Twelve years ago, Omaha natives Conor Oberst, Denver Dalley, Landon Hedges, Ian McElroy and Matt Baum decamped to a studio in nearby Lincoln, Nebraska to record a punk-rock record under the name Desaparecidos. With Oberst’s regular collaborator Mike Mogis at its helm, Read Music/Speak Spanish was turned out in a week. Wilfully raw, fiercely melodic and utterly indignant, it touched on everything that is wrong with modern, capitalist (especially American) society, all by means of Oberst’s blood-curdling scream.
The band broke up not long afterwards, with Oberst dedicating more time to his burgeoning Bright Eyes outfit and the remaining members splintering into various other projects. As regular readers will no doubt be aware, however, in a couple of weeks the reunited quintet will play their first ever European shows, the London leg of which is presented by this very site (check it out). Late last year they released their first new material in a decade: the blistering double a-side ‘MariKKKopa’/‘Backsell’, the former of which is a scathing attack on Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona that finds the band as ferocious and vital as ever.
We sent some questions over to Conor regards Desaparecidos’ reunion and his forthcoming solo dates among a bunch of other things. A couple of days later his responses arrived...
What made you decide that now was the time for Desaparecidos to get back together, and was it something the five of you ever envisaged ten years ago?
Well it all kind of came together in the summer of 2010 when a little town in Nebraska passed a copy-cat law modeled after Arizona's controversial SB1070 anti-immigration law. I was already involved in an opposition movement and boycott against Arizona with Rage Against the Machine and others but when this law passed I decided to organise a concert in Nebraska to push back against the growing insanity in my home state. I teamed up with the ACLU and invited many local and national bands to perform at the concert which we called Concert for Equality.
Even though we hadn't played together in over seven years, at that point I really felt like it was a perfect occasion for Desaparecidos to come out of hiding and do some work. I wasn't sure how the other guys would react to the proposal. We had remained friends after we split but it had been years since we had even discussed the band and it seemed like ancient history that might not ever be unearthed again. I decided it was worth a shot and called each of the boys one by one and they all responded enthusiastically. We got together two days before the concert and next thing I knew we were on the stage and it was happening.
How were the first rehearsals?
I was nervous. I literally hadn't thought about those songs in years and was wondering how my voice would hold up in that setting but it all came together incredibly quickly and naturally. I was amazed. It was like a weird time capsule. The Concert for Equality was arguably the tightest concert we had played up to that point and we had taken seven years off and rehearsed twice. I can't explain that other than to say even though we hadn't been playing together we had all kept playing music and were undeniably better musicians than when we started. Many of those early shows circa 2001 and 2002 had been train wrecks. Now it seemed we were more proficient without losing the chaotic spirit which is the essence of the band. And honestly the best part was the continuity of the personalities and friendships. Not saying we always get along. We don't. But it was amazing how unchanged and intact our love/hate for each other was. Some things change. Most things don't. Good things change a little to adjust to the times. Beautiful stuff.
The album Read Music/Speak Spanish dealt with a number of issues endemic to modern Western society. Why do you think it resonated so strongly among listeners, and are you surprised by how it continues to do so now?
I think it resonates with listeners because it is true. It comes from a true and honest place. I know we are not reinventing the wheel here. It is nothing that hasn't been said before and it will surely be said again but that is because the ideas we were/are singing about come from the same common struggles of all thoughtful, empathetic people living in a modern western capitalist society. The excess, the guilt, the fear, the pride, the idealism, the arguments, the convenience and sheer entertainment of it all, the knowing that while there might not be a better system out there, that does not and cannot excuse all the suffering that this system causes our fellow human beings.
I'm not surprised that it still resonates today because the situation is only getting worse. Just look at the growing disparity between the rich and poor worldwide. The senseless never-ending wars all over the world to preserve this paradigm. And I guess that is why it has been so easy for us to fall back into the groove with the band and why we decided to make new songs. There is still a lot to say on the subject.
It was recorded in 2002, in under a week, I think? What are your memories of that time?
It was actually recorded in 2001. About a week after 9/11. It was such a strange turn of events because all the songs had been written prior to the attacks but then it happened and everyone was so freaked out. It seemed the worst time imaginable to be making an album which almost undoubtedly would be perceived as Anti-American. I really did some soul-searching at the time and decided that actually it was the most patriotic thing we could do. Because in my mind the best thing about being an American is the freedom to dissent and to force our government and society to correct course and improve ourselves. Our nation was born out of two of the greatest evils ever perpetrated on this earth, the genocide of the Native Americans and the slavery of the African Americans, but from that we have managed to evolve and become something much better and more humane. That evolution is still taking place. I just want to be a part of that.
Could you tell us a little more about Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, who is sampled at the end of ‘MariKKKopa’?
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a racist and a criminal. He has, for years, been a beacon of bigotry and intolerance in our country. His list of human and civil rights abuses in Maricopa County is long and well-documented. His many "crime suppression sweeps" are some of the most egregious affronts to American values and human dignity perpetrated in this century. The most unbelievable thing is he keeps being re-elected, mostly by the white retired "snowbirds" of Arizona despite incredibly brave and fierce opposition from fellow Arizonans. He has been sued by the federal government and many civil rights organizations for his relentless discrimination against his Hispanic population, immigrant and non-immigrant alike.
I wanted to convey through the music the unbelievable level of vitriol and hatred that comes from some supporters of these Anti-Immigrant laws. The rage with which they demand "justice" is terrifying. In the case of Sheriff Joe and his "Deputies" they are, quite literally and by their own admission, a posse. And as anyone who has seen a few Western movies can tell you, a posse is basically a mob that usually ends up lynching someone. I decided to sing most of the song from their point of view to hopefully illustrate the dangerous nature of that way of thinking. So often the debate is framed as a state's rights or security issue when, in actuality, xenophobia and racism play a much more central role than most proponents care to admit.
I believe there is a similar problem and vein of thought in the culture of the UK at the moment when it comes to your immigrant populations as well. Xenophobia and extreme nationalism seem to be on the rise all across the globe. The language in the song is ugly and hurtful just like these ideas themselves. If you think it is heavy-handed just listen to the sample of Joe Arpaio himself at the end as he responds to being compared to the KKK. Unbelievable.
You’ve been covering ‘Spanish Bombs’ with Desaparecidos recently, while Tom Morello joined Bright Eyes onstage at the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2011 for a couple of songs. Were groups like Rage Against the Machine and the Clash important in shaping Desaparecidos’ sound and aesthetic?
Absolutely. The Clash and Rage Against the Machine are two of my favorite bands period. Both musically and lyrically. Do I need a period if I write period? I think if you were to add Pixies, At the Drive-In, Fugazi, Cursive and Weezer you would basically have the palette from which we were trying to paint our band's portrait back in 2001. Not much has changed since.
February will see the band perform in Europe for the first time. Has this recent spell of shows felt similar to the first, or have you mellowed with age a little?
I mean, youth is wasted on the young, we all know that. And there is a certain quality about our music which is physically easier to achieve in a 22-year-old body, no doubt, but we still hold our own. And like I said before a lot of those early shows were just drunken train wrecks played in terrible clubs through unbelievably shitty PAs. So if anyone tells you they saw one and it was life-changing they are probably lying. Or at least exaggerating. I think we are better live now then we've ever been. But I might be biased.
How did you feel about Obama being elected for a second term? What would you like to see him achieve?
I voted for him. I even gave him some money after the 4000th email but I did so much less enthusiastically than four years ago. I really believe that our two-party system is flawed and with each election we go further down the money rabbit hole and inch closer to becoming a true corporatist oligarchy. There was more money raised and spent on both sides this election cycle than ever before. And I guarantee you there will be even more spent next time. Unless there is real, meaningful campaign finance reform quickly our democracy will be lost.
As a president I think he has done all right. He spent a lot of political capital getting his health care reform passed and I do believe that will help a great many poor and middle class people get a chance to live longer, healthier lives. He has been a stalwart advocate for women's rights, gay rights, and to some degree immigrant rights. I like what he did this week with pushing much-needed gun control laws. I think on a domestic front he has been a very good president.
Where I differ, greatly, with his polices is on his doubling down on Bush's senseless "War on Terrorism" tactics. He has increased illegal drone strikes ten-fold. He has ordered targeted assassinations on many individuals including American citizens. He has continued the unforgivable practice of indefinite detention without charging the people with a crime (aka Guantanamo Bay). He has prosecuted more people under the far outdated Espionage Act than any other president in history. This mainly applies to brave whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and others who simply want to tell us what our own government is doing in our name behind our backs. Not to mention the expansion of the NSA's surveillance program which allows the government to spy on its own citizens without a warrant or due process. Turning every cell phone and computer into tracking device and information gathering tool. This erosion of our civil liberties and privacy rights is completely unprecedented. One day it will surely come back to bite us all in the ass.
Are we likely to see more new material from Desaparecidos?
Johanna and Klara of First Aid Kit are around the same age you were when things began to really take off with Bright Eyes. What was it like working with them? Have you been able to offer them any sage advice?
I love those girls. They have a very rare and amazing ability to harmonise together so perfectly that it is almost as if they were a creature with two heads. It is just incredible. And I think Klara is a fine, fine songwriter and getting better all the time. I think the world of them both. I didn't have much in the way of advice for them other than the old go-to: "follow your heart." Which they would have done anyway. But both Mike (Mogis) and I have tried our best to be as supportive as possible because we think they are really special and on a path to greatness.
Before the Desaparecidos tour you have a bunch of European solo dates booked. What kind of shows and set lists can audiences expect?
I have been doing a very minimal show, part solo, part duet, in seated theatres all across the States. I play Bright Eyes songs and songs from all my records. It's been really laid-back and fun. I play guitar and piano and my friend Ben Brodin plays vibraphone, guitar and piano on some songs. Depending on the city we have friends or special guests join in when possible. I'm looking forward to the European leg. I have First Aid Kit and Simone Felice opening at different points. Which should be a blast.
Yes. I love it! Very soulful. I'm proud of all my fellow Monsters but sweet Jimmy J will always have a special place in my heart.
Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to at the moment?
Tomorrow. Never know what could happen.
How did you feel about two of the main characters in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom attending a Bright Eyes concert? Did you read the book?
I have not read it yet. But I have it on good authority that it is a fantastic book and look forward to diving in soon.
Have you read any good books lately?
I'm currently reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain. He mandated in his will that it couldn't be published until 100 years after his death. What a bad-ass!! He knew people would still be interested and he was right. It was mostly because he wanted everyone he talked shit about to be dead when it came out. What a gentleman. And the best part is it is all still as hilarious and relevant as the day he wrote it.
You talked about Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas for NPR’s All Things Considered last year. Have you seen him on any of his recent tours? [If yes!] How was it?
I saw him at Coachella in 2009. He plays so quietly that the festival agreed that all the other stages would go dark during his set. So there were tens of thousands of people watching him on a small stage. I had played the same stage the slot right before him so I was able to sit in front of the barricade and watch. It was unspeakably beautiful. I had tears streaming down my face. Beyond words.
Do you have a favourite Leonard Cohen song?
That would be too hard to answer. I have many favourites.
Are there any of your own songs you’re particularly proud of?
Not really. In particular. I go through phases with my songs. Sometimes I won't play one for a long time and then play it again and it will seem like a long-lost friend. I don't listen to the old recordings that much and a lot of times I think the songs themselves are better than the recordings and performances we captured on tape. This mostly has to do with the sound of my own voice back before I knew how to use it. But vice-versa there are some old recordings that we could never recreate live or do justice to now because they were about the time and place and sincerity of the moment. Time is a strange lens to view anything through. Some things look better and some things look strange and some just disappear from sight completely.
Some friends of mine had ‘First Day of My Life’ playing as they walked down the aisle a couple of years ago. How do you feel when people tell you about their - I imagine probably quite profound, sometimes - connection to your music?
It makes me feel great to know when someone has connected in a positive way to my music. That is the best reason I can think of to share it and put it out into the world.
Could you tell us a little more about your new song ‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’ and how you came to write it?
I wrote it for a movie called Writers [note: now Stuck in Love] which I believe is coming out this year at some point. Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes wrote the score for the film and they got me involved with the project. It is a drama about a dysfunctional family wherein the father is a famous author and his children are struggling to become writers themselves. I watched a cut of the movie and the song just sort of happened. I think it fits the emotions of the movie well without being too deliberate.
What are your plans for the rest of the year?
To keep on keeping on.
Conor Oberst and Desaparecidos are on tour in Europe as below.
22/01/13 Munich Alte Kongresshalle % (Sold Out)
24/01/13 Berlin Apostel Paulus Kirche % (Sold Out)
25/01/13 Copenhagen Bremen % (Sold Out)
26/01/13 Stockholm Filadelfia Church
27/01/13 Oslo Sentrum Scene
29/01/13 Hamburg Kampnagel ^ (Sold Out)
30/01/13 Brussels Ancienne Belgique ^ (Sold Out)
02/01/13 Amsterdam Paradiso ^
02/02/13 Paris Café de la Danse ^
02/04/13 London Barbican ^ (Sold Out)
02/05/13 Dublin National Concert Hall
% with First Aid Kit
^ with Simone Felice
07/02/13 Dublin Button Factory
08/02/13 Belfast Limelight
09/02/13 Glasgow Arches
10/02/13 Manchester Academy 3
11/02/13 London Electric Ballroom (Sold Out)
photo credit / Zach Hollowell