The End: Will Sheff of Okkervil River

"It would be nice [on my deathbed] to be away from noise pollution and to hear natural sounds-birds, the wind, a stream nearby."

Jun 15, 2018 Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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To end the week, we ask Will Sheff of Okkervil River some questions about endings and death. Sheff is the singer/songwriter/main creative force behind the band, which formed in Austin in 1998 and has had various lineups over the years, with Sheff the sole constant. The band's third album, 2005's critically acclaimed Black Sheep Boy, was their breakthrough release. Okkervil River's latest album, In the Rainbow Rain, is their ninth full-length and their third for ATO. Sheff wrote the album right after President Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election. "If December 2016 was good for anything, it was good for writing songs," said Sheff in a press release announcing In the Rainbow Rain.

The album's first single, "Don't Move Back to LA," was inspired by several of his best friends moving from New York City to Los Angeles, as well as his own desire to someday move out of the Big Apple. Album opener "Famous Tracheotomies" also has a self-explanatory titlehe sings about celebrities who have had tracheotomies, but he starts the song and album recalling how he had a tracheotomy at just age one-and-a-half. "I was my parents' only kid and they had lost two before that/And growing up I always knew how close I'd come/well that must've been scary mom," sings Sheff before detailing the tracheotomies of 1980s child star Gary Coleman, 1960s Motown singer Mary Wells, 1930s/1940s poet Dylan Thomas, Ray Davies of 1960s classic rock band The Kinks, and others. It may seem like strange subject matter for a song, but Sheff makes it relatable, once again proving that he doesn't get enough credit as one of the most interesting lyricists of the last two decades.

Read on as Sheff discusses how he'd like to die, what song he'd like played at his funeral, his concepts of heaven and hell, his favorite endings to TV shows and movies, and what he'd like to be remembered for. 

How would you like to die and what age would you like to be?

I'd obviously like to live for as long as I can (I remember when I was about eight years old or so promising myself I'd live until 100) but in reality even older musicians tend to die younger than their non-musician contemporaries. The dream would be to die at home, of course, and relatively peacefully, though that's not how it happens for most people. 

What song would you like to be playing at your deathbed?

Probably no music. It would be nice to be away from noise pollution and to hear natural soundsbirds, the wind, a stream nearby.

What song would you like to be performed at your funeral and who would you like to sing it?

"Shape of You," by Ed Sheeran.


What's your favorite ending to a movie?

I love The Marx Brothers' Animal Crackers, which ends with Harpo busting into the room with an atomizer filled with chloroform and knocking all the characters unconscious, finishing with himself. 


What's your favorite last line in a book?

Charles Willeford's novel Pick-Up has a great, casually-delivered last line that completely recontextualizes everything in the book that came before it. 

What's your favorite series finale episode of a TV show?

I thought [David] Lynch's ending to the new Twin Peaks was pretty incredible, once I had a few days to think about it.

What's your favorite last song on an album?

"Her Majesty." I love that that's the last song on the last album The Beatles recorded. I love a good anticlimax.

What's your favorite last album by a band that then broke up?

I think the general arc of the four Velvet Underground records is great. Big, brash start/invent noise rock/whisper boldly/go out on a pop record.
 
Whose passing has most affected you?

My girlfriend's father was the first big death where I was present for a lot of the whole long arc downward. It really re-aligned my life. I came out of that experience a lot more interested in other people's feelings than I had been before. I think it's one of the experiences I'm most thankful for.

If you were on death row, what would you like your last meal to be?

People ask this question of each other a lot and every time I think about it I end up concluding that there isn't really a good answer.

What's your concept of the afterlife?

Well, I don't think you can take your self or your personality with you, and I think that's a good thing.

What would be your own personal version of heaven if it exists?

Just being peacefully and lovingly together with everyone and everything. 

What would be the worst punishment the devil could devise for you in hell, if he exists?

"Shape of You," by Ed Sheeran.

If reincarnation exists, who or what would you like to be reincarnated as?

A slightly better person.

What role or achievement would you most like to be remembered for?

Obviously, I want to be remembered for my work. There are nice things I've done for people that I'm proud of, but for some reason I don't so much care if I'm "remembered" for those things, more just that it was nice for the people. I really do hope my work is remembered for at least a while. I have no idea whether it merits that though.

What would you like your last words to be?

Ask me later.

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.okkervilriver.com

 

 

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