Catching up with Okkervil River's Will Sheff

Okkervil River, with Sheff in front

Since 1998, Okkervil River and Will Sheff, the Austin, Tex.-based outfit's bandleader, vocalist and songwriter, have been critical darlings of the indie rock world, thanks to an incomparable body of work — their albums range from great to masterful. Okkervil River's most recent album, 2013's The Silver Gymnasium (the band's seventh full-length release), is an exuberant, fantastical mediation on childhood wonder, nostalgia and the unpredictable turns of life. The album came to life after Sheff, long a fixture on the Austin music scene and a recent Brooklyn transplant, returned to his small hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire, reconnecting with the hallowed, rural setting of his childhood for the first time in 15 years.

NUVO: When [NUVO Music Editor] Katherine [Coplen] interviewed you in 2012, you were getting ready to play Bloomington, and she mentioned seeing you at Bloomington's Buskirk-Chumley Theater in 2008. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it has either been a very long time since you played Indianapolis or not at all.

Will Sheff: I don't think we've ever played Indianapolis. I might be wrong about that and was wondering that myself. I'm pretty sure we haven't. I used to go Indianapolis to go thrift store shopping when I spent time in Bloomington. There is some really good thrift shopping in Indianapolis, although now I don't remember where I went.

NUVO: I'm fortunate enough that I've been able to see you several times. I moved to Austin for a few years, so I got to see you play sets in your backyard and I've seen you at festivals over the years. I was lucky enough to have the chance to see you guys play alongside Roky Erikson also, which is a fantastic memory. Now, it'll be special to be able to see Okkervil River play a show on my home turf.

Sheff: Cool!

NUVO: Let's talk about the new album. Last time you spoke to NUVO, it was around the time of I Am Very Far's release. You told her that the themes and characters prevalent in all of your prior writing were still etched into those songs, even if only you could hear them. You said you wanted them to be "totally buried." I've been reading several of your interviews in support of The Silver Gymnasium, and one line that stuck out with me was when you told Interview Magazine that your "intent for this album is to be more compassionate, approachable and friendly." Can you talk about the change of direction from I Am Very Far into The Silver Gymnasium and why it was so important to you for it to be compassionate?

Sheff: I think the process of making things different from record to record happens rather organically, at least it does for me. You make a record and there are things you want to talk about and sounds you want to have or a style that you want to work into the record, and then you go on the road and play these songs again and again and again, and in the process of doing that you kind of internalize - in some ways, you get them down even more than you did before. So by the time you get done with all that, by the time we've toured all over the world and played these songs again and again and again, the whole feel of the record has been lived in and breathed in, so at that point, I guess I always find myself wanting to do something different. Life is short, and I don't want to do the same record over and over again. Sometimes, I won't even do the same medium over again. I just prefer to do something different than I've tried before.

I Am Very Far was a record that was kind of threatening and large-sounding and dark-themed. I guess I have a sort of compassionate quality to my work that I wanted to get away from at the time. I didn't want it to be so earnest. After I got through with all of that, I felt like I got a little bit of that emotion out of my system. I wanted to do something that felt different. I've always felt that there's a sort of cowardice involved when people try to be difficult for the purpose of being difficult or try to be dark or cynical or nihilistic to show that they're serious. I can be kind of obnoxious; not to say that I did that, but I just think that it's really challenging to look at the world in a more honest way, like in a way of happiness or sweetness.

NUVO: I totally relate with that outlook. I think when artists, or even anybody in whichever medium of work, force something, you can sense that it's forced. You can feel somebody putting darkness for darkness' sake before your eyes and realize something doesn't add up. With The Silver Gymnasium, it does feel like a distinct change from past Okkervil River albums, but, without a doubt, it sounds like nobody other than Okkervil River. You also consciously bring '80s sounds and a sense of nostalgia to the forefront, but I don't think there's any mistaking that this is still a 2013-2014 record. It doesn't feel like a retread or a period piece. How do you pull off that balance when lesser acts often seem to fall in a rut of just rehashing a style and end up feeling instantly dated?

Sheff: I wanted to make a record that was my version of talking about childhood and the 1980s and talking about nostalgia, memory and loss and things like that. I didn't want it to be colored by the kind of like, "Hey do you remember?" nostalgia. I wanted to make something that had my own sort of color, flavor and sound to it. I think nostalgia for nostalgia's sake can backfire pretty dramatically. People will get hung up on the past, whether it's me thinking about a time won't ever come back, or whether you're a band trying to sound like some soul band from the '20s or something. I think it's silly to just try to imitate the traffic. That stuff comes and goes and it's really indefensible for the ideas that are underneath. To me you should allow space to find the spirit of something and not necessarily to go: "This is exactly how it sounded. This is exactly how it looked." A little bit of that can be kind of fun in a cheeky way, but once you get too caught up in that simulation it just draws attention to the fact that it's impossible to ever create a work of art from the '80s ever again, you know? It's never gonna happen. Or the '20s or whatever. Time moved on.

NUVO: Obviously, this is the first time I've talked to you, but I've been listening to your records for eight or nine years, and what has always grabbed me with your writing, specifically, or with the band's sound is the amount of thought that goes into every facet of the finished product. It isn't just the music either: the genuineness and truth of whatever you're doing bleeds through every corner of each new project. For The Silver Gymnasium, that equates to everything from William Schaff's artwork to the detailed map of Meriden [Sheff's 500-population New Hampshire hometown that serves as the album's setting] to the 8-bit video game created by Eyes and Ears' Benjamin Miles. It seems to be a rare and special offering, especially in today's environment of digital music consumption and short attention spans. Does that seem fair to say?

Sheff: Yeah, I guess I agree with that to a certain extent. Sometimes I wonder if it's too much. I wonder if I put too much creative control over the little details, and I wonder if I should maybe loosen my grip and let accidents happen more. But I do feel like art, like - I have a lot of insecurity about how worthless I am as a contributor to society, like what I do is not really meaningful or helpful. What else could I be doing to make myself useful that I don't do? So just by virtue of being a musician or an artist, those things are going to - you know, when the world goes to shit, there isn't going to be a lot of space left for artists. For that reason, maybe I try to compensate by trying to make things really beautiful and kind of loved over. Art can really be helpful to people, you know? Sometimes, my luckiest and happiest moments are when I get really heartfelt notes from people who say they've been helped by something that I've worked on. That's why we're all kind of here on Earth is to try to help each other. It's just a different way to try to help. And I think that helping people can be something as heavy as making people want to live again while they're in the hospital, or it can be as light as making people want to have a good time on a Saturday night when they're going out to their favorite spot. That's why I go to music: for the really heavy stuff and for the fun, little light stuff. I'm honored that I'm able to be a part of people's lives in that manner.

NUVO: That's fantastic, Will. I can relate to those insecurities while also finding the sweetness in helping out in seemingly smaller ways, whether through music or writing or whatever. Sure, there is a tremendous weight to helping others through volunteering and working with your hands, but I also believe there is an intrinsic, intangible beauty in the sort of help you can do by creating a piece of art that is thoughtful and meaningful at its core. So that's wonderful that you take it to heart with gratitude, because I can promise it means a lot to your fans.

Speaking of that, when Kat last spoke to you, she asked you about when you were staying in Bloomington working on Black Sheep Boy and how you said you felt like you would be ready to give up music if that album hadn't worked out. I believe there was a part where you talked about the toll making the music takes on you and how you work so hard at it, because you feel a desire to keep a level of self-respect. I believe you said you never want to be an impression of yourself, and you've seen many other people succumb to that circumstance. That seems to translate with each new Okkervil River record, in the music, the artwork, the liner notes, et cetera: that you have an almost paralleled drive to keep up a level of self-respect and create a meaningful, original experience for intent listeners in a rather odd industry.

Sheff: The weird thing is that sometimes you start to see how, like if I did the sort of becoming a caricature of myself thing, maybe it would be more successful. Or, sometimes, there are moments when you're making a piece of art when you see ways you could make it way more accessible or way lamer, and sometimes you start to lose your bearings when you see other artists with those very choices get a boost from it. It's kind of weird. I don't know. It's odd. Not being a caricature of one's self, I don't even think that's just related to being an artist, especially once you get older, the being a caricature of one's self or settling into this robotic routine of just sort of going to your job and not listening to new music and not making new friends and not having new experiences and not having new ideas or not being turned on by the world at all: I think that's something that's really important to fight against. We're so lucky to be alive. With all the shit that could go wrong and doesn't, it kind of feels wrong not to have a distaste for that.

NUVO: After moving to Brooklyn a few years back and being closer to your grandparents and family in the Northeast, you told Kat that you had started more of an 11:00-7:00, day in and day out, work routine that had become really fruitful, and you were almost upset you hadn't started doing it earlier. Are you still feeling a similar satisfaction with that routine and proximity to loved ones?

Sheff: Yeah, the art of being a musician can be a little overwhelming with touring, and also there's a lot of narcissism involved in trying to promote oneself. I guess I realized a lot of that stuff was making me unhappy and absorbing my brain: packing it up and moving on town to town to town. You know, we toured pretty relentlessly for many, many years, and I felt it was stripping away things that were meaningful to me on some level. It's easy as an artist to fall into this state where you're disassociated from everything around you, and I guess I try to fight against that.

NUVO: What prompted the move from Bloomington-based label Jagjaguwar to ATO after all these years?

Sheff: I love those [Jagjaguwar] guys. I'm deeply impressed by them, and I've felt that for a really long time. It was the only label that I was ever on, and it's sort of like "all good things must come to an end." I'm still really close with them. We email and send each other records, and we constantly try to shoot each other notes and discuss the other's work. I just feel you can have those lifelong artistic friends and not always have to necessarily work with them — sort of how I feel about Jonathan [Meiburg who left Okkervil in 2008 to focus on his group Shearwater]. Sometimes, when you're in that position where you're not fighting in the trenches together so much, a lot more of what's real about that friendship comes out. Also, ATO are awesome and they're really wonderful people, and I feel at home with them.


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