Thursday, 18 October 2007

Travels in Omaha

Written after a few days in Nebraska, recording with Lightspeed Champion. Published in Stool Pigeon March 07.

The story is about Myspace. When you’re with Lightspeed Champion, it’s always about Myspace.

“I’m alternating between accounts right now,” he explains, not looking up to watch his debut album being edited. In the last hour he has re-configured his top 20 twice – first by aesthetic, then in order of righteousness, and by this system I have finally achieved more than the Strokes. At last look Fatty Casablancas and co are lagging behind me by two places, and I am sitting pretty on row one between Semifinalists and some dude called Train Chronicles. I guess you can sell a million records and grace the cover of Rolling Stone, but until you wait 8 hours in Chicago airport just to sing shoop shoop on Dev’s album, you’re nothing but a fourth row nobody. People have to scroll down to see you.

Look outside the window and the world is pretty awesome. Buried under two feet of snow are the kind of cars they drive in indie films about people who can’t get dates and love comics. The kind you drive to the side of a known beauty spot and make out in, or drink your keg out of, or drive home to mom and dad after the prom, bummed out cause some girl killed everyone with her telekinetic powers. On one side of the courtyard lives Mike Mogis, Bright Eyes producer and founder of Saddle Creek records, and on the other side lives Connor Oberst, or ‘Connor’ to those who feel they’re on first name basis because they can see the outside of his house. Somewhere in between is the studio we’re recording in, and a four-bedroom house for travelling bands, known as the frat house.

“We had Mates of State living here for a while,” remembers Ian, Mike’s engineer and all round big brother type, “they just showed up, but I don’t remember why…”

Ian’s quite blasé about bands that make me squeal. I guess when Connor Oberst’s garden is where you keep your sled, and Tim Kasher from Cursive is the guy who got your car out of the snow this morning, you don’t really care what Mates of State are doing in your studio. They just showed up. Meh, it’s just Mates of State. Indeed, I’ve been here two days and I’m getting kind of blasé. Hanging around at the mall we see the Faint’s drummer four times, I’m pretty sure I played Xbox with the guy from Two Gallants, and, if I wanted to, I could get a coffee from Tilly and the Wall’s Jamie Pressnell, who supplements her tap-dancing as a barista at Caffeine Dreams. It seems that every corner of Omaha is peppered with a little piece of cult history, hidden among the Normals in their Hilfiger jeans and snow boots. I wonder if any of the kids who wake up to Neely Jenkins as a substitute teacher realise that she is one of the most loved musicians in Omaha? It’s like Graham Coxon walking into maths class and scrawling his name across the board.

If you want to look at home-grown successes, Tilly and the Wall are a good place to start. Tapdancer Jamie, and singer Neely were in Connor’s high school band Park Ave, whose sweet, lo-fi sensibilities could be considered a prototype for the Saddle Creek sound. Kianna Alarid, singer and chanter, was also in a high school band, with members of the Faint, and later sang for Rilo Kiley. As for the two boys, Derek and Nick, they made their way to Omaha in the fall of 2001, lured by a friend who was playing in…Bright Eyes.

“We were really lucky to have friends who supported us from the beginning,” says Kianna, “Put it this way - our first tour was with Bright Eyes, our second tour was with Bright Eyes, and our third tour was with Rilo Kiley. We were just given the opportunity to reach people of a similar audience, and they responded.”

“We did try to send CD’s out before Connor came along,” adds Neely, “but people would just poop on it and send it back.”

It just goes to show what a little nurturing can do. Born out of a tight community, and the belief of a few friends, Tilly have gone on to make a bigger impact in this country than most of their senior counterparts. Four years after Connor created Team Love just to sign them, their presence over here has refocused the spotlight on Omaha, and Jamie is the first Nebraskan to appear on the all knowing, definitive, life changing, er, NME cool list. More importantly, when the culture board decided to honour local music with the Omaha Music Awards, Tilly and the Wall were the only band on TV that didn’t make Steps look classy.

“I guess you could call us Jesus freaks,” declare a member of Christian metal band Stigmata, “cause we love Jesus, and we’re freaks!” Covered entirely in white paint and bald as the day he was born, the man doesn’t make a great spokesman for the rest of Omaha. Actually neither does the presenter, who asks Jamie why she tapdances and thanks her before she answers. The last shot of the evening is Derek dissolving into giggles on the edge of the screen.

“It was like high school,” he laughs, before adding, “it was cool that they tried…”

Sitting around the frat house table, watching Tilly on the television, and drinking beer with Derek, Kianna, and their friends, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything outside of this perfect microcosm. Even on our epic evening out, where we take in an arcade, a bowling alley untouched from the fifties and a bowling alley untouched from the beginning of UV, everything seems like incidental scenery in an unwritten biography – ¬the story of what happens next. And does happen? The new wave of bands, who i meet while bowling, and who mainly bowl like little girls, seem ready to break into the spotlight pretty soon. There’s the Family Radio, fronted by the singer from Son, Ambulance, Flowers Forever, Derek’s solo project and Coyote Bones, whose singer David followed the Tilly boys from Atlanta. In the same way that the early Omaha bands shared a vision of sound, this new gang are united by a bright, raucous pop aesthetic, the natural evolution from the bands they follow, whose legacy they arrived to make use of.

“Saddle Creek created a foundation for us to get heard.” Says David, “People trust the scene over here, so we get a head start.”

Included in the legacy is the notion of self-sufficiency. Everybody in David’s circle are able to record and release their material off their own back, be it in his basement, on downtime in Mike’s studio, through Saddle Creek or any of the myriad labels following in its wake. There’s even an on-hand video director, Nik, whose weird, colourful films will one day form a visual reference for the scene. The week after I leave, he makes a Coyote Bones video in the famous basement. The footage of boys and girls in sombreros and giant sunglasses looks pretty low budget, and the scrappiness enhanced by Dev falling over, and David dropping his bunny ears mid-chorus, but it looks exactly how it should. It’s just a group of friends in the midst of the best party ever, and should they wake up in an alternate universe where they’re bankers and car dealers, it will exist as a record of when they lived in the best party ever. The three of us from England also have a record of when we crashed that party – a cover of Phantom Planet’s California, sung at midnight around a wind up melodica, the lyrics changed to ‘Oh Nebraska, here we come…’.

While we’re drinking around the TV, I hear the name Simon Joyner mentioned. A month later, at Tilly’s sold-out Scala show, Derek brings him up again.

“He was really big in Omaha,” he tells me, “Connor just loved him and he looked to him for inspiration, he was the best singer songwriter…”

Later that afternoon I email a friend who’s cooler than me.

Simon Joyner? I ask him.

Five minutes later the reply comes.

A necessity. It reads, and so I hit the Myspace angle again. It seems that even obscure folk artists who exist wilfully below the radar are capable of being online, and I find myself, on a spring day in Camden, reintroduced to the vast bleakness of Omaha on a pair of computer speakers.

If there was ever a soundtrack to the Omaha that I saw, this music would be it. Some of his songs are for walking through snowdrifts to the mall, surrounded by neon signs and miles and miles of road. Some songs are for when the snow subsides, and you are navigating backyards to look through someone’s window, and some songs are for the large stretches of park that I glimpsed through the glass of a 4x4. Songs that started their life on a scrap of floor at Kilgore’s, the legendary Omaha café where Joyner, Connor, and most of the early songwriters started out.

“It was sort of a songwriting competition every Thursday night,” says Joyner of the early days, “each of us trying to outdo each other. It was a pretty popular thing and I cut my teeth on that regular gig. Kilgore’s kind of became a kind of revolving door for Omaha songwriters wood-shedding and developing.”

Having met Connor at one of these events, Joyner and his friends helped to put out his first tape, a split with Bill Hoover called Kill the Monster Before it Eats Baby. However, it wasn’t just in enterprise that Joyner’s influence can be seen. If you listen to his recordings and compare them with early Bright Eyes, it’s easy to see how 14 year old Connor was affected by their association. They’re lo-fi, wordy, lightly tinged with a countrified melancholy, and narrated primarily through the eyes of one secually charged, geeky adolescent ‘I’.

“I was drunk I didn't let on/As I stood before your door at dawn/Guess I might have awakened the dogs/Cause the shadows started coughing them out/ So I put my hands into my hair/And I pulled and let it hurt/There's a light going out somewhere/
Thought I could hear it through the woods,” he sings on One for the Catholic Girls, and you can just imagine Connor listening to this through an old cassette deck and thinking, “this is how music is supposed to sound.”

If Joyner acknowledges his part in the birth of the Omaha sound, he doesn’t mention. He does however, shed some light on how he separated from the others, purposefully sticking to the shadows while they rocketed onto the world stage.

“All those guys were friends who went to the same school and lived in the same neighbourhood,” he says, “it was a tight clique, so it made sense for them to start a label devoted to championing their music. I was more of a downtown person and a product of a broken home and the public school system and all those guys are recovering Jesuits, frustrated Catholic kids from another part of town with a slightly different upbringing. Our scenes were certainly different but I loved them and their energy and I loved that they all stuck together and supported each other. It's been that way ever since. Amazing devotion. And once they started performing and recording, we've supported one another, performing and recording together. It's very midwestern, this Omaha sound, and by that I mean there is small town loyalty and support and everyone is very polite. We're all ambitious in our own ways but not at the expense of one another. It really is a lot like a family dynamic when I think about it.”

One last member of this family to include is David Dondero, who I meet a while back in Edinburgh. By some coincidence he is playing down the road from Tilly while we’re on tour, and we arrive in some stinking old man’s pub just in time to see him quietly pack his guitar away mid-song and walk out. I don’t see him in Omaha, I’m not sure that he lives there, but in my head he belongs with the others, in a mythological small town littered with fast food outlets and gas stations, where the only way out is to sing.


It’s two months later and the Lightspeed Champion record is mixed, mastered and packed neatly into little plastic sleeves. We go to watch Bright Eyes play Koko, standing with our arms crossed in what I hope is a ‘we know them’ pose. At one point Mike turns on the distortion pedal.

“That is so Mike.” I say.

“Totally.” Sighs Dev.

When I get home I tell my flatmate, “I think we should start a scene. Be a bit more like a family.”

“ok.” He agrees, climbing down the stairs. We sit in silence for ten minutes.

“I wish you were bright eyes.” I tell him.

“I wish you were dead.” He replies, and walks out.

Later, in bed, I resolve to take him out of my top friends, and plot my route back to Omaha. Until Graham Coxon walks in my house and asks to borrow a snow-blower, this town is dead to me.

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