MORE

The Story in the Soil

Photos by Jay Muhlin

Leave behind buildings,
the city planners got mapped out.
Bring with you history
and make your hard-earned feast.
Then we’ll go to Omaha,
To work and exploit the booming music scene.

—Rilo Kiley, “The Execution of All Things”

I left Los Angeles around midnight with few possessions. Little did I know I’d soon be in the land of the flyover people. It’s a sad place. They call the USA a fast-food nation, yet, driving across it, in many parts you can’t locate a Starbucks for more than two miles off the interstate without a GPS system and a prayer, the latter of which are plentiful. My destination was Omaha. I hoped Nebraska might offer some relief. No more cowboys or casinos. No more endless mountainous country. Just corn and flat, fertile land.

I intended to write about Omaha’s grassroots music scene and meet those responsible for Saddle Creek, the record label at its heart. The collective has grown to have an outsize influence on the inbred world of independent rock, drawing the attention of A&R executives on the West Coast and magazine editors back East. Last year the buzz culminated when one band, Bright Eyes, began to get some mainstream attention for their record Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. It was featured in The New York Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, and the group appeared on the David Letterman show, where Dave joked about the fact that you could buy the record on vinyl.

The “group” is actually the project of one 23-year-old manchild, Conor Oberst, and whoever he can get to join him. Last year his collaborators began to grow more interesting. On the professional side, Sony Music gave him a publishing deal, putting him in the company of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. On the personal side, People magazine photographed him kissing Winona Ryder in a Los Angeles parking lot, soon after two sold-out shows at the Henry Fonda Theater. Lifted has sold well over 100,000 copies, a staggering number for an indie.

For some, however, the actual music has been the source of much vexation. Oberst’s voice is a distraught, post-adolescent warble. Though it’s rightfully gotten him tagged as a Gen Y Bob Dylan, Oberst’s persona seems like an adaptation of Dylan at his worst — impetuous, portentous, yet without gravitas. For many over the age of 21, that’s enough reason to dislike him. There’s no denying, however, that there’s something special in the music, something bold, and forged at the intersection of ambition and youth.



Azure Ray (left), Rilo Kiley
(Photo by Tony Bonacci)

The typical Bright Eyes song consists of that voice, acoustic guitar and a shambling orchestra — cello and French horn; banjo, oboe, bassoon; and, on Lifted, three separate choirs recorded live at two adjoining bars in the nearby city of Lincoln. The lyrics — impoverished yet entitled, anxious yet sedated, cynical yet innocent — are what make some listeners think of Oberst as “important.” Take the song he did on Letterman, the unreleased “The Trees Get Wheeled Away”:

Oh got no health insurance
no cellular service
no disease they can cure
But we need more money to burn
so each person must learn
the dollar amount they are worth

The emotions are raw and shocked, like that of a 13-year-old catching a glimpse of the larger world, or of his parents having sex. Oberst’s songs document the transition from high school social status to a world of credit-card debt, college loans and STDs. In the increasingly complex consumer culture we inhabit, these facts of life are rarely discussed, and it’s Oberst’s unique talent at expressing what it feels like to face them down that makes him special.

For those who’ve been wondering what the genre tag “emo” means, this is it: youthful neurosis, examined under boom lights. Though Oberst may wear the emo tag uncomfortably, his music is as definitive an example as the million-selling Dashboard Confessional, and 100 times more real and raw.

Words, words, words. Oberst’s been bursting with them from a young age. Saddle Creek began with Commander Venus, a band he formed in 1994 as a 14-year-old high school student. In 1997, three years into their existence, they hadn’t developed much of a following but did have the makings of a career, notably a record deal with a small New York label called Grass, then preparing for rebirth under the watch of music-industry financier Alan Meltzer. Meltzer promptly dropped most of the roster, and promised stardom to acts that would stick with his vision, accept his money and make a good-faith effort to turn out hits. In one account, Meltzer said, “The next band to walk through that door will be made famous — at any cost.”

 

Instead of following Meltzer’s vision, Commander Venus asked for the rights to their record back, and licensed it to Thick, an insignificant Chicago indie. It disappeared, and the group immediately disbanded. They cited boredom with their own sound — a screechy style of emo-punk only now making mainstream inroads via groups like Brand New and Thursday. The next bands to come through Meltzer’s door were Creed and Evanescence. Meltzer transformed Grass into Wind-Up Records, and the label brought its multiplatinum, Christian-identified hits to an unsuspecting world.

Some might say Commander Venus missed their chance, but they were after a different kind of success. The band turned into a methodically plotted family tree — Oberst went on to the folk-pop of Bright Eyes; guitarist Tim Kasher founded Cursive, today’s most influential emo-punk band; bassist Todd Baechle started the Faint, one of the first groups to reinvigorate out-of-fashion new wave and goth aesthetics; and guitarist Robb Nansel became the entrepreneurial mind behind Saddle Creek, the label that would be home to them all.

The imprint is named after Saddle Creek Road, a street that cuts through the center of Omaha and leads to North 55th Street, the location of several houses where the four practiced with various bands. The homey collectivism is a notable departure from the way things are done in L.A.’s typical music-industry business model. In the major-label world, individual talents are not so much nurtured as they are bet upon, and success is as strategic as throwing spaghetti at a wall to see what sticks. Early on, Saddle Creek chose to subscribe to a model best described as “no man left behind.” That each flagship band opted to work within a different genre is testament to this ethos; it was a semiconscious decision made among friends who wanted to minimize interband competition. Oberst chose to play folk because Cursive already had punk covered; the Faint tried their hand at new-wave kitsch because there were no other genres left.

The fact that the bands on Saddle Creek represent a tight-knit group is not what makes the label important. Groups of like-minded musicians have long assembled in geographic clusters, and signed to record labels that act as organizing principles. This is true of both majors and indies. In the late ’60s, Reprise had a lock on the soft rock being made in Laurel Canyon by Neil Young, James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. In the ’70s, New York City’s downtown scene was represented almost exclusively by Seymour Stein’s Sire. (Its reign began with CBGB bands such as the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie, and culminated with the signing of Madonna.) In the ’80s, Washington, D.C.’s Dischord label released records by a series of bands — Dag Nasty, Rites of Spring, Nation of Ulysses, Jawbox — who essentially invented emo and many other progressive-punk-rock styles; Chicago’s Touch and Go cultivated a brand of harsh Midwestern post-punk; and Seattle’s Sub Pop incubated the Pacific Northwest’s grunge scene.

The oft-studied commonalities between these scenes have always been idealism, celebration and community; rarely considered, however, has been their relation to Das Kapital. Usually the musicians who had any degree of success aligned with labels that had corporate backers; by contrast, the indie artists — on Dischord, Sub Pop, Touch and Go — often struggled to sell more than a few thousand records, and all but the flagship bands had a hard time making a living from their work.

In the ’90s, this began to change. Indie-rock labels like Matador actually began to sell enough records to support their artists. Odd new success stories sprang up. Chicago’s Drag City crafted an outsider art aesthetic around the work of Chicago and Louisville musicians Gastr del Sol (Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs), Palace Brothers (a.k.a. Will Oldham) and Smog (a.k.a. Bill Callahan); another Chicago label, Thrill Jockey, birthed post-rock — soft rock meets jazz fusion meets electronics — via local groups Tortoise and the Sea and Cake. Each of these labels was able to maintain a level of heretofore unheard-of self-sufficiency apart from the major-label system, both artistically and economically.

Saddle Creek is the apex of this trend. Though Bright Eyes has received most of the press attention, Cursive’s and the Faint’s recent albums have each sold more than 60,000 copies. The label’s second-tier bands — groups like Azure Ray and Rilo Kiley — sell in the tens of thousands. Some are beginning to take on other trappings of success. In 2002, Azure Ray went on tour with Moby, and the Faint maneuvered their way into an opening slot with No Doubt. In the aftermath, the Faint turned down half a dozen major-label offers, some of them worth millions.

 

Never has a small group of friends achieved such widespread commercial success without the aid of a major label. Can an attack on the mainstream music business be far behind? Or, under newfound pressures, might this group of friends fall apart?

 

At the time of my Omaha visit, Robb Nansel, 28, had traveled to London to supervise the opening of Saddle Creek’s European office, so fast-forward a month to New York, where we first met. He was speaking on a panel at the New Yorker festival of books called “The Music Machine: How To Find, Produce and Market Talent.” It was held in a modern television studio in Times Square that looked like the set of a morning show — wraparound windows, bright lights, a cozy stage.

Nansel sat at the end of a row of well-coifed, 40-ish music-industry execs — Lyor Cohen, then Island Def Jam president, recently anointed Warner Music Group CEO; Jason Flom, president of the Atlantic imprint Lava Records; and Danny Goldberg, CEO of one of the world’s largest indies, Artemis Records, and former CEO of Mercury and Warner Bros. Cohen, Flom and Goldberg had gray hairs as evidence of several decades in the industry.

Nansel was the odd man out. He wore a brown shirt, black jacket and jeans — working-class chic. His demeanor was laconic, his hair fanned over his face, and he looked less like the assembled record moguls than like a gracious, perennially underemployed college pal. Nansel quit his graphic-design job only in 1999 and operated Saddle Creek out of the backroom of his Omaha townhouse until 2002.

The first question: “How do you find talent?”

“I watch to see if they levitate,” said Cohen. “I look for the performer whose feet don’t touch the ground.” Goldberg emphasized the rational side — musicians with decent sales, a local following and the single-mindedness to make it through the exhaustion of touring. Flom, seemingly vexed, began to complain about the capriciousness of the market. “Music is the dog whistle and consumers are dogs. We’re not dogs,” he said, gesturing to his fellow panelists. It was an unfortunate image considering the grave controversies that have faced the music industry of late. The audience groaned as their focus turned to Nansel.

“We all grew up in the same neighborhood and high school,” he said. “I guess I haven’t used the standard mode for finding talent. Our A&R staff is mainly the bands themselves. For me it’s just, if you get along. On a personal level.” No talk of dog whistles, sales or stars. Until 2001, in fact, every band on Saddle Creek’s roster lived in Omaha.

During the Q&A session that followed, a man in the audience, wearing a T-shirt that said “Free Durwood Pickle,” stood up to make a comment. Pickle is the 71-year-old Texas grandfather the RIAA sued last fall after his grandson used his computer to download pirated MP3s. The man went into a long rant, scolding the industry for how they’ve dealt with file sharing.

“We didn’t sue anyone,” said Goldberg, pointing at Nansel with a pained “We’re all in this together” look. He then turned to Cohen and Flom. “They sued people,” he said. As if to emphasize the fact that a new order is coming to the music industry, Nansel took a more conciliatory tone.

“You know, I want Beyoncé’s ‘Crazy in Love’ too, but I just want that one song, and I could care about the rest. Still, I’ll ‰ pay my 99 cents.” He was making reference to iTunes Music Store and the way an emerging slate of digital music options allows for affordable access to numerous kinds of music.

Cohen tried to get the audience to see his high-concept corporate vision: He no longer represented a music company, he said, but rather a lifestyle-marketing company that used music as a means to sell the public on new styles, new clothes and new brands of alcoholic beverages. It’s safe to say the audience’s sympathies had been exhausted.

Later on, I asked Nansel what he thought of those guys. “I talked to Danny Goldberg a little, and I talked to Lyor, but really they just came up to me and said nice things. We didn’t get into it too much, because I’m ignorant in terms of industry names, so when I was introduced to them, it could have been anybody. My dad probably knows more about them than I do.” As Nansel explained, Saddle Creek still exists in an alternate universe, parallel to the corporate record biz.

 

“We never function as a business,” he said. “I took management and entrepreneurship classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, but basically we’re an outlet for music and don’t make decisions based on financial judgments. At one point we all threw some money into a pot, pressed some records and thought maybe it’d pay itself off. One day we woke up and were, like, ‘We have some extra money, we could put out another record.’

“Now we’re in a weird situation. It’s sustainable. We can pay the five people that work here, and put out the records we want. But do we want to work with some new bands? Staffwise, do we want 15 people working here? We don’t really know. I’m not sure if it would be fun to be that large. We’re pretty happy now, because we can exist in our town, do what we want, and nobody bugs us. And you know what? It’s rock & roll, so I’m sure it won’t last forever.”

 

Nebraska! The state slogan is “The Good Life,” and I believed it until I stopped to catch the view at 3 a.m. in a town named Sutherland, “a thriving community of 1,129 people located in West-Central Nebraska.” Apparently, the local economy consisted of a railroad track and a high school football team.

The next day — after a brief stopover in Gothenburg to see the Sod House Museum — I crossed the Omaha city limits. The first two pieces of signage were an ad for 88.9 FM (“For God’s Sake, Try It! Tunes 4 Christ”) and a bumper sticker that read, “Give Satan an Inch and He Will Be Your Ruler.” The town bled sincerity or, more correctly, a twisted normality, like the google-eyed children of a Margaret Keane painting. The honor roll of distinguished persons with ties to the city is perplexing. On one hand, it is the birthplace of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Malcolm X and Wynonie Harris, the last-named a man whose R&B music is generally acknowledged as a direct forerunner of rock & roll. On the other, it is former home to Lawrence Welk, Johnny Carson and Letitia Baldrige (a.k.a. Ms. Manners), and current home to superinvestor Warren Buffett. Reel off the names, and you’d think Omaha was a wellspring of icons — the source of both prim American etiquette and its rebellious underside.

Mostly, people here live the good life. Shops close on Sundays. Pedestrians proudly wear their guts and smiles. The skyline implies an operational lack of irony: The local convenience-store chain goes by the name Kum & Go; the tallest building downtown is a beige-gray box built for the Woodmen Insurance Company, and though that name screams out from the top of it in a clunky sans-serif font, locals do not bat an eyelash.

Guilelessness can be a plus for cultivating an indie-rock scene. Indie rock is certainly not known for its financial rewards, so ideals and starry-eyed optimism are helpful. But these ideals have taken root previously in Omaha, and given birth to aesthetic horrors. It is, for instance, birthplace to 311, bland early adapters of the rap-metal sound. And then there is Mannheim Steamroller. The city’s most notable indie-label export, Mannheim is a neoclassical electronic group fronted by Chip Davis, a former junior high music teacher. Davis calls it “18th-century classical rock” — sonatas arranged for synthesizers and intended for soft-rock radio. Mannheim’s early albums on his American Gramaphone label revolutionized the world of hi-fi test records, and today Davis is infamous for a series of million-selling New Age Christmas albums.

To understand the hows and whys of Saddle Creek, I traveled to the city’s Benson neighborhood, where the label’s five regular employees work out of a former stereo shop. Benson has a reputation as a hive of quasi-bohemian bars and shops, yet on this pleasant late-summer Saturday evening, the neighborhood was desolate. Turned out it was the start of the college-football season. Everyone was inside, watching the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers’ first game against Oklahoma State. As I was buzzed into the storefront, a small pack of drunken 30-somethings passed by, dressed in red, the school color. One of them screamed, “Go Huskers!”

Inside, a skeleton crew — Jeff Tafolla, 26, and Cursive bassist Matt Maginn, 29 — were using their weekend to catch up on some office work. The room looked like the headquarters of a faded dot-com. The desks held old iMacs, and the walls were covered in tour posters for the label’s previous dozen releases. Maginn wore khakis, Doc Martens and a pair of oval glasses flattened at the ends. He was genial yet reserved. At breaks in conversation, the bottom of his face would draw into a smile, and he would utter a series of short laughs. I asked Maginn what accounted for Saddle Creek’s unique setup and everyone’s loyalty to the cause.

 

“Let me put it this way,” Maginn said. “I recently found a picture of me and Robb at my first communion. Me and Tim [Kasher] have known each other since we were 4 years old, and most of us are between the ages of 25 and 29. If you think about it for a second, you’ll be able to figure out that was the split between seniors and freshmen.” Indeed, Saddle Creek’s core participants are a tiny group of friends who attended Creighton Prep School together.

Tafolla, a bit younger, slimmer and dreamier, interjected, “I’m a soph.”

“Heh, heh, heh,” said Maginn.

“Frankly, there wasn’t much else for creative people to do other than stick together,” said Tafolla. “The next closest city is two hours away, in Des Moines. We’re eight from Chicago, six to Minneapolis and four to Kansas City. The only big industries are telemarketing, meatpacking and the cattle trade. The big employers are Union Pacific railroad, Mutual of Omaha Insurance and ConAgra.”

“And then there’s Mannheim Steamroller,” added Maginn. “You ever hear of the Steamroller? They actually own their own mastering complex, called Studio B. We do a lot of work there.”

I gave him a disbelieving look but was quickly silenced.

“Chip Davis is a friend of ours,” he said.

There are other factors, beyond the presence of Chip Davis, that have made Omaha a hospitable home for an indie-rock collective. Its location in the center of the Midwest makes it equally convenient for the cattle trade and the touring musician. And accommodations are cheap — $100,000 for a three-bedroom ranch house.

“Most of us are still just scraping by,” said Tafolla. “The only real full-timers are Conor and the Faint, and then there are a lot of people that don’t have jobs but should.”

In many ways, the scene still exists as much in the imagination of its teenage fans and the media as it does in the real world. Case in point is how the Saddle Creek story has made its way out.

“The Omaha press kind of jumped the bandwagon,” said Maginn. “Cursive was in The New York Times before we were in the neighborhood papers — the Omaha Weekly Reader, the Omaha World-Herald. I’ll give you an example of how it usually works. At one point, I sent an odd Cursive photo to Rolling Stone. It was a bit embarrassing. I was grabbing my crotch and whatnot. But I was like, whatever, Rolling Stone is running it, my grandmother won’t see. But then the World-Herald just scanned in the picture and ran it on Easter Sunday, and I’m like, shit.”

“At this point I’m less impressed by the national press than the local press,” said Tafolla. “When Saddle Creek stuff makes it into the Omaha World-Herald, I get calls all week. We’d almost rather not get press here. It causes weird, unintended effects.”

“Heh, heh, heh.”

 

To be a part of Saddle Creek right now is to be living in a moment of high anticipation. Where will things go next? The last two years have been a high, the apogee of success. Now there exists a commitment to the city that none seems willing to give up, yet few seem ready to acknowledge the difficulties in staying put.

About a half-hour after arrriving in Omaha, I met a friend who happened to be spending the summer living in the city’s downtown. There was this lunch place he liked — an organic grocery called Jane’s — so we walked on over. They were playing indie rock on the stereo, so I figured why not . . .

“Can you tell me a bit about Saddle Creek?” I asked the countergirl.

“They’re all such rock stars,” she said, “and frankly, I’m sick of dating them. First of all, they’re all bi, and who wants to go out with a boy that makes out with their roommates? And Conor, Conor just does whatever he wants. Ugh. And their music is so crappy. All their songs sound the same.”

She was playing out some personal resentments, obviously, but her criticisms were familiar. This is a scene that is intensely self-aware. Cursive’s new record, for example, contains a song titled “Art Is Hard.” Among the chaotic Sturm und Drang of guitars, a swooping cello and tangled rhythms, front man Tim Kasher, a vocalist both tortured and erudite, launches into an internal monologue from the singer about the song:

 

Cut it out. Your self-inflicted pain
is getting too routine
the crowds are catching on
to the self-inflicted song
Well, here we go again
the art of acting weak
Fall in love to fail
to boost your CD sales

The song is a withering indictment of the emo scene at the forefront of which Cursive stands, venturing that the songs bands like his write — about love and love lost — do more than document reality. Rather, they acknowledge that their authors live melodramatically in order to fuel their art.

Kasher’s concern is more than lyrical. Cursive’s third album, Domestica, carefully dissects the collapse of his relationship with his first wife. Their marriage was one of the reasons Kasher quit music, broke up the band and moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1998; their divorce helped inspire a move back to Omaha in 2000, the resurrection of his band and a new set of lyrics.

 

When I left the Saddle Creek office, Maginn and Tafolla were in a rush. They wanted to be on time for that evening’s karate-themed house party. This did not immediately compute.

“There used to be a lot of house parties, more when everyone was underage,” explained Maginn. “Now it’s more like once a year. I have a ninja costume with a hood and everything.” The parties began simply enough (Tiki Party I, Tiki Party II), but in recent years have grown more ornate, and explicitly comedic (such as Porch Arrest Party, Dress As Your Favorite Stereotype, or Invention Party, which you couldn’t enter without an invention of your own creation). This year’s invitation read, “do b.y.o. sake / no karate try — karate do / dress like your favorite karate.”

That night I ended up at a small house in the middle of town, owned by a handful of local scenesters. It was twilight, and the sky was electric purple, the lawn burnt to beige and dirt. Over the wood fence that surrounded the house, two white box towers of a local church were visible in the distance. Inside, three dozen rocker kids — singers, waiters, high school teachers, the underemployed — were partying Omaha-style, drinking tallboys, rolling bocce balls across the burnt-out lawn, and dancing to Justin Timberlake. One of the house’s owners wore a satin jacket, headband and handlebar mustache. He reminded me of the evil sensei from the Karate Kid movies. One costume consisted of a white towel, wadded, stuffed, folded and formed into the shape of a sumo wrestler’s mawashi. It looked like a ragged diaper. Several guests wore it, in rotation.

Maginn was there in his black ninja suit. He encouraged me to indulge liberally in what the ice chest had to offer, and overlook the fact that it was all Miller High Life and Milwaukee’s Best. The first new person I met was a painter, dressed in outdoorsman gear, with a cynical look in his eye. I told him I was a reporter here to meet the folks from Saddle Creek.

“So what do you think of the Omaha rock scene?” he asked.

“Sweet,” I replied.

“Yeah, well, Spin seems to think it’s a big deal,” he shot back. Then he introduced me to a girl who worked at a hairstyling place on the outskirts of town. She had a band called Bleeders for Treats, one of many gems yet undiscovered, he said, “because she’s not friends with Conor.”‰

The house was in the midst of renovations. There were spare fence posts all around the yard. And as midnight approached, the rocker boys began to set them up on blocks so they could break them with their hands and feet — karate-style — one by one and sometimes in stacks. Pretty soon someone found some lighter fluid, and someone else found fire, and eventually Matt Baum, drummer for Oberst’s Desaparecidos side project, was breaking flaming fence posts with his head.

It was hard not to fall in love. My friend became entranced with one boy at the party, and zeroed in. I didn’t think much of it until the boy walked up, military jacket scrunched in his armpit, and gave my friend a fine-boned smile and his number on a slip of paper.

As the hour passed midnight, and the number of joints being passed around outnumbered the number of cigarettes, the scene turned surreal. People began to drink Jim Beam straight from the bottle. A girl dressed in totally ’80s skirt and fishnets twirled a pair of metal nunchucks behind her back. The house’s deck collapsed under the weight of dancing. Chaos.

At 4 a.m. there were two dozen kids left, and somewhere in the background of whatever I was focusing on, three of them were playing catch and, having dispensed with the lighter objects, began to do so with the bocce balls — small as a grapefruit, dense as a bowling ball. A bad idea made worse.

 

A piercing scream rang out in the night.

When everyone turned, the sensei in the white satin jacket lay sprawled out on the ground in a circle of rocker boys. He lay there with blood streaming down his face, splattered on his jacket and pooling under his head. The totally ’80s girl lazily twirled her nunchucks.

Maybe he’d make it, or maybe he wouldn’t, and we could all say we were there when the scene keeled over and died, right there on the spot.

 

If this were nothing but a document of a scene that lives mythically then writes songs about it, perhaps I’d end the piece there and quote a lyric to explain it all away. I’d probably choose “Method Acting” by Bright Eyes, for the way it clarifies why a person might choose to live this life, and the peculiar inertia that keeps him going:

All I know is I feel better when I sing.
Burdens are lifted from me, that is my voice rising!
So Michael, please keep the tape rolling.
Boys keep strumming those guitars.
We need a record of our failures.
We must document our love.

But I’m a journalist (sort of) and a fan (mostly) and a friendly sort (kind of), and in the months that followed my visit to Omaha I kept seeing the bands of Saddle Creek in concert, and briefly hung out with Maginn after a triumphant two-night stand by Cursive at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. My friend kept seeing the musician he fell for at the party that night. I had a short liaison, via e-mail, with a girl I’d met during my visit. She sent news that the sensei came away unscathed but for some blood on his clothes and a slow-healing head wound. She worried, though, about the forward march of time. “As I get older,” she wrote, “life seems to be less about yourself and your friendships and more about getting married and having babies. I am okay with people doing that and being happy about it, but it’s when everything becomes so centered on that stuff, it seems like they forget about each other . . .”

As the stories came in, the star of the scene, Conor Oberst, was still absent. I thought, somehow, that he might explain it all, but his publicist told me he was touring, then recording, then finally she admitted he was taking a break from interviews and I didn’t have a chance in hell of getting him to talk. But eventually she relented.

I was to meet Oberst one afternoon at St. Dymphna’s, an Irish pub in New York’s East Village and a home away from home for the Omaha expats who live in the city. St. Dymphna is a funny choice. Virgin, martyr, patron saint of those suffering from nervous disorders, she died at age 15, beheaded by her father when she refused his hand in marriage. Religious engravings depict her with a sword in hand, a shackled devil at her feet. Funny, but appropriate. Oberst is famously medicated — an onstage red-wine drinker, author of odes to anti-depressants. It’s hard to believe he picked this place by accident. St. Dymphna is an icon that represents well what it is fans see in Saddle Creek: triumph in the face of torment, optimism, even idealism, yet also dark undercurrents, the secrets of adulthood, the time of life we’re all headed for but are too scared to see when young and in love with rock & roll.

Oberst arrived a bit late, after 3 p.m., his manager in tow. “Conor doesn’t do mornings,” his publicist had warned me, and indeed he showed up looking boyish and haggard — old sneakers, zip-up sweatshirt and a vintage T frayed washcloth-soft. His manager had news that Conor was starting a new record label, Team Love, to release the records Saddle Creek would not or could not — now that it really was becoming a business.

Rumor had it Oberst was spending a lot of time in New York of late, so the new chapter made sense. At a recent Knitting Factory show, he was joined onstage not by a crew from Omaha, but by Brooklyn-based solo artist Ben Kweller and Jesse Harris, a songwriter famed for penning two of the songs on Norah Jones’ seven-times-platinum Come Away With Me. That morning, though, Oberst had just returned from a recording session in Lincoln, where he was cutting a new Bright Eyes record for Saddle Creek. How was it going back home, I asked.

 

“It sucks,” he said. “I mean, it doesn’t suck, but it’s hard. It’s great to see my friends, but it doesn’t really feel the way it used to feel.” There was a note of warmth and humility in his voice, but also a certain petulance, an eye toward new adventures. “I love my close friends, these people I’ve played in bands with, but they’re older than me. They’re not getting domesticated, but they are growing up. Two of the guys in Cursive are married and have houses and do that kind of thing. The group of us that hung out, and made this music, and were together all the time? Well, that time is over. Everyone’s so fucking busy.”

He sounded like a man lamenting the loss of family. “We still love each other, and still get together, but it’s an effort. It’s not like when we were just killing time and had nothing better to do than sit around and get wasted and make music. That’s over. So it’s just sad to me. I’d rather be here, or somewhere where I don’t feel like I’m living in a memory.”

He sounded like a boy growing up.


A Saddle Creek Primer

So far, there aren’t many undiscovered gems in Saddle Creek’s discography. The strongest albums are the most beloved and best selling to date. Buy these:

The Faint: Danse Macabre (2001)

Their debut, Media, found them grappling with influences like the Cure, and 1999’s Blank-Wave Arcades
didn’t have the punch of their ’80s new-wave idols, but the Faint’s third album is the sound of a band growing into itself. Danse Macabre grinds forward on a wave of crunching synths, sharp dance beats and singer Todd Baechle’s malevolent intonation. It’s loud, slick and hard, and points to an increasingly gothic sensibility. The lyrics read like sexy dance-club haiku, but the titles say it all: “Agenda Suicide,” “Posed to Death,” “Violent.”

Bright Eyes: Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002)

Clocking in at 72 minutes, Lifted is a record that sounds both regal and ragged. Conor Oberst’s got a million words, and the warmly produced backdrops effortlessly switch up between alt-country, rock, orch-pop and even a waltz. Oberst’s adenoidal voice may grate on some listeners, but there’s no denying his magnetism when he sketches out his righteous adolescent fever dreams. “I have no faith,” he sings, “but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul.”

Rilo Kiley: The Execution of All Things (2002)

Led by former child actress Jenny Lewis, L.A.-based Rilo Kiley are one of Saddle Creek’s few “expansion teams.” Their music is modest indie guitar pop, but their debut for the label is bigger than the sum of its influences. Sweet songs stretch out with the expansiveness of country music and are airy both sonically and thematically. With lyrics like “I feel the earth beneath my feet” and “We’re all so upset about the disappearing ground,” and successive songs titled “With Arms Outstretched” and “Spectacular Views,” it’s as if Lewis is ready to take flight.

Cursive: The Ugly Organ (2003)

“They’ve got a good fan base, they’ve got integrity, they’ve got a D.C. sound,” sang front man Tim Kasher on a 2001 EP. He was describing his own band, and he hasn’t let up since, writing song after song of self-
referential, innovative emo. He articulately dissects the genre’s romantic dysfunction and clichéd sounds, and on The Ugly Organ the band added carnivalesque keyboards and dramatic cello swoops to their formula — three-minute bursts of crisscrossed guitars, off-kilter rhythms and Kasher’s uniquely anguished voice.

Various Artists: Saddle Creek 50 (2003)

A well-edited celebration of Saddle Creek’s 50th release. It features 11 artists matching their best song from the label’s back catalog with an unreleased tune. There are many side projects (Cursive front man Tim Kasher leads the softer, electronic-oriented Good Life; Conor Oberst fronts the punky Desaparecidos), but also sweet fruit plucked from the more distant branches of the family tree. Mayday features Cursive guitarist Ted Stevens ambling along on folky dirges. Matt Oberst’s Sorry About Dresden has Conor’s brother knocking out shambling indie-rock tunes. And two related bands from Athens, Georgia — Now It’s Overhead and Azure Ray — specialize in moody songs touched by stuttering electronics and dreamy strings, respectively. An ideal introduction.

—A.H.B.

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >