Machine Spiritual

At the tail end of 2008, Conor Oberst started talking with the other two core members of Bright Eyes, guitarist/P-E-M Mike Mogis and keyboardist/arranger Nate Wolcott, about a direction for the band’s sixth album.

Left to right—Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis, with singer/songwriter M. Ward and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, take a break at Monsters of Folk.

Bright Eyes Mess With the Recipe on The People’s Key

by Bud Scoppa

At the tail end of 2008, Conor Oberst started talking with the other two core members of Bright Eyes, guitarist/P-E-M Mike Mogis and keyboardist/arranger Nate Wolcott, about a direction for the band’s sixth album. “All Conor said was what he didn’t want to do—he didn’t want to make another alt-country, neo-folk record, or whatever they’re calling them these days,” Mogis recalls, sitting at the 48-channel Neve 8048 in Control Room A of his righteously old-school ARC Studios (that’s short for Another Recording Company), situated behind his house in Omaha. “And he didn’t want to play acoustic guitar, so we gave him other things to play. We decided to make more of a rock record this time, but we also wanted to take a more experimental approach—to have some fun with it.”

The album, which would eventually take the title The People’s Key, would be the first Bright Eyes project to play out at ARC, which Mogis and his brother had painstakingly constructed after moving the facility from its original location in Lincoln. Owning the studio took the pressure off, enabling a more leisurely and thought-out process. “The project felt very homey,” says Mogis. “Conor lives in close proximity, and Nate lived in the guest house attached to the studio while we worked. It felt like we were woodshedding, but it was also the most collaborative we’ve ever been, so it was the best of both worlds, in that regard. It allowed us the time to step back, come up with diferent ideas, and reshape parts and tones to tie the songs together.”

The album was made in three tracking sessions, beginning in January 2009, when they cut three key songs in “Shell Game” (surely the catchiest Bright Eyes track ever), “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key),” and “Beginner’s Mind.” Says Mogis, “We spent a fair amount of time thinking about stuff before we recorded it. Because it’s our own studio, we had the luxury of rehearsing and doing pre-production while we were tracking. Typically, we’d record our practice and then record for real later that afternoon. Then, after we got the basic tracks done, Nate and I would spend a few hours refining our parts.”

Mogis had begun collecting vintage analog synths for the recording of Bright Eyes’ electronic lark Digital Ash in a Digital Urn back in’05, while Wolcott (not then a full member) was snapping up polyphonic synths. They eagerly combined their collections for the project. “Nate got an orchestral sound out of his polyphonic syhths,” says Mogis, “and that set the tone for the record. Nate and I collaborated on working my guitar parts into his synth parts. I adopted this Policemeets- Cars rhythm style, very tight, muted stuff that lent itself to the thicker keyboard sounds and pads so that the parts didn’t muddle each other up.”

Surprisingly, given the intricacy of the finished album, the bulk of The People’s Key was tracked like a conventional rock record. Mogis was on lead guitar and Wolcott was surrounded by a bank of synths and a Rhodes Suitcase, while Oberst sang guide vocals and led the band through the chord changes, usually on an electric baritone guitar. They were joined by a rhythm section—primarily bassist Matt Maginn of Cursive and drummer Clark Baechle of the Faint (both bands label-mates with Bright Eyes on Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records). The five players cut the basics live off the floor in the tracking room of A, though a lot of the guitar and keyboard parts would be further developed in overdubbing, recording to two-inch tape in order to get the maximum punch out of the rhythm section.

Left to right—Nate Walcott, Mike Mogis, and Conor Oberst.

One of the most striking aspects of the finished album is its huge, torqued-up bottom, as Mogis discovered, to his delight, just how much oomph he could get out of the natural acoustics of the tracking room. I use a U47 about eight feet off the kick,” he says, “and the room is so balanced that it sounds almost like a pre-mixed drum kit.” It didn’t take him long to figure out the rest of the mic setup: a Sennheiser 421 on the kick, an AKG C535EB handheld condenser mic on the snare, and a Josephson e22 on the tom, with a Neumann SM69 overhead and a Beyer M160 rhythm mic placed in the sound-lock room with the door cracked open for a “distant” sound, which he then tucked underneath in the mix. The resulting spatial scale and impact is downright Bonham-like.

During the overdubbing, Wolcott spent countless hours in the B room—which is outfitted with a ’70s-vintage, 24-channel API 2488—moving between an ARP 2600, Arp Odyssey, EML Electrocomp 101, Korg MS-20, and Roland Juno 106 and Jupiter 8, all of which Mogis DI’d and split into an amplifier. “Nate didn’t drastically change his original parts,” says the producer. “The main thing he dwelled on was getting tones, because a lot of these synths were new to him. He’d record the same part like five times with different synths.”

The most radical aspect of this unconventional album is the doubled, treated sound of Oberst’s vocals, most of which were printed through a Moog Voyager and run into a variety of guitar pedals, including a Roland RE 201 Space Echo, Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail E-H Polychorus and Moog MURF, with EMT plate reverb. “That was something he wanted to do,” Mogis points out, “and I was resistant at first, because if there’s one thing that’s sacred about Bright Eyes from a fan’s perspective, it’s Conor’s vocals. When we started, he told me how effect-heavy he wanted it to be, and I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ But as the songs developed, we dialed in some sounds that we liked and just went for it, although I sometimes dialed it back in the mix.”

Conor Oberst.

When the album was completely recorded, Oberst called Denny Brewer from Austin’s Refried Ice Cream, who made records for Conor’s Team Love label, to come up and just talk off the top of his head while Mogis recorded him, and snippets of the resulting monologue open and close the album, as well as popping up here and there through its course, for a suitably out-there finishing touch. “He said a bunch of things that actually tied into the record,” says Mogis. “We hit the jackpot with Denny.”

Now that he has some distance from the project, Mogis can reflect on both the record and his facility. “The studio goes beyond my expectations, which is a relief, because we spent all our money on it,” he says with a laugh. “I also feel like I learned a lot making this record. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been producing or playing guitar in a band; every time I do a session, I take something away from it—new knowledge or a new appreciation of something. I feel that way with any session, honestly, with any band.”