Will Sheff was raised in Meriden, New Hampshire, one of 500 people in a sleepy town far from any booming metropolis. By the time he had formed indie mainstay Okkervil River in 1998, he’d only just begun compiling years of record store nostalgia, small-town folk ease and aspirations to avoid any job deemed deskworthy into an ever-evolving line-up of both musicians and music.
Fourteen years, seven albums, one Black Sheep Boy appendix and multiple EPs later (with nary a desk job in sight), Okkveril River is something of an auditory chameleon shifting sound, theme and tone with every album. Sheff’s folk roots occasionally still shine through, though their latest–I Am Very Far–is as far a departure from their norm as they’ve ever had, mixing obsession with slick synthpop for what proves to be a theatrical, sweeping ride into their frontman’s world.
We were lucky enough to chat with Sheff before the band’s August 29 show at Rams Head, about musical sushi, Spotify and the streaming epidemic, fantasy celebrity deathmatch knife fights, “lifestyle music,” and writing like a murderer.
Hey! Thanks so much for calling, Will. Where are you right now?
Beaumont, I believe. In Texas. Maybe. [laughs] I don’t really know.
[Wryly] Oh it’s glorious. It’s sweeping me off my feet…
Ha! I’ll file that away … Will, you’ve always struck me as a musician with solid taste–whether you’re covering off-the-beaten-path musicians in your Golden Slumber EPs, talking about bands on twitter, in liner notes, etc. What are you listening to lately?
For about the past four or five years ago or so I’ve has this sort or obsession with Arthur Russell that’s been ratcheting up further and further and further every couple months. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Arthur Russell but he was an avant garde classical composer who also in the late ’70s/early ’80s came out of the closet. He was going to these downtown discos and stuff like that and he became really obsessed with creating a sort of an avant garde disco and then that lead into this interest in avant garde synthesizer pop. So it’s this really fascinating dichotomy where it’s got this spiritual quality and a mystical quality but at the same time it’s a very populist source. So I’ve been thinking about that a lot and I’m contributing to this Arthur Russell tribute album that the Red Hot Organization is putting out.
And for a weird reason, partially just because my parents’ wedding anniversary just came up and I’ve been thinking a lot about early life and their early marriage, I became obsessed with listening to every single song off of the Billboard Top 100 from 1972 to 1989. So I’ve been going through; I’ve gotten to about 1984 right now. That’s been really fascinating because it’s kind of like this archaeology of your musical memory. There are a lot of songs out there that you’ve forgotten you ever heard and then you hear them again–once upon a time, they were on the radio constantly and maybe you heard that song 500 times in 1984 and then you never really heard that song again because it didn’t stand the test of time for whatever reason. It’s kind of really funny–some Jeffrey Osborne song or Shalamar or, you know, these kind of cheesy disco/early new wave kind of songs which on the one hand are really disposable and laughable but on the other there’s a tremendous amount of poignant in them because it’s from when you were little. And when you listen to like, 80 hit songs from 1972, you start to reverse engineer and start to be able to understand what people wanted musically, what intervals they liked, what harmonies they liked, how they liked a guitar to be recorded. It becomes a time machine. It’s not like you’re listening to a song ironically one time; you’re conditioning your brain to this massive overload where you start to reconfigure a little bit and I think that’s a really fun thing to do.
Huh. That sounds pretty fascinating. I wanted to ask you if you’ve been able to write very much while still touring under I Am Very Far–so if so, have you been putting all of this knowledge you’ve been amassing from the Billboard charts to use?
I don’t know how much of this is going to influence most of my writing or not but I will tell you I spent most of the year writing while not touring. I really love playing live but the thing I love most of all and the reason I got into music was to be able to create things. And I love recording, and I love writing. And I find it somewhat difficult to write while on the road but I’m trying to reconfigure my entire life and my entire work schedule so that I can still continue to work on the road. I have a little recording rig that I travel with and that I can set up in a hotel room and I have all my stuff that I need to make things. I don’t want to have any more interruptions in my creative process just to get out and sort of hawk my wares on the road. You know, that’s sort of my goal. I just want to be able to work and work and work forever, at least ’til I die. Possibly afterward too but we’ll see how that works out. [Laughs]
But you know the world now, every single year, gets a little bit more fun because of all this digital crap. It gets a little bit more easy to make something and save it, even if it’s just a sketch and you build it into something else.
Nice! Do you think we’ll be able to hear any of the new stuff at Rams Head?
Oh, I wish. But the bad thing about the Internet and small devices is that when you play new songs, somebody takes a cameraphone video of it, puts it on their blog, writes an entry about it and then it’s old news by the time you put it out a year later. People go, “Oh, they trotted out that old song.” [Laughs] Well, it was written for the record! So when we were working on Black Sheep Boy and even The Stage Names, we were playing the songs live and really honing them and I feel like now you can’t really do that because you can’t stop people from stripping you on your own material.
Tangentially, I wanted to talk to you about your reaction to I Am Very Far leaking ahead of its release. You seemed pretty upset about it; if you could say something to the asshole who did it, what would it be?
I mean, I don’t know if the person is an asshole. They’re just… they just don’t see it the way that I see it. And it’s difficult to talk about this stuff without sounding like a grumpy old man, without sounding proprietary–sometimes I get on the Internet and I get a little bit grumpy about services like Spotify and I think that maybe it comes across as I want to be paid more or I feel unappreciated but what’s really bothering me is it feels disrespectful to music. There was a time when music was a really beautiful, sacred thing and a vinyl record was like this wonderful talisman; there’s so much love that went into the production and the consumption of it and I feel like it’s kind of become background music today. Everybody wants everything instantly available on demand and it becomes a lot less special. You know, it’s like the grocery store sushi. You can get sushi at any grocery store now but it’s not good sushi. That’s what it feels like music is turning into.
Yeah, so that kind of bothers me. And I’ve also seen friends be utterly broke and just give up music and give up hope because they just couldn’t make it work. The funny thing is there are a lot of people out there who think they’re screwing over the labels–like, “Well I’m not screwing artists because labels don’t pay artists anyway. I’m screwing the labels.” Well with Spotify for example, labels get a share of stock options off of Spotify. You’re giving money to Spotify and you’re giving more money to the label than you are to the artist and I think people don’t really always understand that. I’m a lucky person; I love that I get to do this and it’s wonderful. I don’t sit around and wring my hands and worry about my lot in life. It just bums me out because there’s this power to music–this beautiful, almost magical thing–and right now we’re just trying to turn it into wallpaper.
You know, I haven’t taken our music off of Spotify and I don’t judge people who torrent it because I want as many people as possible to hear it. That’s my goal: to have that interaction with people and hopefully make something that’s meaningful to them. But what really frustrated me about the leak is that you go through all this time and more money than we’d ever spent on any record and so much love and care and you kind of want to just be able to have the chance to be able to present the record the way that you wanted to. If you’ve ever seen the record, the artwork, I mean, we just lavished so much love and thought on that artwork and we tried to make it sound great and make it look great and tried to make it feel like a gift. And being disempowered of the ability to present your gift the way that you wanted to, that’s what felt hurtful about it or painful about it. It’s like you buy someone a really great Christmas present and you put a lot of time into making it look nice with really nice wrapping paper and then they break into your room two weeks before Christmas and tear off the wrapping paper and walk away with it. And they feel like there’s nothing wrong with that.
No, completely. And you can tell the artwork alone is really meaningful to Okkervil if by nothing else than your relationship with William Schaff, who does almost everything for you guys. It almost seems rare for a band today to work exclusively with one artist, sort of like a Hunter Thompson/Ralph Steadman relationship…
Yeah, I love working with him and I love the idea of a designer being strongly associated with a sound; I love the idea of using image with sound as if they’re sort of together, and I admired his work even before we were working with him. One of the things that’s been really special is that we have grown together, personally and artistically so that I’ve written stuff to go with what he’s drawn and he’s drawn stuff to go with what I’ve written so we’ve grown even in how things work together. There’s a kind of a fusion there over time that’s really, really special. And you know I’m trying to think of other designers who’ve worked so consistently with the same musical artists and I’m not sure if that’s happened. I really like when you can geek out and put your records in order and flip through them and feel like they’re all part of an exhibition.
That’s very true… Changing the pace a bit, I’ve got a bit of a game for you. I heard you once accidentally once found yourself in a knife fight–
Yeah, that was a while ago actually, but what did you want to ask?
Well I wanted to know in a sort of “Celebrity Deathmatch” scenario of knife fights, who would win between Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder?
Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder? I don’t think either of them–well I have a hunch, I mean, Stevie Wonder seems incredibly sweet and I’ve also heard that Stevie Nicks is really sweet so I think even if you threw them in a situation where it would be one or the other, I think they would band together. I mean, I can’t imagine Stevie Nicks stabbing somebody and certainly not Stevie Wonder. I don’t know if that would really work.
What about Bill Fay and Billy Idol?
Billy Idol would kill Bill Fay. I mean, like, you know, I would be incredibly sad about it but Bill Fay–he wouldn’t raise a knife against somebody. I think if you put Billy Idol in a situation where it was like, him or anybody else then we know Billy Idol’s going to do his best to take them down.
What about Elvis Presley and Elvis Costello?
Oh, Elvis Costello would butcher Elvis Presley in a knife fight.
I mean, Elvis Presley was a lover, not a fighter! He was a sweet guy; he was a sweet southern mama’s boy. I think that Elvis Costello, you know, he’s got a lot of bile. He’s got a lot of vitriol. He’s got some fight in him. I think he’d get weird with it. I think he’d make it drawn-out, I think he’d make it last.
OK, one more: George Harrison and George Gershwin.
[Laughs] Probably George Gershwin. No, I think George Harrison actually because even though George Harrison was all zen and peace and love, he was a tough Liverpool kid. Those guys were bruisers actually, especially John Lennon, of course. He was always ready to get into a fistfight. So I think George Harrison was a scrapper. You know, I think neither of them would want to get involved but if it were one of those things where it would be one or the other, I bet George Harrison would probably win. Although George Gershwin was a street-smart New York guy, I guess. So maybe George Gershwin. Maybe it would be tough to call that.
Plus, back in the day your knife-fighting skills were probably elevated because knife fights are more of an old timey thing…
Ha! Totally. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your characters because they’re so believable–whether you’re a murderer like in “Westfall” or someone caught up in an affair like in “Hanging from a Hit,” their perspectives are so vivid. What’s the secret to making them so real?
I don’t know, actually. I don’t think about it very much. I guess what I try and do is write from a place of love. I try to really love characters. And even if it is a creep, I’m still trying to give them a chance to explain themselves. And maybe when I’m writing from the point of view of the creep, I take sides with him a little bit. I’m like, “Yeah, fuck the world. Fuck everybody.” You know what I mean?
But I really have always very strongly disliked when a character is being made fun of, whether it’s in a movie or a book or a song, when I feel like they’re being set up as a clown or a character is supposed to be an idiot and everyone else is like, “Oh, I’m so superior to them.” I really hate that. I feel like you’ve got to give characters their dignity, even if they’re horrible. So I think that’s what I try to do.
Excellent. Your records have these big sweeping, thematic feels to them. Each one takes a new direction while still maintaining that Okkervil River sound–what are some things that determine a record’s feel to you before you set out to make them?
It’s all pretty intuitive. It’s all what I want to do at that moment, not that it’s impulsive. When I finished doing The Stage Names I’d gotten really into this kind of a candy-colored, sleazy, trying-to-be-witty thing and it was fun but by the time you’re done touring that for two years, you’re sort of like, it feels a little old hat, you know what I mean? And I wanted to make a record that was more difficult, more challenging upon the listener and that would have that deeply unsettling and sort of subterranean quality to it. I wanted to be able to work from that place because Stage Names was very surface. Surface is great. But I wanted to do something that was very little surface or where the surface was very prickly to try to keep you from getting underneath and what was underneath was like very sort of dark and cloudy. And I kind of knew that that meant there was going to be a listener who wasn’t going to follow us and wasn’t going to be able to crack through that surface; [The Stage Names, The Stand Ins] were very special in a way that they’re more weak, more geared toward the unobsessive person while being obsessive records. And with I Am Very Far I was allowing myself to get lost in obsession. And I think sometimes that stuff comes from having done the exact opposite right before.
I don’t ever want to feel like I’m treading water. I want you to feel like you’re taking a journey, not bogged down in the same place. And you look at the artists you really love who’ve had a good career and Bill Fay is a good example because he’s changed a lot. Even though there’s a core vibe to what he was doing, it changed and mellowed–his first demos are very like sweet kind of Beatles stuff and then he was a lush songwriter and then he became very despairing and noisy and then ge got very new-agey for a while. It was always the thing you didn’t think you wanted and then by the end of the record, you were totally on board and I feel like that sense of growth is really important.
Yeah, completely. Do you have an idea of where you want that growth to lead on your next album?
I do, but I don’t want to spoil the fun. [laughs]
Haha, I understand. Well I do have just one last question for you, Will. I know after Black Sheep Boy you decided you’d skirt away from really personal writing and events that clearly happened directly to you. Now here you are with I Am Very Far and even if you look at “Your Past Life As A Blast,” you’re using your own name and the music video is all footage from your childhood. What made you decide to take that leap back into it?
Yeah. When I was coming up doing music there was almost a gross level of navelgazing personalness. There was a sort of diary-entry style of writing that was popular and this kind of emo thing and I just thought it was really kind of teenage and immature and silly and over the top and trivial and I didn’t feel it was going to stand the test of time. And everybody’s music was personal because you are who you are, but I never wanted to sort of exercise my demons. But I now feel music has gone a little too boringly far in the opposite direction, where I feel like there’s a lot of art out there–especially music–that is afraid to put anything at stake.
It’s a lot of decorative surface and lifestyle music. You know, the kind of music to put on your iPod 4s and like, walk around town to. [laughs] It’s like music that goes with a nice iPod. There’s an almost phobia that people have about getting under your skin and putting something at stake, so I think now that the world seems like that, I get more of a kick from opening up that sort of vein. And if you think about John Lennon and how personal that stuff is, it’s really powerfully affecting. So I guess I started feeling more of a pressure to be real with people, especially since it seems like the world has been becoming more plastic than usual.
Well goddamn. You’ve been great, Will. Thanks so much for such a good interview.
Oh, it was my pleasure.
Well good luck on the rest of your tour and we’ll see you in Baltimore.
Thanks. I’m really looking forward to playing for you guys and that show specifically.