When Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers debuted their joint project Better Oblivion Community Center with a surprise drop and a late night TV performance of lead single ‘Dylan Thomas’, the collective swoon of thousands of sad indie fans could be heard around the globe. Their self-titled album mines the miraculous in the everyday, bringing together the best of both of their not inconsiderable talents. We spoke to Phoebe and Conor ahead of their European tour about their formation, GarageBand fails, and not sounding like The Replacements.
You’ve been playing together in various forms since 2016. When did you decide to start your own project together?
Conor Oberst: The first song we wrote, which is the first song on the record, we kind of wrote as an experiment, not sure if it was going to be on my record or Phoebe’s record or for some other third party person. But we had a good time, and we really liked it, and then we wrote another song. I think it was after a couple that we realised it was its own thing and we wanted to make it into a different project and do it ourselves. When we started, we didn’t know it was going to be for a record.
Phoebe Bridgers: There’s something that happens when you run into people out, or you’re at a party, and you run into someone you knew from like a year ago, and it’s like, ‘Hey we should get together and catch up’, and it’s like: ‘We’re together. Talking.’ Why is there a need to get together? It’s just something you say, and I think with music a lot of the time it’s ‘We should jam’ or ‘Show me what you’re working on!’ and it just doesn’t happen. Conor is a very lovely, friendly person and I had literally seen him say to other people, ‘We should get together and work on stuff’, so it was kind of a surprise to me halfway through the project like, oh wait, this is a real band. Cause it started as fun, and the promise of a band was like six months before we actually started writing anything.
What was the writing process like?
Conor: I’ve done projects with other songwriters where everyone brings in kind of a finished song, and you maybe tweak it a little bit. Which is cool too, but for me, this is the first time I did a record with another songwriter where every song, top to bottom, was written together. We did it old school with notebooks and guitars; we weren’t exchanging stuff via email or anything like that. I feel like that’s why it felt so much more like a band.
How did you find yourselves becoming influenced by the other in your writing?
Phoebe: I don’t really realise it until I’m writing by myself after writing with Conor. He has a better work ethic. One thing is Conor will write on one side of a notebook with lines, and then the other side is the alternate lyrics or better lyrics, or stuff he’s throwing around. I’d never done that before, and now I feel like it’s something I’m really leaning on.
Conor: For me, Phoebe’s a bit more of a perfectionist than I am. A lot of times I’ll finish something and be like, ‘Alright that’s good enough, on to the next thing’ and she was like, ‘Let’s go back’. That song that I thought was done she’s like, ‘There’s a couple of clunky lines in the second verse, we could make this line better, we could come up with a better hook or change the melody a little bit’. She’s taking multiple passes at songs I would’ve called good on before we were done. I think all of those made for stronger songs in the end and that’s definitely something I wanted to apply to my songs on my own.
You’ve purposefully avoided trading-off vocals on the album, and sing in unison most of the time. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to sound like when you began, or did you develop it as you went along?
Phoebe: We wanted to get away from what we’ve done before, and on my solo record Conor and I sing a duet, and we do duets on tour, so we were like, ‘What if we both front a band?’ Where there isn’t so much trading off, there are two people, and you think of them both as the lead singer.
Conor: I love bands like that, with two people singing together all the time and when you think of the band you almost think of one voice, it just takes two people to make that one voice. I’ve always thought that was cool just in general with other bands. That’s something we talked about, avoiding the trope of cutesy duet stuff and trying to get away from folky sounds in general, and have it be a little more rock band feel.
Your first single ‘Dylan Thomas’ made its TV debut hours after the album’s surprise drop. Where did that track come from?
Phoebe: It was like the night before we were gonna record, and y’know an album is anywhere from 8 to 15 songs, so we definitely had an album, but we thought it would be cool to go through and see if we had any more songs. There was a Dylan Thomas book sitting on the counter – and this is how a lot of the songs were written, it would start from a long-winded conversation and then turn into writing. We wrote it that way which I think is a testament to working with someone and building a rapport. It was hard to write the first one because I was nervous or we didn’t know how to voice our opinions, and we would do small rewrites, and this one was the most fun.
Conor: The first song took us weeks to write, and the last song took us like a day. We got better as we went along.
There’s also a thread of anxiety running through the lyrics on that track, an throughout the album in general…
Conor: I think that’s just something that Phoebe and I both carry with ourselves on a daily basis.
Phoebe: I don’t think it’s out of the park to be like, ‘Oh, are Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers going to write a song about anxiety and existential crisis?’
Conor: We were still ourselves for this one, we weren’t putting on like, weird glam costumes –
Phoebe: Speak for yourself, dude.
Conor: It’s where our particular Venn diagram intersects.
You do take a bit of a left turn with ‘Exception to the Rule’, though. How did that one come about?
Phoebe: We are both… Sorry Conor, but we’re really bad engineers. And we were trying to demo a song on GarageBand, and it just sounded like fucking shit. It sounded like shit. We finished the song, and we before we tried we were like, ‘Okay it’s going to be a dirty guitar’, and we just ended up plugging it into a computer, no amplification, then being like, ‘What amps are on GarageBand?’ It just didn’t sound good, so we kind of forgot about it, this weird fucked-up demo that we did. Then our friend Christian Lee Hutson, who’s the other writer in the band, was like, ‘Didn’t you guys have one more song?’ and we were like, ‘No’. Then Conor was like, ‘Oh wait, maybe it’s in this weird folder on my computer, maybe that actually does exist?’ We found it and were like, ‘Okay this sucks, we should just give full creative control to Andy [LeMaster, engineer and co-producer]’, and he made this epic, synth-y track.
Conor: We were like, ‘It needs to be different, it needs to have its own identity’ because it was like a shitty version of other stuff we were doing better on other songs. Andy came up with the whole keyboard thing, and it’s a nice moment in the record. It’s a little palette cleanser to the rest of the album, and there’s a little joke there with the title and how it fits into the record.
Are there any other tracks on the record that stick out for you like that?
Conor: ‘Chesapeake’ is another one that stands a little bit apart because it’s so stripped down, and that’s one of the few times on the record that I’m singing harmony, which is really not my strong suit at all. Phoebe wrote the harmony and taught it to me, and it took forever for me to get it right. That song to me is another little moment in the record that feels like a breather from the other songs. A lot of friends say that’s their favourite one, cause it’s a little bit unique in the scope of the record.
How have the shows been?
Phoebe: The live thing, for me, is a highlight which is pretty rare. I love recording. My live show is usually like a reminder of the record, but for this, the live show has been my favourite part. It’s been a blast.
Conor: I think in a weird way the live show is more of an actualisation of what our concept for the band was. When we were starting the band we were like, ‘We wanna have a rock band!’ and ‘We wanna sound like The Replacements!’ Which obviously the record doesn’t at all, it ended up being more… whatever, experimental folk. When we play live you want to play stuff a little faster and a little louder, so it’s been really fun. It’s the same songs and the same arrangements, but they’re infused with a little more energy.
So what’s next for Better Oblivion Community Center?
Conor: Well… I’m about to sneak into this coffee shop and try to use their restroom. [Laughs] I don’t know, speaking for myself I’m definitely open to making more music with Phoebe whenever the stars align.
Taken from the June issue of Dork. Better Oblivion Community Center tour the UK from 10th May
Words: Liam Konemann