by chuck bell

In a time when most major labels are dying, Saddle Creek Records have remained one of the most self-sufficient, resilient indie labels in the United States today. They built their name on the strength of their three biggest, top-selling bands: Cursive, Bright Eyes and The Faint. What most people don’t remember is that all of the key players from this triumvirate were at one time or another involved with Commander Venus. The band was founded by Conor Oberst (guitar/vocals) and Matt Bowen (drums) in 1995, when Oberst was only 15 years old. At that point, he had put out a few solo 4-track recordings, but had never played with a band before. To flesh out the rest of┬áthe band, Oberst convinced Tim Kasher to play bass. Finally, they recruited Saddle Creek’s executive producer, Robb Nansel, to join as the second guitarist to complete their initial lineup. Kasher had the most experience with bands, having been the frontman for Omaha scene-starters Slowdown Virginia, so he acted as the leader of the group. However, Oberst was the awkward centerpiece for Commander Venus, bespectacled and often wearing oversized t-shirts, delivering his overwrought lyrics through a prepubescent howl.

Artist: Commander Venus
Song: Radio Announcer

The band recorded their first full length, Do You Feel at Home?, for Saddle Creek in 1995. Oberst, whose previous recordings were folksy acoustic numbers, translated his talent to rock music quite naturally, benefiting greatly from Kasher’s big brother influence. Though the recordings were rough and Oberst’s voice was often shaky, the band gained a significant amount of attention from the album. They were signed to Grass Records (later Wind-Up Records) in 1997, who gave them $15,000 to record their sophomore album, which was unheard of for an indie record at the time. The result was The Uneventful Vacation, which found Oberst sounding completely different, due to his voice having changed. Despite their budget, Oberst considered the album to be a failure, placing most of the blame on his lack of skill as a guitarist. Shortly after the album’s release, Bowen and Kasher both decided to leave the band. Bowen was unhappy playing the drums, while Kasher decided to focus on his primary project, Cursive. Todd Fink replaced Kasher on the bass and Ben Armstrong took over for Bowen on the drums. The new incarnation of the band toured the East Coast for about┬ánine months, before eventually calling it quits late in 1997.

Commander Venus, in retrospect, seems like somewhat of a reverse supergroup. Every member of the band has gone on to bigger and (arguably) better things since. Oberst had the most commercial success of any musician on Saddle Creek, with his revolving-door group Bright Eyes. He briefly returned to Commander Venus’ guitar-driven rock with his band Desaparecidos in 2001, but is currently playing decidedly softer music under his own name. Kasher has experienced a similar amount of success with Cursive, ever since their breakthrough album, 2003′s The Ugly Organ. Bowen and Fink went in a much different direction with The Faint. Their second album, Blank Wave Arcade, incorporated heavy synthesizers, which went a long way toward fusing electronic and indie music. Although Commander Venus may not have been the pinnacle of these artists’ careers, it was certainly an excellent band training camp for everyone involved.

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