Okkervil River’s Will Sheff on Environmental Issues and Protest Songs
Still Waiting for Change
Nov 05, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue Photography by Tommy Kearns
Despite having once written a song titled “The President’s Dead,” Okkervil River singer and songwriter Will Sheff says he hasn’t really written any songs that he considers to be overtly political. But as a keen observer of the spectacle of American politics, he isn’t shy about expressing his opinions on the role of music in social movements and the extent to which artists should be using their work to push for change. As a student of the art of protest songwriting, he offers a provocative thesis: perhaps protest music makes no difference at all.
[Sheff was interviewed for, and is quoted in, various articles in our Protest Issue. This is the full transcript of that interview, mainly quotes that didn't make it into the print issue.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): What do you think makes a good protest song?
Will Sheff: I think if it makes you really angry. I really love those old Dylan protest songs that were filled with this really righteous anger and righteous clarity of vision of something that is unjust. I really hear that a lot in old traditional ballads that had a political vibe to them, like a “Let’s band together” vibe. Or rap music that is more politically-oriented. Honestly, I think it should make you angry. That’s not the Pete Seeger mode. I guess, [that’s because of] being a more cynical child from a more fucked-up compromised time, where that compromise was threaded through the whole culture and things seemed a lot more hopeful. The Pete Seeger version of protest music seems corny to me, although, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate certain things about his music and certain songs of his. It just seems crazy that there was a time when people had that much optimism and hope. Or maybe it has something to do with my own disposition that I respond more to something that really makes me angry. But I’m also not really sure that music has a foolproof ability to affect any kind of change. There are times that personally music can affect change, but in the broader culture at large, I don’t know. There are times when everything lined up and a certain song seemed to have an effect, but it’s not like in [Sam Cooke’s] “A Change is Gonna Come.” It still hasn’t come. Damn good song. Really incredible. I think there are times that we can get fooled into thinking that music will change something or fooled into thinking that we’re being changed, and those are the times that music is most likely to actually make a difference. If we somehow get caught up in the idea that it is working, then it will work better, like how a placebo drug with actually work.
Would you then say that protest music plays a role in galvanizing those in a social movement, even if it doesn’t have the power to change people’s minds?
Maybe so. Maybe there’s an ability to galvanize or strengthen a group that already exists. That’s something that every group that’s trying to push for something needs, whether or not you agree with their message. God knows that the Tea Party fuckers get strengthened by all the bullshit around them. I think that’s a good thing. If a song like [Sex Pistols’] “Bodies”—which is, I think, the absolute best anti-abortion song ever written, and a really timeless piece of art—if that song can’t move me in my opinions about abortion, I’m not sure how it’s going to work. I definitely get impressed by songs that reinforce beliefs that I already have, but I’ve never really had my mind changed about anything by a song.
Why do you think certain protest songs, like Dylan’s or Woody Guthrie’s, survive and are still sung today, while others die out once the moment they are attached to is over?
Certain songs like [Woody’s Guthrie’s] “This Land is Your Land,” which is an absolutely great song, it’s hard to hear it separated from your associations with it. Or “We Shall Overcome,” I couldn’t even tell you if that’s a good song or a bad song, because it’s so caked over with my million different associations with it that it might as well be “Happy Birthday to You.” I can’t you tell you anything about that song, it’s so ubiquitous. I also think that it’s really difficult right now. Everyone seems to be really afraid to say things, especially in indie rock. I feel like people don’t want to step on each other’s toes, let alone alienate a larger group. Whenever I’ve tried to write about [politics], and I have tried, I often feel subtlety goes out the window pretty much immediately, for one thing. With subtlety, a song has to be such an utter punch in the gut that it doesn’t need subtlety. Like, [Johnny Cash’s] “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is one of my favorite protest songs. I don’t even know if you’d call it a protest song, but it is protesting the condition of American Indians. And it’s not subtle at all. It’s over the top, and it’s almost silly if it weren’t for the fact that it’s incredibly powerful. And Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” that’s a powerful song because he’s expressing a very incredible truth about society that is utterly unacceptable. But it’s a very simple thing. It’s like the very core of society is rotten, and what I like about the way he does it in that song is that he doesn’t come out and say that. In a very elegant slowly unraveling way he makes that so clear that there is no argument you can make against it, and I feel like in my own way, those kinds of values I put through in my songs are more like that than like, “We need to repeal this amendment.” My thing is trying to look at a more whole human aspect of things, I guess.
Do you think artists are hesitant to attach themselves to particular causes for fears that it will distract from their craft?
I feel like such a weird corny Ed Begley, Jr. when I talk about the environment. All the celebrities—all of the people that we think of, all of the artists who are into the environment—are these wussy white guys. I feel like I’m just joining my name to those dudes, and it almost seems uncool. But I just can’t help it, man. I was raised in the middle of the woods, and it really hits me personally. That shit has a massive connection to everything that’s important to me, so when I see that stuff, it’s appalling. It particularly fucks with my brain. So at the risk of seeming like the Ed Begley, Jr. of indie rock, I’m going to go ahead and say that stuff.
Do you remember when environmental issues became important to you?
Super, super young. I think it was Styrofoam, hearing people talking about how Styrofoam was bad, and there was a whole anti-Styrofoam thing. You know, I grew up in the middle of the country, and that was my playground as a kid, and it always felt like it was speaking to me. I always felt like there was some spirit out there that was really part of where I’d come from and who I was and who we all were and that it was the most important thing in the world. God was in the woods, or something. That’s how I always felt. And I just felt calm. Even now—and everybody has this; they just forget—if you go somewhere natural that is beautiful, you will feel calm and relaxed. And that’s because you’re closer to something that is an essential part of who you are, I think. I just remember finding out about that stuff and just getting really freaked out and having nightmares. I think it’s not really that uncommon for kids. When kids find out—like, wait a minute, so we’re fucking up the air that we breathe and the water we drink?—it’s that protest song thing of something that’s so simple you can’t deny it. It’s so clear that that’s a crazy thing to do that a kid is going to get really fixated on it. But then you get older, and the whole world seems to be so incredibly complicated and there are so many issues and things to address. But, to me, that’s the fundamental issue, because if we don’t have a habitable world to live in we won’t be giving a shit about Guantanamo Bay.
Are there practical things that you do on a daily basis to address your environmental concerns?
When it comes to environmental stuff, there’s a million things that you can do day to day, and I try to do as much as I can to do that stuff. But, and I hesitate to say this, it’s like a Band-Aid on a severed head. It’s not really going to address the problem. Everybody should do it, and if everybody in the world did it religiously, maybe it would make a difference. But what would make a million times more difference is people making fucking different laws. So giving money to organizations who are going to lobby to change shit is a good way to supplement trying to do your daily stuff. If I recycle my Coke can instead of throwing it into the trash, we’re still fucked. It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And the danger with that is that people use that as a release valve for their sense of guilt. Like, “I’m not contributing to the problem. I recycled that Coke can.” And people do have power, but what really needs to happen is massive government change where everyone just agrees that this is what we’re going to do. What’s so incredibly depressing is to watch absolutely no action get taken on that.
With that in mind, how do you not become cynical and hopeless? How can you maintain enough hope to even think that changing things is possible?
It’s sort of like a Star Wars thing. Do you want to give yourself in to anger to get what you want? People say we should be adopting the same tactics as the right to get what we want, and sometimes I think that, too. And then sometimes it’s like, “Well, the instant you do that, you’ve already lost. You’ve already distorted your whole mission.” It seems to me that there isn’t a single politician out there who didn’t very early in their career fundamentally and irreparably do something against their core principles. That’s just the admission fee. “Oh, you want to be a politician? OK, utterly betray your principles in a way that taints your integrity forever, and we’ll let you in the room.” So I do get cynical about it. That doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in love and the possibility of goodness or even that most people, if you get them one on one, are good. Because I do think that. I think all of those things. But it seems like the greedy, and the people who basically want to ruin everything for the rest of us to get more for themselves, have so much power.