It takes cojones grande to be a white, Nebraska-born singer/songwriter who starts a punk band named for the Chilean political dissidents who were “disappeared” under August Pinochet’s military dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s. But that’s what Conor Oberst did in 2001, joining forces with little-known Midwestern rock-’n’-rollers Landon Hedges, Matt Baum, Denver Dalley, and Ian McElroy even as his pained emo-folk project Bright Eyes was rocketing to indie fame.
Desaparecidos’ debut album Read Music/Speak Spanish was a gritty, incisive, hardcore-influenced skewering of materialism, consumerism, conformity, religion, and politics. Because it was recorded the week of the Sept. 11 attacks and released just a few months later in February 2002, however, the fierce, unrelenting album was a commercial bomb, especially with Bright Eyes’ widely celebrated Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil … which dropped a few months later.
But Read Music/Speak Spanish quickly became a cult favorite among discerning fans of what Entertainment Weekly accurately described as “howlingly tuneful Midwestern punk that disappeared with Hüsker Dü.” Desaparecidos’ mythic profile only increased when the band abruptly called it quits in 2002, leaving Oberst to embrace his role as the tortured boy genius-cum-adventurous American musical hero.
A decade passed, Oberst and his band mates drifted apart, and no one thought Desaparecidos would be anything but a beloved footnote in indie rock history. And then, in 2010, as Omaha was considering a blatantly anti-immigrant bill similar to the one Arizona’s state legislature had acrimoniously passed (and then rescinded in the wake of severe economic impacts), Oberst organized a Concert for Equality and, surprisingly, got the band back together.
“Other than an occasional drunken conversation of ‘Oh, we should play again,’ [that was] the first time I was really like, ‘Let’s do this,’ and everyone was right there on board,” Oberst told Vice magazine’s online music outlet Noisey this past July. “We ended up playing a concert, and it was such a great experience all around. I think we played our tightest show to date, and it felt really good to play that music again with those guys.”
Two years later, the band released one old song, “Backsell” (about the dying major label system), and one new song, “MariKKKopa” (about the infamously anti-immigrant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio), and announced its first tour in 10 years. The following year, Desaparecidos made its overtly liberal second act obvious with “Anonymous” and “The Left is Right,” which addressed the notorious hacker group and the Occupy movement. In 2015, the band released its first new album in 13 years, Payola, on landmark punk label Epitaph Records, digging deeper into weighty social issues like injustice, corporate greed, and domestic surveillance.
In the aforementioned Noisey interview, drummer Matt Baum insisted the newly reformed Desaparecidos weren’t that political, though. “I don’t think we’re saying anything vitriolic,” he said. “There [are] bands out there that are way, way more angry and political than us. Propagandhi, for example. Those guys didn’t give a shit what you thought about their politics, and they were pissed off. And we’re sort of poking fun at stuff we don’t like, and making pop punk songs about it. We’re not coming out and putting targets on anyone’s head — we’re just saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t very cool, we should pay attention to this.’” Regarding his own history with the astute eye of someone whose every move has been dissected for the last 15 years, Oberst added, “If you can’t laugh, you’re gonna cry. I’ve spent too much time crying, so now I’m into laughing.”
But give the band credit: Even with Oberst at the helm, Desaparecidos insisted on booking small clubs like Underbelly in Jacksonville in advance of what will probably be an earth-shaking performance at legendary punk summit The Fest in Gainesville on Halloween weekend. Which speaks to the unabashedly DIY nature of this project, even 13 years and many orbits of the celebrity moon later.
“We’re definitely a band,” Oberst told Noisey. “We are five equal parts; we get together, and we make the music together, and everyone has to be involved for it to sound the way we sound, and I think that resonates with different people than my other projects. I think that’s great … So it makes perfect sense that not everyone is gonna want to hear the things that we’re singing about in our songs when they’re just trying to cool out with their bros and cruise down the street with the windows down. I completely appreciate that, and I would say that our band is not for you.”
Hammering that brash point home, Oberst added, “The nice thing is we didn’t give a fuck back then, and we don’t give a fuck now.”