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Okkervil River

Just Right

Oct 13, 2016 Okkervil River Photography by Ray Lego Bookmark and Share

When Will Sheff started writing the songs that would become Okkervil River‘s eighth full-length release, Away, everything seemed wrong. He had sat by his grandfather’s side as he wasted away and died in a hospice. The band had splintered, with members going off to start families and side-projects. But, hey, the music industry was collapsing anyway, so what did it all matter? Still, he felt a new batch of songs comingsongs about death, about the record industry, about hope and disappointment and loss. He didn’t know if he was going to make an Okkervil record, a solo album, or something else. He just needed to get away.

And so he did. Holing up in a friend’s house in the Catskills, he emerged with 12 songs. After Okkervil drummer Cully Symington called him about doing an off-the-cuff recording, Sheff assembled a ramshackle collection of avant-jazz players for a whirlwind two-day recording session. Once he was done, he still wasn’t sure exactly what he had-the songs were raw in sound and sentiment, featuring few upbeat tempos or singalong choruses-but after seeing so much in his life that had felt so wrong, these new songs just seemed right. Here, Sheff discusses the album’s unfiltered sound, how he sees his job as a songwriter, and how as he turns 40 he’s closer to channeling his inner child than ever before.

Matt Fink (Under the Radar): You’ve never made an album that sounded quite like this. Did you have the intention to make a more rough-around-the-edges album from the very start?

Will Sheff: In the past I would have very carefully gotten separation between the instruments and tried to get a real clean signal and then recorded several different passes of vocals and comped it and made everything right, but I’ve come to this determination after a long period of time that that doesn’t make music better. There were records like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, where I was listening to it and thinking, “This is real music.” You don’t really ever hear real music these days. It doesn’t really sound like a studio creation. It is a studio creation in that it’s great gear and all that, but it really just sounds like a lot of heart and soul moving through the bodies of these great players. So I just thought, “Well, I’ll just sing the vocals live, because I don’t really have the money to spend on a big vocal processer that’s not going to make it better.” And we went into the studio for two days, and we recorded all 12 songs, because a lot of the time we were doing first and second takes. We walked away from it and everybody was like, “This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever worked on.” Cully was like, “This is the best thing you’ve ever done.” I didn’t know what the hell it was, and I was still thinking along the lines of “Well, am I going to do my solo thing, Lovestreams?” which I had been working on and which had not come out in a really discouraging way. “Am I going to do a new Okkervil River thing? I don’t know what this stuff is.”

Gradually, I had it in the back of my mind and worked on it here and there, and I’d get a piano player or a conga player or flute player to come in, and I started to think, “This is who I am. This record is my soul.” I was pouring out my soul, and I wasn’t worrying about what people want or what people think. I was just trying to express something that I really needed to express in terms of lyrics and music and the aesthetic of it. And it became this big pink glowing cloud of friendliness in my life that was guiding me along. And that’s when I started to go, “This is going to be Okkervil River, and I’m going to call everybody in the Austin group and tell them that I love them, and I love their playing and they are so important to me, but I need to do something else now.” And it was the same as the business side of things. Every little aspect was like, “Let’s just take away everything. Let’s take everything out of the picture and just start over bit by bit by bit.” Because I felt like I’m at a time of my life where I’ve done so many things, and some of them have worked out and some of them haven’t. Some have been important to me, and some of them I’ve been lost. I just really felt like it’s the time now where I’m a professional musician, whether I like it or not, and I don’t know how to do anything else. It’s all I’ve done my whole life, and I’m holding on to it tooth and claw. But this is my job, and on some level it’s such a weird, mysterious abstract job that you have to really take it seriously.

Back in the day I might have partied or been dumb and wasted my time, but these days I feel like it’s a serious job. It’s like being a doctor-a witch doctor. [Laughs] And you’re supposed to heal the community. That’s the job of a musician. If we were traveling around as a tribe, and everybody would be like, “You’d be really bad at hunting. You’d get yourself killed out there. Stay back in the village, but you’ve got to do something worthwhile.” And I’d be like, “Okay, cool. I’ll go into a trance and figure out what the growing season is going to be like.” Or, “I’ll help deliver the babies. I’ll help heal your stomach problems with strange herbs that I’ve found.” I feel like that’s the job of the artist. Really, when you boil it down, it’s to make things better. And not in a way that’s one for one. Not in a way that’s exactly direct, like a doctor. It’s like a doctor for your soul. So I just realized that that’s what my job should be, but at that point I thought, “I just want to make this record as beautiful and as right as it can be.” And when I say “right,” for a long time I’ve had this thought where you’re looking at a tree or a stone in the river, you’re just like, “That’s right! That looks right to me.” It’s not perfect. It’s not the best tree or the best stone in the river, and there isn’t really “best” in that situation. You can’t even really evaluate it. It’s just like, “That looks right to me, and looking at it make me feels nice.” That’s what I try to do these days.

You said these songs felt different. What, in the moment that you were writing them, felt different to you?

There was an unfiltered quality to them. I will go ahead and say literally “unfiltered” feels like such a good word to me. You get cider and it’s unfiltered, and there’s all that cloudiness in there. Or a side order bottle of sake and it’s the color of a cloud. And there’s all that good weird stuff in there that’s not for some people’s taste but somehow feels overwhelmingly exciting. To me, I feel like that’s in [the album]. And the more and more I write, the less I want to make things perfect. I knew that I was smart when I was younger, and I tried to show people, because we weren’t as successful. I was like, “Look! I’m smart! See my smart words?” And at a certain point, I got so tired of that. I realized none of that was adding up to something that was enduring. And there’s that rightness that I’m talking aboutthat’s the goal. Not to be smart, not to be impressive, not to be overwhelmingjust to have a certain rightness. That, to me, is what I’m trying to build my artistic life around.

Hearing you talk about that, it reminds me of that Pablo Picasso quote where he said that when he was an old man that he could finally paint like a child. He wasn’t saying that his work was immature or that he was devolving as an artist but that he was able to paint with the sort of simple wonder that children have. Is that sort of what you’re saying?

Yeah. As I mentioned, childhood is important to me, because I was very overwhelmed by my imagination as a child, sometimes in a little bit of a bad way. But I was formed as a child. I guess that’s true of everyone. And wonder comes across you as a child. I don’t know if it’s the chemicals blasting through your brain or it’s the fact that your skull hasn’t grown together, so you have oxidized blood that is flooding your brain. I don’t know what it is, but that time is so formative and seems to be so charged with life. And I think when I was making The Silver Gymnasium, I was to some extent reacting to that. But I also think The Silver Gymnasium, though it is a happy and upbeat and bouncy record, is the work of a person who is not happy. And I knew that at the time. I think I probably talked about it in interviews. I had felt these levels of nostalgia for the silly trivia of my youth. It was unhealthy. And I think it was trying to exorcise it through art. And the amazing thing is that when I do stuff like that it usually works.

I did manage to exorcise a lot of that, and now nostalgia has assumed the proper proportion for me, and it’s not a thing that is terrifying and terrorizing me anymore. It’s like a friendly puppy. But having cured myself of that, I was like, “What do I do now?” That’s when I realized that the child in the man is the goal. You don’t want to be a kid. You don’t want to be walking around like a child. I think the nostalgia craze has almost become a religion for us in society now. People are getting so worked up about Ghostbusters and Star Wars, and the pros and cons and all the stupid things they get worked up about with that. We just want to return to our mother’s skirts, but I feel like that’s not the goal. The goal is to find the child within yourself, which is to say not the prejudice or the fear or the immaturity or the lack of compassion. There is so much compassion and empathy that you grow into as an adult. It’s one of the most important things that ever happens to you, I think.

Seeing that you were coming through a dark period in your life when you were writing these songs, was it difficult not to have these songs just be disillusioned?

You know what’s funny? I was describing the record as this big, bright pink cloud, which is something I hadn’t thought until I spoke it, but that’s how it felt to me. And then when I actually listened to the songs in order to be like, “Okay, what’s in here. What’s the record that’s in here?” Because there were 22 songs, and I was like, “What is it? What is the record?” And I listened back, and all of these songs that I thought were so friendly and sweet were really sad, and to a certain extent somewhat disillusioned. But the music was expressing so much hope to me, even if the words weren’t always. And that was a shock. I didn’t realize there were so many songs about death, and it wasn’t that I was obsessed with death. It was more that I could tell some version of myself was dying. So I was like, “Wow. I didn’t even think about that.” But there’s a kind of freedom in loss and death, and once something really fully dies, it’s ready to be its next thing. And for me, I think there is a sense of disillusionment and sorrow in there, but I don’t think there’s a sense of cynicism. I think it’s more like, “Some part of me is dying, and it hurts. But at the same time, I feel like I’m being set free.”

You talked a little bit about how the music industry was falling apart as you were writing these songs, to what extent did that enter into the way you were thinking about this record and how it would be heard?

The best part is that I wasn’t thinking about how it would be heard, because I didn’t even know what I was going to do with it or what it was. I started it two years ago, and it took me a little bit of courage to even believe in it, because the songs are all long and it’s very acoustic, and there were no up-tempo number and not a lot of choruses. And I was like, “Well, there’s this thing, and I don’t know what this is, but I know I love it.” I wasn’t really thinking about how it’s going to be heard, and I think that is a really big reason why I don’t regret any of it. A lot of the time, you can’t get out of your brain this thing about how your record is going to be heard. And I’ve read reviews, lots of them, and I think the stuff that hurts you the most is the positive stuff. The negative stuff can hurt really sharply, but the positive stuff can give you the wrong idea of who you are, and then you start to go, “Well, people say they like this. This is what I should do.” And then you’re doing an impression of yourself. But that’s not why anyone got into music. Every single person had a moment where they weren’t being praised, and they were doing something out of their own taste and their own desire. So I think the fact that I wasn’t thinking about what people would think made me feel free, because there is a certain bitterness in there. It’s not even bitterness; it’s just like, “Ha, ha, haeverything is fucked. Whateverit’s just fucked.” But that’s kind of freeing. Somebody steals your car, and you’re like, “Thank God. I don’t have to pay the insurance anymore. I don’t have to worry about it breaking down. It’s done. I don’t have a car.” So a lot of that is very honest and not mediated. I wasn’t really worried about what people were going to say. That’s why, in a lot of ways, the record makes me nervous. But it was a thing that was made in a closed system that I didn’t really have a plan for, and I haven’t really done anything like that ever. That aspect of it is interesting.

[Note: This article originally appeared in the digital version (for tablets and smart phones) of Under the Radar’s August/September/October 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]



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