Earlier this month, Desaparecidos put out its first album in 13 years. Titled Payola, the 14-track collection takes direct aim at political injustice in America as guitarist and frontman Conor Oberst sings — and screams — about Anonymous, racial profiling, the Occupy movement, gun control, big pharma and other massive issues that made headlines.
Back in 2002, when Desaparecidos released its first and only record, Read Music/Speak Spanish, it was quickly dubbed a protest punk band and the album garnered critical acclaim. But the group stayed silent for years, until 2012 when they started putting out new songs, some of which appear on Payola. “We put them out because we got them done,” Oberst, best known for his emo folk act Bright Eyes, tells EW about new songs. “This was just how long it took us to get the album together.”
Oberst and Desaparecidos drummer Matt Baum spoke to EW from Omaha, Nebraska, and below they try to figure out why hip-hop has a political edge over rock bands and if music can still affect change.
Entertainment Weekly: The lyrics on this album are so politically charged, and the first words we hear are, “It begins when we chain ourselves to the ATMs.” Is there one overall message to the whole record?
Conor Oberst: Well, I think this album is a little bit more piecemeal than our first record, which was more conceptual about our hometown of Omaha. Since the songs were written over a five-year period, I think these are little snapshots. Some people call it political or topical, but I think each song is self-contained. I think it fits together as a picture of the last half-decade of time.
Matt Baum: I think it totally fits together. Powerful, sure. But I think it’s common sense. Pointing a finger and saying, “Hey, aren’t you guys pissed about this too? Remember when we used to get pissed about things and actually talk about it?” That doesn’t seem to be very in vogue right now. It’s in vogue to have a cause and give money in charity. But to actually speak up and say something like, I’m pissed about this” — that doesn’t seem to be very popular right now unless you’re writing a blog or tweeting.
CO: Maybe there’s a different story when it comes to hip-hop or different genres, but as far as rock music goes, I think there is a sort of fear of saying things people might be apt to criticize. Our band is the opposite of that. We’re going for it and are perfectly prepared for people to hate what we’re saying or not like what we’re saying.
MB: Hip-hop music has done a very good job of maintaining the political context, where they stand and not giving a sh-t what people think.
Why do you think genres like hip-hop can do that well and a lot of rock bands can’t?
CO: I think it’s just a choice. My feeling is that I think writers in general tend to be self-conscious and it takes a bit of a leap of faith or just not giving a sh-t to write something you know people are going to criticize. We try to be the opposite of apathetic. There are so many young people in America that are apathetic. Not to beat a point into the ground, but look around. There’s so much truth to it. We’re not the only band doing this.
MB: There are a million.
CO: It’s something that matters to us. We’re going to sing about things that matter to us. The balancing act is to present these ideas but also make the music exciting and sort of fun enough that even if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, you might still like the songs anyway. That’s the idea.
MB: I also think that hip-hop is more of an individual effort. That means you’re an artist from the streets, they expect you to rap about the streets, because that’s what happens there. Rock and roll seems to have had a mellowing in the business where it got harder to sell individual records and make money doing that. We have to make the message and the music and the packaging as appealing as possible — as Taco Bell as possible: mediocre and no one can be offended by it and everyone can sort of enjoy it and we can play it on the radio.
CO: I think there’s a weird self-affirmation thing that happens in popular music in general. It seems like every song I hear on the radio is like, “Listen to me roar!” or “This is my fight song!”
MB: “Haters gonna hate! I’m just being me!”
CO: Yeah, it’s all about traveling at the speed of you and elevating the individual as the highest thing in the world. I think our music is more about seeing ourselves in each other and trying to find a more humanistic viewpoint for the world.
What were the specific things in the news that inspired you?
CO: A lot of these songs have been around for a few years and a lot of these topics are now a few years old as far as the news cycle. The first song “The Left Is Right” has echoes of the Occupy movement. The second song “Underground Man” is just about any progressive politician who has been beaten down and made to feel like a fool for believing in what they believe, which happens all the time in mainstream politics. “City on a Hill” is the idea of, in my views, a flawed ideas of American sectionalism, and what a ridiculous way to operate a country that is — to believe you’re the greatest thing to walk the earth. “Von Maur Massacre” is about gun control and there was a shooting in a mall here in Omaha. “Ralphy’s Cut” is about health care and big pharma but it’s also about our friend Ralph who after Obamacare passed was able to get a double lung transplant. On and on, each song has a seed that it came from. We’re trying to take that and broaden it out and make it resonate with people.
It took 13 years to put out a new album. Do you have plans to keep making music together in the future?
CO: We definitely have plans. As far as the rest of the year, we’ll be on tour. Going forward, our band is different in the sense that we all are involved with a lot of different projects. It’s hard to say when we’ll record again, but we’re not calling it quits right away.
It seems that this kind of music with obvious messages is so special now because it’s so rare. Do you think on some level that music can still have the same political change and effect that it once had?
CO: It’s hard today. There’s so much happening simultaneously that there’s so much more available and scattered. It’s hard to get people to focus on one idea. I don’t know, I guess, is the answer. I do think that music has a special ability to get behind enemy lines and win hearts and minds. A kid that picks up a record, he doesn’t need to know anything other than the music and have it in his or her headphones. They’re getting these ideas directly, it’s like someone whispering in their ear. That’s such a personal way to receive information. Music becomes very personal. When you marry a message you want to send out into the world with good music, all of a sudden you have a very potent way of delivering your message.
Desaparecidos’ Payola is out now via Epitaph Records and tour dates can be found on the band’s website.