from the New York Times Magazine:
The perfect protest album for 2012 happens to have been released 10 years ago by Desaparecidos, a band named after the dissenters who “disappeared” under Pinochet and other Latin American dictators. Desaparecidos was formed by Conor Oberst (more recently of Bright Eyes) and four friends from the Omaha music scene, and their only record, “Read Music/Speak Spanish,” catalogs the ills of modern America, including the failure of exurban expansion (“Greater Omaha”) and the warping influence of consumerism (“Mall of America”). It also eerily presaged the specter of drone warfare (“The Happiest Place on Earth”).
The attacks of 9/11 took place while Oberst, Denver Dalley (guitar), Ian McElroy (keyboards), Landon Hedges (bass) and Matt Baum (drums) were mixing “Read Music/Speak Spanish.” They thought about holding the record, but decided not to. “Every fast-food marquee was like, ‘God Bless the U.S.A.,’ ” Dalley says, “and here comes us saying, ‘God Save the U.S.A.’ ” During one show, a guy handed out fliers calling them treasonous. The album never took off.
In 2003, Desaparecidos fell apart. Oberst says his heart wasn’t in it; during their one and a half tours, he was recording what would be Bright Eyes’ breakout album, exchanging masters with his producer from whatever motel the group landed at. The rest of the band became enmeshed in other projects. Soon all that was left of Desaparecidos were occasional jokes among members about reuniting. And that one ill-timed album.
That’s the advantage of good art, though: the birth date of a work doesn’t matter, so long as it stays relevant and circulating. In 2010, the band reunited when Fremont, Neb., passed a law that prohibited hiring illegal immigrants. Oberst helped organize the Concert for Equality to support the American Civil Liberties Union’s fight against the Fremont law, and he wanted Desaparecidos to play it. To the band, the gig seemed like a perfect reapplication of their force; a necessary catalyst that flames a punk band back into life. “The Concert for Equality worked, and the kids loved it, and there was a ridiculous crowd, and it was fun,” Baum says. “We raised a ton of money for a really good thing, and that law was struck down.”
Earlier this year, listening to a lot of Bright Eyes, I stumbled upon “Read Music/Speak Spanish.” With its fusion of hardcore’s doomsday stomp and the noble violence of punk, strung together by Oberst’s ragged howl, the album seemed like a welcome guidepost for what more music should sound like in 2012. My experience was fairly typical, it turns out. Oberst told me how a small cult following developed around Desaparecidos, as teenagers shared the album with their friends.
Earlier this year, the band reformed again, this time to oppose Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona and a strong supporter of the state’s anti-immigration act. A new song, “MariKKKopa,” challenges what the band sees as his myopic racism. (The song ends with an audio sample of Arpaio expressing pride at comparisons of him to the K.K.K.) This reunion provided enough fuel to get the band touring again this summer, which is where I finally saw them live. In Seattle, Desaparecidos’s show was all efficiency and fire, including a new song they dedicated to Bradley Manning, the military intelligence analyst imprisoned for leaking documents to WikiLeaks. The crowd was a mix of indie vets and graying punks who characterized the band’s initial audience, along with an impressive showing by rowdy teenagers.
What comes next for the band is a mystery. Oberst, who seems to have put Bright Eyes into retirement, is newly inspired by some of the grievances that defined Desaparecidos back in the early 2000s — albeit with some new targets. Oberst voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and performed at a benefit for him during the primaries, but like others on the left, he has been disappointed by some of the president’s moves. “Obama increased drone strikes and targeted assassinations of American citizens,” he told me. “All the promises he made in the course of that 2008 election, all the things that I thought I heard him saying when I was standing there in the primaries in Iowa on a frozen morning listening to him speak, the person I thought I was hearing, is not the person that is running our government.”
A decade-old protest band has once again found a moment to match their music. “They want everyone to sit down and be apathetic, but we can’t,” Oberst said. “If there’s anything we need to say, it’s that this will not stand, this is not acceptable. The whole idea that you can make someone disappear because they disagree with you politically, and you’re free to spy on them and hold them without charges indefinitely — what is the difference between us and fill-in-the-blank dictatorship? What is the difference? That’s desaparecidos, man.”