As part of The 1975’s takeover of The Face, we’re releasing a series of podcasts featuring frontman Matty Healy in conversation with his musical heroes.
Conor Oberst is the cult, much-loved singer-songwriter behind Bright Eyes, and also a prolific collaborator: see also Desaparecidos and Better Oblivion Community Centre (with Phoebe Bridgers). To legions of ardent fans, the Nebraskan sage is, simply, one of the best songwriters ever. In this podcast, Oberst and Healy discuss the roots of emo, the return of emo, ageing, influences and mortality.
Want to hear more of these? We also have podcasts featuring Matty talking to Stevie Nicks, Bobby Gillespie, Steve Reich, Mike Kinsella, Kim Gordon and Brian Eno.
Welcome back again. This is Matty, in conversation with another one of my heroes. My guest today is another multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, indie-rock pantheon, Mr. Conor Oberst. How are you?
Hey Matty, it’s so nice to talk to you. I’m doing pretty good, just killing time in Los Angeles. How are you doing? Are you safe and sound somewhere?
I’m in the countryside. I’ve been making some music and making other people’s music – people that have been isolated here, so I’m good. What’s it like in LA?
It’s a little surreal once you leave the house. It’s funny, I was thinking about how certain things are exactly the same, like reading a book in the bathtub is the same, smoking a cigarette on the porch is the same, watching a movie is the same. But once you step a foot out your door, you’re in a dystopian sci-fi movie and it’s crazy.
There’s a real stillness to everything.
Yeah. I mean, I know you’ve spent time here in LA – it’s a trip to go to the store or whatever. To have no cars, no traffic on the street, it’s wild. It’s really weird.
It’s a weird place anyway, LA, in regards to if you talk about a sense of isolation. I love Los Angeles, I really love it but my friend once described it as waking up every day to the most beautiful woman in the world that you have nothing in common with. And I think that’s the thing I struggled with in LA, it’s kind of like… it’s so pretty, and I kind of find it hard that it’s not seasonal. I think that there’s kind of a weirdness to it, so I imagine that’s really exaggerated. It’s funny that we’re already talking about places, because I wanted to talk to you about – outside of the pandemic – Nebraska and Omaha. That’s where you grew up, right?
Yep, born and raised. It’s kind of a nondescript midwestern American city, you know. To people who haven’t been there, I always try to liken it to a small scale Chicago or a small scale Minneapolis or something. Then you meet people around the world that haven’t even been to Chicago or Minneapolis, so then I’m kind of at a loss as to how to describe it. It really could be kind of anywhere in middle America. It’s a lot of the same things that are all over that part of the country.
What scenes were around then in Omaha, and what were you listening to? What were you able to achieve as a young aspiring band there?
I will say we were lucky because we had one really amazing record store called Antiquarium, which was downtown in the basement of this old building. This is like in the ’90s, I probably first went there when I was 11-years-old in 1991 or something. It was where people congregated that had any kind of like-mind about art or music. It’s gone now but it was straight out of the movies: your typical guy behind the counter is really snotty, you have to be embarrassed about what you’re buying if it’s not cool enough, that kinda thing. At the same time it was the epicentre of the community – if your band was doing a show, that’s where you’d go and hang up the flyer for the show, that’s where you’d end up meeting people that were interested in some of the same stuff. Culturally, as a whole, it was very much a conservative place, but we were lucky to have this kind of underbelly of art and music. A lot of people predating myself that were already establishing a little bit of a foothold as far as artistic endeavours, and so I do feel lucky to have – you know, it was a small community but it was tight knit and supportive, so by the time I was starting my first bands and stuff, there was a little bit of an audience and there was a little bit of, I don’t know… There was somebody to encourage you, I guess, you know older bands and stuff.
When you first started making music in Nebraska, did it feel aspirational or did it feel, you know, something that was just to be fed into that insular community of whatever you guys were up to?
We were lucky. When I think about my friends here, for example that grew up in LA and the pressure of a real business apparatus or whatever, kind of looming over you all the time. It was the opposite in Omaha. So every little milestone or accomplishment that we got, it felt like a big victory. For example, I think I was 13 when I put out my first “record”, which was just like a cassette tape – even that, like making a cassette tape and selling it at the record store for like $3 – that seemed like a big deal. And then making the first CD, or the first time we went to South by Southwest or CMJ when I was like 16. You get to go to Europe… Every little step along the way, we actually were grateful for it. I had never thought that it would turn into a job that I would have for the rest of my life. I always kind of assumed that somebody would pull the break on the train and be like, “That’s enough buddy! Get off, go work at Mutual of Omaha, go fucking do some 9 – 5 shit.” I always figured it would end but it just never ended, and so we kept just doing stuff. I think that is actually nice, because some people that get into it start with real big aspirations and never quite get there, where I feel like all my goals were very small time.
Well, I’ll tell you what. Regardless of goals, they’re quite defining achievements. I just wanna talk about… If you look at, I don’t know, genres and scenes – I’m the worst person in the world because I’ve never been in a scene and my band doesn’t have a genre, so I can’t really talk that much about it. You’re very much the same, your music is very multi-faceted. In the way that Nirvana saw themselves as a punk band and they inadvertently kind of created grunge, I know that the emocore movement, people took a grievance with that label as well, you know? Your Embraces and Rites of Spring and stuff like that. You were very much the definitive artist of the first kind of emo scene. I was wondering if you knew anything about that at the time, or what were you doing in your head? Who were you? Who did you align yourself with?
Yeah. I mean it was, the whole, I guess commercial dawn of emo music. By the time that happened in the early 2000s, to me it felt very disconnected to what I thought of as that style. To me, when I think of emo music, honestly it’s like Sunny Day Real Estate and a lot of those Dischord bands, Fugazi and that shit.
Indian Summer, all that kind of…
Yeah, it’s like a branch off of hardcore music where it was kind of like, those sort of spirally, angular guitars, and the guy that said three words held over so many bars of music. It’d be like, “IIIII’mmmmm soooooorrryyyyyyy!” You know?
Like that, to me, is what emo music is, but by the time it got, I mean no slight to those bands, but by the time it got to My Chemical Romance or whatever the fuck…
That’s what I always use when I’m trying to talk about that.
Yeah, you know, some kind of like, Hot Topic shit. It actually had gone, in my mind, it had gone just towards pop-punk. To me that was…
Pop-punk is when the whole thing kinda died. But to be fair, I grew up in that time where… It’s weird, when I was like 13⁄14, just properly getting in the scene, I’d just started The 1975 at that age, but we weren’t called that. I had Limewire, right, and I had MTV, and that was kind of it. I had music magazines, and because the internet wasn’t the thing that it is now, there was this recycling of alternative culture. Not like Kerrang! but post-MTV, you had real alternative music at the forefront. You had nu metal and Limp Bizkit and fucking Avril Lavigne and all this kind of shit. There was a lot of retrospective, I don’t know, like circulation of bands. I learned all about Nirvana and The Clash, all these kinds of things, and you just dive into this kind of thing. I was listening to you at the same time I was listening to Taking Back Sunday and stuff like that, because I was super into that kind of, that quite bright, super melodic, appealing kind of music. I mean, superficially, yeah, by the time people were making music like that, you’d kind of turned into the evangelical preacher vibe that you have to this day, so it was very different.
Yeah, I mean, we were sort of lucky. I guess I don’t know if lucky is the right word, but the culture or the scene in Omaha was so small, all the punk bands played on the same shows with all the local folk singers and stuff. And so with my music, it didn’t feel like a stretch to incorporate the stuff I liked about the rock bands with the stuff I liked about the singer songwriters, you know? It was like, ok, I’ve always been into lyrics and I like songs with cool words, but I also like a bombastic drum set and cool, strange sounds. So to me, it felt natural to combine those two things. Some kids in other cities might have felt more pigeonholed into, “Ok if you’re gonna be a punk band, you can only sing about this kind of stuff and you can only do this kind of thing.” It wasn’t that we were super progressive or anything like that, we didn’t know fucking shit from shit, so we were just making it up as we went along. To us, to combine those things wasn’t some great leap of artistry or anything. We didn’t know any better so it seemed fine to us to just incorporate all the things we liked from different genres. That’s one of the things I love about your band. I don’t understand how you guys can be like, It’s Not Living and People can be the same fucking band. I love that about you guys. At least from an outside perspective, it doesn’t seem like you give a fuck…
I don’t. And it’s also that whole thing, the punk ethos. You just touched on it then, I respect bands that like the tradition of form, or whatever, that’s cool. But I sometimes feel that if you’re people who are like, “Ok I’m in a punk band so I’m gonna wear the punk jacket and I’m gonna do the punk tattoo, and then I’m gonna sing punk and sound punk” – it’s like cosplay, you might as well dress up as Halo characters, do you know what I mean? The thing you’re talking about is In Nebraska, the reason that you had a fucking acoustic guitar and a bombastic drum sound and this kind of meddling of hard rock and folk and lyricism, is because you were just reacting to your natural environment. And my natural environment by the time I started The 1975 was the fucking internet. Just talking about that, Conor, you know you say, “songs with good words”, you sound like somebody who, if you don’t read a lot, you have a passion for the written word. I was just wondering, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a songwriter, but I was wondering, for our listeners who might be interested – some writers that really inspired you, or some places where you maybe got your cadence.
One of my favourite writers, American writers – he actually just passed away a couple of years ago. This guy named Dennis Johnson, who wrote all kinds of great books: Stars At Noon, one of his most famous books is called Tree Of Smoke. Anyway, he’s also a poet and wrote poetry, and he was a big influence on me as a young… I don’t know, I probably started reading when I was 15 or 16 and read him all through my adult life. That’s one big one.
Growing up, honestly, a lot of our big influences, me and my friends, were The Cure and The Smiths and shit from your neck of the woods too, which I think shaped us in a pretty big way. I’m also such a sucker for – not even a sucker, that’s derogatory, but I love a great pop melody. That’s why I think Robert Smith is one of the greatest songwriters ever. The fact that he could throw a fucking bottle and it would hit a perfect pop melody. He can’t miss. It’s like one great melody after another, that’s hard to do. Everyone that’s like, “I could write a pop song!” It’s like, yeah. I’ve had friends that are indie-rock whatever people that are like, “Oh I could just write radio hits.” No, you could not! It’s really hard to write a radio hit. It’s like a very specific art form. I respect fucking Sia and shit, you know what I mean? That’s hard to do. If anyone could do that, everyone would be fucking doing that. That’s not easy.
And those guys, they work so hard. Those guys are never not at the studio, they’re never not writing with people, they’re never not doing sessions. The problem with me is that I let myself guide so many of my creative decisions. I’m a bit like, “Do I wanna go in a room with people at lunchtime?” As opposed to people who are just like, “Yep! Come on, meeting didn’t work, it’s cool, let’s float onto the next person.” I’m not like that. The last time I saw you in LA, actually the only time that we’ve ever met properly, you had just turned 40-years-old.
How is that? Not in like a, “How does it feel to be 40?”
Yeah, no, I always assumed I’d be dead by now, honestly. I’m kinda stoked to still be here and doing stuff. But it’s weird, so how old are you? You’re a little younger than me.
31? Yeah, ok. So you’re a little baby, you’re a little chicken. That’s great. I mean,what I would give to be 31 again, for real.
Has it informed your music? Has this one, I know that if you’re an artist and you’re doing what we were doing at your age – when you were like 29 to 30, it was very much happening for you. I just know that will have affected your output a little bit. What about now, what about this time?
I mean, I definitely write less than I did when I was in my twenties, for sure. In my teens and twenties, I was just… it was just a constant thing. Living, breathing, everyday was like writing songs, that’s kind of all I cared about, was music and making songs basically. You know, as you get older, life intervenes and it starts to… It sounds shitty to say, but it starts to feel less important, you know what I mean? You realise, oh my God, I’m losing friends and family members, people are dying, world events. It gets a little harder to pick up a pen and write down my little fucking problems on a piece of paper to sing to a song, or whatever. Now when I write, it’s much more deliberate.
It’s on purpose.
Yeah, yeah. Because when I was a kid, I just did it all the time, I didn’t think about it. It’s a double-edged sword where one one hand it’s like I’m writing less, but I feel like I’m being more intentional and thoughtful about what I am writing. And so, maybe that’s a good thing, you know? A bit of self-editing, I’m gonna only do this when I really care about doing it, as opposed to, “Oh, it’s a Wednesday. I’ll write another song today.” I don’t know. I think it definitely changes.
Talking about getting a bit older and I keep saying this, when people ask you… Every time I make a record, I put everything into it as I know that you do, and it’s really important for me to kind of almost get everything out. So every time I do that and move on to the next record, It’s not that I have less… It’s not like the well is dry or I have less to write about, it’s just that the things that I have to write about now are basically just the fundamentals. What’s left? What’s the truth? Interpersonal conversation… it’s quite interesting, but it’s the core of sex, fear, death, you know, all those kinds of things. And having quite an outward perspective has been really important for me to grow as a person. I couldn’t be making music that was just so indulgent if I didn’t feel like I was kind of holding a mirror up to my surroundings. I wanted to talk to you about loss and grief, if you didn’t mind.
In music, in your music and in music in general. I could expand upon that, but you know, I’m sure that you can talk about those ideas quite well.
Yeah, I mean, actually the new Bright Eyes record, I feel like I’ve been just dipping my toes into doing interviews and stuff about it. People are always asking, “What’s the theme? Is there a theme?” or whatever. I would say that loss is a pretty big theme in the new songs. I guess it always was to a certain extent, but, you know, I think I told you this the time we met – the only other Matty that I’ve had in my life besides you is my brother, who we always called Matty, spelled the same way. So when I met you, I was like, that’s tight. Anyway, he was my oldest brother, and yeah, he passed away in 2016. Just having, I don’t know… I’ve lost friends and I’ve lost people over the years, but when you lose… I only have, I only had two brothers, so when you lose one of your brothers, it’s kind of a whole different ball game when it comes to the way it impacts. It impacted me psychologically and my parents, just everybody. It’s just a life changing event where this thing that had always been a foundation of your life is gone. Trying to pick up the pieces and move on from that, you know, it’s a hard thing. Whatever, it’s been four years and I still think about him every fucking day and I still wonder, could I have done something or said something? Or whatever. You know, that kind of stuff, I just think it’s like… Of course you heal and you grow from it, but also I don’t think it ever really stops being a factor. I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about that a lot, in these times with the pandemic and everything. I think so many people are learning the lesson of what it is to lose someone that’s so fundamental to your life. That’s also, like, talk about growing old – one of my good friends, this guy Jim Keltner who’s like the famous drummer who’s played with everybody, he produced my last record, my last solo record, Salutations. Anyway, he’s an amazing guy, he’s 74-years-old, he’s been in the fucking music game since God knows when, the ‘60s I guess, but he said to me not that long ago: “I have more friends now that are gone than are with me.” And like, if you live that long, that’s what’s gonna happen. Mathematically, that’s what’s gonna happen, and that’s a pretty shitty fucking thing to realise, but also I guess take the beauty in it, the sense that you lived a long time, you had a lot of friends, and if you outlive your friends, you have to say goodbye to them, which sucks. That’s a sad thing to do, but they always say, “You’re miserable with your life but what’s the alternative?” The alternative is to not be here. I try to say on the sunny side of the street and it’s better to hang out as long as I can and make new friends and experience new things, just try to wring every last droplet of fucking life out of this thing as possible, because we’re all gonna be in the grave at some point. There’s no reason to speed it up, I guess. Enjoy it.
Conor Oberst, thank you so much for talking to me.
Matty, I love you brother! You be safe, and yeah, let’s talk soon.