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Will Sheff of Okkervil River: “I'm always trying to scrape on reality and see if there's anything underneath”

Will Sheff of Okkervil River: “I'm always trying to scrape on reality and see if there's anything underneath”

01 October 2013, 17:00

It’s taken fifteen years and seven albums, but it seems that Will Sheff of Okkervil River is finally ready to talk to us directly. Across records like Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and I Am Very Far we’ve heard Sheff and co. sing of Tim Hardin’s heroin addiction, pop culture, porn stars, Jobriath, John Berryman and various other touchstones. Always lyrically fascinating, even when hiding behind characters and scenarios, Sheff’s work with Okkervil River has been variously dark, ornate, triumphant, sad and affecting; the brilliance of the run of albums from 2002’s Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See to 2008’s The Stand Ins is hard to match in its genre; songs so catchy, touching and quite frankly educational, given the variety of literary and musical references, that it’s hard to believe the weight of what Sheff packs into a single song.

Yet following the mildly disappointing (by Okkervil River’s high standards at least) I Am Very Far, Sheff has dropped the characters and story telling in favour of making an album that’s his most personal and direct to date. The Silver Gymnasium is set in 1986 in Sheff’s home town of Meriden, New Hampshire. At this time Sheff is ten years old and discovering his creativity, and we follow his development across eleven incredibly direct and unfussy (for the band in any case) songs that come from Sheff’s experiences as a child, and from looking back on his growing up in a very rural and remote environment. The concept seems to have invigorated Sheff and the band; they’re on fire throughout (and joined once again by old pal Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater) this immediate and immediately rewarding record. It’s instantly recognisable as an Okkervil River record – which can only ever be a good thing. After the opportunity to discuss The Silver Gynmasium with singer Sheff recently arose, we jumped at the opportunity, to disocver him to be as engaging and open an interviewee that I’ve had the chance to speak to.

Despite writing songs that Okkervil River fans have attributed to Sheff’s personal life (more of which later), this is actually the first time Sheff has written clearly and directly about his own life. So, seven albums in, what’s finally brought about the autobiographical? Sheff explains: “About the time we were just starting to work on music there was a big, strong kind of sappy, self-indulgent autobiographical trend in music – and this was something I was not into.” What exactly turned him off it? “It felt really adolescent,” explains Sheff. “So, around that time, I was feeling very strongly like music needed some distancing from that, and it was important to write as a writer and not necessarily spill your veins on the page, as it were.” I ask what it is specifically that turns Sheff off about those types of record. “Now the world has shifted quite a bit in that direction – to the point where what I hear in song writing now is a kind of lazy disconnection from urgency. It seems like there’s a lot of writers now who use very emotionally charged, elemental language as a shortcut for actually saying something that’s personal. I feel like they get….sort of archaically simple with this pointed and general vague language. You’ll think it’s meaningful, and that’s good enough for them.” It must be tricky, then, for the Okkervil River front man to avoid the same pitfalls, so I ask what separates his approach to songwriting. “I felt like in a climate like that it was more important to actually put something on the line,” begins Sheff, “so for that reason I decided I would write in a very straightforward and personal way. I kinda feel right now that rock writing is…there are not a lot of people putting a lot of stake into what they’re doing.”

Something I’ve pondered over personally is how to make a great confessional record that resists becoming bogged down with “woe is me” sentiments and an unwelcoming misery, so I ask Will – how did he avoid that with The Silver Gymnasium? “I think it’s really easy to do a terrible version of that!” he laughs. “I think it’s really hard to do an artful version of that, so that’s kind of a challenge.” Are there any records he thinks manage to avoid being self-indulgent? Sheff picks a relative classic: “For example, if you listen to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band - that’s a great confessional record that’s very direct with the listener. It’s not artful, it’s very homely and plain and you really feel like John Lennon is revelling in all that – and I love that. “ And does he care to mention any of the sinners in the genre? “When you listen to…there’s other artists who do the confessional thing in a much more inflated sort of ‘poor me’ way, and I really don’t like that stuff. But I do like the challenge of attempting to do the more noble, and simple, and brave version of that.” Which is? “Which is to look the listener squarely in the face and say ‘hey man, this is where I’m at and I’m gonna talk about it for a second’. That to me feels like putting all your cards on the table, and just sitting down with someone feels like the cool approach to take. Especially now when I feel like that sort of directness has gone out of writing.” I riposte – has it left writing completely? Isn’t there plenty of music out there that takes such a laid back or direct approach? Sheff elaborates on his point: “It hasn’t gone out of hip hop, although not all hip hop artists are very direct at all, but it certainly has gone out of rock music as far as I can tell. So to me it felt like I had to compensate for that with this record.”

Sheff’s writing thus far with Okkervil River has been shrouded in characters and imagery ranging from the biblical to the everyday, so I wonder how he’s going to cope with a deeper analysis of this record given he’s been open about it being a very personal experience. “It’s very funny; I guess I have a voice and I guess kind of a writing style where people take what I’m doing very personally and they read into it very personally,” he begins, “which makes me kind of uncomfortable. I guess on some level it’s to be expected because music is really personal to me and I do feel a lot in music…but sometimes that’s embarrassing to me.” Is it not better, then, to continue to hide behind the artifice of previous albums? “I kind of wish I could be Bill Callahan and hide a lot of my ‘self’ behind a scrim, a very artfully constructed scrim,” says Sheff. “But that’s not who I am, and it’s not a very flattering look for me! I just have to be myself.” Okkervil River fans (and I count myself among their number, but not to obsessive forensic lyrical analysis levels) do seem to really identify very closely with Sheff’s writing, which comes from the very novelistic and literary approach he takes to song construction, so isn’t he opening himself up to even more obsession? “I’m very uncomfortable with the way that people read into my writing really intently,” he confirms. “There’s a certain type of fan who is always asking me really squirmy personal questions online, and there’s a lot of people who write stuff to me on Twitter like that.” Sheff tells me of a recent experience: “For example, two or three days ago a girl wrote ‘who is your Jennifer?’ and because of the way that I sing and the way that I write, they’re thinking of course that it’s some girl who broke my heart.” It’s becoming quickly clear that’s not the case, and here’s the payoff: “Now, ‘Jennifer’ is what we called our van!” laughs Sheff. “It’s kind of a long and boring story, but our Chevy Express van that we drove for years and years on tour is called Jennifer. So that’s what I’m referring to there; but other times I’m not even referring to anything personal at all. It might be a story I’ve made up but there’s something about me and the way that I sing that makes people really want to read into that – I guess it’s a lucky thing and a good thing…but it makes me feel weird. I’m not the Transparent Man, I’m not Slim Goodbody with all my internal organs on show – I don’t want to be that guy, and I never asked anybody to make me that guy…although I think maybe implicitly I did ask that by my mannerisms.”

Isn’t it, then, the worst idea in the world to be writing an autobiographical record, particularly one that references childhood so strongly if Will Sheff doesn’t want to be put under the microscope? He agrees: “Yeah, so it’s a kind of an odd thing writing a personal or autobiographical record when you don’t like people examining what you do!” I suggest that the liner notes should perhaps come with a warning not to read them along with listening to the record: “Ha! I guess so!” Sheff returns to his relationship with his fans: “I really don’t always know why I do what I do in art; my urges as an artist are sometimes at odds with my tastes as a person in terms of what I’m looking for in my relationship with the audience and myself. I’d like that relationship to be very professional…I don’t want it to be blurry. I guess that sounds weird; I don’t mean it in a distant or cold way…I dunno, it’s really difficult for me to say that without sounding snotty. I guess I just want to be cool, and I want them to be cool too!”

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Before we get sidetracked by the relationship between the singer, the song and the audience, I move on to ask Will about how he approached writing the record. Does he write the songs from the viewpoint as Will Sheff the adult looking back, or as the 10-year-old Will, growing up in Meriden? “It’s a mixture, a little bit,” he begins to explain. “’Down Down the Deep River’ is written very strongly from a child’s point of view, but ‘Pink Slips’ is written from an adult point of view. Different versions of ‘Will’ crop up throughout the record.” Sheff explains that it’s more the whole that matters, rather than who is saying it: “I did a personal and autobiographical record because I felt like it was a good thing to do from an artistic perspective – I knew I would be passionate about it. I think it’s your responsibility as an artist to chase after your enthusiasm, even if your enthusiasm takes you to uncomfortable places. My favourite records I ever did – The Stage Names and Black Sheep Boy – I was a little uncomfortable with how much I was putting out there and I feel similarly uncomfortable with this one. But in all three cases I was chasing after something I knew I would be passionate about instead of, like, hoping everything would be okay.”

The Silver Gymnasium tells stories of a 10-year-old Will in 1986, so the obvious question to ask is why pick that particular year. Sheff picks up the story: “Well, 1986 was a really good median year. I was 10 in 1986 and I think around that age is when your imagination really kicks up. In some ways there are a lot of people out there who really fetishise childhood – it’s kind of an indie trend, actually, and it kinda nauseates me.” So where does Will think it comes from; are there any bands responsible for starting the trend? “There was this whole genre of bullshit that came out of The White Stripes’ ‘We Are Gonna Be Friends’,” says Sheff, “which really makes me want to puke.” So is it the twee aspect that puts off the Okkervil River and Lovestreams front man? “Yeah, that sort of twee thing,” he agrees. “But at the same time I feel a lot of value in a certain thing about childhood, and I guess that thing is…you’re on drugs! You’re on drugs made by your own body and distributed in a massive payload to your brain, and those drugs are making your creativity and imagination go bonkers!” Sheff seems to think that this results in a natural creativity that, as adults, we try to re-create through various means: alcohol, drugs, whatever. “As a result, I think, you can see things more clearly; I suspect you can see another dimension of reality a little bit more clearly – I almost used to hallucinate as a kid I was so amped up, and that’s something I chase after in my adult life. I’m always trying to scrape on reality a little and see if there’s anything underneath – and I don’t think I had to try very hard to do that as a kid. As an adult, I have to use all kinds of means to try and do that – like Rimbaud said: ‘being an artist is the systematic derangement of the senses’. I think when you’re a kid your senses are a little bit more naturally deranged and I wanted to get back to that.”

Given Sheff has written characters and taken on various guises through records such as Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins I ask him if he feels this is a more honest look at his life and childhood: “I dunno, I think honest is a good word but I see it as more of an elevated look at life,” he states, “or a visionary look at life, in a way. Have you ever noticed how all kids are creative? It’s like how all teenagers write poetry; everyone’s written a poem at some stage their life – no matter what, you’ve written a poem! So all kids draw, all kids like the same kind of stuff and all kids have a good artist thing to them – now that’s kind of a hippy sentiment, kinda like that ‘if you can dance, you can talk, you can sing’ bullshit but I do think you’re in line with this creative force when you’re a kid to a really powerful degree.” As we get older, do we then lose a little special something that we had in childhood? “I think everybody loses a little of that grace,” agrees Will. “There’s something important about coming back to that as an artist; I’m not talking about innocence or anything like that, because kids aren’t innocent, I’m talking about that vision quality. Like, when I worked with Roky Erickson, he’s very connected with who he was as a kid and that’s kind of the source of his creativity, and I notice that with other people too.”

When asked if he feels connected to the young Sheff twenty-odd years down the line, Sheff is emphatic in his response: “I do! And I also work really hard to maintain that connection; there are pressures to see the world in a different way that’s not exactly how it is, which happens when you’re an adult. I think, for example, when you fall down on your face and smash your glasses and break up your face – that happened to me a couple of years ago – you really see the world as it is. Or when you’re with someone who’s dying and you’re really, really sad and every moment that goes by is really, really slow…you see the world as it is. When you’re bored sitting in line at McDonalds in your car, you don’t see the world as it is. That’s how we see the world most of the time: we see it as boring, it kinda goes in slow motion and there’s a lot about our situation that we take for granted. The truth is, we’re like mayflies; we’re only on the earth for a really short blip of time and it’s really important to figure out what the fuck you’re doing on the earth and enter into some kind of deeper relationship with life – and I think that kids have that a little more than adults.” And was Sheff an artistic kid? “Yeah, yeah! I was writing songs, and I always drew and I had a very active imagination as a kid – but I think all kids do to a certain extent. But for me, because I didn’t have a very strong social group and I had always been a kind of sickly kid, that sort of set me apart into my own little world.” Given the rural and slightly remote nature of his upbringing in Meriden, was it even more important to have that creativity, given he didn’t have access to the big city or even the technology that’s available to kids today? “Yeah; there’s an English novel that I read – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – which I really related to. Although it’s an English book, my life was very much like the way that book is. I was a kid with really thick glasses, really messed-up teeth, really poor social skills and I was in a rural community where a little tiny difference seemed like a huge difference. The way that book described that part of the world in the 1980s rang tremendously true to me; that’s very much how I remember my life.”

Returning to 1986, there’s a question of how that period influences the sound and the recording of The Silver Gymnasium as well as the overall ‘concept’ of the album. Compared to the ornate and over-the-topness, to some extent, of I Am Very Far, this record is very much a streamlined Okkervil River. Generally unfussy, aside from Sheff’s experimentation with some synthesisers, it sounds a lot more fun, and given a immediacy through its lyrical directness. So, does the period setting influence all that? “On some level it does,” Sheff agrees, tentatively. “In a lot of these things you’re thinking about several different aspects – the way the lyrics work, the way the music works, the way the conceptual framework works, and the way the sound works. Those things are related, but if it’s too tidy a package I think the record would end up a little small.” It seems that the lyrics were the starting point for how the rest of the album turned out: “So, the lyrics I wanted to have a very direct feel but also a stream of consciousness, and the music I wanted to be really unfussy. I Am Very Far was a record we spent at least nine months on – it went on, and on, and on, and on. Some of the songs were really different by the time we’d finished with it, and that’s a really fun way to work…but after you work like that you don’t want to work like that again for the next record. So it was really nice to just like, after you build a mansion to just build a hut! Now, the hut is just as cool as the mansion – I mean, it’s not, but it is – it’s really pretty and relaxed compared to the elaborate mansion. I wanted to build something that was pretty, and relaxing, and more about the surroundings than the construction.” Was it a case, then, of agreeing that this time around with the rest of the band that things had to be simple? “From the very beginning we said ‘let’s not get too precious with this, let’s not obsess about every little thing that’s not perfect’,” says Sheff. “We went for the wholeness and the overall frame; I drew certain inspirational touchstones from the 1980s, like pop-rock in the mid-to-late 1980s, but it wasn’t like a total genre exercise. It was more about trying to keep true to the spirit of that time; the spirit of how somebody like Tom Petty would do it.”

This time around, Okkervil River got legendary 80s producer (and current Kurt Vile cohort) John Agnello on board, and it seems this was very much a decision based on the setting of 1986. I ask Will if that was a major factor: “Absolutely!” is the definitive response. “John worked on The Outfield’s ‘Your Love’, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, he worked on Damn The Torpedoes – he was there and he knows that stuff. But also, John is an old-fashioned producer who looks at the whole song and doesn’t get too bogged down in the details. Like I said, I wanted that overall wholeness.” The whole pop-rock vibe feeds into a handful of the tracks, and The Silver Gymnasium contains probably the band’s loosest and funkiest moment to date in the track ‘Stay Young’. It’s euphoric, slightly cheesy and something that might divide fans of the band. Sheff explains: “‘Stay Young’ represents a style of writing I’ve kinda got more and more into doing; I kind of started doing it a little bit on The Stage Names; I started to see there was something adolescent and juvenile…and one-dimensional in some ways…about ‘rocking out’, and there was something more mature, nuanced and artful about ‘groove’. I’ve been experimenting with that on and off.” Did the solo work as Lovestreams have much of an impact, given the use of synths here? “Yeah, Lovestreams was about that; I’ve got a whole record of which I’ve put two songs out, and maybe one day I’ll release the whole thing but it was a real turning point in my life and to some extent it inspired this Okkervil River record. Lovestreams was my opportunity to make music that was a lot more ‘dancey’.” How does Will think Okkervil River fans will take to that? “I’ve learned that Okkervil River will tolerate ‘dancey’ up to a point – to each their own, but I don’t think there’s necessarily anything to be afraid of. But ‘Stay Young’ felt like it would fit within a pop-rock framework – you know, bands like INXS who were very much rock bands but also were a tight dance band – that was sort of a touchstone for that one.”

There’s an instrumental version of album track ‘Lido Pier Suicide Car’ that’s accompanied by a video containing images from The Silver Gymnasium’s artwork and pictures of Sheff and his family from around 1986. At one point, we see a kid in a Def Leppard t-shirt. Sheff reveals that this is his brother, but he too went through a metal phase: “I did definitely go through a period where I was listening to hair metal,” he reveals, “but at the same time I was listening to gangster rap – those two things were like the alpha and the omega! The hair metal has not aged well for me; I just think the writing on a lot of that stuff was just all-around bad. Some of those bands, like Def Leppard, is very bubblegum bad and I kinda like that about them.” Are there any bands he thinks have managed to stand the test of time from that period? “Guns N’ Roses is an example of a good band, good writing – they’re the one band that’ll be remembered from that period. Every now and then there would be a good ballad or something, usually they’d be so ridiculous…the 80s was a real time of just atrocious, dirgey ballads! The ones that worked were the ones that took it over the top, almost like melodramatic drama plays. I think ‘All I Need’, Jack Wagner’s song, that’s an example of a ballad approaching psychodrama, and ‘I Want to Know What Love Is’ by Foreigner does that too. Metal ballads almost never did that: ‘Ballad of Jayne’ by LA Guns had a little bit of psychodrama…I’d be curious to hear that song again, actually!” I mention that I think the Foreigner track is, for all its atrociousness, a complete soft rock classic, and Sheff agrees: “’I Want to Know What Love Is’ is a really funny song because, on one level, it’s the worst thing in the world but on another level it’s a triumphant juggernaut of catchiness. I mean, even the verse! Even if it didn’t have that giant chorus it would still be kind of a badass song! It’s got a little bit of a Dire Straits vibe…I think people would be jamming that song even if it didn’t have that awesome chorus, so that’s an example of one of those songs that transcends critical appraisal. You have to admit that that song does something to people, despite the fact it’s terrible.”

As we come to the end of our time, I ask first about the album title (“In addition to it being a place of which I have personal memories, the main hall says a lot. The main hall feels like it sums up my childhood, and so for that reason I chose the title”) and then if long-time artwork collaborator William Schaff’s art for The Silver Gymnasium takes on even more importance given it’s a work about Sheff’s childhood. Sheff explains: “Yeah, for certain. I really wanted the art to feel like a child’s personal mythology. A lot of what I do, especially as I become happier and more situated within the world, is very contrary. I tend to look at how the world is going and be a corrective; people don’t buy records anymore and their experience of artwork is a fucking thumbnail on Spotify, so my impulse is to make a really big and beautiful piece of artwork. That’s just my sort of bull-headedness I guess, and people will only listen to one or two songs off a record so my impulse is to try and make a record where they’re all connected. Sometimes I think it’s just perversity that takes me in the directions that I go, but at a certain point you like being who you are and don’t stress too much about it.” And does releasing the album on cassette play into that perversity? “Ha! This was actually written to be a driving album,” laughs Will, “and I really wanted at least somebody to play it in their car. I don’t know, there’s something really fun about that – and people also listen to cassettes in prison, there’s a real cassette economy in prison! I really like the idea of taking this thing and poignantly putting it inside something that doesn’t work , something that people can’t access!”

The Silver Gymnasium is out now on ATO.

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