Bright Eyes will play their first shows since 2011 in support of their most recent album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. The album, considered a ‘reunion’ of sorts following a nine year hiatus for the trio, was released on Dead Oceans in August 2020 to international acclaim. Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott haven’t played a full show together since wrapping the tour for The People’s Key in Honolulu in November 2011. We spoke to Nate Wallcott about their latest album and what it means to tour again.
Atlanta Music Guide – After the last tour, which was 10 years ago now, was there a conscious decision to take a little break or was that something that just evolved naturally?
Nate Walcott – It’s pretty common, it’s kinda understood these days. Especially with Bright Eyes. It’s kinda standard operating procedure to do a record and a tour cycle and then take a little break. Everybody’s got so many other things going on. It’s nice to tend to these other areas of focus. So for Conner it could be solo things. For me it was working on records of my own music and other things. Mike was also making records.
It’s kind of like a natural course of action for us and it’s kind of just understood that would happen. 10 years… I don’t think it was ever discussed, like 5 years, 10 years or 2 years, maybe never! I don’t know. It was just understood that there was probably going to be a significant break of unknown length and we’d just see how it goes.
AMG – The last time that I got to see you in Atlanta it felt like a few years ago to me and it turns out it was in 2007.
Nate – Oh wow, the Cassadaga tour. Was that at that really beautiful theater? I think that was the tour we were at the Fox Theater. Wide Awake was definitely Variety Playhouse, I remember that.
AMG – What was the spark that brought everybody back together?
Nate – Well, we had been working together in various ways all along, whether it was Mike and I collaborating on a film score or me doing arrangements for Connor’s records, or Mike mixing Connor’s solo record. All of these things… we’re constantly in touch with each other, so I think there was a natural point of conclusion for all of our various projects that we were working on separately. It kinda converged at once and, you know, some life stuff, some personal stuff. It just seemed like, around Christmas of 2017. It just seemed like the natural thing to do. Hey, maybe we should do this.
AMG – So the newest record, it seems to have a little bit more of a melancholy vibe, maybe a little more layered than the older songs. Was the writing process, once you all got back together and started working, was that process any different that it was in the past?
Nate – It was different, a little bit. I would say, the 2 things that you mentioned, the melancholy element and the layering element, for most of the records to have a dense layering aspect is pretty common. For a lot of our records it’s our M.O. along with the melancholy element. But the writing aspect was different in that we did approach it in a way that was new. When we first started working we went in without a lot of songs. Usually Connor has a stack of songs, like, “Here’s six songs that are gonna be on the new Bright Eyes record.” We didn’t do that this time so we wrote a lot of new material together.
I would bring in “jumping off points” for chord progressions and things like that. So the writing process in that sense was more collaborative than it had been in the past. That being said, we still approached some songs the same way. Connor would have some songs fully formed, writing-wise, but it was a balance. So, yeah, that was a new thing for us which resulted in some interesting things. You know, one of the reasons, Connor, as does everybody, tends to gravitate towards a sound or a similar thing, harmony, chords, melody, and that’s the case with everybody. Everybody’s got their “standard go-tos,” a sound in their head they’re always drawn to.
If I sit at a piano I may start off with this chord (plays a chord on the piano). That’s just like in my head, the first thing when I start writing. My ears always go there and my hands always go there. It’s part of my vocabulary. Everybody’s got that and I think writing collaboratively in the way we did, it forces you to incorporate a sound, whether it’s a chord or a melody that is outside of your normal realm and that was fun. But we did it in a way that it wasn’t like we’re a totally different band or a different record. It was walking a fine line of incorporating that approach but not make it sound crazy.
AMG – The first time I heard the record, the songs “Mariana Trench” and “Persona Non Grata” really jumped out at me. How do you decide… the first and last song on the record really take you on a journey of sound… How do you look at this body of work, and all of the songs that you’ve created for this record and ultimately decide what “makes” the record?
Nate – It’s just instinct, sometimes it becomes obvious. Like the song, “Miracle of Life” that we put out last year as a benefit for Planned Parenthood. That was done at the same time. That’s Flea playing bass on it. Flea, and Jon. That was done in the same sessions as “Dance and Sing” and “Mariana Trench.” It became one that sonically and I guess, thematically we thought it was so specific it felt like a good song to set aside for future use. You just have to use your instinct. We could’ve cut a few more songs off the record, but they become your babies, your children and you want them to have the best life. It’s hard. There are songs on the new record, like “Forced Convalescence.” Does it fit? We loved it. It’s all about finding a space for all of these songs that you love and making a responsible decision about what will result in the best record.
AMG – I was watching the Tiny Desk Concert from last year recently. I loved the vintage keyboards you had and the backup singing. With everyone being in 2 different cities… were you writing the record like that or were you all in the same room?
Nate – We were all in the same room. All together. Although, with that being said, I was personally working on stuff in L.A. and if we were going to get together in 2 weeks, I’d do some prep work, some writing, gather together some ideas on my own to bring to Connor and Mike. But we didn’t do any writing “together-remotely.” It all kinda happened once we all got together, where all the collaborating work happened.
AMG – Let’s talk about the tour, I see it starts on 7/27 up near Buffalo and you’re here on August 6th and 7th here in Atlanta in a brand new venue. What are some of the songs that you’re looking forward to playing from the new record and maybe some older songs?
Nate – Well I don’t want to give away too much. Gotta keep it a surprise. But songs like “Dance and Sing” and “Mariana Trench,” I’m very excited to do those with our full band. We’ve done “Mariana Trench” on TV during COVID but it was all remote, and stripped down, so it will be wonderful to present those songs in their full glory in front of people, and we will have a small chamber orchestra, probably 9 additional strings and horns at the Atlanta show. We’re hiring people locally. We’re trying to support the local economy rather than bringing everybody with us. We’re going to hire local players. I’m rearranging everything to fit this size ensemble so we can play, dance and sing like on “Mariana Trench” with our local group. I’m very excited about that. It will be exciting to incorporate those players on some of the songs from Cassadaga that will feature them and then some old chestnuts that I think people will enjoy hearing from the back catalog… as far back as Fevers and Mirrors. You’ll hear old and new.
We’re excited to come to Atlanta. Atlanta is a wonderful city. Bright Eyes, over the years has had a really strong connection there as well as Athens and Georgia in general. 2020 has taught us that being able to come together to play music for, and with people is something that shouldn’t be taken for granted and we’re trying to approach it with a new sense of gratitude and appreciation for the experience and everybody that comes to hear us play. We’re looking forward to it.
Bright Eyes performs at The Eastern in Atlanta, GA on August 6th and 7th with Lucy Dacus opening both shows.
Fri 06 – Atlanta, GA @ The Eastern – https://www.axs.com/events/404702/bright-eyes-tickets
Sat 07 – Atlanta, GA @The Eastern – https://www.axs.com/events/404753/bright-eyes-tickets
Interview by John McNicholas