Inbreeding in Omaha: Saddle Creek in Review
Our story begins in 1993 when 13-year-old Conor Oberst’s demo tape became the first release of the now famous Saddle Creek (then called Lumberjack) Records. In 1994, Saddle Creek put out their third release, Slowdown Virginia’s “Dead Space,” which featured Tim Kasher as the lead.
The year 1995 saw the demise of Slowdown Virginia and the creation of Commander Venus, which combined Kasher and Oberst with help from other Omaha natives Todd Fink and Matt Bowen. Before their formation, Oberst had only played solo and initially had trouble playing with a band.
All Together Now
Commander Venus released “Do You Feel at Home?” in 1995 as Saddle Creek’s sixth release and then signed to Grass Records, for whom they recorded “The Uneventful Vacation” in July of 1997. Oberst considered “The Uneventful Vacation” to be, “somewhat of a failure musically,” but the album received college airplay and positive reviews, including one by “Scratch Magazine” that said, “If Commander Venus is any indication of what’s to come from the second generation of indie rock, then the future looks bright indeed.”
Commander Venus, however, started to fall apart as Bowen quit. Kasher followed to pursue possibilities with his other band, Cursive. Commander Venus carried on for another nine months touring the east coast as Oberst began to feel typecast by the band and called it quits.
“We got tagged as an emo band right off the bat. A lot of cool bands were playing that style of music, then a huge number of bands started tagging along, and suddenly everyone was getting thrown in the emo category. These days, I think of emo as a negative term,” said Oberst.
From Park Ave. to the Wall
Before Oberst’s split from Commander Venus, he began playing in an indie pop band with Omaha natives Clark Baechle, Neely Jenkins, Jamie Williams and Jenn Bernard. They began playing together in January of 1996 out of a desire to write pop music; however, none of their female members knew how to play her respective instruments.
The band lasted two-and-a-half years, playing only 10-15 shows and recording just a 7″ split with the Wrens (which became the 14th release of Saddle Creek Records) and a full-length during their existence. They broke up when Jamie moved to London to work in art, thus spawning the title of their 1999 album, “When Jamie Went to London. We Broke Up.” The album was recorded on a 4-track before Jamie left and was originally made just for the band to have for themselves.
When Jamie returned from London she reconnected with Jenkins. The two of them along with Kianna Alarid, Derek Pressnall and Nick White formed Tilly and the Wall in 2001 and gained notoriety for substituting Jamie’s tap shoes for traditional drums. They recorded their first release, “Woo!” in Oberst’s garage and distributed it at shows.
In 2004, they recorded “Wild Like Children” which became the flagship release on Oberst’s Team Love label. They followed this release with “Bottoms of Barrels” in 2006, which was also released on Team Love and played a show at the Gargoyle on March 29th, 2007.
From the Ashes Rises the Faint
In 1995, Clark Baechle (of Park Ave.), Todd Fink (of Commander Venus), Joel Petersen and Conor Oberst (who left shortly after joining) formed the band Norman Bailer. They signed to Saddle Creek Records and released a few singles that made them extremely popular in Omaha but did not achieve widespread sales at the national level.
Later they changed their name to The Faint and first established a small, national fan base in 1998 with the addition of Matt Bowen (also of Commander Venus) and the release of “Media.” After the album’s release, however, Bowen left the band and was replaced by Jacob Thiele who helped develop the dance- and techno-influenced sound of their next album and underground hit, “Blank-Wave Arcade.”
They achieved widespread popularity, commercial success and critical acclaim with their third full-length “Danse Macabre,” noted for the addition of Dapose, a death metal guitarist formerly of the band LEAD. Since then, they’ve released one other album, “Wet From Birth,” and are now rumored to be leaving Saddle Creek Records and working with notable producer Rick Rubin for their next album. They’ve also been touring again and recently performed at the Pageant.
Cursive Brings Kasher the Good Life
After the demise of Slowdown Virginia, Kasher formed the band Cursive with former bandmates Matt Maginn and Steve Pedersen and the addition of Clint Schnase on drums. He played with Cursive and Commander Venus concurrently between 1995 and 1997 until he left Commander Venus, and Cursive released “Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes.” In 1998, Cursive broke up after a couple of years touring.
They re-formed a year later, replacing Pedersen with Ted Stevens (formerly of Lullaby for the Working Class). They gained much attention from fans and critics alike when they released “Domestica,” a concept album detailing the hate and deceit inherent in a divorce, on Saddle Creek in 2000.
In the summer of 2001 they recorded “Burst and Bloom,” their first with the addition of Gretta Cohn on cello. They followed this in 2003 with “The Ugly Organ,” a concept album that details the story of the “Ugly Organist” and the lust, love and empty sex he experiences throughout his life. The album met rave reviews from Rolling Stone who gave it a 4-star rating and the Alternative Press who gave it a perfect five out of five.
Their fan base grew with the immense critical acclaim and their spot on the Cure’s 2004 Curiosa tour, brought to them by the success of “The Ugly Organ.” After the tour they went on hiatus and returned in the summer of 2006 with their fifth full-length, “Happy Hollow.”
“Happy Hollow” was markedly different from “The Ugly Organ” due to the departure of Gretta Cohn on cello and the addition of a five-piece horn section. Although also a concept album, its focus revolved around a small town and its inhabitants and dealt with subjects such as religion and hypocrisy.
While working with Cursive, Kasher formed The Good Life in 2000. Initially a solo project, it quickly grew to become an entirely separate band. They’ve released three full-length records, “Novena on a Nocturn” (2000), “Black Out” (2002) and “Album of the Year” (2004), all of which have focused on various aspects of relationships.
Oberst Shows His Bright Eyes
Bright Eyes started as Conor Oberst’s side project. When playing with Commander Venus he reportedly recorded 70 songs of acoustic solo material on his father’s four track. When Commander Venus split, Bright Eyes became Oberst’s main focus and in 1998 he released 20 of the original 70 songs as the first official Bright Eyes album, “A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997.”
Later in 1998, he released “Letting Off the Happiness” on Saddle Creek Records, which featured appearances by members of Lullaby of the Working Class, Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal and Park Ave. This release set the precedent for Oberst relying heavily on guest appearances in Bright Eyes records. He followed “Happiness” in 2000 with “Fevers and Mirrors,” which included a mock radio interview in the middle of “An Attempt to Tip the Scales.” The interview features Todd Fink (of Commander Venus and the Faint) doing an impression of Oberst while reading a script Oberst had written. When asked about it, Oberst told KittyMagik.com, “It was a way to make fun of ourselves because the record is such a downer. I mean, that’s one part of who I am but I also like laughing…”
“Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground” came in 2002 and Bright Eyes became one of the year’s most celebrated “new” artists. The album brought them national attention from the New York Times, Time Magazine, Rolling Stone and Spin and has sold over 250,000 copies. It was, at the time, Saddle Creek’s most commercially successful release.
During this same time period Oberst formed a side project, Desaparecidos, which, in contrast with Bright Eyes, had a raw, punk rock sound. Their lyrics were political in nature and songs focused on topics such as the state of American affairs and the lengths people will go to just to get money. The band broke up in 2003 after a tour with Jimmy Eat World and a feature on MTV’s “You Hear it First.” Rumors state that Oberst broke up the band because they were becoming too popular.
Oberst did, however, go on to continue with Bright Eyes and on January, 25, 2005 released two albums with distinctly different sounds: the folksy “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and the synthesizer-heavy “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” Both albums were received with commercial and critical success.
This brings us up to date, where we are met with the latest release by Conor Oberst, Saddle Creek’s original superstar. From the beginning, Oberst has always been their main attraction, with their first release being his first demo tape, their latest (103rd) release, “Cassadaga,” being his seventh release under the Bright Eyes moniker, and seemingly everything in between being in some way touched by him. As you listen to any of these artists’ albums, in particular the recent pinnacle, “Cassadaga,” be mindful of the long and musically incestuous history of the Omaha music scene and Saddle Creek Records.
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