Conor Oberst's Sympathy for the Devil

The Bright Eyes frontman burned a Quran in "Four Winds," but has no regrets.

Several weeks after Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, Conor Oberst stood onstage at the Gorge during his set at Sasquatch! and dismissed the operation as killing "an old man in his bedroom," blaming the hatred abroad of the U.S. on our own government's policies. Ironically, during the same set, he performed "Four Winds," a song that suggests burning the Quran: "The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Quran's mute/If you burned them all together you'd get close to the truth . . . " Here, the indie rocker—who brings Bright Eyes' new record, The People's Key, to the Paramount on September 28—defends his comments, and talks about pacifism and American imperialism. SW: Has the 9/11 anniversary inspired you to write anything? Oberst: I haven't [written anything]. A lot of times for me things are pretty delayed reaction-wise. I very rarely write something right when something's happening. But I have been thinking about it a lot. It's strange that it's 10 years ago. I remember right at that time we had just recorded this Desaparecidos album (Read Music, Speak Spanish). That was coming out, and I remember feeling, like, worried to make this anti-consumerism, anti–American culture album right at that moment. It seemed like a pretty unpopular thing to do. But that was the timing. Do you regret anything that you said or wrote? No. I think it's all true. Obviously America is a pretty mixed bag. There's a lot of wonderful things about this country and a lot of pretty horrible things too, so, I guess that's just the way it is. At Sasquatch! you had some pretty interesting things to say during your set. It was right after the operation that took out Osama bin Laden. You referred to him as "an old man in his bedroom" from the stage. That seems like a pretty generous description for a mass-murdering terrorist. Well, you know, he was an old man in his bedroom and he was a mass-murdering terrorist. I don't think that they're both mutually exclusive. It seemed like you didn't agree that the U.S. should have taken him out. Well, you know, I'm a pacifist. I don't believe killing really achieves anything, you know? Even a terrorist like bin Laden? You didn't see the greater good, for lack of a better phrase, of taking out somebody who was planning more attacks against America? Well, you know, I think that obviously as a country you have to address your security concerns. I'm not saying that was a wrong thing to do. I think there was a lot of other ways we could change our standing in the world and decrease violence in general. Are you referring to the U.S. policies that you said could be blamed for the U.S. hatred abroad? Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like, how we interact with the world. Anything in particular that we should be doing differently? I think our general vibe of imperialism, whether it's through our economic policies, or our military policies—I think it's pretty clear that we want the world to bend to our desires, and maybe that's not the best way to work. In the song "Four Winds" you refer to the burning of the Quran in addition to the Bible and the Torah. Isn't that the kind of thing that could inflame people around the country who take the Quran (and other scriptures) to be sacred? Maybe. It maybe could offend some people. I think that organized religion has been responsible for a lot of terrible things throughout the centuries, and that's kind of what that line is getting at. And in the wake of the pastor in Florida who was going to burn the Quran and the outrage in the Islamic community, do you regret writing about that? No, I don't. What do you see as your role as an artist? It seems as if you feel there is some role you feel you need to play in going in front of your fans and talking about your political beliefs. I think that being a songwriter, or quote-unquote entertainer, doesn't mean you surrender your role as a citizen. Not that you have to use your platform for any activism or political outreach, but if you choose to as an artist, you should be free to do that. It is America, right?

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