From the years 2000 to 2002 I ran an online zine, Actionattackhelicopter, along with my friends, Brian and Josh. I was fortunate to interview many musicians whose work I enjoyed. I’m posting some of those interviews here for anyone who may have missed them the first time. They have been edited for length, relevance, and to correct for my poor editing skills at the time of original publication. Keep in mind that these were done over ten years ago, thus individuals’ opinions, thoughts, and ideas may no longer be relevant, but they are still interesting as a snapshot of a particular time and place.
This interview was originally published in autumn 2000.
After receiving Bright Eyes new full-length, Fevers and Mirrors, I didn’t really know what to make of it and I think my review said as much. However, now that time has gone by, I have had the opportunity to listen to it a lot more. And boy was I ever confused. What Conor Oberst (who basically IS Bright Eyes) has done on Fevers and Mirrors is about one step away from genius. I’m not sure what they’re doing in Omaha to produce such fine songwriters (I am of course also referring to Cursive’s Tim Kasher amongst others), but it definitely has worked on Conor as well. Upon further review of his lyrics as well as the hilarious interview inserted at the end of “An Attempt to Tip the Scales”, I began to have the inclination that perhaps Conor Oberst is a fellow sufferer of mental illness, namely depression. Soon after talking to him on the phone I learned that Conor indeed does suffer from depression and so we proceeded to not only chat about his amazing new album but his thoughts on his depression.
I wanted to start out talking about the new album a little bit. I was told that the song “Sunrise, Sunset” is actually from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Is that true?
The first line of the song is from the Fiddler on the Roof song “Sunrise, Sunset” but if you hear the Fiddler on the Roof song, it’s not at all the same thing.
I was gonna say. I didn’t think there was a line in Fiddler on the Roof that went “you’re manic, then you’re depressed”.
It’s definitely a reference but it’s not quite the same.
The interview on track eleven, is that…is it…well what the hell is that?
That was an interview that I wrote the script for but that’s not me talking. That’s my friend Todd being me. Then another friend of ours is the reporter guy.
So is any of the information on there legitimate or is it all trying to throw everyone for a loop?
That was the idea of it; to make it sound really surreal and then mix truthful information in there and then complete bullshit too.
It’s funny. It’s definitely funny. The subtlety of it is really humorous. The guy who interviewed you sounded like he had something stuck up his ass. Listening to some of your lyrics as well as some of the things said on that interview lead me to wonder if you consider yourself a depressed person.
Yeah. Depression’s been something I’ve struggled with my whole life. When I was a kid I was more of a thoughtful, sensitive type of kid and then in junior high I kind of left childhood and it started to hit me. Since then it’s not miserable all the time but it’s definitely something I’ve had to deal with. I’ve taken my fair share of anti-depressants and stuff like that. It’s definitely something that I go through periods of time where it’s better or worse.
So how old are you now?
How does depression affect your outlook on life?
It colors everything. It’s definitely a sickness. When it’s there and it’s having its way with you it affects the way you look at things. And things that you should be more excited about you’re not and you can’t help it. It’s a huge part of my creative energies. They tend to go down that path which sometimes frustrates me because I hate to feel like I’m bringing people down or the bearer of bad news but at the same time I try not to plan out my songs too much. They sort of just happen in my head and if they stick around long enough I know I should just write them down.
How has your depression affected your songwriting over the past couple of albums and the past couple of years?
I dunno. It’s definitely affected my life a lot so the type of things that end up coming out of my mouth tend to have that negative slant to them. I guess sometimes a happier song will sneak out and I’m always glad when it does. When I’m not depressed and I have the energy to be happy and do things, I usually don’t spend that time sitting in my room, playing guitar. I’m usually out doing stuff.
Like what kind of stuff?
You know, just having fun. I don’t know.
Yeah. Exactly. I guess the times when I get really down is when I get more introspective and I want to be by myself and I usually turn to my piano or guitar in order to find some kind of consolation in everything. Maybe if I did spend more time on music when I was in up times then maybe I’d get some more up songs.
Some more rock songs maybe?
Well I like the stuff on Fevers and Mirrors so I’m not gonna complain. Do you find that school played a part in your depression?
My schooling did play a role but it wasn’t so much socially feeling outcast from my peers because I never really cared too much about that. I went to Catholic schools all my life and my departure from believing that I was a special individual created by God with a purpose in the universe and on my way to heaven and then realizing that I’m just a fucking molecule floating in the air played a big part. It just doesn’t matter.
You’ve been talking to Tim from Cursive, haven’t you?
Yeah. Tim’s one of my best friends in the whole world.
Did you guys go to school together?
He was several years older than me. My brother, Matt, they graduated from high school together. But yeah, I started to hang out with Tim probably when I was far too young. [laughs]
He was a bad influence on your life.
All those older kids got me thinking about things at a pretty early age. But I think it was that sort of breaking point when I got seriously depressed. When I let go of that safety blanket of a God and meaning and that.
So would you consider yourself an atheist or an agnostic?
Well, for a long time I considered myself an atheist and I went out of my way to argue because I went to a Catholic high school. I was a fucking bastard and would go to religion classes with my Bertrand Russell book and start breaking shit down and screaming at teachers. It was more of a silly, little kid, wanting to piss people off thing. But it was obviously stuff I was struggling with but now I don’t know. I guess I’m still an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in a conscious God who’s directing traffic but there are things I can’t really resolve yet like the reason why I fall in love with things and why beauty exists. There’s mystery to the world. I guess I’m more agnostic now because I’m not gonna take a stand on something that I can’t even comprehend.
It’s a big concept, that’s for sure. On the interview at the end of “An Attempt to Tip the Scales” you talk about your neurosis. What would you describe neurosis as, besides an amazing metal band?
[laughs] I guess neurosis is kind of just what I said on the interview. For me it’s a debilitating mental condition that could fall closer to psychosis or just being crazy. Or it can be depression or being delusional.
So what kind of anti-depressants are you on? You on anything right now?
No, I fuckin kicked the habit, man.
Did you do it on your own or did your doctor take you off?
No, I took myself off. In January I guess. It was really bad. The last one I was taking was Prozac and I was taking big doses of it and I couldn’t remember like forty percent of the nights I was living because they tell you not to drink but that’s not really an option. So it came down to the point where you either need to not drink or you need to stop doing this because I had some pretty fucked up things happen. I passed out while we were playing once in Santa Cruz. We played four songs and then I just started laughing a lot and then I fell over on the drum set. Everyone was just standing there like, “Is this some sort of joke?” expecting me to get up and then after a few minutes they were like “Show’s over!” Then this really kind girl picked me up. It was this house show in an apartment complex and she lived in a different apartment than where the show was going on. It was really scary because one moment I was up at the mic singing and the next moment it was four in the morning and I woke up in this strange bed. It was really fucked up, too, because her apartment was identical but the exact opposite of the apartment that the show was in so I woke up and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck happened. I had a couple of scary things like that happen and so I decided to stop. I can see the parts where it was helping me, but at least with that drug, the negatives were far worse than the positives and I’ve been doing pretty good. I’ve been keeping busy and change of scenery can do a lot.
As far as touring?
You talk about suburbia in Fevers & Mirrors and I was wondering how that affected you.
Actually my parents were really smart and I was born in the suburbs but when I was six or seven they moved down into the city in Omaha. It wasn’t downtown, but it was a little north of it. The neighborhood was pretty big brick houses but a couple blocks away was the fucking ghetto. They made the right decision because I know I would not want to grow up in West Omaha where it’s all the cookie cutter houses and all that shit. At the same time I had a bunch of friends who came from there. Omaha is kind of separate like that. You have the black, north Omaha and then the south, Hispanic Omaha and then the central part where it’s all blended. More than half the city is just spread out all west where it’s white flight and everyone wants to fucking hide.
Do you think the suburban life is depressing?
Yeah, I think it’s horrible. It’s the fucking downfall of civilization. It’s terrible. You take everything interesting and all ideas of being an individual and try and be like your neighbor.
Where do you get a lot of inspiration for things on the album?
For me it’s being filtered through my senses and my experiences and all that. It comes from everywhere. It comes from trying to be observant, seeing movies, reading books, having conversations in a lot of different cities and meeting different people and trying to harness as much awareness as you can, you know? I think that’s the hard part because it’s really easy to walk around in a cloud and not pay attention.
(I proceed to tell Conor about the series of interviews I’m doing with musicians about depression.) I guess I just find mental illness to be a very interesting and unfortunate subject.
Yeah, it’s totally interesting. Playing the type of music I’m playing and traveling all the time, fuck, I mean the typical Bright Eyes fan that flocks over to talk to you is usually pretty fucked up somehow. So I’m doing a lot of case studies on people.
What gets you through your days when you’re depressed?
I suppose what gets me through the days are my friends. Like when I’m sitting staring off into space they can say something to make me laugh or punch me in the arm and say “fucking snap out of it.” As far as looking up to people, there are lots of musicians and authors that make me say, “Wow, that’s something that I was thinking but I never knew how to say it and it’s right there.” I think that’s why art and subjects like this go hand in hand so much. It’s a way to console each other. To reach some kind of understanding.
You seem like you have a good group of friends in Omaha.
Yeah, I’m totally blessed with great friends. And playing in a band like mine where I’m traveling with different people on each tour, you spend a month with everyone and you really know them in the end. It’s just one more person you can count on and always have around.