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Hotstar


12:00 AM Monday, 5/2/05 |   |

Press can be a tedious ordeal for an artist especially when you're an indie heartthrob on the rise and every rock journalist wants a piece of you.

Take Conor Oberst for example. Prior to the simultaneous releases of his two new albums I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn the Bright Eyes visionary was swamped with the press declaring him the "next Bob Dylan" and "the finest songwriter of his generation."

At 25 years old, that can be a difficult load to carry. But Oberst who is the only constant Bright Eyes member dealt with it the best he could.

"I almost went crazy; it was so terrible easily the worst part of what I do," Oberst admitted to Pollstar during an afternoon band rehearsal for the upcoming second leg of his U.S. tour.

But the accolades were no surprise to Oberst and his manager, Nate Krenkel. The suspense had been building since Bright Eyes' last full-length album, Lifted or The Story is in Fact the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, was released in 2002.

"Since Lifted came out, there's been a growing awareness," Krenkel, who gave up a Sony Publishing job to exclusively manage Bright Eyes, told Pollstar. "We did so many interviews and so much press in the fall that we knew it was going to be pretty ubiquitous.

"For a lot of people, this was the first time they could really write something about him."

Why are so many music lovers interested in Oberst's tale? Well, besides his "cute indie boy" persona and the infamous photograph of him allegedly smooching with actress Winona Ryder (he says it was just a hug) he's got a pretty interesting background.

The Omaha, Neb., native learned guitar at age 10, began writing songs at 13 and embarked on his first coast-to-coast tour with his then-band Commander Venus, while still in high school. He helped establish his Omaha label, Saddle Creek Records, and was hand-picked for last October's Vote For Change tour (which Oberst described as "amazing"). Plus, he is also known for his ever-changing backing band on every tour.

But perhaps the most interesting thing he's done is publicly announce two years ago that he would not play any more Clear Channel-affiliated venues. That's right; zero. If there's any situation where a penny would go to Clear Channel, Oberst steers clear.

"I think it's dangerous for one company to control so much of the market and so much of the information being given to the population," Oberst explained. "I just feel better not participating in the whole game of, 'Play our shows and we'll play you on our radio stations.'

"They own so much commercial radio and truly do use intimidation and manipulation to get people to play by their rules."

Agent Eric Dimenstein of New York's Ground Control Touring said that Oberst will probably not change his mind about that anytime soon.

"I said, 'If X artist asked you to tour and they were playing Clear Channel venues, that would mean you couldn't tour with that artist,'" Dimenstein told Pollstar. "And he said, 'Well, I wouldn't tour with that artist.'"

So far, there hasn't been a problem finding places to perform. Since January, Bright Eyes has toured through the U.S., Europe, Australia and Japan. At press time, Oberst and a new backing band were gearing up for another U.S. jaunt with labelmates The Faint.

"There's a core of musicians that he pulls from on every tour and I'd say, in the collective, there's about 20 or 30 people who've played with him over the years," Krenkel said.

"I feel like every time [Conor] gets a band together and they get out, he gets more confident on stage."

This time around, Oberst asked various members of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Berg Sans Nipple, The Faint, Cursive, and producer Mike Mogis to join him on the road, including a quick stop for a headlining gig at California's Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival May 1st.

"He's gone out with all female backing bands, orchestras with 19 people and he's gone out solo," Dimenstein added.

So, how does Oberst choose his backing bands?

"A lot of times, it's not haphazard, but it's whoever is around," the singer said. "I have so many friends that are really great musicians and I enjoy playing with all of them. I'll think, 'Oh, that person isn't on tour right now, maybe they'll want to go do this.'"

And if there's one thing Oberst feels fortunate about, it's the fact that he has been able to surround himself with good friends, both musically and professionally.

"The music industry is a very strange and terrifying place and I feel, in the end, if you can keep it close to your home base, then it will be for the better," Oberst said.

If the singer is ever lacking friends or loved ones, he can always turn to his legion of fans, which Dimenstein refers to as a "cult."

"He's one of those artists that people connect with in some way, and they travel," Dimenstein said. "They'll fly across the country to see him, or follow him up and down a coast.

I'll be on the bus with him and I'll see the same faces waiting in the front of the line."

In 2003, Oberst and Krenkel launched their own New York-based label, Team Love, a subsidiary of Saddle Creek. The pair is also in the early stages of licensing a Bright Eyes song to film director Michael Moore for his next documentary.


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