“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.
“The Internet destroyed local scenes.”
For a brief moment “The Big Picture” was missing from the tapes. “We ran out of room when we were first mixing the album. I put it on the end of a Cursive EP and then forgot,” he says. Scrambling to find the song while revisiting Lifted his memory was jarred by an image he’d seen in the reissue of Cursive’s The Ugly Organ. “They included this picture that had the back of the tape box with comments by me on it. A typical producer or engineer would write notes about the tune, its length, the use of noise reduction, what level it was recorded at. I just wrote funny, snarky comments about Cursive songs. At the bottom was a comment about a Bright Eyes song. I thought, ‘I bet it’s there!'”
He phoned his wife to see if it was somewhere in his personal archives. When she couldn’t locate it, he called Saddle Creek, where an employee located it and sent it on. “Had it not been for Cursive including that on the reissue artwork I don’t think we would have gotten the remaster done properly for Lifted.”
Another early Bright Eyes record presented similar challenges. “For some of the Fevers and Mirrors boxes, I didn’t even write anything on them,” says Mogis. “Bob made me sit with a tape machine in a different room, headphones on, write down what was on them, which mix to use. I didn’t make notes back then. That record was done in my basement. I didn’t think that 17 years later somebody was going to want that tape.”
The late ’90s, he offers, was a time when none of the bands on Saddle Creek or working out of Omaha were too concerned about the future. It was mainly a group of friends creating music and entertaining themselves.
“I was still 50 percent owner of Saddle Creek at the time and was really working for free,” he recalls. “I became the default producer/engineer for everything we were doing. I did Fevers and Mirrors. I did Cursive’s Domestica and The Faint’s Blank-Wave Arcade came out around the same time, though my brother mostly did that.” Each of those, he says, had a slightly different character but formed an output that brought attention to Omaha.
“One is an emo-ish rock record, which is Domestica, one, Blank-Wave Arcade was on the cutting edge of dance rock music. I remember when I turned that in to Robb he literally said to me, ‘Is this a joke?’ The Faint’s previous record, Media, was reminiscent of Elvis Costello and the Pixies,” says Mogis. “Three very different records from the same label and the same city and they all appealed to the same crowd.”
He continues, “I don’t know how that works. But it did. We’d go to Lawrence, Kansas and play a gig and have the same kids at our shows. That’s how we made a name for ourselves. It was mostly through those young college kids.”
Each of those acts built upon that buzz and released albums that cemented their reputations. The Faint issued Danse Macabre, Cursive released The Ugly Organ, and Bright Eyes, of course, had Lifted. “We all wound up at the next level but we all kept our friendships. That’s what it felt like all along, friends just making music,” he says. “That’s why I was recording Bright Eyes on a Cursive tape: ‘It’s their tape. It’s our tape. They’re always going to be together so it doesn’t really matter.’ It still felt very local and very personal.”
For some music journalists, Omaha was the last major scene to transform from a regional point of interest to a national and then international one. Though Mogis doesn’t make the same declaration he does say that he felt a shift happen around 2004 as the Internet took on greater importance in the way that music was consumed and disseminated.
“I think the Internet destroyed local scenes. People listen to music online and their communities are online,” he says. “Maybe instead of Omaha or Athens or Seattle or Portland, Oregon, it’s Pitchfork or something. But I don’t know. I don’t really get on websites to seek out music.”
Still, he remains a devoted listener of music and points out that even now he tends to hear songs through the ears of a fan more than a producer or musician. “There are times with Conor’s songs where I’ll get goosebumps. It makes me feel something and I know that that’s a keeper song,” he says. “Very often it’s about how he’s phrased things to present a story. There are ways that really move me. But I will listen and think, ‘Oh! This should get real big right here,’ or ‘When the chorus comes it should get real intimate’ but primarily I’m just listening to the lyrics and trying to find the story. Once I find that I try and help guide the song in a way that puts it into the place it needs to be, where the story is. That may sound a little dramatic but that is, honestly, what I do.”
He continues, “There’s a lot of nuance in recording music and knowing how to exploit those nuances to create an effect is what I consider production.”
Listening to the core Bright Eyes releases one is struck by 2007’s Cassadaga. Inspired by the Florida town that boasts a high number of mediums, the album may have been the most whirlwind experience of everything the group (including core member Nate Walcott) recorded. “We didn’t have a home base like we did with the other records,” he recalls. Previous outings had been done in his basement or at Presto! in downtown Lincoln. The latter was about to slip into history when the building that housed it was slated for demolition but Mogis was momentarily confident that a new site in Omaha would be ready in time for the group to track there. It wasn’t.
The group mostly tracked the songs wherever time allowed. “It made things fresh for me,” says Mogis. “Even though you can’t necessarily hear it in the recordings there was an urgency. We were paying for time in somebody else’s place. That helped step up the game as far as performances go. It felt a little more purposeful.”
Some sessions took place in Portland, Oregon, others in New York City. Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss contributed drums on a few tunes; M. Ward lent his guitar and voice while other old friends, including Andy LeMaster dropped in too. They worked with John McEntire in Chicago for pieces that required ensemble percussion. “There were two highlights for the record: we recorded a symphony at Capitol Studios and it sounded like somebody else’s record all of a sudden. It was that impressive,” he says. “We booked two days and the session players finished it all in one day. I went in on the second and ran things through these chambers they have under the parking lot there. I ran everything I could through that so I’d have the effect to use when I mixed.”
The second came while working with McEntire. “I love layered percussion,” Mogis says. “There’s just a lot of energy that it brings. Rhythm has a lot of emotion behind it.”
It was a critical time for the Bright Eyes as well. The 2005 release I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning had placed Oberst in a rarefied category of songwriters and gave the band its only gold record. Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was released at the same time but did not fare as well. “A lot of people did not like that record,” Mogis recalls. “I think that’s unfair. You could take any of those songs and play them in the same acoustic fashion as on I’m Wide Awake. But people didn’t like that side of us. We’re fans of electronic music and really liked things like The Postal Service. We did it to appease ourselves.”
Cassadaga, Mogis says, may have been the first time that Oberst felt real pressure. “It’s not a left field record, though,” he adds. “It still has kind of an Americana feel to it but it’s embellished with some trippy parts and weird strings.”
The final recording in the current box and, at least for this time, is The People’s Key and that recording holds some deep strangeness to it. “It’s more of a sci-fi record,” Mogis offers. “Conor demoed some stuff on a hand-held tape recorder and when I heard those there was only one where I got goosebumps. The stories were more abstract and obscure and scientific and cerebral. They dealt with other dimensions and conspiracy theories and religion. Because of that, some of the songs took on abstract production elements. That one’s a headscratcher, even for me sometimes. But it’s still fun.”
Mogis chats briefly about the projects he’s wrapping up, says that he’s going into a mastering session the following day. As we click off the line, one has to hope that he’s writing all the important stuff down this time, just in case he needs it in the future.