Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst: Soft Oblivion
Joining two generations of sad indie rock, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst avoid duet clichés on their new collaborative project, Better Oblivion Community Centre.
On 23 January, Better Oblivion Community Center were billed as the musical guests on US TV programme The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. So far, so anonymous – until, of course, they showed up on stage. Quickly it was revealed that the project is actually the brainchild of two titans of indie rock: Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos to name a few, and Phoebe Bridgers – one of the most distinctive singer-songwriters currently working, fresh from her 2018 stint as a third of supergroup boygenius.
After their live, televised performance of buoyant lead track Dylan Thomas, Better Oblivion Community Center released a surprise self-titled album on streaming platforms, giving indie rock its first proper “head’s fell off” moment of 2019. Oberst and Bridgers is a meeting of minds which feels destined for rock ‘n’ roll lore. Since they appeared together on Would You Rather, a track from her 2017 debut LP Stranger in the Alps, it’s been clear that the two musicians share a sensibility – a common ability to articulate complex aches simply, certainly, but, rarer still, an overarching wryness, a willingness to joke.
It’s this combination of fun and feeling which makes their joint album such a wonder, as it glints alternately with sadness, mischief and the spirit of friendship. Before the release went down, we hung out in London with the artists now known as Better Oblivion Community Center, and listened in as they discussed the two years that have passed since the project’s inception, and what it’s like to have a partner in crime.
“We also talked about the idea of not falling into Duet Land. We didn’t want it to be a cutesy duet album” – Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers: I grew up on the cool side of my parents’ music, which was Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell. But it certainly didn’t really feel like mine. When I heard Bright Eyes in high school, it felt like there was finally a band that was doing that thing, but for me. It was one of the first bands that I felt like I could truly stand behind, what felt like my generation doing something good.
Conor Oberst: And I first heard you play around two and a half years ago. There’s this place in LA called the Bootleg Theater, where a mutual friend of ours, Kyle, books the bands. I was making a record in LA and he called up and some band had dropped out, so we kind of ended up putting together this random show with Gillian Welch and Jim James, it actually turned into–
PB: SUCH a backdoor brag. [Bad impression of Conor] “Yeah, we ended up like throwing something together with uhh, you know, Gillian Welch and Jim James. But yeah, it’s chill.”
CO: It was just one of those stars aligning moments. Everyone played under fake names. And Kyle was like, “My favourite songwriter in LA is Phoebe Bridgers, can she play too?” So I saw you play that night and I remember just being amazed by the sound of your voice.
PB: But the seedlings of the idea for this project started here in London, weirdly, when we were on tour, in the beginning of 2017.
CO: Yeah – it’s like exactly two years pretty much, from that trip, to being back with this whole different band.
PB: After one of the shows you said we should start a band. And then I jokingly said that you never actually follow through to start a band with anyone you ever mention you’re going to start a band with.
CO: It’s a long list. I feel like you hang out with someone for like, a night, and you’re so stoked. It’s actually a great idea for a compilation – actually starting all of your fake bands.
PB: Then we ended up writing one song together and it sounded totally different from either of our styles. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what the vibe was.
“The project’s gonna be mellow – we’ll have a rider of like, coconuts, pineapples, birthday cake everyday” – Conor Oberst
CO: This was a great thing for me to do. I fell into this world where writing had become such a solitary thing for me. Spending more time in LA and being around you and your group of friends, it’s very normal for you to get together and work on writing songs, because you’re all songwriters. There’s a bit more co-writing culture in LA.
PB: My heart shrivelled then. When I think of a “co-write” I think of something so different [adopts a Music Industry Guy voice] – “I’ll give ya… 15 percent of this if you come up with a couple lines.” Oh my god.
CO: It was just nice to be around people writing songs when you’re a songwriter. Usually I’d email a track or a demo idea. With this we actually just sat with guitars and figured it out. There were some songs we were literally making up in the moment.
PB: I feel like you gravitate towards melody. I’ll be humming along, not thinking, and you’ll say, “Oh, 15 seconds ago! You did a thing! Wait, not that thing – the thing before!” And I’m like “What? This thing?”
CO: I feel like you’re more of a perfectionist than me, which is great because I tend to blow through stuff then move on. Sometimes I’m quantity over quality. We also talked about the idea of not falling into Duet Land. We didn’t want it to be a cutesy duet album. We knew more what we didn’t want it to sound like than what we did want it to sound like.
PB: I actually don’t think that would have been possible for us in retrospect, too. I don’t think we’re capable of “cutesy duet”.
CO: It would have been a nightmare.
PB: Every time there’s an acoustic guitar on the record, we’d plugged it into some fucked up amp. That was us trying our hardest to conceal our acoustic roots. “It’s not a phase, mom. Get out of my room!”
CO: We trade verses on some songs, but like 80 percent of it we’re singing at the same time, which reminds me of rock bands I liked in the 90s. We talked about Teenage Fanclub – that sort of woozy, sloppy indie rock kind of stuff that is weirdly somehow classic now.
PB: We wanted this project to be rockier than normal, and the lyrical content is strangely different than we would do separately. One of the reasons I wanted to surprise release it was because I felt like I had my own presumptions about what our music was going to sound like.
CO: It’s more fun than you might think, right?
PB: I’m not stressed about any of the things that I’m normally stressed about, because I think you can deflect some of that with hanging out with your friends. You’re the bigger diva though.
CO: No you are!
PB: No, you are. My worst tour habit is sitting backstage on my phone.
CO: Since it’s a new thing, expectations are kind of non-existent. It’s always nice to have a partner in crime – if people really hate it, I can say “Oh well, Phoebe did that part.” Basically, all the heat’s not just on me. It’s gonna be mellow – we’ll have a rider of like, coconuts, pineapples, birthday cake everyday. We’re like Itchy and Scratchy.
PB: That should totally be our dynamic.
Better Oblivion Community Center is out now via Dead Oceans