Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

After nearly a decade away from Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst felt like coming home. “I wanted to go back to a place that felt the most comfortable,” he tells Apple Music of the recording project he’s long shared with multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. “I always enjoy collaborating with new people, but there's something to be said for the kind of telepathy that we have between us, where once you have so much history a lot of stuff can go unsaid and you're just starting so much farther down the road. They just understand.” At once familiar and new, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was makes deliberate reference to previous Bright Eyes recordings while continuing to expand on them—from psychedelic tape collage and blown-out acoustic guitars to desperate bagpipes and outsized rhythmic contributions from Flea and Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore. “I was really keen to make it sound like 2020, but also fit in with the rest of the catalog,” Oberst says. “Loss is a big theme, in sort of realizing that a lot of things are temporary and you have to move on from them and say goodbye to them. We didn't realize that a lot of time had gone by. The door was always left open that we're going to keep making music together. It felt pretty natural when we started talking about making another record. Like, ‘Yeah. It’s about time.’” Here, Oberst, Mogis, and Walcott take us inside every song on the album. Pageturners Rag Conor Oberst: “A kind of sound collage and an exhaustive intro—we have to have one of those on every record. My friend Phil, he used to be our guitar tech for years. We opened a bar called Pageturners in Omaha a long time ago, and our friend Dan McCarthy—aka McCarthy Trenching—for years had a happy-hour ragtime on Thursday nights there for two hours, just playing Scott Joplin and all that kind of stuff. I just always associated walking into the bar and hearing him play as the most joyful kind of feeling in the world. I asked Nate Walcott to compose a rag, but then that devolved into a slower, Erik Satie-like, melancholic ending. We closed down the bar one night and we had everyone come, invited all our friends. We gave them cue cards of things to talk about. We set microphones up all over the bar. Corina, my ex-wife, she introduces the band. And then Nate and Dan performed it for the crowd. It's all actually happening. There's a magical tape sound thing that, obviously, a lot of editing went into, and Mike [Mogis] made sound supernatural. The other element is Corina and my mom talking, because I love both of their voices. I convinced them to take some psychedelic mushrooms one night at my house and recorded them talking for three hours, and then we edited it down. It’s that juxtaposition of talking about some heavy things or sad things, overlaid upon a really joyous sound of the bar.” Dance and Sing CO: “I wrote the song, but in a more basic chord format—one of my normal little folk songs. And then it was pretty amazing for Nate to change it. By the time he was done playing with the chords and things, it sounded like Louis Armstrong or something. I was pretty adamant that I wanted that song to be the first on the record. I don't know, I just like the first line, ‘Keep on going like it ain’t the end.’ I felt the same way about the last song, ‘Comet Song,’ and the last line of that song is ‘You're approaching even as you disappear.’ I knew I wanted the album to start with that one line and to end with the other—that was important. We all experience a lot of highs and lows, and trying to figure out ways to see the patterns and where they intersect, trying to encapsulate those into songs—lyrically, it’s kind of been a lifelong pursuit for me, trying to do that right.” Nate Walcott: “That song set the tone in a way, in terms of kind of starting with this raw rock band. By the end you've got the orchestra and the choir, and in between, you've got pretty much every other instrument. We tried to really tastefully rearrange it so it wasn't everything all at once. It goes through this little evolution. Hopefully, it feels sort of organic and not too cluttered, but it touches upon a lot of colors and timbres that are a part of the whole album.” Just Once in the World NW: “We had finished a first batch of songs—‘To Death’s Heart,’ ‘One and Done,’ ‘Pan and Broom,’ a few others—with which we’d approached the writing in a fairly different way than records past. So in order to balance out the album sonically and compositionally, we put together a few songs taking an approach more in line with the old and familiar way, with Conor playing acoustic guitar and bringing in more or less complete songs. This was one of the songs that came from that. Instrumentation-wise we went somewhat festive, familiar, and slightly baroque—Marxophones, organs, pianos. One notable element was Jon’s inventive approach to the drums: It was incredibly polyrhythmic, and took the song in a much different direction than any of us planned or expected. It’s an update to that older sound, offering a fresh perspective on what could have been a really middle-of-the-road approach, rhythmically.” Mariana Trench CO: “Mount Everest, the Mariana Trench—the highs and the lows of the world. I liked that, liked that idea of putting the two most obvious examples of that in the chorus. It's probably one of the more immediate songs; it’s pretty straight to the bloodstream. Other ones have to linger a little more. It has a sparseness—up until the bridge mostly—but kind of came together in the studio working with Jon Theodore and Flea. Nate has been moonlighting as the keyboard player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a couple of years. And even though it probably doesn't make a lot of sense musically, I'm a huge fan of that Mars Volta record [2003’s] De-Loused in the Comatorium, and Jon and Flea are the rhythm section on that.” NW: “I started in 2016 and that was my little side gig while [Conor] was doing other things. When we were talking about people to ask, I was like, ‘You know who we should get?’ It turns out both of them are complete sweethearts and they're so good that they can obviously play any style of music. They jumped right in.” One and Done CO: “Lyrics-wise, definitely one of the darker ones on the album. I feel like with all my songs, there's obviously a good bit that's coming from aspects of my personal life, but I also always try to like think of them as composite sketches and try to find a way to hopefully convey something more universal than just ‘woe is me.’ We'd been in the studio a couple days and I was just getting to know Flea. He'd already played on a few songs and it was this beautiful, melodic, amazing bass playing. But on that song, for whatever reason, I really did want to hear him slap bass. And so I had that awkward moment of having to walk in and be like, ‘Hey, Flea, you know, man, do you think you can slap on this one?’ He was like, ‘You mean like— [rapid bass notes]’ And that made me laugh. He was like, ‘Nah.’ And then he just smiled and said, ‘I got you. I know what you mean.’ That part, on the instrumental break, to me, sounds like just cool, fucking sweet funk records from the ’70s.” NW: “I think that was one of the more fun parts to work on. Flea’s bass, with the orchestra, going towards a sort of Stravinsky meets Bernard Herrmann Alfred Hitchcock score meets Jon Theodore’s metal drums on the outro.” Mike Mogis: “Yeah, standard folk shit. The musical moment of the record is that instrumental break in ‘One and Done,’ the strings and fucking slap bass. It’s a first for Bright Eyes. But it’s real tasteful.” Pan and Broom CO: “I feel like it's kind of an outlier on the record. There’s not a lot of stripped-down stuff, but that song I think fits in nice because it's just got a lot of space. There's not tons going on. Some real drums come in later, but it's basically built around a rinky-dink drum machine sound and the kind of broken-keyboard sound that Nate is making. And then obviously the big, blown-out vocals. I really like how that one came out. I think it's weirdly catchy, and in a not expected way. Our friend Jen Lindberg from Warpaint plays bass, and I love her. She's got her kind of signature super wet, reverb-y bass sound.” Stairwell Song CO: “The last line, it’s obviously on the nose and meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek: I’m like, ‘Here's the cinematic ending,’ and then you get a very short but giant cinematic ending. It’s a love song and they're parting ways at the end, so they get a good Hollywood send-off. Go big or go home.” NW: “It was fun to let it rip on that one, and even when the orchestra comes in, there's something that happens that I would never do anymore: It’s sort of a two-octave, very fast run, which is fun to do with an orchestra, but you kind of want to not do that if you don't have to, because it is very cliché and cheesy. I didn't have that in the arrangement originally, and then the night before the session, I was like, ‘You know what? That's got to be in there.’ Also, the first song that I have recorded trumpet on since [2005’s] I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, believe it or not. It seems so crazy, because trumpet is a big part of being a part of this for me.” Persona Non Grata CO: “The song always kind of reminded me of a funeral dirge. And when I think about funerals, I think about bagpipes. It was a shot in the dark, but we just literally Googled ‘bagpipes Omaha,’ and these guys popped up: Omaha Pipes and Drums. They literally play funerals and St. Patrick's Day parades, probably like exclusively. They were really sweet guys—probably like in their sixties or something—and they came over, and it became pretty apparent none of them had ever really been in a recording studio before and didn't quite get the concept. They were like, ‘Where's the rest of the band?’ And we were like, ‘No, you’ve got to actually wear the headphones.’” MM: “I had no idea about this until we started, but bagpipes are kind of like harmonicas in a sense of, like, you have to play in a certain key. So if the song's not in that key, they don't work. Our song wasn't in the right key, so we ended up having to pitch-shift the whole thing and then record them and then pitch-shift it back. They have that weird drone-y note that goes over everything—they’re not the easiest thing to incorporate into a regular old folk-rock song, it turns out. But we made it work. Conor’s talked about having bagpipes several times in the past. I bought some for Lullaby [for the Working Class] at one point, but I could not fucking play them. It seems like this is a record of some firsts: Slap bass. Bagpipes. I even finger-tapped some guitar solos.” Tilt-A-Whirl CO: “This one is obviously pretty centered on my family. I like it because I think it has a pretty old-school Bright Eyes flavor, this sort of blown-out acoustic guitar sound that's pretty much the same as stuff on [1998’s] Letting Off the Happiness. We brought in [Now It’s Overhead singer-producer] Andy LeMaster—who’s helped us make every record we've made, and who’s sung on every record of ours since Letting Off the Happiness. There was a couple of songs on the album—I think it was ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ and ‘Calais to Dover’—that I had to call a band meeting and be like, ‘We need Andy’s magic little angel voice on these ones.’ Because we've been singing together so long and he knows how to scream exactly like me.” Hot Car in the Sun CO: “I think that it’s probably the sparsest song on the album. We intentionally didn't want to fuck with it that much. Just kind of leave it.” MM: “We used Conor and Nate’s live takes. I think Conor said, ‘It's something that shouldn't be any better than that.’ It's so sad, this song. I think it resonates more when it feels more personal and intimate, when the production is so minimal. Despite it being a tale of a dog dying in a car and being lonely and shit.” Forced Convalescence CO: “Musically, this one definitely started with a Nate idea: a chord progression he sent me. And I remember sitting with it for a long time and it wasn’t clicking for a while. I didn’t know what kind of melody to sing to it; they were chords I would normally choose. I remember feeling confused about how to approach it, but I kind of cracked the code of, ‘Oh, that's how I can make it catchy and yet still sound like me.’ There’s a little bit of midlife crisis [in the lyrics], at least to that second verse. Weird kind of zeitgeist vibe with COVID and all this stuff—obviously we didn't know when we were making the record. But it’s just that idea of when you're just forced to lay in bed and get well, and you’re staring at your feet and you're staring at the ceiling. I've had that situation in my life a few different times and, you know, your mind tends to wander into some weird pastures when you're bedridden.” To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts) CO: “It’s one of the heavier songs on the record, and it’s kind of based around the three non-English words in each of the verses, which are their own separate little vignettes. They're not totally connected, but at the core they're all driving at the same point. Back in 2018, I just had a lot of music, and we have a C room in the studio, a little room with a Pro Tools rig. Weirdly, Corina, my ex-wife, is also a sound engineer. I would go in there with her and—because I'm shitty with Pro Tools and stuff, just bad with computers—she would help me. Like, ‘Move this part around, and make this part here longer,’ depending on what my melody was, or what I was wanting to sing. I think the second verse was the first one I’d written, so I can remember it being slightly awkward, because she was recording me, and it’s basically about her. It's the Spanish word for ‘exhausting.’ And that's a direct quote. What’s it like to live with me? She was just like, ‘Exhausting.’ After that, I came up with the idea that it would be cool to have just one non-English word in the other verse—the Pope, the Bataclan. Yeah, it's a sad song.” Calais to Dover CO: “It’s like a composite sketch again, but it's definitely a tip of the hat to this guy named Simon Wring, who used to tour with us. He's Welsh and was one of our sweetest, oldest friends that traveled the world with us. We lost him, several years back. But I feel like I have to remind fucking Michael [Mogis], every once in a while, that he's actually the most incredible rock guitar player that I've ever heard, because he's not the type of guy to show off, but obviously he can shred. I was like, ‘Do a shred, it's been a while.’ I'm just like, ‘Just do it.’ Like, ‘No, do the real thing. Do the thing.’ I had to twist his arm a little bit to get that out of it. But it felt right with that song. It had kind of an old-school, old badass sound to it. I thought it could use a little arena rock guitar playing, just to bring a different flavor.” MM: “It felt like a good contrast. You know, the record has its share of juxtapositions, and that solo kind of hits you alongside the head. I just enjoy that in music, to have a bit of a jarring thing, as long as it's not distracting. Which I guess maybe it is, I haven't listened to that solo in a while. It's fun to be able to dig in like that every now and then. Because I grew up playing fucking Jimi Hendrix and heavy metal—that stuff is deep in there.” Comet Song CO: “Well, a comet just goes in a circle. That’s why I was pretty adamant about that being the last line of the record, ‘You're approaching, even as you disappear’—it's a little cliché, the circle of life stuff. I can't remember being born, but I imagine it's a pretty terrifying experience. I imagine leaving this world is a pretty terrifying experience. But it's also the thing we all have in common, a thing that's going to happen to everybody. It felt like a nice bookend to the record, and Nate did an amazing job with the strings. I felt like he transformed what could have been, like a simple little acoustic waltz, à la [2005’s] 'We Are Nowhere and It's Now.' Instead, because of the orchestration, it turned into this giant avalanche of musicality, which is really cool.” NW: “I was just channeling Zeppelin, so I don't know what you guys are talking about. Actually, I do love some of Led Zeppelin's tunes. John Paul Jones did all those arrangements, and every once in a while I will—not necessarily on this record—go back and listen to some of his string arrangements. As big as this song sounds, there's definitely a concerted effort to save the big element for two very specific spots. The rest of it was really just trying to weave in and out the vocals, and Flea's really melodic playing, and all of Mike's contributions. I tried just to focus on the architecture of this one, with a particular intensity.”

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada