Conor Oberst Is Just Trying to Stay Zen, Despite Donald Trump

The musician, whose new album Salutations was just released, reveals what’s helping him cope with the current administration and the hardships of being on tour in his culture diet.

International Festival of Benicassim - Day 1
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Last fall, the musician Conor Oberst added to the list of dozen-plus albums he’s put out both under his own name and the band Bright Eyes with Ruminations, a slow, solo return to his early days—that is to say, a stripped-down, honest assessment of just how bad things can get. Then, less than six months later, he did it all again: Salutations, his new album out now, is the full-band version of those songs, which was always his intention before his record label fell in love with the solo demos he made back at home in Omaha. That’s where he recently moved after 13 years in New York, where he was heralded as the next Bob Dylan, before the rent prices forced him to return to Nebraska. Still, Oberst is plowing ahead, starting with his Salutations tour—and a little help from Philip K. Dick, Buddhist lit, and more from his culture diet on the road.

What’s the first thing you typically read in the morning?

Well, usually my email, to be honest. Then I’ll read the New York Times online.

What books did you bring with you on tour?

I’ve been kind on this Philip K. Dick tip. He has this book called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said I’ve been reading, and which is awesome. Looking through my bag here, I have this kind of Zen Buddhist book that my wife gave me called Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. I’ve been kind of reading that a little bit, trying to keep the peace, you know? [Laughs.] I’ve also got this other one my friend gave me called the Power of Now [by Eckhart Tolle], which is kind of similar meditative, Buddhist-y vibes. Just trying to stay calm. I’ve got to balance out the paranoia of Philip K. Dick. [Laughs.]

Do you meditate a lot?

I mean, I try. I’m not good at it. I have an uncle who’s basically an ordained Buddhist monk, and he’s really cool, and he has a little yoga shop spot in Omaha, so sometimes I’ll go hang with him and do his program—it’s kind of like half-stretching, half-meditating, and I really like that. Traveling and stuff, it’s just hard to stay on top of it, but I do think it’s a good thing to do. Because I’m also one of those people where I really don’t like silence and I kind of need background noise all the time, little distractions. I think that’s a symptom of being an unhappy, sort of incomplete person—like, you should be able to sit alone in a room with yourself and be fine. So I’m working on that, trying to get there.

What about the TV shows you’ve been watching lately? Have any been keeping you up?

Okay, well, not to get back to Philip K. Dick, but I’ve been watching the Man in the High Castle, which is an adaptation of one of his stories, but it’s like revisionist history: America in the ’60s, if the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II. It’s pretty good, though, it’s fun—action-packed, sci-fi vibes. I haven’t been doing a bunch of TV work lately, but I watched this HBO miniseries called Show Me a Hero, which was tight. It’s with Oscar Isaac, who’s a really amazing actor, about Yonkers, New York and politics.

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

I guess I saw the newest Star Wars thing, whatever that’s called. You know, the really new one that’s kind of like a spinoff. Not with Oscar Isaac. [Laughs.]

I didn’t realize you were so into sci-fi.

Yeah yeah, I like it. Oh, I saw Moonlight, which was great, fantastic. There was something after that I saw, but I can’t remember anything these days.

Do you ever buy art? What’s the last piece of art you bought?

There’s a painter friend of mine in Omaha called Bill Hoover who makes this cool art that I purchased. But I did do some museum work when I was in Europe in January. I went to the Louvre—I’d actually never been there, even though I’ve been to Paris, like, a thousand times. And in Vienna I saw a bunch of Klimt and other tight stuff, which was really fun.

Is there an exhibition you’ve seen lately that you’ve loved?

I mean, I couldn’t really name one. I’m not super-informed on the modern art world, but I do like going to museums. That’s one of the kind of closet moves on tour when you’ve got time to kill. I try to do that, but I’m definitely not a kind of authority on visual art, other than I like it.

Speaking of art, what’s the story behind the album cover for Salutations? It’s quite different from Ruminations.

[Laughs.] It’s kind of a conceptual piece. No, there’s a line in the song “Salutations” about getting mouth-to-mouth after drowning in a neighbor’s pool, so that was kind of my reference point. My friend Gary Burden actually did the artwork, and he’s amazing. He’s like 83, and he’s basically made the artwork for every cool band in California from like the late ‘60s on: Neil Young, The Eagles, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne. He’s pretty heavy-hitter. [Laughs.] We kind of conceptualized it together, and then he rented the cherry picker and we went to the pool at Neil Young’s manager Elliott Robert’s house, and Gary got up on the big crane and took my picture. And then on the back there’s Jim Keltner and some other friends bringing me back to life.

I love that part of all your ticket sales on this tour are going to Planned Parenthood. How did that come to be?

There’s this organization called Plus One that’s really cool—they partner with bands and essentially make it really easy for you to pick which charity you want to give a dollar to from every ticket. I highly recommend them to any touring bands. And yeah, I picked Planned Parenthood for kind of the obvious reasons: the Trump era, the defunding, and just the nightmare of his policies, especially for everyone that needs it the most. But also like, you know. [Laughs.] I have a personal affinity for Planned Parenthood because I remember being a teenager or whatever, early twenties, and if anything kinda scary happened, you’re like, “Oh, maybe I have something, maybe dah-dah-dah.” And it’s like, that’s where you go. Those are the people that help you when you’re scared. It’s very important that they exist for so many people, so I was happy to help.

You’ve done similar things with the ACLU in the past. Do you feel more compelled lately to support groups like that with your work?

Definitely. We’re kind of in uncharted waters right now, as far as what’s going to happen with this psychopath as our president. So even if it’s a little gesture, whatever any of us can do to support these very vital institutions that are completely under siege by the Republicans and Trump and his, you know, fake-news white-supremacist cronies, we have to. It’s not like one thing is going to be the deal breaker, but it’s a cumulative effect if everyone can do something even small. My hope is that eventually we’ll get the results we want if everyone kind of pitches in.

Is there any music that’s been helping you deal with all that?

[Sighs.] I mean, I always kind of go back to the classics as far as political music, like The Clash, Rage [Against the Machine]. Actually, when we were in Tulsa, the Felice Brothers and I went to the Woody Guthrie museum that’s there, which was amazing—when Woody Guthrie was living in New York, his landlord was Fred Trump, and he wrote, like, diss songs about how shitty Fred Trump was in the f–king ’50s or whatever, which was amazing to see. They have another display of Phil Ochs, who’s kind of a crazy political folk singer guy, too. But I mean, Woody Guthrie’s kind of the original. He was also an amazing painter and he wrote novels—one of those “he did it all” kind of situations. His artwork is really beautiful, and then just seeing “This Land Is Your Land” written out in his handwriting is pretty heartbreaking when you start thinking about where we are right now, in Trumpland. He hated [Trump’s] dad, you know, and the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, from what I’m told. [Laughs.]

Have you been going to any protests on tour? Did you go to anything for Women’s Day earlier this month?

I sadly did not. I’ve been traveling and rehearsing and doing all the s–t for the tour, but I should get out there, there’s no excuse. It’s good to make time for.

What’s the last concert you saw, besides the ones on your tour?

The ones I’m making? [Laughs.] Let me see. I guess some shows in Omaha. I saw my friends Dawes play there, they were great. A bunch of my friends run different clubs and stuff, so it’s a lot of, like, go check out what your friends are doing, basically.

Is there a release you’re excited about coming up soon?

Yeah, actually on the tour I did in Europe, we had this woman Phoebe Bridgers opening for us, who was really amazing. She’s kind of a young cat from L.A., and she has some singles and stuff out, but she just made her debut record with this dude Tony Berg and then mixed it in Nebraska with Mike Mogis, who plays in Bright Eyes with me. Anyway, it’s amazing. Her voice is so devastating, and the songs are really cool. I hate comparing things, but there are definitely Elliott Smith-y vibes to a lot of it—you know, pretty sad songs. But her voice is just amazing and her lyrics are really dope. I’m not sure when the album’s coming out—last time I talked to her, there was a bunch of different labels that were arguing over putting it out, but it’s got to come out probably in this summer. Musically, that’s the thing that’s stoked me up the most recently.

Do you ever listen to podcasts? Do you have any favorite ones?

I do, I do some podcast work. I mean, I love “Radiolab,” “Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin,” “Snap Judgment.” I listen to WNYC over the internet or on my phone a lot, because I don’t live in New York anymore, so it kind of makes me feel better when I can listen to that while traveling.

What’s the last song you had on repeat?

I don’t know man, I don’t really put songs on repeat. When I get to hotel rooms, I immediately put on music, but I don’t always like to hear music with words. So I end up doing some jazz work. I’ve been kind of on this Ahmad Jamal kick, who’s a famous jazz guy. That’s been my go-to when I get to the hotel room and put something on the speakers immediately.

How do you typically get your news?

I read the New York Times online. Sometimes I watch the news on TV, although I’ve really tried to stop that, just because it’s all such dog shit—people screaming at each other, and nothing makes any sense. I mean, I like Democracy Now! and stuff like that, but you know, that’s pretty slanted, too. I feel like it’s best to just get the least opinions involved. Like, give me the facts. [Laughs.]

Do you ever read your horoscope?

I don’t, usually, but I have. Not in a while.

Do you have any favorite social media accounts to follow?

I don’t. Actually, I’ll look at Instagram on my phone, but I don’t really follow anyone famous or anything like that. I’ve really never done any social media—I’ve never had a Facebook or a Twitter or anything like that, besides the ones for the band, but the management deals with all that. My friend did sign me up to some Instagrams just so I can see pictures of my friends’ kids and dogs and stuff, but I don’t really post much, it’s just kind of a way to see your friends. I don’t know, I’ve never followed someone I didn’t know. Are you supposed to do that?

If you want to. [Laughs.] Some people have funny ones, like Martha Stewart has a very strange account.

[Laughs.] Really?

But it’s definitely not necessary. Last thing: what’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?

Lately, my bed’s been the bus, so the last thing I do is say good night to whoever’s left up and crawl into my bunk. At home, I have a nice bathtub, and I actually really love taking baths. I find that pretty relaxing—do some bath work right before bed, get all kind of like sleepy and stuff. But on the road, it’s more like, put out your last cigarette, put your beer down, sometimes brush your teeth. I wish I always brushed my teeth, but I don’t. Don’t tell my dentist. Sometimes I just crawl into the bunk—gotta get some z’s.

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