By Philip Chevalier.
Capitalism is lurking behind every corner of the music creation process, and that reality haunts Will Sheff.
As a young man, the songwriter behind Okkervil River chose to make music because it was his salvation. It was a pure, noble pursuit in a world full of ethically compromising ones. When compared to living his life for the sake of art, anything involving a steady and god forbid lucrative paycheck seemed not only frighteningly boring, but like choosing to tacitly comply with the constant and gradual cheapening of things – a life that’s “slightly disappointingly just gliding softly by,” to borrow a line of his from 2008’s Stand Ins.
It’s probably safe to say he doesn’t have any trouble looking himself in the mirror as the result of choosing music as his vocation. And we should be very happy about his having chosen it, as by now the world is multiple classic albums richer, and that much better of a place than he found it. But it becomes alarmingly clear during our conversation that he still struggles a great deal when the mirror is turned to face the music industry writ large.
The grossness he sees there is on full display on “The Industry”, an acerbic single from Okkervil River’s recently released, eighth full-length album Away. Devalued art, sacrificed principles, shit-talking friends – it’s all there. “I thought that it was us against the world,” he sings dejectedly. “But now it’s me against something so big and abstract that I can’t tell what it is.”
To varying degrees, Okkervil River has been fighting against that big and abstract something for several records now. So, it’s natural that when prompted to talk about the ugliness that continues to stare back at him when he looks his industry in the face, he still has a whole lot to say.
“I have to be candid with you,” Sheff tells me at one point.
He’s never supplied a reason to suspect he wouldn’t be.
Okkeril River plays DC’s 9:30 Club tonight, and NYC’s Webster Hall on October 20. Away is out now on ATO Records.
How do you feel about music interviews?
Well, it’s quite complicated. I like them. Like, this is a nice conversation. I like the sound of my own voice. I get to talk, that’s fun.
There are some things about them I don’t like, though. One of the things about them that I don’t like is that I get asked the same questions over and over again. I made this record for me – it means a lot to me – and I say that very sincerely. And in every interview that I do, I’m trying really hard to be candid in my answers. But it’s really difficult to not to answer the same questions in the same way, because the same questions often do have the same answers. So as I bend over backwards to try to conceptualize what I’m saying in a different way, and I end up further and further abstracting myself from my own personal relationship with the record. I’m taking that relationship, and I’m putting it more and more into a frame.
That frame can never be fully adequate because records are mysterious things. They’re partly alive, I think.
I don’t mean that they’re literally alive, because that’s literally not true. But spiritually or soulfully or on some mystical level, there’s so much of a person poured into a record, and there’s so much about what music does to us that’s almost involuntary. It’s the same even for bad music. I was listening to a Matchbox 20 song today and it was making me feel something involuntarily, in spite of the fact that it sucked.
Music is amazing like that. It’s got this, like, weird, magic thing. When you mix it with a lot of love, it becomes a living thing. I think that’s the reason why I object so strenuously to the concept of assigning a grade or a rating to an album, because it’s like assigning a grade or a rating to a dog or an apple or a tree or your brother. Like, [sarcastically] “I give my brother a B-.”
There’s so much richness and complexity to a record, and there are things about music that we don’t even understand or get why they work on us the way they do. As I tell the story of the record to try to get people to come out to the show, I’m pushing myself further and further away from it, and I’m really making myself an observer of the record. I end up betraying it.
To talk about the brother example, if I did a million interviews about my brother, at the end of it, my relationship with my brother would have somehow changed.
I can’t help but feel like I’m inevitably going to contribute to that. I hope to do so as minimally as possible.
It sounds so egregiously first-world-problems-y to say, “I hate getting asked the same questions all the time.” It’s something I’ve been trying to put into words for a long time, and I feel like I never really satisfactorily did it until the other day when I was talking to a friend, and this was what I hit upon.
Here’s an example from today, though: I just did an interview an hour ago where the guy opened the interview by saying he’d only heard the record once and was “still getting his head around it.” And for the first interview I was supposed to have with that same guy, he just forgot to call. So we finally talk and he starts asking me these questions – and I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, very nice, very courteous, and he actually did seem like a fan – but he was asking these questions like, “What are your influences?” and “Where did you get your band name from?” It was like when you’re trying to do your homework right before class starts or something.
When you get asked the same questions you’ve answered a million times, your brain kind of spasms. I actually get a little angry. It’s super unreasonable, and I immediately feel really guilty for the anger. But I very recently realized it’s because I’m resentful. It’s because I know my relationship with my own record is being destroyed piece by piece by me having to become a parrot with talking points about it.
But there’s no fixing it other than me not doing any more interviews. And the thing is I like doing interviews. I’m enjoying this. I also like reading interviews with other people. So, it’s an odd thing.
I saw you did a Reddit AMA the other day. Was that a way for you to democratize the process a little bit and avoid some of the repetitive blogger questions?
I really like doing those AMAs. I really like talking to fans. Since it’s just me, and they’re not going to, like, publish it, I feel like we’re just two people talking.
I’ve had some experiences with fans that have changed my life and changed my work. I got a letter from a girl who said, “I was a shy kid with no friends and really unhappy, and you helped me get through 5th grade, 6th grade, 7th grade, and now I’m a high school senior, and I feel confident and happy, and you helped me get there.” And then I got a handwritten letter from a fellow that, without going into too many details, said we had prevented him from committing suicide.
When you hear stuff like that, you realize that caring about things like the guy who heard your record a couple times and asks you these stock questions only to give you some rating that really to be honest is just about how cool he thinks you are, you realize that’s just such a silly and pitiful thing to be worried about.
That’s why I love talking to fans, because they really take the music to heart. They’re not getting flooded with a million records and having to form hot takes on Frank Ocean before they’ve even had a chance to listen to it, just so they can stay relevant. With fans, music is like church to them, and it’s such an honor that anyone in the universe feels that way about my music.
Also with Reddit, it’s not like it’s these peoples’ jobs. They’re not like, “Well, I guess I gotta do this interview now.” So they’re not going to ask me questions like “What are your influences?” and “Where did you get your name?” They’re asking me questions that they’ve been burning to ask for years. I had to drag myself off of that last AMA because it was so fun.
There’s a line on “The Industry” where you hit on your disdain for ratings systems. You sing: “Grinding on some poor girl / who is backstage at the 6.8 rock fest.” That seems to play on the Pitchfork score assigned to your last record, Silver Gymnasium.
This is a big conflict for me in my life, and it’s kind of embarrassing that I can’t get it through my thick head. Music is like a religion to me. It changed my life in the deepest way. I get to do this for a living, ya know? Music rescued me. It swooped down from Heaven and rescued me.
You play music at a funeral. You play music at a wedding. You play music to help you heal. You play music to help you party. It’s like magic. It’s sacred. And I’m just very offended by the cynicism that you can see in Pitchfork, that you can see in publicists, that you can see in “label bros,” that you can see in Spotify. It’s a pit of snakes, and they don’t care about music.
You know who’s talking the most at a fuckin’ show? The guys in the VIP. It’s the people who didn’t have to pay to get in. They don’t care about music. People in the music business do not care about music. It makes me really, really angry, because I’m hurt. It really makes me sad, because it seems like blasphemy to me.
I’m not like, “I really wish we had a different rating.” It’s not about that. It’s about how disgusting I find it and how transparent it is, how little these people give a shit about music. I think it’s gross – just as gross as somebody who calls themselves a Christian and turns out to be homophobic or who goes on to celebrate money.
I just think it’s horrible. It hurts my feelings, and I should get it through my thick skull that music is a business, that we live in the real world. Obviously, that’s the truth. But for me, I’m just such a bozo that I can’t get it through my brain. I’m always expecting people to feel really earnestly and sincerely about it the way that I do. It’s silly that I feel that way apparently, but I can’t stop it.
The people in the industry presumably got into it because they had a special connection to the music. What do you think generates that cynicism over time?
I mean, that’s a gigantic, monolithic question. But when I say all this I want to add that I’m also sticking up for my friends. I’m not the only one who feels this way; all of my musician friends do, too. They all got into it through this deep and pure love, and I hate to see them get kicked in the face again and again, whether it’s by streaming services or by cool “taste makers” or scummy people who work in the business and try to exploit them. Or female artists who don’t even fucking get taken seriously as artists at all because they’re women. There are guys who don’t even think that they’re sexist – they don’t even see it.
It makes me angry to see my friends mistreated, because they’re my brothers and sisters in music. I can’t take their poor treatment.
So, that’s what that song’s about. It’s not really about me, although I guess it sort of partially is. But if you’re asking why the music industry is like this, the short answer is capitalism.
Care to unpack that? Feel free to use the “label bro” as an example.
It happens to everybody in a different way, but it’s like the publicist who gets paid to try to go out and get coverage for a record they don’t actually think is that good, and then that happens over and over and it starts to erode your soul.
Or the label that’s chasing money on an artist who’s not very good but makes them tons of money, and that makes it that much easier to rationalize it as all OK.
Traditionally, rock music is such a male-dominated thing, and the culture surrounding it is pretty much guys who aren’t into sports talking to each other about who produced what record in 1974, like they’re talking about the Green Bay Packers. You know what I mean? They sit around and compare their music statistics.
Then you throw in a world where drinking on the job is normalized, where taking drugs on the job is normalized, sometimes some really bad stuff is going to come out of people.
And now, all the sudden, there’s no more money to be made. There’s hardly a living wage to be made from music anymore. Me and my fellow musicians are like fighting each other on an unprecedented level. A meal that I eat is a meal that somebody else doesn’t get to eat, now more so than ever because there’s less food to go around.
It’s not like there’s some diabolical, mustache-twirling music guy who ruined everything – the system is just disgusting and broken, and it’s been disgusting and broken for ever and ever and ever. Back in the day it was broken in even more egregious ways, but now that the money’s out of it it’s like they drained the pool, and you can see all the disgusting shit that’s been sitting at the bottom of it for decades.
You sing, “Do you remember, baby, back in 96? / When some record was enough to make you raise your fist?” It seems like you’re speaking to that initial connection to the music and calling for nostalgia toward it. How much do you think that’s just emblematic of a younger way to experience music? Or is it something adults should continue to aspire to as well?
With that line, I was really just saying that music is at its most potent for a lot of people when they’re teenagers. I feel like so many people can relate. People talk about how rock is a “young man’s game,” but I think it’s the opposite. I think rock is a young fan’s game. There’s a lot of young people out there who listen to music and take it seriously, but then you get older and you get a job and have kids and you no longer really have the energy to discover new bands, and suddenly you’re like, “Why is music boring to me?” And plus, like I said, with streaming etc., the world is out to make music as unsexy as it can possibly get.
So it’s sort of just saying, “Remember? Do you remember when you formed that relationship with music in the first place? That didn’t go away. You are the one who changed, and you can work to change it back.” I apply a certain amount of discipline to the way I approach and listen to music. Because when the first disruptions to the way I listened to music happened – and in my experience that was with iTunes – I caught myself starting to, like, not like music anymore. Or maybe not that I didn’t like it, I just started to be not that excited about it anymore. I had to take a lot of action and figure out how to change that. I work at it. It’s like working at your marriage or something. It’s like if somebody was like, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t give a shit about my life anymore.” [Laughs] Ya know? It’s like, it’s a long life, you gotta put some effort into it, buddy!
It seems like maybe hip-hop is most capable out of anything right now of consistently delivering on that type of “holy shit, this is awesome” feeling, at least for me and a lot of my friends. As a songwriter, does what’s going on there interest or rejuvenate you?
Yes, absolutely. I’m tremendously inspired by hip-hop. It’s interesting because the lessons I take from it are different lessons than if I were a rapper, know what I mean? The sense of what you can do with phrasing and what you can do with melody in hip-hop is truly amazing. A lot of pop music is just like, “This is the melody, and it has this number of syllables, and there’s four lines in a verse, with two verses, and then a chorus, and then a bridge!” Obviously, that turns it into this really measured thing.
By contrast, the shape of a good rap song can go in a million places and not come back to them, and move onto a part that’s entirely different from the rest of the song. The way phrasing works in rap is a great liberation from what’s been the status quo in pop music for forever. It’s just really tremendously powerful.
And then you have these figures, like Kendrick or Chance the Rapper, who vibrate. They have this vibrancy, and I just don’t see it in a lot of other musicians these days. Like you might look at someone in rock and be like, “Oh he’s a master craftsman. [Flippantly] That’s cool.” But then you look at somebody like Chance the Rapper and it’s clear that this is vibrant, living art that people will remember, and that’s pushing things forward. It’s not just a revival museum piece that’s done really well, which is what so much rock and roll feels like to me.
There’s something that’s just so alive about hip hop now – even stuff where the writing’s not that special. Like Future. Like, I don’t even know if you call that writing.
[Laughs] Yes. But the feeling he has is intoxicating. The immediacy of it is incredibly thrilling and deeply inspiring.
Additional contributions by Philip Runco.