s something nice about a little bit of mystery,” says Conor Oberst, describing the hype or lack thereof surrounding his new, eponymous solo album.
Early information on the album was meager, save the fact that Oberst recorded the album in Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico with a band known as The Mystic Valley Band, that he produced it himself with Now It’s Overhead leader Andy LeMaster, and that this was not a Bright Eyes project. The truth of the matter is much more interesting than any mystery can hold.
One week after playing a pair of late December concerts in Minnesota featuring new material, Oberst and his band headed down to the small town of Tepoztlán, about an hour south of Mexico City. Holing up in a four-house, villa-style hotel just outside of town, Oberst and his Mystic Valley Band—drummer Jason Boesel (of Rilo Kiley), bassist Macey Taylor, guitarist Taylor Hollingsworth, Los Angeles singer/songwriter Nik Freitas, and Bright Eyes alum Nate Walcott—spent five weeks recording in a makeshift studio constructed in one of the hotel’s houses, laying down songs on a one-inch, 16-track tape machine. It was a process Oberst describes as one of the most relaxed recording experiences he has had since his early days of basement recording.
“The idea was just to work for as many hours of the day that we felt like it and felt inspired and things were going well, and the rest of the time, just spend time with each other and hang out,” says Oberst. “It ended up being really fun. Staying up late. Making fires. There was a hammock on every front porch. We did a lot of recording outside, which was great. We rented a piano from the city, and we couldn’t fit it in any of the doors, so it just remained on the porch. I did a lot of my vocals outside. It was a pretty unique situation and I think because of that, the record sounds like it does.”
Conor Oberst is remarkable for its loose and spontaneous feel, the overall sound is reminiscent of the country-rock aesthetic of late-’70s Neil Young, but with pleasing diversions. “I Don’t Want To Die (In the Hospital)” is a barroom piano-led rave up. “NYC—Gone, Gone” is one minute of march-and-stomp that recalls Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. “Sausalito” boasts a winding guitar lick that is reminiscent of the work of Joe Walsh. “Moab” features a light, airy, and uplifting melody featuring the line, “There’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” and you can even hear the crickets on “Valle Místico (Ruben’s Song).” All in all, it represents a change from Oberst’s last project, 2007’s Bright Eyes effort Cassadaga.
“We worked on [Cassadaga] for almost an entire year in all these different studios and with a lot of different players, and it was just a big, big production,” says Oberst. “I’m happy with how it came out and don’t regret it or anything, but I was just really excited to do something that was quite the opposite of that—casual, minimal instrumentation, basically sort of rock band format. It was just something that was easy and comfortable and lived in a little.”
The album is billed as Oberst’s first solo foray in 13 years, a notion that may seem silly given the fact that not only has Oberst himself always been the visible and creative force behind Bright Eyes, but also that his last three solo albums were recorded when he was barely even a teenager, aged 13, 14, and 15, respectively. Still, Oberst does see at least some similarity between these solo recordings and those he made as a wide-eyed youngster.
“I guess, as crazy as it sounds, it’s still coming from the same place, as far as simple songs composed and recorded as well as I could, with whatever circumstances I was in,” says Oberst.
Of course, these days Oberst is far from who he was at 13, having since released multiple critically and popularly lauded albums, and even managing to stir up some patriotic ire with the protest song, “When the President Talks to God.” But despite the fame and praise, these days for Oberst, it must have been nice to get away.
“[Going to Mexico] was definitely appealing,” Oberst agrees. “I went back for another few weeks recently. It’s really a lot closer than I think people realize. At least from where I live, it’s a two-hour plane ride to Mexico City. It’s not a big deal at all. It seems farther away than it is, as far as people don’t really bother me. My phone doesn’t really ring that much.…You’d be surprised how when you call people up and say, ‘Hey man, you want to go to Mexico and make a record,’ how everyone reacted really positively to that idea.”
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