Indie Nebraska label stays iconoclastic, letting groups like Bright Eyes shine

Indie rock, for the first half of the year, was defined by two acts, the White Stripes and Bright Eyes. No acts have surpassed their position, commercially or critically in the last five months, but the prism through which their results are viewed has twisted.

Just as a film’s financial success cannot be defined by grosses alone, so, too, is the case in the indie rock world.

The White Stripes have moved nearly 600,000 albums for V2, a disappointment that has rumors floating that Richard Branson is fed up and looking to sell the label.

Bright Eyes, meanwhile, has sold 500,000 copies of two simultaneously released albums — and Saddle Creek Records is the prettiest girl at the dance.

On top of that, the Omaha, Neb., home to Bright Eyes, Cursive and the Faint continues to build on its reputation as most idealistic imprint of its generation.

Although distributed by the Warner Music-owned Alternative Distribution Alliance, the label and Bright Eyes leader Conor Oberst are viewed as “uber-indie” — the type that shuns affiliations with corporations or any organization that might taint their reputation.

Last week Oberst canceled a concert in St. Louis because the venue does business with Clear Channel; a Bright Eyes live album, “Motion Sickness,” will be sold only at indie record stores beginning Nov. 15.

“We’ve grown up in a school of indie labels — that’s who we admire,” says Robb Nansel, the 30-year-old prexy of Saddle Creek Records. “We’re not against the major label model — we’re not that high and mighty — we just do things on our own terms.”

The label has no input into records unless a band requests it. On occasion, Nansel is asked to decide which tunes don’t belong on an album or assists with sequencing. “Some do four-track (recording) at home in a few hours, others spend months in a studio. Our budgets are all over the map,” he notes. “But when Bright Eyes says, ‘Here’s the record,’ we just say, ‘Awesome.’ “

Saddle Creek opened its doors in 1993 and issued the first dozen releases on the Lumberjack label. (The catalog now totals 85 CDs, EPs and singles). This year, sales of new releases made staggering leaps: Bright Eyes’ “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” has sold 306,000 copies while “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” has reached 205,000. Cursive’s “The Difference Between Houses and Homes” and the Faint’s “Wet From Birth” sold 125,000 copies each after never topping 25,000 in sales.

Oberst, who changes the lineup of Bright Eyes to fit the songs he has written, pulled a stunt in January that has been done by Guns N’ Roses, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and a few others: release two separate discs on the same day. He chose to tour in support of the more intimate acoustic disc “I’m Wide Awake” first and then assembled a 10-piece band to cross the country playing the more animated and electric material on “Digital Ash.”

“It was an enormous undertaking,” Oberst says of the “Ash” tour. “But we wanted to do it right, once. The byproduct was that we played the same set every night. That kind of wears on your soul.”

Bright Eyes is back touring — 29 shows between Oct. 22 in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Nov. 26 in Jersey City, N.J. — changing the set every night and bringing along, for the first time, a harpist. Oberst, who as a kid growing up in Omaha often had to drive several hours to see bands, expects this tour of primary and secondary markets to be less pressure-filled than the earlier treks. Opening the shows are two pop-folk acts that fit with Bright Eyes’ contempo heartland rock, Feist and Brit hotshots the Magic Numbers, making this the fall’s biggest indie outing.

The Magic Numbers, who recorded their debut for U.K. indie Heavenly and find their arrival preceded by heavy industry buzz, follow most of the Saddle Creek credo. One caveat is that Capitol/EMI is releasing their debut Stateside.

“To make a maiden tour of the U.S. with a band with that sort of integrity is an ideal situation,” says the MN’s booking agent, Steve Ferguson of Little Big Man. “This tour is not just about playing to the hipsters at the Troubadour, but playing the Louisvilles, where they can lay seeds and then return. They get an opportunity to play Nashville at Ryman Auditorium. To me that’s America.”

The tour, however, removes Bright Eyes from the studio. Oberst says he doesn’t have much finished material lying about, and after years of recording at the Lincoln, Neb., studio of bandmate Mike Mogis, the two are finally building one in Omaha. Lack of material and assembling a studio means no new Bright Eyes record until 2007, Oberst figures.

Nansel, however, won’t be rushing out to find acts to fill the coffers. The acts Saddle Creek releases are peopled with friends of Nansel’s from grade school and high school or else came into the fold after appearing with a Saddle Creek act — the case with L.A. rock outfit Rilo Kiley. Nansel says no one has delivered “the kick-ass demo that made us say we have to release it.”

“We’ve always been cautious to not get ourselves in a position where we need records to exist,” Nansel explains. “We were forced to step up the scale of things we do — overhead has increased somewhat. But putting out records just to get income is the antithesis (of the company).”

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