Conor Oberst on How Rastafarianism Influenced the New Bright Eyes Album

Kate Booker/Red Ferns/Getty Images

Being exalted can be "overwhelming" says the revered frontman as he prepares to release 'The People's Key,' the band's first album in four years.

Bright Eyes is back from the dead. The People's Key, the band’s first album in four years, finds folkster Conor Oberst reneging on a comment he made in 2009: that he was ready to put the Bright Eyes endeavor to rest. And that’s a good thing, since his latest is also being hailed as career-defining and the band’s best effort yet. 

The collaborative project with musicians Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott was the main force in Oberst's musical career for nearly 10 years but Oberst had been plenty busy on his own. The Omaha-native recorded his self-titled solo album in 2008, and released the album Outer South a year later with the same band now dubbed the Mystic Valley Band. He also recorded the first studio album with this Monsters of Folk supergroup, featuring members of Jim James from My Morning Jacket, Mogis from Bright Eyes, and Americana singer-songwriter, M. Ward.
Bright Eyes was pushed to the periphery in recent years, as Oberst's side projects became the main event. Then in early 2010, Oberst met up with Mogis at his home studio in Omaha and began crafting what was to become The People's Key. Over the nine month recording session, they created an album that was unadulterated rock, stripping away the folkier elements of Oberst's solo projects, and the more electronic accoutrements of Bright Eyes' albums from the early 2000's. Oberst leaned to psychedelia, spirituality and sci-fi for lyrical inspiration, largely leaving behind the political passion imbued in his earlier works and activism.
The Hollywood Reporter recently spoke with Oberst about Messiah complexes, Ethiopian emperors, the musical middle class, Rastafarianism, President Obama and how to survive the "death of the album." 
THR: Why did you decided to make another Bright Eyes project instead of releasing another solo record?
Conor Oberst: Well, I guess Bright Eyes is whenever Mike, Nate and I make record together. I’m just writing songs all the time, but I don’t set aside specific times to write for this project or that project. I just try and let the songs come naturally. I’m typically working on two projects at once and then there’s a decision on which song makes sense for which project. Afterwards sometimes things seem to fit like a collection of songs more than others.  I guess we’re kind of dinosaurs in that respect, we still try to make records that are one body of work.
THR: But according to music industry types, we’re currently experiencing the death of the album format, right?
Oberst: It’s true to a certain extent, obviously the way technology and people’s attention spans and the way that information is communicated these days, it's hard to ask someone to sit down and listen to something for 45 minutes, but that’s still the way we approach the making of the records. As a fan of music, I still like that art form, the idea of an album, and I think it’s a really nice length of time to express a certain idea or set of ideas. 
THR: There are a few field recordings that are ruminations on time travel on the album. If you could travel back in time to visit yourself when you were about 20, what would you tell him about the way the music industry would change?
Oberst: Well, I would say look out! Double check all of those contracts.
THR: Your career began in a very DIY style. If you were a young musician today and used the same tactics that launched your career, do you think you’d still be successful? Or has the game changed completely?
Oberst: I don’t know, I’m glad I don’t have to do it again. I feel lucky that when I was coming up, we had our own label and self-released and set up our own tours. I guess we came at the tail end of whatever that was, the punk rock-DIY sort of movement from the 80s and 90s. Plus it was a time when people actually bought music.
THR: Pop music seems to be the only thing selling these days. How do you survive when people aren’t buying music?
Oberst: People will keep making music because I think they do it for the love of it first and foremost, you’re going to lose a lot of quality musicians especially in the middle area, where my band exists, where there’s a trillion bands with a website or a MySpace page or whatever, and they will record their music themselves and put it up on the internet for people to download and that’s where it ends. Basically, I think what’s happening to the music industry is the same thing that’s happening to society: the middle class is shrinking. So we’ll have a lot of people doing it on this super small, Internet-only scale and you’ll have very few people at the top.
THR: What about the resurgence of vinyl? Do you think that is the anachronistic answer for smaller bands in the record industry?
Oberst: No, not really. On a record, I like when themes run through more than one song and just the way it can tie together with peaks and valleys as it plays through start to finish. I buy vinyl and when I was growing up, that was how I learned about music. I went to the local record store, which was snooty like the movies, and I would bum around, smoke cigarettes and learn about records. We’d see flyers on the board and go see shows. The fact that kids can’t have that whole experience now, I think it’s just really unfortunate.
THR: This album especially seems to have a central set of ideas flowing throughout. Would you consider it a concept album?
Oberst: I think that’s true, I’ve noticed that every record I’ve made, people say it’s a concept album, I think I guess to me that’s the idea of an album and that the songs should tie together and it should stand as one large body of work.
THR: There are quite a few references to Rastafarianism on the album -- you mention the Lion of Judah and redemption -- how did the ideas or practice of Rastafarianism influence you?
Oberst: Rastafarianism and reggae music have always kind of resonated with me. Those ideas of redemption, liberation and overcoming oppression through music, weed and community. Fighting evil through love and music, I think it’s just a really powerful idea. I guess I sort of co-opted some of those ideas and broadened it a bit; it’s not about people being oppressed by imperialism in Jamaica. But I do think there is, this might be a controversial point of view, but I do think that there are evil people in this world and they are at work all the time.
THR: You even a name a song after Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian emperor who was seen as the second coming of Christ and set the stage for the development of Rastafarianism. 
Oberst: Yeah, he’s a very interesting character because Rastafarians made him into this kind of Messianic character. It makes you wonder how many other, I guess, characters throughout time, like Jesus and things like that, were put in that same position. One of the other themes of the record is about these people who get elevated to that level of power, like Hitler or Caesar, and that relates to what you would say is the more common people, the plebes or whatever.
THR: As a musician, when you stand onstage in front of a large audience, do you feel that fans can elevate you to a similar kind of exalted status?
Oberst: It can be overwhelming at times, because much of appreciating art or music is really the interpretation of the listener. To a certain extent it’s projection -- it’s what people need or lack in themselves that they then put upon these people that they admire. I think an obvious modern day example would be Obama. Everyone sort of projected everything on to him and I think we’re realizing that he’s just another person trying to do a really hard job.
THR: Can you envision a time when you might retire Bright Eyes and just focus on solo work?
Oberst: I think different musical collaborators bring out different qualities in my songs and I like that. But I am looking for the next door to open.