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Okkervil River

Jul 02, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Few lyricists today weave a story as intricate and involving as Will Sheff, lead singer and songwriter (not to mention sole constant member) of Okkervil River. Sheff’s tales of heartache and addiction populated 2002’s Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See and 2003’s Down the River of Golden Dreams with living, breathing characters. But with 2005’s incredible, haunting Black Sheep Boy, Sheff rendered emotions even more bare—like the soundtrack to a Diane Arbus photograph. The success of Black Sheep Boy afforded a new sense of confidence in a singer who has often said he chose music for its inevitable path to failure. With that confidence, Sheff has stepped onto a (slightly) sunnier side of the street on the surprisingly upbeat The Stage Names.

Under The Radar: I recently discussed with a friend the strong sense of history that’s present in the South—where I think a lot of people assume you’re from—and New England—where you are, in fact, from. She said there’s a sadness to the South that’s leftover from the Civil War. But in New England, I think there’s a sense that the good times have already come and gone. I feel a lot of that in your music, this sense of the past, and I wonder if that developed naturally or if you honed it as a voice?

Will Sheff: I always felt an affinity with folk music that I guess has a little bit to do with being a small-town kid from the country as well as living in a place that perhaps has a little bit more sense of history than the rest of the United States. That feeling of affinity probably informed some of the earlier music I’ve done. That said, I have to fess up to the fact that the South has a much richer musical tradition than New England. I remember, back when I was particularly obsessed with old-time songs, trying to research folk music from New England and not coming up with too much. Not sure why that is—maybe the pilgrims and their descendents were just a little too uptight to have left much of a musical legacy behind. I probably owe morepersonally to that legacy of uptightness than I owe to the musical history of New England.

UTR: The Stage Names seems sunnier than your other records, more optimistic. It’s hard to imagine the bar-band thump of “You Can’t Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Man” (or the laughter on the same track) being on another Okkervil River record. What’s changed?

Sheff: After I made Black Sheep Boy, I started noticing that a lot of people who liked the record seemed to have developed this image of me as some kind of disturbed and miserable person. An Italian interviewer recently asked me with a totally straight face if I considered myself “a tortured soul.” Additionally, I’d get people coming up to me after shows, explaining to me their problems or telling me their deepest secrets and asking me what they should do. I started feeling very uncomfortable with coming across that way and I knew that if I did another record in the vein on Black Sheep Boy that I would be rendering myself even more cartoonish. It seemed both important and more challenging to try to break that mold—or at least put a few deep cracks in it—to capture the sheer joy that all six of us feel in playing music and to convey a kind of unhinged party atmosphere. Where Black Sheep Boy was more of a midnight record, with The Stage Names we were trying to make something you’d want to put on during the day. When you actually look at the lyrics for The Stage Names, though, I don’t think they’re actually that much sunnier. I think it’s more a matter of them describing a kind of daily disappointment and resignation, something that’s pretty everyday for all of us, and maybe scarier.

UTR: How much did the solidified band lineup have to do with the different tone?

Sheff: I think that the solidified band lineup has a lot to do with the way the new record sounds. We’ve had a lot of lineup difficulties in the past because it’s been so hard to make ends meet touring, and the current lineup is the result of three years of carefully gathering together like-minded players who are totally committed to this band. I felt that it was really important to reflect that this time around, to avoid calling in special guests in order to highlight the six people who have spent the last two years traveling all over the world, in order to document all of us playing an arrangement at the same time in a room together.

UTR: I’m reminded of what people say about comedy—that it’s the hardest thing in the world to do well. Depressing people, especially now, is a much shorter journey than actually uplifting them. Where did you find the energy? Was it a conscious challenge?

Sheff: It is somewhat true that in following Black Sheep Boy with The Stage Names, we were trying to go from darkness to light, from tragedy to comedy. This is almost impossible to do, a terrible thing to try, and I think that was a big part of the attraction for me. I hear a lot of contemporary indie music, especially emo songwriter stuff, where the performers throw in references to any number of movie-of-the-week “issues” like they’re swirling MSG into a stir-fry; it’s a cheap way to add a little borrowed misery and angst to the lyrics. That kind of thing becomes mildly nauseating after a little while, and I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to it. I think a lot of people confuse being serious with being depressing, and I wanted to try to make a record that was both serious and fun.

UTR: Some of The Stage Names reminded me of Born in the U.S.A. (especially “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”), which has a similarly uplifting vitality without lying or making things out to be better than they are. Did you model The Stage Names on anything, or were you listening to anything in particular that colored the album?

Sheff: The Bruce Springsteen thing is interesting—a lot of people seem to be trying to sound like the Boss these days. It wasn’t a huge influence on us, but I like the idea of trying to be uplifting without lying. To me, that’s what The Velvet Underground or Nina Simone got away with sometimes. When I was writingThe Stage Names, I was thinking in terms of a lot of records I’ve found both “fun” and “smart,” from stuff like Blonde on Blonde to the Shangri-Las and all those great Bowie records. To me, those are fun records, almost party records, that don’t insult anyone’s intelligence about the way the world really is.

UTR: What’s been the live response to the new songs?

Sheff: Surprisingly great. I’ve found that usually when an audience doesn’t know a new song in a live performance they’re not especially demonstrative. They’re absorbing the song for the first time, trying to see what they think. Some songs, however, an audience seems to get immediately. “For Real” from Black Sheep Boy was like that, and we seem to be getting that kind of reaction from a whole lot of these new songs.

UTR: What kind of reaction did you get for “The President’s Dead?”

Sheff: The reaction to “The President’s Dead” has been interesting. A good deal of people cheer when I start playing it at live shows, while on the other side I’ve had conservative people tell me it’s turned them away from our band. In the middle are people who seem to understand that the song’s not solely trying to be politically provocative, that a good deal of its meaning is unrelated to politics. However, I’ve also gotten flack from some of those, for example, [there was] a fellow I e-mailed back and forth with who told me that he was disgusted that I would write “apolitical” songs at a time like this, that I was a coward and he no longer counted himself as a fan.

UTR: The Beach Boys allusions in “John Allyn Smith Sails” shocked the hell out of me. I had a certain sense of Okkervil River, and that really deepened it—it’s just strange to hear those words in your voice, which is so singular. It’s also nice to know a band can still surprise me, even after I feel as though I know them. Do things like that happen more often as you grow comfortable with one another as a band—the freedom to just let something out and see where it takes you?

Sheff: When I’d first started Okkervil River, when we’d barely played any shows and no one came because no one knew who we were, I repeated to myself like a mantra that everything I did, whether artistic, professional, or personal, would end in failure. I tried, though, to think of this failure as a positive thing, to look forward to failing and embrace it. I’ve found that attitude incredibly liberating in my life, and it’s perhaps related to an artistic compulsion I’ve developed over the years to attempt the worst ideas that occur to me, to throw everything I have into making those ideas somehow work. If you’re attempting something that you know it’s a long shot to even pull off, it makes the process of trying more exciting and maybe makes for more adventurous work overall. Over the years I’ve come to think of art much more like play, like when you’re a kid, making up games to amuse yourself or your siblings. Over time, the band has become far more open to just trying anything we think is exciting or terrible or funny, taking the challenge of it seriously. We may not widely release all the results of that, but it always makes me feel like the world is bigger, like there are so many more choices. So, for example, when “The Wreck of the Sloop John B.” almost randomly popped into a song I was writing, I hadn’t been planning it but I gave it a chance to stay there, and I think in the end it works because in many respects it shares the same soul with my song, which is already kind of about two names sharing one soul.

UTR: Lou Reed recently gave you a big thumbs up at the MTV Video Music Awards. Now you’ve opened for him—what did that feel like?

Sheff: Incredibly validating. Lou has long been one of my biggest influences, and I am such a fan. It made me feel like I wasn’t entirely barking up the wrong tree creatively.

UTR: You went to school for creative writing, which is obvious in the novelistic nature of your lyrics. What kind of rock ’n’ roll training did that give you?

Sheff: I think the single most important thing I learned from the creative writing program is that life resides in details and you should be as specific as you can at all times. Also, fictional plots are based all around character, and I learned that those characters have to be missing something, to want something, and you have to want it for them or fear for them getting it. Additionally, and I think I learned this more on my own than from a professor or fellow student, I discovered that on some level you have to feel deep love and compassion for your characters, no matter who they are.

UTR: Do you have any plans to write a book?

Sheff: Not at the moment. I might later on, but for right now everything in my life is absorbed by this band.



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