From The Basement To The World Stage

Athens And Omaha Musicians Share A Common Bond In Building From The Ground Up

Chad Radford, Flagpole, Nov. 2005

When Bright Eyes plays the Georgia Theatre on Wednesday, Nov. 16, it’s not just another stop on Nebraskan singer-songwriter Conor Oberst’s victory lap across the country - it’s a homecoming of sorts, capping a decade’s worth of artistic interactions between Saddle Creek Records’ roster of both Omaha and Athens-based musicians. From the days of Oberst’s fledgling rock band Commander Venus in the mid-’90s to the recent solo releases from Azure Ray comrades and former Athenians Maria Taylor and Orenda Fink, musicians in these disparate towns have mutually flourished. Developing and sustaining this tightly knit artistic back-and-forth over time and distance has carried these players from recording and performing in their bedrooms and basements onto the world stage.

Churning out an amalgamation of wistful sounds, from the angular pop of Now It’s Overhead to the wintry whirr of Azure Ray to the folkish strumming of Bright Eyes, all follow their own path. Reliance on their own devices - from songwriting to production to self-releasing the material - has served as a recipe for success. But the blue-collar and conservative Midwestern leanings of Omaha are a far cry from Athens’ flourishing Southern arts community and collegiate environment. So what binds these artists together? Can it be boiled down to a concoction of Southern elegance and grace mixed with Midwestern integrity and work ethic?

“I like the idea of that, but I don’t know if it can really be summed up so simply,” Orenda Fink ponders from the road, on tour in support of her solo debut, Invisible Ones. “The different relationships between people [in these groups] are more complex than that.”

Now It’s Overhead frontman, Bright Eyes collaborator/ producer and Athens musician Andy LeMaster has been at the center of this evolving artist’s family since his band Drip played a show with Bright Eyes in Pensacola, FL, circa 1995. To LeMaster, the connection is rooted in a much more no-frills approach to their separate and distinctive sounds that has been present from their first meeting.

“We all have the same attitudes toward music and similar passions,” says LeMaster. “It wasn’t anything so limiting as a stylistic approach, but we all shared a certain philosophy.”

Some Background…

The relationship goes further back than that fateful night when Drip crossed paths with Bright Eyes in Florida’s panhandle. A hand-scrawled note sent through the mail to this writer from Athens’ Ghostmeat Records’ label owner Russ Hallauer, wrapped around a burned copy of one of the label’s earliest compilations, Apollo’s Salvage, makes no bones about it:


This is Apollo’s Salvage. Ted Stevens sent tapes of his band (Polecat) and others (Smashmouth, Fischer, Commander Venus and Slowdown Virginia) from Omaha. This was the start of the Athens /Omaha thing.


The tapes in question, sent from Stevens, who would later go on to play guitar in Cursive, as well as front his own group Mayday, also landed on Ghostmeat’s desk in '95.

“Sunbrain was the reason Ghostmeat Records was started,” Hallauer explains. “The label was initially created to release our 7-inches.” But Ghostmeat quickly expanded to release much more than Sunbrain singles. Its first full-length offering came in the form of Drip’s '95 debut, No More Talkin’, the same year Apollo’s Salvage was released. Over the decade that has ensued the “Athens/ Omaha thing” has grown exponentially.

The tapes sent by Stevens that wound up on the Ghostmeat compilation laid the foundation for what would become the internationally lauded Saddle Creek scene, but success didn’t come without some growing pains.

Skipping through the tracks on Apollo’s Salvage is a voyeuristic venture that feels a lot like playing a round of “Six Degrees of Saddle Creek” where all roads lead to Sunbrain. Formed in Clemson, SC, almost 15 years ago, and later based in both Athens and Atlanta, Sunbrain’s clinically tight power-punk dirges landed the group on the New York indie label Grass Records. Grass was home to the likes of Brainiac and the terse Omaha punk band Mousetrap. Sunbrain, for which Hallauer also played guitar, accompanied Mousetrap on a handful of tour dates across the country, which carried Sunbrain through Omaha.

It’s hard to believe that anything could grow from a song like “Chopped” by Drip, which incorporates a half-baked guitar rendition of the piano standard “Chopsticks.” Or that Commander Venus’ lament over fallen WWF stars Junkyard Dog, the Iron Sheik and Ms. Elizabeth, raked over the coals by Oberst’s squeaky, prepubescent yelps preceded what many critics now call the new Bob Dylan.

“My perspective on Bright Eyes is a bit different,” says Hallauer. “I remember being on tour with Mousetrap and when we were in Omaha, Conor took us to his parents’ house. We were all grubby and in our late '20s, and here we were hanging out with this 14-year-old kid. It was like, 'Hi Mom, hi Dad, this is Sunbrain…’ And we were this older, punk rock band on tour. After we met Mr. and Mrs. Oberst, [Conor] took us down the hall and showed us this old tape machine that he was using to record songs. I remember thinking, 'Cool,’” Hallauer adds in mellow tone. “Nowadays when I see him on 'Letterman,’ I can’t help but think about that time, so when Conor comes through town, I always have to go give him a hard time.”

The Omaha/ Athens connection even predates Sunbrain’s first coupling with Mousetrap. In the late '80s, the Omaha-based alternapop band the Acorns began touring around the country. Fronted by guitarist-vocalist Alex McManus, the Acorns’ blend of autumnal and atmospheric rock was a close cousin to Athens’ sound of the era. When booking tours, the group naturally gravitated toward Athens. The Acorns eventually disbanded and McManus left Omaha to pursue music in Athens, ultimately landing alongside local fixtures like Vic Chesnutt, and becoming a member of the quirky Nashville country group Lambchop. He performed in local trio Empire State, which released work on WARM Electronic Recordings, and also formed his own project The Bruces. In the midst of it all, he continually made appearances on recordings by Omaha tractor punk group Frontier Trust. After years of living in Athens, McManus returned to Omaha and occasionally performs with Bright Eyes.

When asked about the relationship between Athens and Omaha, McManus explains that it’s a shared atmosphere that binds him to these unlikely sister cities.

“Both towns have a real 'get it done’ attitude,” McManus says. “Just roll with it. Omaha is really cheap to live in, but the winters are long and it drives people to do stuff in their basements when it’s really cold out, which can be creative and fun. You can’t just rot there and watch late-night TV. Omahans are really quite gregarious if you can get them out of the house, which can be a chore. Also, people are really pretty easy-going when it comes to just getting together with friends or people they don’t know and just playing music for fun.

“Athens is similar,” he continues, “in that there’s a big culture of going out with friends, getting together, and even now it’s cheap enough to live there that it affords people the time to do what they want to do. If you want to be left alone in either town, you can just blow everything off and not leave your house for four months. When you meet them later, people you know will just ask, 'What are you working on?’”

Eventual Evolution

A decade down the road, many of the band’s names have changed, but the faces behind them remain largely the same. “It all seems like the same thing to me and it doesn’t seem all that extraordinary that it landed in any one’s laps, either,” LeMaster offers. “We’ve all worked hard from day one, and whatever type of success anyone perceives is the result of that hard work,” he continues.

“One of the most unique things about the whole Saddle Creek thing is how well everyone has been able to work together; to take off and explore every aspect from the ground up. They’ve had to learn how to do everything from scratch in order to play on the same field as other labels.”

It’s precisely this time spent working together and fostering a sense of community that has bound these artists together and coaxed their names into the international spotlight.

But with so much gained, has anything in the music been lost? By and large, the majority of the label’s output is music built on an exploration of interpersonal emotions: depression, anxiety, existential longing, all rooted in the low-key, lo-fi ethos of the early '90s. It’s music that’s tailor-made for an intimate setting. But in October of 2004, Bright Eyes toured with such staple rock icons as Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. on an arena tour of swing states prior to the presidential election. And even Now It’s Overhead has toured around the world opening for R.E.M.

“I don’t think anything has been lost,” adds LeMaster. “Everyone loves an intimate, small show, but those don’t happen so often anymore. You can’t go see Bright Eyes in a basement in Omaha, which was pretty cool and unique. But at the same time, the shows happening now are better than ever before.”

Ghostmeat Records - Athens - Georgia - USA -
All contents © Ghostmeat, Inc.