Bright Eyes principal Conor Oberst delivered a finished album to his label last February with an eye on a summer release, but then he had other ideas.
He went back into the studio and recorded enough songs for a second set. Unwilling to scrap or combine any of the material, Oberst told his label, Omaha, Neb.-based Saddle Creek Records, that he wanted to release two separate albums -- on the same day.
“We felt like, ’Why not kill two birds with one stone and put it all out there?”’ Oberst says.
On Jan. 25, Saddle Creek will release “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning,” an acoustic-driven record with country undertones, as well as “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn,” which explores a more electronic, beat-heavy sound.
“I’m Wide Awake,” the first to be completed, was recorded in about 10 days. Oberst and producer Mike Mogis spent three months in the studio for “Digital Ash,” creating what Oberst describes as a “drugged-out, psychedelic thing.”
Bright Eyes, which is essentially a revolving door of musicians centered on Oberst, is coming off its most successful album to date. Its 2002 release, “Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground,” was its first to reach The Billboard 200, spending one week at No. 161. The set has sold 184,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
The act built its following largely through word-of-mouth and touring. That is one reason Oberst never considered combining the two albums.
“We’re in the very fortunate position of not having to care about the commercial risk of putting out two records,” he says. “Our success is not based on radio or MTV.”
His request that they be treated as separate entities, despite sharing a release date was met with skepticism by Saddle Creek owner Robb Nansel.
“Robb is a very careful man,” Oberst says. “He’s a hard person to read. I love him, but I have to check his pulse a lot to make sure he’s still with me. At first, he asked whether I really wanted to do this and objected a little, but once he realized our mind wouldn’t change, he got behind it wholeheartedly.”
Indeed, Nansel resisted the urging of chain retailers to find a way to tie the albums together. The label created a separate budget for each record and in October released two singles, one from each album.
“Lua” and “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” together have moved more than 27,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. There was such a demand for the two releases that they each sold 7,000 copies in one week, placing “Lua” at No. 1 and “Take It Easy” at No. 2 on Billboard’s singles sales chart in November.
“The people who have bought them have been the die-hard fans, and they’re not favoring one over the other,” Nansel says.
Oberst was in Sweden when he heard about his singles topping the chart.
“I kept saying, ’I think you’ve made a mistake’ ... I think it’s a testament to the idea that there are still music fans, and it’s not all about how big your promotional budget is. It’s a triumph anytime an indie label can outsell people with a lot of money behind them.”
Doubling up works fineJust as fans accepted dual singles, Nansel isn’t expecting them to have a problem with buying two albums.
Neither are indie retailers. “I wish there were even more Bright Eyes releases,” says Doyle Davis, who runs Grimey’s in Nashville. “It’s money in the bank. Every single week I’m reordering something by Bright Eyes.”
Initially, Nansel says, the label will focus its efforts on “I’m Wide Awake,” since it is more representative of Oberst’s past work. Largely singer/songwriter-oriented, “I’m Wide Awake” features contributions from Emmylou Harris and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).
Come spring, Saddle Creek will switch its focus to “Digital Ash.” Each album will receive a video and its own tour. A more intimate January outing will visit theaters, and a spring trek will feature a collaboration with labelmate the Faint, which will back Bright Eyes on the more electronic-leaning songs.
Despite Oberst’s grassroots success and dedicated following, booking a Bright Eyes tour isn’t easy. Oberst refuses to play venues affiliated with Clear Channel Entertainment and has publicly denounced what he believes is the monolith’s lack of support for indie artists on its radio stations.
“We’re going to avoid the old CC,” Oberst says. “There are some cities we just can’t go to anymore. We’re going to make it work, even if we have to get kind of creative with venues.”
With little advertising by Saddle Creek, ticket sales have been brisk. In Los Angeles, for instance, Oberst will play at least two dates at the 2,000-seat Orpheum Theatre, with tickets priced at $25 for the Feb. 12 and 13 shows. The historic downtown venue is not often used for concerts.
“As soon as we put a link on the Saddle Creek Web site, we sold 1,000 tickets,” says his booking agent, Eric Dimenstein of Ground Control Touring. “We’ll sell 2,000 tickets in L.A. without even taking out an ad.”