Conor Obersts’ Punk Band Desaparecidos Are Back, Tackling Immigration Issues in ‘Merica
Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes is back with new material, and if you have not heard, it’s with his punk band (that’s right, Oberst, who is often dubbed as emo, can rock hard) Desaparecidos– with Landon Hedges on bass guitar and vocals, Matt Baum on drums, Ian McElroy on keyboard and Denver Dalley on guitar. And what have they got to be angry about this time around? Similar themes of dissatisfaction with the current state of American political and social culture reoccur in this second release, but this time around their venom is specifically aimed at immigration issues in the country (in their new single “MariKKKopa”) and the frustrating climate for musicians amid corporate record labels and technologies such as auto-tune.
I spoke to their guitarist Denver Dalley on the phone in anticipation of their upcoming San Francisco concerts, at the Bottom of the Hill (Tues/28th) and the Regency Ballroom the following night (Wed/29th).
In their newest single, Oberst is heard belting: “They’re sweating in Sun City cause they just got off the course/ Saying ‘Sheriff Joe it’s awful and it’s only getting worse’/ ‘Oh did you hear about Rob Krentz? They left him bleeding in the dirt/ These Spics are brave and getting braver’/ ‘We got to round ‘em up!/ Door to door the posse is ready’/ Knock Knock Knock/ ‘Drag them from their beds/ Cause it’s their turn for someone to get hurt!…They’ve got some nerve, to say they were here first.’”
If you have been keeping up with the threats to immigrants in Arizona, some of these references may not go over your head. Oberst has been at the forefront of the campaign of musicians raising awareness about the increasingly racist predicament for immigrants in the United States, particularly Mexican immigrants, and those of Hispanic background in Arizona. The man in question is Sheriff Joe Arapio of Maricopa County, AZ.
“First and foremost we want to assert that we are not against the county itself or the community,” explained Dalley. “We have a lot of friends there. The sheriff is the man quoted in audio sample at end of song [where he is heard agreeing that the comparison of his practice (of the law in Arizona) to the KKK just means the ‘right people are doing something’]. He has very unreal logic in the way that he deals with people– above and beyond whether they are immigrants, illegal or legal. It’s just unreal. To sample how unreal it is, our song is written from the perspective of one of his followers. There are also a lot of great upstanding people in Maricopa, [the immigration situation] is not all it is and all it has to offer.”
“We will have political materials at our merchandise booth at shows; it will be different for different shows. The one I really want to plug is at our LA show we will be promoting Corozan De Vida, an organization based out of Irvine with twelve different orphanage homes in Tijuana, helping up to 800 children in total. This one is very dear to heart. Some of proceeds of the show will go to this organization. People just need to know how to get involved a lot of the time, we love to be able to connect the dots for them.”
Growing up in the ‘burbs: Greater Omaha
The Nebraska music scene exploded in the mid-nineties with the record label founded by Oberst and his friends such as Tim Kasher (Cursive, the Good Life) called Saddle Creek Records. Desaparecidos formed in a time of great musical expansion in Omaha, and their debut album Read Music/Speak Spanish (2002) explored topics such as small town expansion and greed (in “Greater Omaha”) and the confines of musical fame. “They say it’s murder on your folk career/ To write a rock record with the disappeared/Well let the police helicopters/ Pull stereos out of the lake./There’s not an image that I must defend/ There are not art forms now just capitalism,” Oberst snarls in “Mall of America”. His reference to “the disappeared” is a nod to the origin of the band name, which is based on the name of leftist victims of South American military governments, who were arrested and then essentially vanished. Specifically in the late 70’s and early 80’s in Argentina, it is estimated that 30,000 people “disappeared”, including many civilians who were not outwardly political. The military junta government was found to be systematically kidnapping, detaining, torturing and murdering civilians, with the aim of quelling the progressive and leftist goals of many young people. Since the bodies of the victims were disposed of in secret, the government was able to deny their “Dirty War”.
The concepts of disposable bodies, the brutality, lies and secrecy of governments; and the paradox between the vulnerability of humans and the strength that civilization is able to display in times of struggle, are all central themes for this punk band. So how do a group of middle class Caucasian kids in the suburbs of the Midwest become so fascinated with this horrifying period in history; which is much less emphasized in the American school system than other human rights crisis such as the Holocaust?
“Growing up in Omaha and the Midwest, it was interesting to see this region and neighborhood evolve well, we are very fortunate we all lived in nice and safe neighborhoods. It has totally shaped my perspective. It opens your eyes to situations outside the bubble we grew up in. A big reason for naming the band Desaparecidos is because we grew up in such a safe midwestern bubble. For a long time we had no idea that situation (the Dirty War) had happened, and we find it crazy that we had never heard about it.”
So yes, Oberst and his bandmates were getting angry and soulful about the suburban bubble long before Arcade Fire’s album The Suburbs (2010) hit it big. “The things we saw growing up, we found we could relate to with bands we meet in places like Britain. The themes are universal truths that people can relate to,” Dalley stated. Their music expresses the classic North American angst of suburban discontent– the claustrophobic feeling that malls induce, the anger at shallow financial and material obsession, and that feeling of guilt that comes with feeling bored and dissatisfied with such a relatively privileged situation, when people have suffered and are suffering living under dire governments around the world.
“Our first and only performing album was released right after 9/11,” Dalley explained. “When everyone tried to say ‘God bless America’ and ‘Support Our Troops’; it was an interesting time to release a record that was calling out the American dream and what it has become. You can still be supportive of the troops and our country, and be critical of certain aspects of the government, it’s not like we are bad people or we are not paying respect to the victims of 9/11.”
While many extremely political bands receive negative backlash (from listeners who either disagree with their lyrics and message, or misunderstand their message), Dalley stated that has not been a huge problem for the band, despite a couple people here and there who have been, as he put it; “Frustrated with the situation themselves and didn’t fully understand where we were coming from. But then that always opens up conversation that can otherwise become kind of stale when people in other parts of the country forget what’s going on with the U.S. foreign affairs, things can get put to the back burner when major news publications are not covering these perspectives.”
“Overall the feedback has been really great: a couple people were confused and thought we were trying to lump all of them in one category. But all you can hope for is to help the process of education. It is our goal and dream to have our songs affect even one listener to think in a new way. Like if a kid in New Jersey goes online and researches what is going on in Arizona as a result of listening to our song, that is amazing.”
Although the band members have “Slightly different taste in music,” they also like a lot of the same artists, such as Queens of the Stone Age and that sound, including The Clash and Joy Division. “We are extremely excited to be playing with the Velvet Teen on this tour, we think the world of them. We also love newer bands such as Phoenix and Beach House.”
There is some hatin’ on Auto-Tuned music in the second Desaparecidos single “Backsell”: (Or I’m just arrogant I guess they both are fake/ Like when you listen back on headphones/ With a trickle in you throat/ You know its hard to sing and I’ve been struggling/ But with some Auto-Tune I can hit the note,”) Dalley had this to say about electronic artists that many do not even consider “real” musicians. “Anytime you can use something to expand and benefit your art, you should. It is a little different, but still. To each their own,” he laughed. So how is that for an anarchist punk persona? These Nebraska boys are truly Midwestern gentleman, and although they have causes to push, they are releasing a second album almost a decade later — showing they did not succumb to the chaotic musician lifestyle that can envelop so many young successful rock stars.
Oberst is an indie-heartthrob and has received critical acclaim since his early 20’s. Although he is known to have dipped into the dark side of fame with drug and alcohol addictions, his fans have stuck by him and there is a general sense of great relief among fans of Oberst’s many projects that he has not only survived his 20s, but he is now healthier and continuing to produce such fantastic music.
Dalley, Hedges, Baum and McElroy all took time to focus on other projects while Oberst’s career took off over the last seven years. “We talked about writing more songs a long time ago, before we went our separate ways. Labels and the music world have both changed a lot since we wrote the song ‘Backsell’, but some of the things our song touches on are still happening. Some parts are nostalgic, while some are currently relevant. It speaks to a specific point in the band’s life.”
“We all just wanted to play those old songs again– above and beyond anything else– we all really like each other and like playing music, being together in a room as a band. When we get together, we are still in that exact same level or mentality as years ago. It is frustrating that we wanted it to happen sooner– but now the timing is right, so it’s ok– it was good that we all focused on other things, our other projects–it is a really good thing that happened. Everything happens for a reason, it was the right thing to do.”
“We always said we would do it as long as its fun, once you start having expectations or you owe certain things, you are losing track of whole point: we are very much focused on that.”
So does this EP mean that a full length album is on the way? “We are as curious as everyone else– we are all open to it– but we have no plans. Just like everyone else, we are all curious!
We are not going to release anything unless we are one-hundred percent. It is very possible– if the songs come, but we have nothing scheduled”.
Top photo credit: Zach Hollowell
Middle photo credit: Shauna C. Keddy