Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021
Bright Eyes on “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was”
All That Remains
Feb 23, 2021
By Matt Fink
Photography by Shawn Brackbill Issue #67 – Phoebe Bridgers and Moses Sumney
“It just slipped out of my mouth”—that’s how Conor Oberst remembers the conversation that ended Bright Eyes’ eight-year hiatus. It was 2017, and Oberst and multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott were at a Christmas party in Los Angeles, sneaking off to the bathroom to make a midnight call to a sleeping Mike Mogis in Omaha, Nebraska. “Nobody gave a shit if we were making music again,” Mogis recalls. “We didn’t have a label. There was no expectation, and that was kind of nice.” Just like that, one of the most influential and era-defining acts of the 2000s was back.
The years since the band’s final release, 2011’s The People’s Key, had been a period of transition for each member. Walcott became a father and a touring member of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Mogis had continued as an in-demand producer and engineer, having lost his father and a 22-year relationship along the way. Oberst stayed as busy as ever, issuing three solo releases and albums with Desaparecidos and Better Oblivion Community Center, but he’d also gone through a divorce and the death of his older brother.
“A lot of things that you count on as your cornerstones of your life felt like they weren’t necessarily there anymore,” Oberst says. “For us, it felt like our band was the other thing that was that, and that was something that we had control over. You can’t bring somebody back from the dead. A lot of shit in life, you can’t change. But you can talk to your best old friends and say ‘Let’s make a new rock and roll record together.’ I felt like we all wanted that stability again.”
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the band’s apocalyptic tenth release, would not be an exercise in nostalgia. From the start, Oberst made it clear that if they got back together, the previous rules would have to change. Where he had previously been the sole songwriter, with Walcott and Mogis fleshing out the arrangements in the studio, this time all three would collaborate from the start. Oberst would remain the sole lyricist, writing a series of songs heavy with loss, both personal and geopolitical, but everything else was up for grabs. Nearly 25 years after he began the band as a teenager, Oberst was fundamentally shifting the way it operated.
“He’s a generous lover,” jokes Mogis. “It says a lot about his openness for creative experiences. Working with Nate and myself, he’s comfortable enough to relinquish that control. Or you could say that he’s being lazy,” he continues, laughing. “But he wanted a new experience. And the songs that did have what he’d call ‘cowboy chords’ with a simple C-G-F-Am vibe, he would turn them over to Walcott, and he’d add some substitutions and make them a little more interesting, because [Oberst] does want to expand his musical backdrops more than what his ability will allow.”
Given Walcott’s training in classical and jazz composition, he was well-positioned to help Oberst break out of his standard folk music chord progressions. “Reharmonization”—that’s the word Walcott uses for how he would “retool the harmonic structures” of Oberst’s arrangements to push them in new directions. In order to keep the songs from drifting too far afield of what the band had done previously, the trio also revisited their past releases to dig up sonic reference points. Everything was on the table—the orchestral arrangements of 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the electronic flourishes of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the distorted acoustic guitars of 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness—and the result was an album that sounded a bit like every Bright Eyes album and not quite like any of them at same time.
“I started writing songs when I was 10 years old, and I’m 40 years old now,” Oberst explains. “That’s a long time to be doing the same thing. I guess I don’t feel on a fundamental level that it has changed that much. Obviously, the reference points change. When I was 12, I was writing songs about video games and stuff like that. And now I’m writing songs about friends passing away. Your reference points change. But the fundamental thing about songwriting, at least to me, is being able to understand what you’re going through and hopefully through that exercise other people can relate to it or get some comfort out of it.”
[Note: This article originally appeared in Issue 67 of Under the Radar’s print magazine, which is out now. This is its debut online.]