Q&A: Conor Oberst

The Bright Eyes leader drops knowledge on Rasta philosophy and getting superhigh at Disneyland

Conor Oberst on Day 2 of the Folk at Austin City Limits Music Festival, October 9th, 2010 in Austin, Texas. Credit: Anna Webber/WireImage/Getty

CONOR OBERST IS NO LONGER LIVING LIKE a nomad — after a couple of years of end­less road trips, he's now semisettled, splitting his time between New York and his native Omaha, Nebraska. But he's as restless as ever: With its electronic flourishes and pop hooks, his seventh Bright Eyes album, The People's Key, veers sharply away from the comfy Americana of his last few releases — and gets seriously weird with spoken-word bits by a biker pal who thinks there were reptilian aliens in the Garden of Eden. "It's always just a matter of trying to stay interested in what we're doing," says Oberst — who has also retreated from his 2009 pronouncement that this would be the final Bright Eyes album: "I'm definitely not making it official."

Is the lyric "I do my best to sleep through the caterwaul/The classicists, the posturing avant-garde" about finding it hard to relate to the current state of music?
I find it hard to relate to everything, music includ­ed. The older I get, the more I feel like I must be in the minority as far as how I think about the world. The people who make the most noise are peo­ple I don't relate to at all. There's obviously like-minded people I out there, but they're harder to find.

Can you really re­late to the stuff your mystic biker friend says on your record?
I like that fine line between too far gone and completely genius. When he talks about how universes stay in balance, that's as good an explanation as accepted established religions.

Why did you abandon the rootsiness of your past couple of albums?
I got kind of worn out on it. I find the idea of genre repressive as a person who just wants to make music and explore and do the most inspired things I can. I think about satellite radio, where every station is like this superspecific thing, and I don't know why you'd want to listen to the same idea over and over again.

What about Pandora, where you can listen all day to songs that sound like some other song?
Yeah, it's like an algorithm or whatever. Isn't that just real­ly sad?

Where do all the references to Rastafarianism on this album come from?
Well, I definitely like listening to reggae — one artist I got turned on to recently is this woman Hortense Ellis, and I love Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear — but I think that so much of what they think about is relevant to the broader climate that we are in right now.

It's hard to argue with their choice of sacrament.
Yeah [laughs]. Exactly. And just the idea of oneness and the fact that we need each other and the power of music and the power of community.

How about actually playing reggae?
Sometimes we do parody versions of our songs in practice with reggae beats for our own entertainment, but no. There have been bands that have incorporated those rhythms and mu­sical motifs into their music successfully — the Clash, obviously, even the Police — but that's not something that I'm really comfortable doing [laughs].

The song "Beginner's Mind" obviously refers to Buddhism.
That song is actually sort of dedicated to my friend Jim James — it's a tribute to his spirit. He got into some of that [Buddhist] stuff, and we would talk about it a lot, just the idea that every time you go into an artistic endeavor you need to try to start from zero again and throw out the things you've learned and your preconceptions and start new.

In one song, you seem to be singing about the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. Are you a big fan?
I like Disneyland — I actually went there one time with Jenny Lewis and [the Post­al Service's] Jimmy Tamborello. That remains one of my fondest memories.

Were you guys superhigh or some­thing?
Yeah [laughs]. There were definitely some mo­ments of freaking out.