Heartbeat: Okkervil River's Will Sheff

 

Okkervil River's Will Sheff decided after releasing double albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins to become purposely harder to understand. His 2011 album I Am Very Far abandons the folk hero conceit, leaving behind the tight narratives and narrative tropes that characterized his previous releases for myths and mermaids and spare arrangements. It was not a choice lightly made — read on for Sheff's explanation. The band will play at Upland Brewing Co. in Bloomington Friday as part of a fundraiser for the Sycamore Land Trust.

NUVO: I'm calling from Indianapolis but you'll be playing in Bloomington at Upland, your label's home. I actually saw you there in 2008; it was an awesome show.

Will Sheff: Thank you very much. That was a fun show. I've spent a ton of time in Bloomington, writing and staying with folks from the label, so I've gotten to know it real well. It's been a while since I've been back; that show that you went to was the last time I've been there, so I'm looking forward to having the excuse to go back again.

NUVO: So Bloomington feels like a certain kind of home for you, maybe? I know that you're from Austin and there are certain similarities.

Sheff: Well, I like Bloomington a lot. I've always gotten the sense that it feels differently for the people that live there; they have a different vibe on it than I do. 'Cause whenever I talk about to people who really, seriously live there, it's like we're talking about two different towns. It's something that I don't really fully understand. But I've spent a decent amount of time there. When I was writing Black Sheep Boy, I was actually living at Darius Van Arman's house, from Jagjaguwar. I was staying with him and I was writing there, I was dating a girl who lived there, and that brought me back there a ton, so I spent a ton of time there. I really like the vibe; I like how everybody seems to know each other real well. I think some people would say that that's a bad thing, but Austin felt bigger and more anonymous than Bloomington did. I come from a really small town, so to me there was a real pleasant feeling to being in a place where it seemed like everybody kinda knew each other, and there was a humble, charming smallness. I really like that; it felt like home to me for that reason.

NUVO: You mentioned that you were living in Bloomington when you were working on Black Sheep Boy, and I was reading through some old interviews you did a bit after that time. In one you said, "When I was making Black Sheep Boy I was seriously ready to quit music. I was gonna quit if the record didn't do all right because I was really tired." And at this point you've made several more albums since then. How do you fight the weariness—the cycle of music-making and touring and things?

Sheff: Well, I think two very different things about that. When people ask me my advice on whether or not to be a musician or how to do music, I always say, "You should only do it if you would just die if you didn't do it. You should only do it if you feel so incredibly compelled to do it, because you're very unlikely to be successful. It's kind of a bullshit game. People aren't really going to care, probably, and you're probably not going to make any money off of it. And the other thing is you have to work way harder than you would ever realize to actually be good. It's not an easy thing. But if you still feel like you would just die if you didn't get a chance to do it, if you couldn't do it, then you should definitely do it, and all those things won't matter, the fact that the rewards are slight." I don't say this to bemoan my own career; I've been lucky. I'm thinking more of the people I know who are incredibly great who have not been lucky like I have, who haven't really had the chances or the breakthroughs that I have. But you have to keep with it because if you're doing it at all, for somebody like me, I'm so lucky that I get to do this that it's like a real responsibility for me to try to work as hard as I possibly can at it, because there are so many people out there who work a job that they hate, and it's really awful and hard, and I'm just a lucky piece of shit, man, that I get to do this, so I really have to work as hard as I possibly can just to keep my self-respect up.

But at the same time, I don't believe in continuing to do art when you're not feeling it. It seems like that's a kind of a lie that you're living in at that point, and if you're really not feeling it for whatever reason, you're just kind of deceiving your audience, and you're just kind of giving them an inferior product. So at that point, maybe you should get out of it. That was sort of where I was feeling with Black Sheep Boy. I've always felt like it was an important aspect of keeping my sense of humanity and keeping my sense of perspective that I would walk away from what I was doing, and I think that that feeling that I would walk away is the thing that's held me back from the kind of success that some of my friends or people that I've seen have gotten, because I know a lot of people who are really single-mindedly obsessed with success and competition, and they're really insanely competitive about it, to a level that I can't even imagine being.

But I also have always felt that a lot of artists are really terrible, crappy people. They kind of use their position as artists to have the excuse to abuse people around them, or be inconsiderate, or be self-absorbed and not pay any attention to anything around them. I think that you're really doing it wrong if you're a terrible person and if you're using being an artist as an excuse to be a terrible person. Also, if you get any kind of attention at all, it'll lead to this kind of massively, grotesquely swollen ego problem, which is really horrible and terrible to see in other people, and it's really terrible when you see it in yourself. So for me, my insulation against that is trying to downplay music in my own personal life and trying to give myself the permission to walk away from it if I'm just not feeling it anymore. Those are sort of two contradictory ideas, but when I was working on Black Sheep Boy, that's how I felt. I felt like the music business was a business I didn't want to be in, and I was working really hard and I was really unhappy. I'd lost a lot of my connection to actual life, so I just thought, "Well, I'll walk away." I've thought that at other times in my life since then, actually. Not for necessarily the same reasons, because I'm happier now than I was then, but I guess because I feel like either the music business is getting more and more petty, or I'm becoming more and more sensitive to it. I've heard a lot of albums out there that sound like they were made just because the person who made them thought, "Well, I guess I should make another album. I gotta go out there and tour and make some money, so I guess it's time for another album." I feel like it should really be an urgent need.

NUVO: I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of songwriters as English majors and [how] the exposure to the mass of literature trains your brain. Do you feel like your brain was shaped by the literature that you’ve read, and do you feel like, though you’re existing [in most people's minds as a] musician, that you’re also existing as a writer?

Sheff: Well, for whatever reason, I have a difficult time distinguishing between different kinds of art. Obviously I do distinguish between them, but I tend to lump film and writing and songs all together in my mind. So I never really thought very concretely about how writing prose affected my songwriting, just like I never thought concretely about how being a hobbyist in certain film things every now and then affects my songwriting. They’re all related, I guess, in a way.

I came up really fascinated with prose poetry and with prose writers who had a really insanely poetic style, like Dylan Thomas’s prose, like “Under Milk Wood.” The very florid William Faulkner stuff. That was something that I came up reading a lot. At the same time, I was reading a lot of poetry — this was sort of in high school — and I think that it just really left a stamp on my brain and my tastes. It’s not something I meant to do literally, but I do think that when you talk about songwriters being English majors, I think that that’s slightly receded now because the taste for songwriting popularly is not as keen as it was before. Even five years ago there was a higher appreciation for songwriting in music than there is now.

I think right now people are really interested in a vibe and a sound, and that’s more interesting to them. If you listen to the actual writing in songs, it’s taken quite a steep nosedive in quality. But these things are cyclical, and there could come a time again, even soon, when songwriting becomes popular again. All it really takes is somebody who makes people really enthusiastic in that sort of harder to find way than happens sometimes. But I do think that songwriting has kind of re-emerged, not just in the last ten years or the last fifty years, but in the 20th century songwriting has re-emerged as a popular form of poetry.

Of course there was always that; folk songs and pop songs are the same thing in a lot of ways. It’s just that pop songs are now the dominant form, and it wasn’t quite the same before the media connected everything globally. It’s like lyric poetry, Robert Burns and stuff like that. That’s what it always reminds me of when I think of really good songwriting, and the link to poetry is a lyric writer like Robert Burns who did both. And the really great songwriters do that. They give you the feeling of a poem, but it’s not exactly a poem, because room has been made for melody in there, so the language is simpler. That’s why whenever you hear a Shakespeare sonnet set to music, it kind of sucks, even though Shakespeare was one of the greatest writers in human history. That stuff wasn’t really made to be sung. You have to leave space. Lou Reed is better at writing lyrics than Shakespeare. If Shakespeare was trying to write song lyrics, he probably would have been better than Lou Reed, but that’s why it’s weird to add music to old poetry. I think that Robert Burns hit that perfect halfway point where it’s not too busy, it stands up really strongly as a poem but there’s room for melody. I feel like that’s what the best songwriters who are writer-writers do; they walk that kind of special line where it’s an enriched, heightened form of poetry that is wide open for music to fit in there.

NUVO: Interesting that you bring up Robert Burns, because he did so much work on adapting traditional folk songs in Scotland and kind of telling the story of all these different people. It makes me think of Stage Names and Stand-Ins and how there’s a lot of storytelling about folk-pop heroes, pop figures, I guess. That leads me to my next question, which is about the dual albums that you did just before [I Am Very Far]. I’ve always conceived it as kind of almost a series of short stories under a larger narrative. How do they connect for you?

Sheff: A lot of people say the short story thing. It’s not really how I think of it, but that’s not a bad thing. I don’t even really know how I would describe it if it were up to me. I think of it as maybe more related to poetry but definitely there’s, especially in older songs of mine, a very strong sense of a character. I guess that after a certain point, when I was doing that again and again and again, it started to feel like something that was expected of me, and I’m this kind of contrary person who, when I start to feel like people want me to do something, it’s like I can’t help but start trying to not do it. I think that was one of the things that was happening.

NUVO: In I Am Very Far, definitely.

Sheff: Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that’s happening in I Am Very Far is that I’m trying to not do a lot of the things that people wanted me to do. And that’s not just me being a stubborn bastard, although I am. It’s partially not wanting to feel like I’m full of shit, not wanting to feel like I’m doing an impression of myself. I don’t mean to say I’m good at anything, but once you get vaguely used to doing something, you start to learn the tricks to make it work. And then once you start to learn the tricks to make it work, you start to realize how you could employ them very cynically, and you start to notice how people do that.

There are ways that writers that you like start to do exactly what they know how to do, and they do it again and again and again, and after a while it starts to lose its magic. It starts to feel like they’re kind of just doing an impression of themselves, or they’re telling you what you want to hear, or the novelty of it is gone. But at the same time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they became less successful; there are albums out there that are some of the most successful albums by a band that was not the best album at all.

I actually like this record, but a good example is David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. That’s sort of like his most successful album, and no real hardcore Bowie fans would call that his best album. He basically gave people sort of a watered-down, friendly version of what they had come to assume that David Bowie was, kind of a candy-colored version of that. That’s all well and good, I actually like that record, but I just felt like I was doing the same thing, not intentionally like that, but I felt like I was in danger of doing a Will Sheff impression, and I wanted to take it away from being so clear and lucid, and I wanted to make something that was a lot harder to penetrate and a lot more sort of intricate and pushed you away instead of inviting you in, that was sort of thorny and you couldn’t get inside of it and you couldn’t figure it out and it had a sense of mystery to it.

I think, as a result, it’s the kind of thing that maybe appeals to a more limited group of people because of exactly what I was trying to do. But I think that I Am Very Far is just as linked as The Stage Names is, I know it is, it’s just that it’s linked in a much more vague and kind of vaporous way. The Stage Names is very clear and precise; that was sort of how I wanted it to be. There are connections in there that might only mean something to me, but they’re definitely there. In I Am Very Far there are also characters that go between the songs, there are themes that are going through all of the songs, but I didn’t want to tell everybody what they were. I wanted them to be totally buried.

I hope that even though they were buried, because they were there, they would resonate in some way. And whether they do or whether they don’t is not something I can fully evaluate, 'cause it’s like looking at yourself in the mirror—you’re seeing something different than what other people are seeing. In any case, that’s sort of my thought process about it.

NUVO: It kind of reminds me of a recent disappointment for me, which was reading what Jane Austen’s estate commissioned P.D. James to write, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice called Death Comes To Pemberley. The writer was incredibly adept, but it felt like she was kind of like just employing all of Austen’s tricks, it was bloodless.

Sheff: I had a similar experience. I got really into Raymond Chandler and I read all the Raymond Chandler books, and the last Raymond Chandler book that he was in the middle of writing when he died, his estate got Robert B. Parker, the mystery writer, to write the second half of it, so the first half is Chandler and the second half is Robert B. Parker. And Robert B. Parker did an amazing job of being a ventriloquist of this Raymond Chandler style, but that means nothing. It’s not Raymond Chandler.

I don’t want to read fan fiction. If you’re a really big fan... I always think of that as like smoking resin, when you’re like a burnt-out teenage pothead and there’s no more weed in the house and you’re scraping out your disgusting bong and smoking that because you’re desperate. That’s sort of what I do — I’m a big fan of David Bowie, so I’ll read these trashy David Bowie biographies that I know are terrible, and I’m just doing it for some kind of really sad fanboy kick, 'cause I’ve listened to the albums so much and I’ve read anything legitimate that there is to write about him. So now I’m watching those weird Netflix documentaries where it’s like a bunch of critics saying things you already know about David Bowie, or David Bowie’s ex-bassist’s sister’s friend talking about him or something. But that’s what you do if you’re a fan.

NUVO: I think that that issue came up in The Pale King. So many people love David Foster Wallace so much that they didn’t know what to do with this last piece of him. I actually haven’t read that so I can’t really comment very intelligently on it other than knowing the story about it. What’s next for you?

Sheff: I usually don’t like to talk about that at the time because I feel like once you say something out loud, it changes what it is, so I’m going to have to keep that under wraps.

NUVO: I understand. But you are creating. Something is happening.

Sheff: Yes. I’ve spent a year long working pretty concertedly on a bunch of stuff. This year has been entirely a writing year for me; it’s been a working year. So it’s been pretty amazing; I’ve kind of said no to touring for a year, mostly. This is the only tour we’ve done all year, and I’ve just been working. I have a space that I got in Brooklyn and I work there like a 9 to 5 job. I go from like 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and just work every day. It’s been amazing. I can’t believe that I didn’t do this earlier. I’m actually angry at myself that I didn’t do it earlier.

NUVO: How did you pick to go to Brooklyn? Is the place important?

Sheff: I was here on tour one time, and I just suddenly - our sound man said "My friend is subletting a room in an apartment in Brooklyn for the next eight months," and my brain was just - it was like a lightbulb just went off in my head and I immediately thought, "I'm going to move to Brooklyn." And the instant that I had that thought, I just felt flooded with happiness. So at that point I just decided to do it.

I had spent a lot of my twenties - there was a certain point around the time of Black Sheep Boy I realized that the only way that I could continue to make music was to not have a place to live anymore. And this happens a lot to musicians; it's ridiculously common. If you really, really want to do it, you have to tour a whole lot, and if you're not one of the lucky - I'd say few but it's not that few - in indie rock whose parents entirely support their existence, then you basically have to get rid of all the things that you own. I didn't have a place to live, I would crash on couches, but it didn't really affect me because I was on tour for about nine months out of the year. So when I started to do that, I realized that whatever couches I crashed on could be anywhere. So that's why I went to Bloomington and I went around and drove around the country and stuff like that, and just kind of tried to mix up where I was at. There was a period in my life where I was just hopping from place to place. The band was still all in Austin, but I had become kind of more itinerant. So it was easy for me, it wasn't like a strange idea for me to move to New York because I was hopping around so much.

But at the same time, I love Austin, but I'm from New Hampshire, and my family is still nearby there, and I like my family, I like being around them, especially my grandparents, who are getting very old. Having grown up in a very rural, 500-person town, I missed that, I missed the vibe of the Northeast. It's a funny thing because there's not a lot of romance to the Northeast. I can't even really pretend that there is. I hate most of the music from the Northeast. The food from the Northeast - there's good stuff, but it's a small selection. There's not really very much culture that's fascinating unless you're really magnetized by Pilgrims. But there's something about when you're raised in nature and you're raised in the country, it just can raise a really strong impression on you. That was my childhood; it was a magical, remote childhood. I really kind of weirdly bonded with nature and specifically the geography of what the Northeast is like. At the same time, I'd never really spent any time in a giant city like New York. I had a lot of romance attached to New York like a lot of people do, so I think it was a great compromise for me, getting to get away from Austin, which had become kind of familiar, getting closer to my roots but also being in the greatest city in America.

NUVO: When you said remote New England childhood, all I could think about was Moonrise Kingdom, but that is because I grew up in Indianapolis, so I do not have any remote nature living experiences. [laughs]

Sheff: I didn't see Moonrise Kingdom. I flicker back and forth between whether or not I like Wes Anderson. Every now and again he starts to really annoy me and I swear off of him, but I give artists more second chances than I used to when I was younger and more angry. I might end up liking Moonrise Kingdom but I haven't seen it yet.

NUVO: I think he's definitely a possible self-parody alert, like you mentioned earlier. Those are my feelings about him, but it was a really beautiful movie. I think that the version of "Westfall" on Overboard and Down is one of my favorite songs of all time. I've been listening to it a lot, weirdly while actually reading news about all of these shootings; it's very macabre. I guess that song was written a long time ago, wasn't it?

Sheff: Yeah, but it's not like that hadn't started happening yet. It's speeding up now, it seems like, though.

NUVO: You've moved into producing. What made you want to make the jump?

Sheff: A big part of it is just wanting to control. For most of my life, I never was one of these people who had the money to just throw at things, and I've always envied that. I've always envied how these bands that want string arrangements so they get so-and-so to do it and such-and-such illustrious composer to do it. It's like, that's amazing if you have those connections and you have that money. I didn't have any idea how to get into music when I started doing it, I didn't really have any friends who did it. I came out of a weird sort of writing world so I had to bust my way in with a lot of that stuff and just start doing it myself. It's cheaper to do it yourself, and you can have a lot more control over keeping cheesiness out of your work and keeping stuff you don't like out of it.

And it's fun, work is fun. The work that I do is incredibly fun to me. Even when I'm tearing my hair out with stress, it's still really, really fun. I just wanted to be able to do it as cheaply as I could and to do it with the closest sense of being involved in every single aspect. There's a lot of people I see out there who, like, the record comes out and the artwork was done by somebody else and they didn't really pay much attention to it, and every little aspect was farmed out to this or that person, and it feels a little less personal and a little bit more watered down. I like to feel like there's a really strong sense of personality.

At the same time, I don't necessarily want to control everything always; there are certain people I love working with again and again and again. Will Schaff is really amazing, the guy who does all the artwork for our stuff, so I love working with him. There are people that I've come to really trust and enjoy working with. I'm not the kind of person that feels the need to produce always. We may not produce the next Okkervil record, 'cause there's something that comes totally differently - when somebody else is driving, you can look at the scenery more, is the way I kind of look at it in my mind. I've had experiences with people totally taking the reins and it's been horrible, and I've had experiences with people totally taking the reins and it's been really great. So it's not so much of a pride issue as it is sometimes you just really need to do it the way that you picture it.

NUVO: When you look back at everything you've released, are you still happy with it? Can you stand to listen to it? Do you love to listen to it?

Sheff: I rarely listen to it, and I would guess that that's true of most musicians. When you're making a record, you're listening to it constantly because you're making it and because you're trying to figure out if it's doing what you hope it's doing. So you're kind of listening to it for reference and trying to see if it gives you the feelings that you want to feel and that you want it to give you. That's kind of a mindfuck, too, because you're not sure if you're feeling those feelings because you already had them in your mind anyway. Once it's done, it's really different experiencing it. You can't really ever, unless you had some kind of a stroke or brain damage where you forgot every part of your life that came before, you can't listen to it with new ears. Even if it's a record you made thirty years ago and you went back and listened to it, you probably wouldn't be able to. I listen to them every now and then, mostly when I need to remember how a song goes because we're going to be playing it live. And it's like what you'd expect. When I listen back, there are things that I'm surprised and pleased by that I didn't realize are as good as they are in my estimation now, I might change my mind and decide they suck later.

And then there's also parts that I cringe at. But you also have to take that with a grain of salt, because Alex Chilton cringed at the entire Big Star catalog. He hated all the Big Star stuff, he thought it was embarrassing. I think it's some of the best music I've ever heard. It's been incredibly inspirational to me. So sometimes you just have to chill out and let other people's interpretation be the interpretation, or else you turn into George Lucas redoing the Star Wars movies. Of course you're always going to hear things you would do differently, but you're never going to hear the record the way other people hear it, and a lot of the time the things you think of as weaknesses are probably quite charming to other people.

NUVO: And you have the opportunity to be onstage and remake it slightly, shift and change and adjust as you go along.

Sheff: Yeah. But it's like making an Etch-a-Sketch. When you're up on stage, you make a version that feels way better but it's like a sandcastle. Immediately after the last note stops, it might as well have never happened. That's a really fascinating thing, and the thing that torments a lot of musicians is you write a song and you record it and everybody's just learned it and it's brand new, and then cut to five years later and you've played the song a million times on stage and you're playing it a million times better than the way you recorded it on the record. And you always think, "Jesus, I wish I could go back and redo the version." The version of "Westfall" you were talking about, that's a good example. That version sounds totally different than the version on the record, and there were probably times when I thought, "I wish I could just redo this version on the record and have it be more like that." But it doesn't really work that way because there's a big element of a record that's sort of like time and, I hate this expression, it is what it is. You could fix a lot of things about it but it wouldn't necessarily make the whole better. It might actually make the whole worse. You might have - it technically might be better, but - like you go to a truck stop and you buy the Merle Haggard cassette and then it's like, "What the hell? These are all re-recordings done in 1987!" And I'm sure Merle was a better musician by that point, but that doesn't mean that it's a better version of "The Lonesome Fugitive."

NUVO: And then when you're playing it a million times better, people go to shows and their minds are blown. But that's only if the fan gratification really means anything. I know that you've mentioned before that you love Randy Newman, or at least did at one point, because he seemed so egoless. But that was quite a while ago. Who is inspiring and true to you now?

Sheff: Just today, they announced this tribute record for Arthur Russell that the Red Hot Organization is going to do. And he's been the musician that has been the most inspiring and mind-altering for me that I've had in a really, really long time. He kind of came out of the world of avant-garde classical composition, but he also got really into disco, and he actually became a marginally successful New York disco producer. His interest in disco and dance music, which was tied in for him with minimalism and spirituality and stuff like that, led him into almost New Wave and hip hop influenced stuff which nobody released at the time, which is some pretty incredible stuff. All the while he was doing folk and country-rock stuff too. He had this really amazing, varied career.

For me, he really fuses this feeling of actually having fun, extroverted populist dance music with disco and New Wave, but it's intelligent and deeply felt and really feels emotionally true. Because a lot of that music suffers from an overly extroverted fakeness or a sort of cool posturing. Music like that falls prey to that constantly. It's really profound to hear music like that, outgoing synthesizer dance music, that's actually beautiful and heartfelt and spiritual, almost like a William Carlos Williams poem or something. So he's really been blowing my mind, maybe more than any musician I can remember in a really long time. It's really reconfigured what I think about music and what I want out of music and a new sort of approach to music.

I've been listening to him for quite a while, but it's one of those great obsessions where the more you listen to it the more you like it. There are certain bands that you can wear them out. You can wear everything out eventually. But there are certain bands where you wear them out and there are certain bands where the more you listen you get deeper and deeper into it, and you hear new things, and then one day you wake up and it's sort of become a part of you, you have a little receptor inside of your mind for that song, so it gives you pleasure in a way that kind of nothing else can. Arthur Russell stuff has really done that for me in a way that not much has. I don't mean not much has because I'm always finding music that's new to me that I love, and I love music so much, but it's like if all the other stuff I'm discovering is like Vicodin, Arthur Russell is like heroin.

Many thanks to Hanna Fogel for her assistance with this piece.

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