Two years. It might just as well have been a lifetime. I stumbled upon Okkervil River by accident in 2003. I have been feeling like a road casualty ever since. Their gig in a dingy Camden pub had turned me into a JG Ballard character, roaming a growing number of small venues in the vain attempt to recreate that first hit.
I have since learnt that Okkervil River’s music has been specifically designed for that very purpose: Vorsprung durch Technik to “tear people’s gut out”. With their new album “Black Sheep Boy”, the band exceed expectations: dark, dirty, obsessive, but also fragile and naïve enough to make an impact.
Catching up with Okkervil River’s frontman was the occasion to understand what had sent me to the ground in the first place. With a scientific sense of duty, Will Sheff kindly took the myth apart.
If you don’t like to know the tricks behind the magic, don’t read on. And if you missed the humour in “Black Sheep Boy” or thought that Will Sheff was the embodiment of indie-angst, then you may be in for a surprise.
With Black Sheep Boy, your sound has become much harder, and you are using electric guitars for the first time. How did that come about?
I’ve always liked electric guitar. We don’t have electric guitar on our first two records, which has more to do with the fact I don’t have an electric guitar! I had one in college and I sold it so that Okkervil River could get a bass. But at the same time, I thought that for this kind of record to be a little more violent and more rough, it’d be nice to have that wild ugly dirty gross sound of the electric guitar. And really loud.
(Travis interrupts): When we were doing a lot of touring last year before we got to do the record, we kept breaking a lot of guitar strings. Acoustic guitars are really hard to gig with, sometimes you can’t hear anything if you play it louder. It became kind of a joke. And then we were like “wait a second, we’re Okkervil River, we can’t be like a full-blown rock band, we can’t have electric guitar!” But I suppose by the end of the touring we actually became a full-blown rock band! After that tour in everyone’s mind it became ok to have electric guitar and be rock.
Will: I have a pedal that I use a lot. It’s a real cheap bad pedal and it sounds really awful. I started playing more solos with that and be sort of gross sounding. As we were touring more it became something I could do with a little more skill and that translated into that really gross dirty bluesy guitar sound. It naturally evolved from playing a lot of shows.
So has Okkervil River become a rock’n’roll band?
I was always into rock’n’roll. And I felt like I understood it but I couldn’t play it. But one person who helped us with the rock is Travis our drummer. He comes from a lot of different rock bands
Travis: I don’t want to feel like I am the energy behind the band. I’d like to think that maybe I was a little spark that made everyone realise how fun it is to play live. Playing live music is my favourite thing in the whole world. Everyone caught on. And suddenly everyone was jumping around. I’ve been touring for 14 years, started when I was 16. I started playing in punk rock bands. When I joined this band it was by default. I was the booking agent and they needed a drummer for their shows. I loved Okkervil River but I refused to get in, I can’t play step dance like a really jazzy tasteful drummer! And the agreement was, if I can play drums like me, then it’s fine. And everyone was like “cool”. And it had to be cool because I can’t play Seth’s part!
Will: Okkervil River has this side to it. It is sensitive and thoughtful, but to me it has this side that’s salutary, dionysian. I think Travis helped us get more that. I love Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell but I love the Rolling Stones too and the Velvet Underground and that’s just as valuable. I’d like to think that there’s an element to even our most elevated ethereal stuff that’s got some dirt in it, some sort of sweat and grime.
Did you want to make an album à la Tim Hardin and rigorously borrowed from his writing style?
The answer is I don’t know, and if I did know, it wouldn’t be as good a record. I was feeling around it intuitively, with what I thought was going to be a good direction. There are themes, things that have to do with Tim Hardin but it’s not rigorously drawn out, more sketched out and left out vague.
When we recorded we made our little rule: no organ. We had a lot of organ in the past.
Travis: in the studio you can sit there for months and months and do whatever you want. When you’re doing a record with the “no organ” line, you’re like “what no organ??” Organ can be a cop out, filling the blanks; there are more creative things we could use.
Will: it’s a case of setting limitations. Because when you say we’re not going to use this or that, then you have to go “well, what are we going to do? How are we going to get around it?” And that’s a way of jarring yourself out of a rut sometimes, if you feel you are just repeating yourself.
Your writing style is very particular and descriptive. Do you get inspiration from real stories or do you make everything up from scratch and try to write in a hypperrealist style?
I don’t try to write a story. But one thing I try to do is think about the characters. Very early on, “who is this person, what happened to them what do they want, what are they afraid of?” That’s not a trick; it’s how my brain works. Because if I feel I am going to care, I need to know who they are. So that is what happens on a song like Black. And it’s not always about me, I change a lot of detail. I could tell you who the people in “Black” are, what they want, and what’s happening with them, but that’s superfluous you can listen to the song yourself and get that from it
What do you think of the renaissance of protest songwriting?
As noble as that is, and as important as that is, it’s less important than just writing a song that really tears people’s guts out. I love a song like Bodies by the Sex Pistols. That’s one of my favourite songs ever and the reason is because I’m pro-choice and that song makes me feel pro-life. That’s a pretty amazing thing to do. When I listen to Bodies, I feel this whole flood of emotions I’d rather not feel and they overwhelm me. And what I get from that is that the world is a complex frightening interesting place. I’d rather confuse people and make them feel the complexity and messiness of life, than reinforce what they already think. You could write a song about how Bush sucks and I’d listen to it and I’d go “yeah, Bush does suck!” But I don’t think that song is going to give me very much. On a spiritual level I think that song is pretty one-dimensional. And I’d almost rather write a song that makes people sympathise with why Bush is popular and in a way it makes them sick. That’s more interesting.
There’s a Nick Cave song called “God is in the house”, it’s a weird song which seems to be about one of these communities in the United States, like Celebration USA (that was one that was made by Disney), these weird little places where the houses are all built along specific plans and everybody’s happy here in their planned community. They’re easy to make fun of. And there’s a song called “Little boxes” from a protest singer in the seventies [NDLR: Peter Seeger/Matilda Reynolds, 1962], it is a really terrible protest song, it’s really little minded and awful. A song like “God is in the house” is on the same topic but it’s saying “look, here is what is appealing about this, life is simple, there is a beauty to it, there is a community to it, there’s a sense of being lulled to sleep in the best and most comforting possible way.” He doesn’t tell you that it’s awful. He sorts of alludes to the sacrifices that go into that but in a lot of ways he just gives you that feeling that says “why do I feel so conflicted about that? It’s like a beautiful dream I want to believe.”
And I’d rather approach difficult issues that way than go “this is what you need to believe” because I don’t think it is the duty of a songwriter to tell people what to believe nor to massage their beliefs. I’d rather be like what you already believe is really one-sided and short-sighted and maybe you’re wrong.
Why did you stop writing music reviews?
I don’t write music reviews anymore. I’d started to think about music analytically to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the creative aspect. The bottom line is, there’s only so many notes in the scale, so the chords you’re using have been used in another song in the same order, the melody probably was stolen from somewhere. That’s the way that pop music works, and it should be that way. But if you think about it as a music critic you start playing and suddenly “oh shit, it’s *that* song, never mind!” But you need to have that moment of faith in what you’re doing and what you write, “this has never been done before!” I felt like it was harder for me to get in that space as a critic, so I stopped doing it because I didn’t want to become jaded.
Do you consider yourself a poet? Has your lyrical ambition ever come in the way of the music (I was thinking for example of “So Come back I am waiting”, where you fit in the words bacterium, magisterial and abecedarian!)
Usually the lyrics and the melody come at the same time. But there’s a lot of fine-tuning that comes after that. I find that when I write the lyrics first and then write the melody, or do it the other way round, I don’t like the result. I feel like when lyrics and melody are born at the same time they have a divine relationship. A good song has something lyrical about the melody and something melodic about the language. That is what separates it from poetry set to music. A song is a distinct art form just as worthy of reverence. I am not like a slamming poet. I’m a songwriter; I am not interested in writing poetry. If you divorce the melody from the lyrics they’re missing something, and that’s by design, that’s the way songs work. Even a Bob Dylan song, you remove the melody and there’s something so clunky about the lyrics on the page.
And it is the same reason why if you take a Shakespeare song and you try and write music to it, it doesn’t work. It’s busy it’s false, because there’s already something poetic about it; there’s already something melodic and musical about the language. It doesn’t need a melody. It’s written to be preserved on a page with nothing else but your rhymes to read it.
I read somewhere that you considered Black Sheep Boy as a fun album. Did you put this Richard Pryor quote at the end of the album as a reminder that you are not as tortured as one might think at first listen?
The quote has to do with that, and something to do with the theme of the record.
It’s so weird! When I was doing a lot of Australian interviews they all asked me “it sounds like the record was really fun to make!” So I think it might be a cultural thing too. To me there’s humour and play in Okkervil River’s music that I think maybe doesn’t come across at first blush, maybe it sounds like I am oh-so serious and I put my heart on my sleeve, but to me the oh-so serious-heart-on-my-sleeve thing is a kind of fun, it’s like a melodrama. I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously. I take my work really seriously but I try to remember that I’m sort of a clown. What we do is pretty funny to me. I try to remember that I write songs about princesses and beasts and towers and knights and that’s pretty silly.
I’m a happy person. I’ve got my problems; my life is not great but even when I’m not happy my end goal is to be happy. I’m not a self-lacerating miserable wretch. I like my life and I like life. It’s beautiful and amazing and needs to be engaged with both hands and your sleeves rolled up.
That doesn’t really project on the record! Didn’t you worry that people might take it completely differently?
Oh yeah I was terrified. I thought they were going to say “Will has officially descended into self-parody, he’s now a joke. The kind of shit we would write to make fun of him he’s actually writing”. I was really scared of that. But that didn’t happen. Maybe I deserved it, but it didn’t happen. I feel really lucky.
How do you handle the fact that most of your audience will read things in your lyrics that you think might not be there, and project all these emotions on you?
I’ve got better with that. I love the audience and I love performing but I find I need to create a space in my brain where I don’t give a fuck about the audience. And it’s all about me and I don’t fucking care. That takes the weight out a little bit. And of course I do care and love playing for the audience but I have to hypnotise myself into thinking it’s all about my own pleasure and then I stop worrying so much about people going “oh you’re so sensitive”. Or “you’re such a pussy”. The girls go “you’re so sensitive” and the dudes go “you’re such a pussy” (laughs). So I have to go “fuck that, I am up here to try and have a good time!” And that’s why we try to make the songs new every time. If we did shtick it would feel pretty phoney to me.
But you are a recording and performing artist, meaning that your work by design will have a public life, isn’t that paradoxical or even hypocritical to say you want nothing from the audience?
That’s an interesting thing, success or even just reception never feels the way you think it is going to feel. Probably because if you’re such a pathetic person that you really need the affirmation of all these people to feel you’re worth anything, and no amount of anything is ever going to make you feel like you’re worth anything, at a certain point you either fall tragically or you just go “I don’t need this”. I’m trying to have a life and have a good time and I don’t really need these people to tell me that I am good. At the same time, my father is like “you’ve got to care about the audience!” Well, I do. But I try to have that position of respect for the audience. If something is meaningful and powerful to me, hopefully it will be meaningful and powerful to other people like me because I’m not so special and I’m not so different. It’s almost like an artistic technique to become more outwardly focused. If I just care about myself and what I like then maybe if other people like what I like will care too.
That’s better than me going “what do you people want to hear? I don’t know, do you want to hear a song that sounds like Franz Ferdinand?” If I tried to make something that was cool it would be a miserable failure because I’m not slick enough to do it, so I just have to be true to what I think is cool. And hope that I am not totally off!! (laughs)
Quoting from Okkervil River’s biography: “Each of my nervous breakdowns fell away when I made the most important decision of my life: to be a total failure. A professional failure.” Is this something you still stick to?
You have to be willing to fall on your face as an artist. Or else you stopped being vital. Black Sheep Boy was my attempt to push myself in some territory where I might really stand a serious risk of falling flat on my face. To me that’s better than being cynical and sit back and go “if I write these kind of songs people will like them”. This album has been really successful and it not might mean that the next album won’t go for a critical whipping. It’s going to happen sooner or later if we continue to have any kind of popularity, suddenly people will go like “oh it’s cool, you like them now so I don’t like them anymore” I am ready for that, that’s going to happen, even if I feel everything I put out was an artistic success. I try to just remember that. Because if it was all about the success then I’d be crushed when that happened. If I keep my eyes on what’s artistically valid for me, then I can just go “well, people suck, people are stupid”. Maybe I’m stupid, I don’t know, (laughs) but I like that record!
Are you tempted to try and give the audience what they want in some cynical move away from “failure”?
That’s so interesting. I thought, I’ve got some really successful songs. If we put out a really accessible record right now it would probably be really big for us and then you start thinking well maybe it wouldn’t be, maybe it’d be the thing where people go like “fuck them, they sold out!” So then you start going nuts. Then you realise I just cannot care. I have to focus on what is important to me. If I start guessing what the public is going to think it’s like I’m playing roulette, I might as well play roulette for however much money I might get out of it. I just have to focus on what I think is good. If people perceive it as a sell-out or as a trying to be difficult I just can’t worry about that.
So you think this “failure/give all” approach can still be a way of life once you’re past thirty?
We are doing the longest tour we’ve ever done and it’s pretty scary. I just try not to think about that, honestly. I am aware that physically I’ve only got that much to give and I am also aware that I am definitely going to be leaning against the limit of it, on this tour, more than once. I just can’t be thinking about this right now, let’s see what happens.
The line-up of Okkervil River today is different, and seems to be quite variable. What makes Okkervil River? Is Okkervil River Will Sheff?
Okkervil River is more like a family. It’s not like people are quitting. They are coming and going when they could do things and when they couldn’t. Okkervil River is more like a feeling, an approach to music. That sort of failure thing, going out and knowing that you might suck and fall flat on your face and that for you it is a matter of blood and flesh and not a matter of money or acclaim. That you are playing for keeps and that you mean it. And that you’d rather be doing this then anything else. That’s part of what happens live. It’s different on the record, but that’s a defining thing that people tend to bring to the Okkervil River shows. We don’t even talk about it, it communicates itself. That is the most miraculous thing about the band. Because it sort of communicates to the audience and I don’t know what that is, but I feel really lucky for it.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
That’s a terrible question. Hopefully not touring as much as I am touring right now. Married and moneyed. The ideal for me is not to become obscenely famous. Becoming obscenely wealthy would be nice. That’s an obscenity I can live with! (laughs)