An interview with Conor Oberst and Matt Baum about the triumphant return of the elusive Omaha band.
The publicist who set this interview up was quite explicit—questions must be focused on Desaparecidos only, nothing personal. And that’s fair. Desaparecidos is, after all, the collective effort of five men. One of those men just happens to be one of the most famous solo indie artists in the world. But unlike past overly fawning interviews which presumably necessitated that primer, I’m not interested in fanboying out with Conor Oberst about Bright Eyes. I’m interested in fanboying out with Conor Oberst about Desaparecidos, because last month, the Omaha band released what is arguably the best record of the year.
For a while, it seemed like Desaparecidos, which translates into “the disappeared,” had, well, disappeared. In 2003, just months after putting out their one and only album, the influential Read Music/Speak Spanish, the members drifted their separate ways. Nearly a decade went by without so much as a peep from Desaparecidos. Then in 2010, as a town in Nebraska was aiming to pass a widely disputed anti-immigrant law, similar to Arizona’s infamous S.B. 1070 (a.k.a. the “show me your papers” law), Oberst organized the Concert for Equality in protest. This event brought with it a reunited Desaparecidos. So, uh, thanks xenophobia?
The old friends started writing music together again after that, casually, just to see what would happen. After they had a few songs on their hands, an album became a serious option. Fast forward a bit and the end result is Payola, their long-awaited 14-song follow-up on Epitaph Records. Payola sees the band widening their scope a bit from Read Music, which largely focused on issues affecting their hometown. Now they’ve turned their attention outward and have taken aim at larger, national topics. Healthcare, American sectionalism, the Occupy movement, and more all serve as fodder. Each one self-contained, each still fanning the flames.
We talked to Oberst and drummer Matt Baum about the triumphant return of the elusive Desaparecidos.
Noisey: I guess I’ll lead with the obvious question. What took so long?
Matt Baum: Well, Conor’s in this other little band that he was sort of “shaping a dream with” or whatever. We were all just busy with different stuff. Obviously Conor was doing his stuff and I was trying to be an adult for a little while there and it didn’t work out. Real life is what happened, basically.
Had you been talking over that time?
Matt: No! [jokingly] No, our relationship had deteriorated.
Conor Oberst: Yeah, we were all still friends, and we’ve definitely been in contact, but other than an occasional drunken conversation of “oh, we should play again,” this is the first time I was really like, “let’s do this,” and everyone was right there on board. We ended up playing a concert, and it was such a great experience all around. I think we played our tightest show to date, and it just felt really good to play that music again with those guys.
You guys are so strongly associated with Saddle Creek. Why did you decide to go with Epitaph on this one?
Conor: Well, the Saddle Creek thing has been kind of unraveling for a long time. They’re still our friends, and I’ve definitely got no ill will. When the label started when we were all kids, it was very much a collective thing. I'm talking way back in like, ’93, ’94. The record label honestly started with me and our friend Ted Stevens, who plays in Cursive, and my brother Justin, and we started in my parents’ attic making Kinko’s copies of record sleeves. Anyway, the collective aspect sort of fell to the wayside and it became more of a regular business and certain peoples’ names ended up on the paperwork and other people’s didn’t and it… I don’t know. After years, it kind of soured a little bit and we happened to go our own way. I wish all of them the best, but we knew we weren’t gonna do it with them and we started talking about what label would make sense with our band, and what's the label we respect, and can get it out there, and Epitaph was the very first one that…
Matt: They sought us out. They came to us.
Conor: And it's been great so far. That office between Epitaph and Anti-, that’s very impressive for an actual independent label.
Speaking of labels, one of the songs on the album, “Backsell,” which you originally released in 2012, calls some labels out by name, specifically Interscope and Capitol and MCA. What do you make of that side of the music industry in 2015—the big labels?
Matt: The labels we called out are kind of dinosaurs. They’re like fossils of big gigantic beasts.
Conor: That’s part of a joke—that both DreamWorks and MCA don’t exist anymore. Actually, that song is one of the only songs that survived from when we stopped playing in like, 2003. We were actually working on a record and decided it was gonna be called Payola, and we only had a couple of songs, and that was one of the songs. So when we got back together, it felt like maybe it was a good starting point to pick up exactly where we left off—with a song that’s old. Though topically, it's a little irrelevant now since that major record label system has collapsed. But at the time, all of our friends were experiencing that sort of courtship with major labels.
That was a huge thing in the early 2000s. There was a movement to sign anyone with cool moppy haircuts.
Matt: Oh yeah. And they’d write checks for a million dollars, like they were handing out birthday cards, like “here, here, here.”
What do you think about music journalism in 2015? There’s a snarky line about journalists on the album.
Conor: I think journalism in general, not just music journalism, but across the board, is suffering from a pretty deep lack of credibility and I think that has more to do with technology and the way that information travels and just the whole idea of clickbait and how to get people onto your site. There's very little integrity or idea of fact-checking anything, or any kind of the old school pillars of journalism that I think we all want to believe.
Matt: It absolutely still exists. It just doesn’t make as much money as the info-tainment that’s taken over the internet. And not just the internet. Look at CNN, and look at Fox News. I mean, it's ridiculous. They trade in blowing things out of proportion, and now we have a Presidential candidate in Donald Trump who’s convinced everyone that ISIS is gonna knock on your door any minute now. It becomes this fear-mongering info-tainment and it spreads to everything.
Conor: Let’s all stop and take a deep breath and realize that fucking Donald Trump is suddenly a legitimate candidate for President. He's like, second in the polls. What kind of bizarro world do we live in? If you need any more proof that the fucking media and the information age has totally lost the plot of anything resembling reality, there you go. And that’s why the best you can do is laugh at them, or else you have to cry. That’s why people get their news from fucking Jon Stewart and shit, because comedians are the only people that the people actually believe, which is also ridiculous.
When your first album, Read Music/Speak Spanish, came out in 2003, Pitchfork’s review was so negative, but they’ve been considerably more favorable to the new one. And around that same time when Conor released Fevers and Mirrors as Bright Eyes in 2000, they were so personally spiteful, but when it was reissued three years ago, they gave it a 9.0. What do you think happened over the last ten or 12 years to shift public opinion?
Conor: For our sake, the nice thing is we didn’t give a fuck back then, and we don’t give a fuck now.
Matt: Yeah, I don’t really care, but bless those poor kids that are working for slave labor, and not getting paid shit for thumbing through a thesaurus and coming up with these ridiculous Shakespearean reviews.
Conor: This might sound conceited or something, but I realized a long time ago that with every record we put out—definitely all the Bright Eyes records—when we put them out, it feels like no one likes them, even our fans. We play shows and people want to hear the old songs. And I understand that as a music fan—you wanna hear the shit you're familiar with. Well, when we come back three years later—it just happened to me the other day—I played a song off The People’s Key at a show and people erupted in crazy applause and I was like, when I was on that tour and we played that whole record, everyone was thoroughly bummed every night. [Laughs] I just think it takes a while for people to get familiar with things, and I’d rather be on the side of the fence where people don’t get or appreciate what you're doing at the time, and then get it later, than something that’s a flash in the pan and cotton candy—sounds like fun for a minute and then you forget about it.
Conor, are you ever worried that the people’s opinions of you and your solo work will affect how they perceive Desaparecidos?
Conor: Obviously they’re entangled. But I think the kids that come to our shows—there's plenty of kids that are Desaparecidos fans that aren’t necessarily Bright Eyes fans, and that’s great. That’s actually a testament to how much of a band we are, because we’re definitely a band. We are five equal parts and we get together, and we make the music together, and everyone has to be involved for it to sound the way we sound, and I think that it resonates with different people than my other projects. I think that’s great.
It seems like a double-edged sword. At once, you want to distance yourself from it, but then your celebrity elevates the level of the band.
Conor: I suppose so. I mean, there's something to be said for being—like, in the same way as Donald Trump has name recognition.
The messages on Read Music/Speak Spanish seem to hold up for the most part since a lot of them were about bigger, ongoing social issues. Are you ever worried about how your songs will age?
Matt: I don’t know that there's any point in worrying about something like that. If you worry about that so much, then you won’t write anything.
A lot of the records I grew up on when I was a kid in the 90s—like, Dead Kennedys had songs about Ronald Reagan and Pol Pot, and most of the people in them were retired or dead by the time I even heard the songs.
Conor: I thought about that a lot, actually, while we were making this new record. I agree with you—all those old songs that are like, yeah, Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan references, and I was very little when those people were around, but still, it didn’t make me like the song less. As a fan of lyricists and songs with actual substance, from a lyrical standpoint, whenever there's a reference that I don’t know, I'm the kind of person that’ll look it up to figure out what they’re talking about. That’s interesting and cool to me, that’s not a downside. So the idea that ten years from now, some kid is gonna be like, “Who’s Joe Arpaio? Who was that guy? He sounds like a creep.” And he can go and figure out what was happening back then, that’s cool.
Matt: But regardless, Dead Kennedys, for example, you don’t need to know who Governor Jerry Brown was to understand what was going on in the song “California Über Alles.” You knew Jello was pissed about what was happening, he doesn’t like this politician, he sees him grooming himself for running for the Presidency… well, that’s like every politician out there. You could relate to it.
Conor: And even going back to like, Phil Ochs, or folk singers from the 60s, they’re singing straight out of the newspaper—very topical stuff—but I can still enjoy a Phil Ochs song even though what he's talking about is way dead and gone.
Matt: I think far more dangerous is pop music, and the way they embrace slang or some type of dance that’s happening right now or something. I mean, that instantly dates it, and a year later, that song is meaningless and stupid, and we don’t ever want to hear it again.
Conor: I worry about even just references to telephones and stuff like that. Like, how long are telephones gonna be around?
You guys always get labeled as being a “political band.” Do you think that’s because you’re producing particularly political music or is the music around you very content and stale?
Matt: I think it's the second one. [Laughs]
Conor: Yeah, I think it’s the second one, for sure. I don’t know when it started because maybe it's always existed, but I think people don’t want to necessarily be challenged by what they’re digesting in the entertainment-sphere.
Matt: And vice versa. The industry doesn’t want to challenge people, and wants to bring everyone in.
Conor: So it makes perfect sense that not everyone is gonna want to hear the things that we’re singing about in our songs when they’re just, you know, trying to cool out with their bros and cruise down the street with the windows down. So I completely appreciate that, and I just would say that our band is not for you.
Matt: But at the same time, I also don’t think we’re saying anything vitriolic. There's bands out there that are way, way more angry and political than us that I grew up with. A band like Propagandhi, for example. Those guys didn’t give a shit what you thought about their politics, and they were pissed off. And we’re sort of poking fun at stuff we don’t like, and making pop punk songs about it. We’re not coming out and putting targets on anyone’s head, we’re just saying, “Hey, this isn’t very cool, we should pay attention to this.”
That’s one thing I’ve always loved about you guys is the self-deprecating nature of your activism and the sense of irony behind it. You can be kind of cheeky about it but get the point across.
Conor: Like I said, if you can’t laugh, you're gonna cry. I’ve spent too much time crying, so now I'm into laughing. [Laughs]
Dan Ozzi can’t read music or speak Spanish. Follow him on el Twittero.