The saga told across The Studio Albums: 2000-2011 isn't just the story of Conor Oberst's evolution as a songwriter. It's also the story of Mike Mogis's evolution as a producer.
"You're the first person I've talked to today," says Mike Mogis, speaking from inside ARC Studios in Omaha, Nebraska. The veteran musician and producer is wrapping up work on a new project featuring members of Big Harp at his studio in Omaha.
Fielding questions about a new Bright Eyes boxed set, The Studio Albums: 2000-2011, Mogis is an affable interview subject. He sometimes speaks in a rapid-fire manner that impresses itself in imagination as bolded text with intermittent exclamations and ellipses. He doesn't come off as a man obsessed with his legacy and yet knows what he and his peers have accomplished.
The saga told across the boxed set isn't just the story of Conor Oberst's evolution as a songwriter. It's also the story of Mogis's evolution as a producer. The box picks up with the band's third LP, Fevers and Dreams and runs to what, as of this writing, stands as the unit's final recorded output, The People's Key. It is a project that Mogis first met with skepticism but which he fully embraced as time went on.
"I knew we weren't going to put out any extra material with this stuff," Mogis offers, "we'd released all the B-sides on the Noise Floor compilation. I thought it was going to be this expensive project and not worth the effort." Still reluctant, he decided to attend the remastering sessions with legendary engineer Bob Ludwig, whose credits include an impossible-to-list range or artists that include David Bowie, Elton John, Nirvana, and Jewel. ("You see all these albums on the wall at his place and you can't believe everything he's worked on," Mogis observes.) Once those sessions were underway, the purpose of the boxed set became more apparent and Mogis became more comfortable with the task.
"For one thing, I had a good time going through the material. Listening to this stuff inspired me," he notes. "I started remembering what we were doing and why. But I also realized that we're not remastering this stuff for the people who already have this stuff but for the future." Bringing the records into the present and then the future stirred up a number of reflections about Bright Eyes, though none of them seem to involve reactivating the band.
Mogis and Oberst have a shared history that dates back to the early-mid '90s and a dormitory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Mogis had recently moved to the city to attend college but found that he didn't yet know many of his fellow students. "I'd see people with band t-shirts on and started talking to them," he recalls. "I made friends that way." Among those friends were Ted Stevens and Robb Nansel, who lived one floor above Mogis in the dorms. Nansel and Mogis would found Saddle Creek Records; Mogis and Stevens formed Lullaby For The Working Class. One weekend, the pair introduced Mogis to their friend Justin Oberst and his younger brother, Conor.
"He came up with his acoustic guitar and was playing some songs he'd written. I thought it was weird that there was this 14-year-old staying in this dorm and hanging out with these older guys," Mogis recalls. Stevens was helping the younger Oberst with some home recordings and eventually played them for Mogis. Some of that material would find its way onto the first Bright Eyes album, A Collection of Songs Recorded 1995-1997. Although Saddle Creek had issued other recordings before the 20-song collection appeared, it was the first CD released by the label.
Mogis was not involved in the recording process of the album but he did mix it and told Oberst that if there was going to be a sophomore Bright Eyes release he'd be more than happy to help out. "I recognized that this kid was good. He was phrasing things in such a way that impressed me and made me think," Mogis recalls. He was especially impressed, he says, because musicians were drawing from a narrower stream of influences at the time. In the pre-Internet era, the main mouthpieces for music were radio shows, record stores and a smattering of press outlets. "It was rare to see a 14-year-old with such eloquence," he notes. "He really had to look within to find inspiration."
Mogis was convinced that he could make a very strong record with the young songwriter and, throughout 1997 and 1998 the pair worked on the LP that would become Letting Off the Happiness. Oberst was still in high school at the time, so sessions took place in part at the family home in Omaha. They worked on a Fostex R8 reel-to-reel during those sessions, getting basic tracks in order over a long series of weekends. They also traveled to Athens, Georgia to record at Chase Park Transduction in Athens, Georgia with Andy LeMaster (Now It's Overhead).
"It was just me and Conor," Mogis recalls, "we got in my Geo Metro and did two shows on the way out there: one in Chicago at The Empty Bottle and one in Bloomington, Indiana at a house party. We went to Athens because we wanted to record with Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel."
Mogis was by then well into his 20s and had been recording music since the age of 11. "I would take two tape recorders and a Radio Shack mixer and bounce from one track to the next to make a multi-track recorder. Play the tape, play something live and record both to another tape deck. I got into backwards things, speeding things up, slowing things down. Funny noises," he says. By 14 he had his first Tascam 4-Track. "I've always been fascinated by layering sounds and sound manipulation," he offers. "Before I knew much about music I was just making weird sounds. To this day I'm still intrigued by making sound environments."
Mogis' production touches on records such as 2000's Fevers and Mirrors and 2002's Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground enhance the emotional impact of the song by placing the listener in the world the characters occupy. "By Lifted I got better at balancing things, putting hammered dulcimer together with atmospheric guitars," he says. "I was a little more ambitious but I also wanted things to remain emotive. There's a difference between having ear candy just to have it. There's a lot of records I hear today that do that. It doesn't seem like there's any feeling behind it. It's like someone throw candy out in a parade. Kids like it and get super stoked but there's no real feeling behind it."
He adds, "We did some field recording of sorts with Lifted in order to put songs in places: going outside, going to a bar. It sounds kind of contrived, because it is, but we wanted to give songs an environment, a place. That was something that always intrigued me".
The album opens with "The Big Picture". In the initial moments of the track we eavesdrop on a conversation between a woman and a man (Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett). We hear the familiar jangle of keys and soon realize we're in an automobile. Someone starts the engine: The windshield wipers clack back and forth while Lewis directs Sennett on their path and ambient guitar sounds begin to fill the sound spectrum. We can hear oncoming cars in the distance and we move along with the travelers. Slowly, an acoustic guitar breaks in. Initially, it sounds like someone's tuning it more than playing it.
"Jenny and Blake were talking about where they were supposed to go. I don't think we gave them any direction," Mogis says. "I think they just started improvising."
The instrument sounds wrong somehow and we feel once more like we're eavesdropping. Is this someone practicing in their bedroom? A hopeful songwriting trying to find the right place to start a song? At nearly two minutes in, Oberst begins to sing and it becomes apparent that we're listening to a song.
"Back then, Conor didn't make demos," says Mogis. "He'd play something on an acoustic guitar and we'd build it up from there. He did have a reel-to-reel machine but he'd kind of stopped using it by the time we got to Lifted."
He adds, "We would have conversations about what he liked and didn't like when it came to ornamentation and stuff that I was kind of pushing for. I was taking the lead on bringing in brass and stuff. That was all kind of experimental too because we just found our friends and asked them to help out. If they hadn't played French horn since middle school, we still had them try. It turned out to be messy and kind of hard to record but it's part of the charm I suppose."
The production, he adds, was a culmination of many of things he'd be interested in all the way back to his early days with the cassette decks and Radio Shack mixer. "I tried to tie all of those things together: sound collage work, ambitious ornamentation with horns and bigger drum sections," he says. "We had five drummers on that record. But we were also trying to make the songs personal and emotional. It's slightly challenging. You don't want to do something just for the sake of it sounding weird because that doesn't embolden the song at all."
The remastering process, which Oberst was insistent upon, reminded Mogis that some of the early Bright Eyes records were filled with quirks. "Some of it was kind of crude," he remembers. "My knowledge of digital recording was limited during Fevers and Mirrors and even Lifted to some degree." When he revisited the recordings at the end of 2015 he was struck by how complicated the original records had been and, also, how he'd not been as careful in the studio as he might have been.