Conor Oberst's Mexican Adventure

Music Features Conor Oberst
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After recording the last Bright Eyes album for over a year in six studios, with well over two-dozen different musicians, Conor Oberst wanted to simplify. So earlier this year he followed the time-honored rock tradition of holing up in an exotic locale to make a record without interruption.

His destination: an empty house in the middle of Mexico, with no distractions, no digital recording equipment and, most notably, no Mike Mogis. His longtime producer/bandmate sat this project out, making Oberst uncomfortable with using the Bright Eyes moniker. (He’ll release Conor Oberst under Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band on Merge Records this August.) Each day, he and his bandmates would wake up in the afternoon, eat breakfast outside, record, hikse for a half hour into town, get a drink, head back, record, have a big dinner, and then record into the night. “Sometimes we’d make fires and drink beers and pass guitars around,” he says. “It was very, very peaceful.” For this Paste exclusive, Oberst recaps his journey south of the border, from his trip to a sweat lodge to looking for UFOs.

On taking over the production helm:
“It was a little frightening at first, because [Mike Mogis] is such a safety net sonically, and someone I rely on. But it was also kind of nice to be the one to say when we should move on. I have a much more laidback approach to the recording process than Mike does. For better or for worse, I think that comes across on the new record, just because I’m much more about the performance and just getting it to feel right. I don’t always care if the sounds aren’t as good as they could be.”

On his first studio project for another label since he helped establish Saddle Creek Records in the early ’90s:
“I just [wanted to] try something new. I’m very fortunate in my career where I’m not on a contract with anyone. I’ve always liked [Merge], and it seemed interesting to have a totally fresh group of people working on it. I guess I consider this whole record somewhat of an experiment. Why not keep it going?”

On the logistical challenges of recording in Mexico:
“I wouldn’t say it was a nightmare—but it was difficult just getting all the stuff through customs. We had to deliver everything to the place on the back of this rickety pickup truck, up these crazy sort of sidewalks/roads. It was pretty crazy watching it come over the hill wobbling around. And you couldn’t just run and get something if you needed it, whether that’s a person or a piece of equipment. We had the tape machine break once, and my manager literally had to get on a plane in New York and fly us the piece down because it was just going to take too long to ship it and get it through customs.”

On his favorite part of the trip: “Waking up in the mornings. I had a porch off the front of my room with a hammock and a fireplace on there, and I’d go out there and lay and watch the sun come up. I don’t know what kind of minerals or whatever are in the rocks, but they were these crazy pinks and purples, and when the sun rises and hits the rocks, it’s breathtaking.”

On traveling tips for Mexico:
“Well, we drank a lot of micheladas, which is kind of a Bloody Mary made with beer. Those are pretty delicious if for some reason you find yourself having to drink before, like, noon.”

On Mexican shamans:
“We went to a temazcal, which is kind of like a sweat lodge. It’s like a little igloo. We must have had 10 people in there, and then a shaman comes and does all these rituals inside the temazcal. They shove hot rocks into the center fire pit and you basically just sweat for an hour straight. You kind of get out of your mind really fast because you’re cleansing your body so rapidly. I felt sick for a couple of days afterward, but then I felt great. Man, I had a lot of wild thoughts. The shaman put a lot of different herbs and different concoctions of liquid on the hot rocks. I don’t think any of them were necessarily drugs, but you’re breathing that in, and you’re sweating, and it’s a pretty intense experience.”

On Tepoztlán’s reputation for UFO sightings:
“Everyone we talked to from Mexico City asked us if we’d seen any omnis, which is what they call the spaceships. I was looking all the time, but I didn’t actually see one, unfortunately.”

On the welcome his bandmates received:
“I can’t say enough nice things about all the people that I met down there. There’s just a real generosity and kindness with most of the Mexican people that I’ve met. It’s kind of ironic when you think about how a lot of people treat Mexican immigrants [in the U.S.]. It just makes me really sad that that’s the kind of welcome that they get up here when they come, just to work. I did a very similar thing, and I was treated with so much kindness. It’s unfortunate.”

On tackling religious belief in song:
“I guess I’m just conflicted, you know. I mean, I want to find something like that. Badly. But forms where it’s been offered to me seem fraudulent. I guess it’s one of those topics that keeps coming up. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic school, so that was my childhood. And not that I’m an expert on all these religions, but what I know is that all the other major religions just fall a little flat in their narrow-mindedness. I feel like there’s something much more basic than what all these people are worried about. I find it really shocking that two groups that are, from an outsider’s perspective, almost identical—Shiites and Sunnis, or Catholics and Protestants—can actually kill each other over minor details. To me, dogma is anti- whatever I would consider godlike, which is a connectedness and an all-encompassing love. I suppose that’s a lot of what Buddhism is, but I haven’t found anything that really hits the mark for me. … Even the idea of forever is kind of ridiculous. Which is unfortunate, because I think it softens the blow of mortality and having to say goodbye to everything you know and everyone you love. I think it’s a nice concept, and I wish it made sense to me, but I guess it doesn’t.”