Bright Eyes composer/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Wolcott admits the last two years have been “pretty wild.” An extremely prolific musician, Wolcott did not sit by idly after touring came to a halt. Rather, he turned his focus to The Stand soundtrack he recorded with fellow Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis. He also worked on an ambitious Bright Eyes reissue campaign that involved (and continued to involve) the production of nine companion EPs for which the group recruited guests Waxahatchee, Phoebe Bridgers, M. Ward and Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond).
“Mike [Mogis] and I have been really busy,” says Wolcott via phone from Omaha where Bright Eyes had just started rehearsals for the tour that brings it to the Agora on Saturday, April 2. “That was nine hours of music. That certainly kept us busy that year. Luckily, I’ve been able to work on a lot of music remotely. Last year, we were lucky enough to do a short run on the East Coast. That was really fun. It was a way to dip our toes back into the world of touring and now we’re hitting the ground running for sure. I’ve just continued to make music and record music, and we eased into the Bright Eyes EP project and are recording a lot of the material. We started it about a year ago. It’s been really fun and really cool. The first couple of EPs date back to when [singer] Conor [Oberst] was just a teenager, recording on a four-track in his basement.”
Wolcott says the group has taken a “very modern perspective” to recording older Bright Eyes tunes that date back to the late ’90s.
“We think of it as turning the whole thing upside down,” says Wolcott, who officially joined the group in 2006. “It’s like if the material were written now, how would we approach the arrangement and recording. It’s an interesting process. As we get into the later material, it’s definitely fun to again turn it upside down and approach in a completely new and different way. We’ve announced the release of the first three and it’s no secret that we’ll be doing nine of these. We just finished three more, which does include a lot of things I did work on with the band back in the day. We have taken totally different approaches with each one.”
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Wolcott first learned violin when he was 5. He then moved to piano and started taking Suzuki piano lessons a year or two after learning violin. He added trumpet to the mix when he was in fifth grade. After his family moved to Lincoln, NE, the city’s indie rock music scene drew him in.
“I was coming from a classical and jazz background,” he says. “I got really into jazz when I was a kid. I got pretty deep into that stuff. By the time I was in high school, I also just really liked the idea of playing rock music too. I was lucky enough to meet some people including Mike [Mogis] when I was in high school and start recording and being in bands around that time. Lincoln is a small college town but remarkably there were a lot of opportunities to play music and record. I’m really thankful for that. I think I was in tenth grade when I was first started going to Mike’s studio and started working on the early Lullaby for the Working Class records. Those experiences were amazing. It was about the time I met Conor. I remember him opening for a Lullaby show around that time. It was cool and fertile scene and had a lot of crossover with the Omaha bands.”
Back in 2006, Bright Eyes evolved from being a Oberst project to being a band with Mogis and Wolcott as members. Wolcott says the shift “didn’t affect how we approached anything because we had consistently been a part of the live show and making the records and all that stuff.”
To build anticipation for the upcoming reissues, the band has released the tune “Falling Out of Love at This Volume,” a beautiful ballad that makes good use of retro-sounding synths.
“That was one of the few that had been a staple in the live show for a while,” says Wolcott when asked about the track. “It was almost a pretty straightforward of documenting how we had been playing it live.”
A new version of “Contrast and Compare” features vocals courtesy of Waxahatachee. It also includes some subtle pedal steel courtesy of Mogis.
“We were lucky to have Katie [Crutchfield] from Waxahatchee sing on that,” says Wolcott. “We wanted to make it different and interesting. Rather than be guitar-based, we recorded the piano first. We wanted to involve people from the current scene and people we like and admire. Mike has got a great touch on the pedal steel for that tune.”
Wolcott describes “Haligh, Haligh, A Lie, Haligh,” a track that features Phoebe Bridgers, as a “deliberate attempt to do the song differently.”
“One of the ways we did that or achieved that goal was we had our friend Clark Baechle program the drum beat for it,” he says. “It has a more electronic element, and that was fun.”
Wolcott says the band was still tweaking a possible set list for the upcoming tour; he wasn’t sure if any of the companion EP tunes would make an appearance.
“To be completely honest, we are thinking of bringing some of [the companion EP tunes] in to the upcoming shows, but we’re still focusing on [2020’s] Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, even though we were out for a couple of weeks last summer supporting. We haven’t been able to play a lot of that material. We’re really excited about doing that. We’re still figuring out how much of the EP stuff we will incorporate into the set. We are also duly focused on playing the material from the last album and adding songs from that record that we didn’t play last summer. The new record is tricky. There is a lot to sort out and we have our hands full. That’s why we’re in rehearsals right now.”