Omaha has always been an unlikely indie rock mecca. The largest city in a state that's never had much of a grounded music tradition, Omaha is a business town full of insurance and agriculture companies like Mutual of Omaha, ConAgra, and Berkshire Hathaway (run by local boy done good Warren Buffett). It's heartland territory, the "real America" that politicians regularly invoke but rarely represent.
Nevertheless, a local indie-rock sleeper cell awoke in the early 1990s, when local musicians Justin Oberst and Mike Mogis formed Lumberjack Records to release music by Omaha musicians. They eventually rechristened the label Saddle Creek Records, after a popular local thoroughfare, and it has all but defined the city's music as an essentially songwriter-based enterprise, favoring permutations of heartland rock that prize earnestness first and punk energy a distant second. It's the label that launched such Omaha acts as Now It's Overhead, the Faint, Cursive, and Son, Ambulance, not to mention Bright Eyes (featuring Justin's little brother Conor Oberst).
Those are all fairly diverse acts, but they're united by their shared emphasis on song over sound — an approach that has dominated the local concert listings since Lumberjack Records released the cassette-only debut by then-14-year-old Conor. By the time he dueted with Emmylou Harris 10 years later — on Bright Eyes' wildly popular I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning — the Omaha scene had lost much of its preeminence as many of its biggest acts left town, whether to relocate to Brooklyn or to tour almost endlessly. The city remains a vibrant arts center but has yet to produce a significant act since that first wave in the 1990s. But scenes are like zombies: They always come back different.
"Omaha's music scene has become very diverse," says Jenna Morrison, lead singer for local act Conduits. "A lot of people probably don't know that. They might think it's only singer-songwriter types, but the scene has grown pretty expansive over the years."
Conduits may represent a new chapter in Omaha pop history. On their eponymous debut, released on Conor Oberst's Team Love imprint (a sister label to Saddle Creek), the sextet explore sonic textures rather than lyrical sentiments, plumbing genres that traditionally have not held much sway in Omaha — shoegaze, slowcore, drone, and New Wave. "I feel like we definitely are outliers as far as what people know of the Omaha scene nationally," Morrison says. "We aren't singer-songwriters. An acoustic guitar would never fit into our music. Despite that, the city has definitely embraced us."
Conduits aren't local upstarts, though. The band members are all local veterans who have done time in a who's who of Omaha bands, including the Good Life, Eagle Seagull, Neva Denova, and Son, Ambulance. Morrison joined the band after pestering guitarists/founders J.J. Idt and Nate Mickish to write music with her.
"We started practicing and writing and slowly collecting other members," she explains. "We had an initial idea for what the sound would be like — very drony and very moody. We knew from the beginning what we wanted, but of course it's morphed since we've all been playing and writing together."
Conduits' influences are hardly unique in indie-rock circles, which counts innumerable bands peddling updates on Joy Division, Slowdive, and Mazzy Star. Conduits certainly draws from those popular touchstones, but what distinguishes the band is their heaviness, which reaches an almost metal intensity. Their songs lurch and lumber dramatically, as Idt's and Mickish's guitars chime and crash and Patrick Newbery's synths shiver and drone. Mike Overfield underscores songs like "Misery Train" and the eight-minute "Fish Mountain" with melodic basslines, while Morrison's voice hovers above the din with an otherworldly detachment that recalls Hope Sandoval or Nico.
"We are definitely influenced by the bands that people have said we sound similar to," Morrison says. "I wouldn't say we're not aware of it. But we're not trying to sound like anybody specific." Certain elements come through more onstage than they did in the studio. "It's a bit more overwhelming live," Morrison says. "I would say that you would be better off seeing us live than just listening to the album if you want to get the full feeling of the music. It's as heavy as on the album, maybe even more so."
Currently, Conduits are touring with Brooklyn's Cymbals Eat Guitars and veteran Omaha act Cursive, but they're looking ahead to their next album and hopefully a headlining tour. "We've already started writing for the next album and have a good catalog of stuff to tweak and expand," Morrison says. "But we're focusing on the now. There's no telling what's going to happen or what tours we might end up doing."
If they can build off the promise of their debut, Conduits may not be Omaha outliers for very long. In fact, they may represent the future of their hometown scene.
Conduits, with Cursive and Cymbals Eat Guitars
Hi-Tone Café, Tuesday, April 17th
Doors at 8 p.m.; $15