Friday, July 30, 2010

Conor Oberst speaks

Conor Oberst sits in Slowdown's back stage area. (Photo by Alyssa Schukar/The World-Herald)

On Wednesday afternoon, I headed over to Slowdown. After following Robb Nansel up the stairs to the green room, myself and a photographer stepped in. Conor Oberst stood up and walked over.

"Hi, I'm Conor," he said, sticking out his hand.

Before getting down to business, someone brought Oberst an iced soy latte and we talked about last weekend's show with Rage Against the Machine and the Mellotron that he and Mike Mogis bought for their studio, ARC.

It's the first time he's talked to The World-Herald since he gave an interview to us about his free Memorial Park concert way back in 2006.

So, why talk to us now? Oberst's show, the Concert For Equality, is coming Saturday and he's pretty pissed about the immigration law in Arizona and another one a little closer to home in Fremont. Maybe you've heard about it.

We sat with Oberst for awhile and talked. Here's all of what he had to say (a fully unadulterated Q&A) about immigration, Saturday's concert, the press and his bands and their futures.

Kevin Coffey: There are plenty of worthy causes in the world, why did you choose this one?

Conor Oberst: I guess there's a lot of things that brought me to it. First, spending a lot of time in Mexico and having a lot of people that mean a lot to me both in Mexico and people that have moved here from there.

Also, there's a woman from Omaha here that's good friends with my mother who - about 2 years ago. Long story short, she came here when she was 16. She lived here for 23 years. She has three daughters and because of some bad legal advice - both her three daughters and her husband got their citizenship in the 80s - she went backt o Mexcio to attempt to re-0enter the country lawfully and she's been told she can't re-enter for 10 years.

And, to me, that blows my mind. I don't see how that serves society. I don't see any justice in that. I don't see the way - I don't see what the point is of that. Her daughters are still close to my family and spend time with us and they miss their mother, you know? I guess those are things that, I guess, where my interest started, I suppose.

KC: This whole thing seems really personal to you.

CO: Yeah, it is very personal. To me, it's a human rights issue. It's about dignity.

(To the photographer) I'm sorry. Maybe not. I just get distracted.

Sorry, what were you saying?

KC: With the show on Saturday, was it hard to get people to participate or were they jumping on board?

CO: No. I went out publicly with it with just Lullaby For The Working Class, Cursive, Desaparecidos, Cursive and Bright Eyes because there was a timing issue and we had to get it announced and let people know it was going on. I wanted it to happen as soon after the ordinance was passed as possible.

It was really encouraging because I haven't gotten that many e-mails, phone calls and texts from friends who wanted to be involved, you know? A lot of them said, "I'd love to play, but I'll also volunteer to do anything to help with the day," so that made me very happy.

KC: As someone who's popular or a celebrity, do you feel like you have an obligation to speak out against stuff like this?

CO: I think it's an individual choice for everyone. I mean, it's not something I started doing. It's something that I grew into doing. It's not something I enjoy doing actually, to be honest, but occasionally I feel compelled to speak out on certain issues that are close to me, that I feel passionately about. This is one of those times.

It's such a dangerous situation, what's happening with this kind of legislation. In my view, the law is immoral, it's un-American, it's unconstitutional, it's unenforceable, it's hurtful, it's hateful, it's racist and it's going to create far more problems than it's going to solve. It's going to create racial tension in Fremont and across Nebraska. It makes anyone that has brown skin or speaks with an accent, it makes them an object of suspicion first and a person second.

To me, if we don't stand up now and say to Fremont and say to Arizona, "This is unacceptable. This is not America." To me, being an immigrant is the most American thing you can be and it's our duty to defend this vulnerable section of our society and that's what I'm doing. That's what I'm trying to say.

KC: You had the open letter to Charlie Levy and an Arizona paper called you out and asked if Nebraska passed a law similar to Arizona, would you really boycott your state? Is that something you would be willing to do?

CO: Yes, and you can quote me on that.

KC: So, why get Desaparecidos back together at this point? Just to make it a bigger draw or to bring more attention to the event?

CO: The Desaparecidos idea occurred first. We haven't played in eight years and it seemed like an appropriate time to play again. A lot of issues are what we were singing about, what the band's about. It seemed like a chance to do something good and hopefully effect some kind of good change, but also to play music again.

I called them all up and within a half hour they were on board. That was great.

KC: Has it been hard learning those songs again? It's been awhile.

CO: It's been awhile (laughs). No, it;'s gonna be good. It's gonna be a great show. We're gonna have 14 acts, two stages. It's gonna be a lot of great music and there's gonna be a lot of educational opportunities, booths there, so that people can learn about it because it's such a complex issue.

So much of what you read in the paper - no offense... (smiles)

KC: None taken.

CO: ...just really misses the boat completely about what we're talking about.

We need to humanize the issue for people and people need to realize these are hardworking people with families that are being affected by these kind of laws. We're so thankful that there's at least a partial injunction of the Arizona law because, if not, people had their bags packed. They were ready to literally have state police come to their homes and take them away from their children and send them back to a country to maybe they haven't been to in 20 years.

To me, that's a nightmare scenario that we were so close to that. And we are still close to that until this is solved federally. We're going to deal with this radical network of people - the same people who wrote the Arizona law, who wrote the Fremont law, the same people who are probably leaking this insane demonic list in Utah.

I don't know if you read about that. They sent a list of everyone's personal information, their medical information - I mean, it's disgusting. Like if a woman's pregnant, when her due date is. They were sent this to the state police, to the press outlets. It's a list from this shadowy organization - no one will claim it - but they've gathered a list of illegal immigrants and released this information.

To me, it's like we're living in a different time and a different century.

These laws are completely racially motivated. They're as racially motivated as the Jim Crowe laws or segregation.

Just because something's legal doesn't make it right. Just because soemthing's popular doesn't make it right. This is a moral issue and I would think any person of conscience woudl see that and fight as hard as they could to not have this become a reality.

KC: At the show, are there any speeches planned or anything?

CO: There's gonna be a couple speakers and, like I said, there'll be booths and places where people can learn more, get some more information. A place for people to get together and hopefully discuss these things.

I do believe that, inherently, most people are good and reasonable and if they can understand the way this is affecting other people that they'll come to our side of the fence, I think.

KC: Want to tell me who any of the special guests are?

CO: (Smiles) No comment.

KC: With Desaparecidos, a lot of people are excited. Is there any future with that band?

CO: We're kinda taking it one step at a time. We're really excited about the show and it will be great to play again. "Never say never" has always been my policy with projects and bands.

It's going to be fun to just hang out with those guys again.

KC: With Bright Eyes, Mike Mogis told me you were going be working on some new stuff this summer. Will we hear any of that on Saturday?

CO: I don't think necesarilly Saturday. We're getting the set together. Nate's coming in from Japan and, fingers crossed, he lands about 2 hours before we're supposed to play.

KC: What's he doing out there?

CO: He's out with Broken Bells.

KC: With the Bright Eyes recording, do you have any idea on a title or release date?

CO: Nah.

KC: Do you know what you're doing after the Bright Eyes release? People have talked about you retiring the name.

CO: No comment.

KC: I had to ask while I've got you here. How'd the idea to do the concert come about?

CO: I guess it started immediately after the law was passed. I felt like something had to be done as soon as possible to not only raise money for the actual lawsuit, but I think at that point there was very little being said about it.

I first read about it I think in the New York Times or it was a national publication. I didn't know about it. I knew all about the Arizona situation. The media here is so skewed, in my opinion, to the right that it's hard to get any real information.

I think there has to be said something immediately that this is not how we feel, you know? This is not the America that I belong to and we're not going to tolerate it.

KC: Do you have anything special going on during the concert or is it just a show?

CO: You've seen a list of the bands, right?

KC: Yeah, yeah.

CO: Yeah, everyone's going to be playing two stages. I'm excited about the whole night. I’m really excited about the Lullaby For The Working Class performance. They haven’t played in 10 or 12 years. That will be really exciting to see that.

I'm so grateful for Gillian (Welch) and David (Rawlings) for coming out to play. I think they're driving all the way out from California. They don't like to fly. I said, "Would you guys come?" and they said, "Sure." It’s nice to have friends like that who will come help you out.

KC: I know a lot of people are excited about the lineup.

CO: I think it will be great. You've got David Dondero, Conchance, Simon Joyner. Vago, who are from Fremont, they approached us as soon as they heard about it and feel really passionate about it and have a lot of friends and family that are going to be directly affected by the law, so they want to be a part of it. So we're happy to have them.

Envy Corps from Iowa, they wanted to be a part of it. They're a great band.

It's going to be hopefully a powerful experience for the people that come and also just a lot of great rock 'n' roll, you know? That's the idea.

KC: Have you figured out the Bright Eyes set list?

CO: No. (laughs)

KC: What about "Coyote Song?"

CO: Maybe so. That's not a bad idea. I hadn't actually thought of that.

KC: Is the video out for that?

CO: No. We're still working on it. Basically, Sound Strike is gonna continue forward. We've grown to, I think, more than 300 bands. We're gonna start a sort of a campaign. We're amassing tracks now from different bands that are involved in the boycott. I'm not sure what the time schedule will be, but I'd like to see it happen every maybe two weeks where a new track goes online. There will be a minimum donation required whether it's 2 or 3 dollars and then there will be no top end so people will continue to donate.

At the show in Los Angeles last weekend with Rage Against The Machine, the two main organizations that the money went to were the Florence Project, which is a group in Arizona that goes and gives free legal aid to people that are incarcerated (during deportation proceedings). There's kind of these huge prison complexes - I think there's two or three - that are basically in the middle of nowhere Arizona where everyone on immigration charges ends up getting sent from Arizona and across the country.

And we're talking about kids. A lot of underage kids. Kids that have ridden on the top of trains from Honduras and Guatemala all through Mexico all the way up finally to the United States and they end up in this prison with basically zero rights, no way to contact their families. The Florence Project goes in, gives them free legal aid, tries to help them at least expedite their prisons. Ninety percent of them are headed toward deportation but these are for-profit prisons we're talking about so they have no incentive to let them go. And so they need to go in and at least expedite their deportation.

Some of them, because of the situations they're fleeing from are actually eligible for these refugee legal status or visa type of things. They're a really amazing organization and Sound Strike's really happy to support them.

And then Puente Arizona, which is a group of different community activists and community organizations that are kind of first responders to what's happening in Maricopa County. Of course, that's the infamous Sheriff Joe. Truly, he's a maniacal person. He's made it his mission in life to terrorize a population of people, a race of people, and that is his mission.

It's sick. It's truly disgusting. There needs to be a lot more independent news coverage of what actually happens there.

I don't know if it's on the Internet or if you can see the whole (thing). I was in this press conference with Sound Strike and Zack de la Rocha from Rage Against The Machine read a letter that he received from a woman that was incarcerated there. The stories that go along with this man and this type of law enforcement, it's unbelievable. A woman was forced to give birth in handcuffs on a gurney in front of everyone else. There's the parading the prisoners around like mascots in his pink uniforms. The level of abuse and violations of human rights, in my opinion, he should be put in jail for the rest of his life for the things he's done.

And I have almost as nice of things to say about Russell Pearce and about Kris Kobach and about all these people on this network of very, very bigoted hateful people. And they're hear in Nebraska. They're hear among us. We have to say this is not acceptable.

KC: With "Coyote Song," what was the impetus for writing that?

CO: I wrote it specifically for when the idea came out to have these (songs). The Sound Strike mp3 campaign kind of needed a starting point so I wrote a song to kind of be the guinea pig and decided to film the video.

Mystic Valley Band had recorded in El Paso, right outside of El Paso actually in Tornillo, Texas, which is right on the border.

Another thing that got my interest going in this whole situation - that was in December of 2008, so it was the last gasps of the Bush administration (and) Obama was president elect at that point.  We were down there recording and my friend Tony who owns this studio and owns the land  - owns lots of acres all across the border and his family's owned it for like a hundred years - and it's a pecan orchard and every day people cross from Mexico. Everyone's happy, everyone works, everyone lives together.

There is no border there in their lives and there hasn't been ever. Enter this security wall. We would literally leave the studio, ride our bikes down to the border and watch 24 hours a day as people welded. In the middle of the night, at 3 in the morning, welding I think it's 18 feet high and 6 feet down into the ground straight through his land. Not even to consider the environmental consequences of what they were doing or anything else, but to separate these people that had lived together.

Tony was telling me his grandfather had built a wooden bridge to cross the Rio Grande right there where people would walk from the town over and come to work. And he was like, "That was the way it always was." They came through, ripped down the bridge and started building this thing. It's complete senselessness.

And that's where I filmed the video. The most ironic thing is they stopped because you can't build a fence between here and Mexico. It would take so much money. (laughs) That's ridiculous.

We filmed the video right where the fence ends.

KC: I saw that and wondered if that's what it was.

CO: We were just walking back and forth and we filmed on both the Mexican and the U.S. side.

It's really interesting and, to me, there are so many problems in those border towns and there's so much violence. I love Mexico. As a country, there's a lot of corruption there and some deep, deep problems.

But I think until we realize that we've created these situations with our economic policies as a country - like NAFTA - and our economic policies toward Mexico, Central America, South America. Our drug laws, our appetite for drugs. Our desire to have this serfdom class of citizens that are gonna to work the cheapest jobs for nothing and have zero rights. We are creating these conditions.

And then you see this unbelievable violence and it's like, our policies are responsible for that. And people don't want to face that and people think it's anti-American to say that. But that's the truth. That is the reality and we are destroying Mexico.

I don't see how we can justify going and blowing up two entire countries in the Middle East and then rebuilding them with our tax dollars but we can't figure out a way to help our neighbors and to make some kind of just system for people to live and work and have basic human dignities.

I digress, but it's very interesting down there. El Paso and Juarez, it's incredibly interesting the way it's Biblical - it's like Shakespeare down there. It's really, really sad.

I think that's it. Hopefully they'll print some of that. (Smiles)

KC: Oh they will. Thanks.

CO: Thank you very much.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I read this before the show, and I think it made it even more meaningful to me. It was such great insight into why these issues mean so much to Conor Oberst and why the show was so important to him. He is by far one of my biggest inspirations and favorite artists, and I felt like this was a really special read.
    And can I just say... I cried when he played Coyote Song. :)
    Also, who was the other special guest at the hootenanny portion? I've been wondering like crazy.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the interview.

    The big rumor going around was that Jeff Tweedy from Wilco was supposed to show, but couldn't make it. Other names being thrown around were Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, but nobody showed up.

    After Lullaby's set, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings played a few songs before being joined by Bright Eyes for a few more. Then Desaparecidos played one song with David Dondero doing backup vocals. Then the whole group performed Dondero's new song, "They're Building a New Berlin Wall."

  3. Thanks for this interview!! i absolutley love conor. Its funny to me that he answered the questions so fully. i wish there was a video of this.

  4. Oberst is a wanna-be rock-star who can't seem to grasp that our nation's immigration laws protect us lowly blue collar folks from low-paid Mexicans who will work for peanuts and then don't pay taxes. What a dummy.


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