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Bright Eyes: King of Indie Rock

From the badlands of Omaha comes Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes — the best young songwriter in America

January 27, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 966 from January 27, 2005. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

Twenty-four-year-old Conor Oberst pulls the overlong sleeve of his brown striped sweater over one hand and musses his greasy dark hair with the other. "The first sentence of all my reviews has always been how old I was," Oberst notes with an angular smile. His hair, now piled forward in a jagged New Wave pompadour, conjures the phrase "A-ha tribute band." "On tour, people would always tell me, 'You're gonna be really great someday,'" Oberst continues. "How many times have I heard that?" He chuckles and fingers his pack of Parliament Lights. "Of course, most people don't have their entire development as a songwriter documented. Most people have years of shit nobody ever hears. It's probably better that way."

Like many a future rock star, Oberst — the singer, guitarist and all-around creative force behind Bright Eyes — picked up his instrument at a young age. In his case, it was a guitar at age ten, lessons provided by his dad, an insurance-company manager who played Three Dog Night covers at weddings and picnics. Unlike many a future rock star, though, young Oberst was already playing gigs and writing original songs three years later. He released his first album — well, cassette — just before he started eighth grade at St. Pius X/St. Leo Elementary School in Omaha, Nebraska. His "label," Lumberjack, eventually became Saddle Creek, currently one of the hottest indies on the scene, with a roster that includes Bright Eyes, Cursive and the Faint.

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It turns out that a single with "American" in its title--recorded on the Fourth of July during the nation's Bicentennial, no less--can actually sell better in Britain. Coupled with the Heartbreakers' flair for Byrds jangle and Animals hooks, though, is Tom Petty's native-Florida drawl that keeps this classic grounded at home. Petty dispelled rumors that the song was about a suicidal student, explaining that the inspiration came from when he was 25 and used to salute the highway traffic outside his apartment window. "It sounded like the ocean to me," he recalled. "That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by."

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