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OKKERVIL RIVER - September 11/07


"I have been doing a lot of interviews lately, but that's OK," says Okkervil River's Will Sheff matter-of-factly, and it's understandable why. This past August saw the release of their fourth full length album, The Stage Names, and in a year of exceptional albums, it's arguably one of the best. At the risk of diminishing the capable and sympathetic way with which the group handle the album's nine tunes, most of the credit for this success belongs to songwriter and frontman Sheff. This is especially true when you hear the eloquent full demo recordings of Stage Names included with the album's limited first run.

When Okkervil released 2005's breakthrough Black Sheep Boy, many critics likened the band breathlessly to long-revered and missed cult heroes Neutral Milk Hotel. The similarities are kind of uncanny: both are large bands full of multi-instrumentalist members; their music merges folk and rock with a healthy barroom gypsy swagger; and each group has an undisputed leader in possession of a riveting, very human voice--whether as a full-throated yelp or a broken, cracking whisper.

And yet, where NMH's Jeff Mangum was enigmatic and dressed in vivid LSD-metaphors, Sheff is far more tactile and familiar. He yearns for "real blood...real knives", "the earthiest smell", while he watches a "bad movie", and litters his songs with known locations like "Washington Avenue" and "Camden Town".

At the same time, his songs are no less open to our own experiences and imagination; they are both movie cameras and mirrors, crisply projecting a tale as they reflect our own story. Also, unlike the defunct NMH, Okkervil River appear primed to stick around. Nine years in, the band is only getting more recognized, adding a killer Conan O'Brien appearance and the public praises of none other than Lou Reed to its latest banner moments.

Ahead of a sold out Toronto appearance, we spoke with Sheff from the road. What began as a discussion of his songwriting, became a candidly uncertain look into the state of the world, the role of entertainers to inform, and the future of touring bands like his own.

Soundscapes: When listening to the demo disc, the thing that really stuck out for me was how fully formed the songs were. I was expecting to hear lyrics in transition and whatnot, but everything seems to be there. When you're writing, do you write a lot of songs, or are you the kind of person who writes only about ten songs a year but perfects every essence of them?

Will Sheff: When I'm writing I do tend to write a lot of songs, and I guess I usually end up in the writing process taking them pretty close to a state of completion before I bring them into the band. Now of course, when we get there and we sit down and we start playing them, we figure out what's working and what isn't working. And we might totally give something a different arrangement or a different sound than it had before. But usually most of the lyrics and the sort of overall structure of the song is more or less there.

SS: So given the way that the overall themes move through this record and interact with each other, how much of the idea for Stage Names was together before you started writing?

WS: Umm, the idea wasn't there at all before I started the record. It wasn't that I had an idea and then wrote a record to go around it. It was more that I had, as I was writing the songs, it became clear that it was pointing in a certain direction. And then it was just kind of a matter of shaping them all that way, in the most elegant way that I could, so that they felt like they all worked together in the end.

SS: Do you feel that this writing was more of a subconscious act in a way?

WS: I do kind of think that it's a more subconscious mind process. I think of my conscious mind in writing as a kind of filter.

SS: Right.

WS: Y'know, like, I'm kind of using my conscious mind to filter out bad ideas and make phrases a little bit better than they could be if I didn't think about them as much. I'm kind of using it to shape things, but umm, the subconscious mind is providing a lot of what's really going into it. Or another way that you could think of it is, y'know, if you've ever seen footage of somebody when they're working on an assembly line, and there's all these things coming down the assembly line and they're looking at them, and really their whole job is to take something that looks weird, and pick it up and throw it aside, or maybe reshape something and change it. The person on the assembly line is kinda how I think of my conscious thought process when I'm writing. But I think that a lot of it is kinda, I wouldn't say subconscious, because it's not like I'm not aware of what I'm doing, but it's all kind of intuitive as opposed to a very organized thought process.

SS: A lot of what you talk about in Stage Names is directly tied to life on the road and being a fan of musicians, and celebrity in general, and this record is getting called an 'autobiographical' work a lot. I wonder how really accurate a statement that is.

WS: It's not that autobiographical. It's sort of is and it sort of isn't, y'know? I'm using things that have happened to me as a way to understand some of the things that I'm writing about on the record. It's not that I have an urgent sense that I want people to understand who I am and where I'm coming from. It's not like that at all. There's a lot of things that I tried to write on the record that may sound very authentically real, like they really happened, but that you would be surprised to know that they didn't. And there's other things on the record that might be more vague and hazy, but actually refer to something very specific that happened to me. So I do think of it like you take these things and you use them, they go into the finished product, but I was not at all, at any point, thinking that what I was doing was setting up to write an autobiographical record. I think there is, obviously, there are moments that are personal, but I don't try to draw attention to which those are, and I don't think of them as having to do with whether or not the record has merit.

SS: When you step back from a record, there's a moment before it's released where it's allowed to be what it is to you, and not necessarily anyone else. But then after that, you go up on stage and you perform it night after night and you get people commenting on the work and so on. How does this record seem to you now that you've dealt with some much feedback about it?

WS: Well, y'know when I'm really working on it, on the songs, before we've even recorded them, that's when I'm in the most hugging and loving them whole phase. That's when it feels extremely personal and private and special to me. But once we start working on the songs in the rehearsal, you starting thinking whether or not it works, and by the time you're finishing the record, you're obsessed with whether or not it's working to the point where you've lost a little bit of perspective on what's actually happening. So, by that point, it doesn't feel like, the way that you describe, y'know feeling like it's just yours, maybe that feeling is there, but it's a little bit confused by the fact that you have no perspective on it and you don't know what people are going to think. And you know, when I'm writing an album, I'm not concerned what people think. And when I'm recording it, I'm very concerned with what I think, whether I think it's good. But once it's done, there's no more, y'know, it's not helpful for me to think in terms of either of those things. So, then I start wondering what people are going to think, and it's really interesting because I don't understand what makes people think the things they think anyway. Y'know there's a certain amount of baited breath before the record comes out, when you're thinking you cannot read the people. People are not going to understand it.

SS: Yeah, right.

WS: But now that it's out, I do in some ways feel like it's no longer mine. So, in some ways, it doesn't have that personal connection to me anymore. I feel like it's gone out there and it's doing its thing. I love those songs and I feel a lot of affection towards the songs, but it's different than, y'know, it's more like when you're a parent and you're sitting at home with your beautiful child and you're thinking about how amazing it is that they're blah blah blah blah, but when you're older and they're out in the world and married and have kids and trying to get job and do things for themselves. I mean, it's that whole thing, you're looking out there saying this thing now exists independently of me. And it is true, it sounds sort of corny, but it is true. Playing on a stereo where you're not present, it's living a life outside of you, so you feel a little bit less of that achingly personal connection to it.

SS: Speaking of that 'baited breath', the steady momentum of Black Sheep Boy over a couple of years represented a real culmination of a lot of efforts. It reached the point where working on The Stage Names, there was certainly the suggestion of a lot of potential for your new record. I know it's a cliche, but did you feel the weight of expectation working on this album? It feels like one where there would be legitimate cause for those feelings.

WS: I felt that weight of expectation, but it's kind of a degrading position to put yourself in...

SS: Yeah.

WS: ...to give in to feeling the weight of other's people's expectations for you, when you never started writing because of people's expectations anyway. I think I'm in a position where I've been doing this for nine years, so I didn't feel like a band that puts out one record and gets unbelievably huge and everybody wants them to top it on the next record and they don't even know what it was that they did that made people like it in the first place.

SS: Right.

WS: It was more like, at this point I've been doing it for long enough that I was able, I think luckily, to tune out thoughts about other people's expectations and focus on my expectations. And my expectations are the only thing that I know anything about, y'know? I don't understand in a very sophisticated way what people's expectations are. But I do understand what I want. What I'm trying to do. I can get my hands on it a little bit more easily.

SS: Yeah, yeah. How did your relationship with William Schaff begin? (This distinct artist has also done covers for Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Magnolia Electric Co.) His artwork seems pretty integral to how your albums come across.

WS: Well, he was a friend of a drummer, the guy who played drums with us a year or so, maybe a little bit longer? That's a guy named Mark Pedini who started a lot of designing for us. And basically I met him through Mark. It was one of those early days of internet promoting your band things. His band, The Eyesores, had actually just contacted us through a message board, saying, "Can you help us set up a gig in Texas?"

SS: Right.

WS: And so that was how I met Will, and that was a while back. I immediately, when I had the idea for him to do artwork for our first record, it very immediately, intuitively seemed right to me and it just all worked out really well ever since.

SS: How do you pitch the records to him? Do you just give him a copy and let him go? Do you sit and talk a lot about it?

WS: No, we talk about it a lot far before the first note has even been recorded. And for the past two records, Black Sheep Boy and Stage Names, I've gone to visit him at his house in Providence, Rhode Island and I've stood there and played these songs for him. Y'know, all the songs in person and we talk about them a lot and there's a lot of arguing and laughing and drinking and discussing what's up. And he tends to put in his own interpretation about what the record's about.

SS: Is he more than just an artist then, is he a sounding board for the music as well?

WS: Not the musical ideas. He doesn't say, "I think you could do this differently," or anything like that. But we do argue a lot about what a song is about (laughs). I really enjoy that. And with Black Sheep Boy in a lot of ways the reason that I made a record called Black Sheep Boy was because I was thinking, "Aww, man, Will could do some really great artwork for that."

SS: Right.

WS: (laughs) So, I always like the idea of feeling like the artwork is integral, has a total close relationship, to the music and the lyrics and they all combine together. Especially in the age of where everything is downloaded in a little crappy, low-resolution version of the internet anyway.

SS: Yeah.

WS: It seems really more important to do a whole.

SS: Yeah, if people are actually going to put the money down for you.

WS: Yeah.

SS: Definitely. So, this may fall under the stuff you were saying earlier about having no idea where people get their ideas, but... Some of the final statements in the song "Plus Ones"--the lines about "let's take the world's stupidest stand and actually mean it"--those lines really have a desperation that points to the need for meaning and purpose in life. It reminded me of the present political climate in not just the States but Canada too, just North America in general, where you have this situation that is so ripe for change, but you have these entire generations who feel that it's either completely out of their reach or entirely not their business. I wondering how much you talk with fans about politics, about these subjects, and what kind of impressions you get.

WS: Oooo. Um, I don't talk to fans very much about that stuff I guess, but I'm alarmed. I wouldn't say that those last lines were necessarily written, were motivated by that kind of thing...

SS: Right, sure.

WS: ...but I see what you're talking about. It's a very, very frightening time. It seems as if within our, my lifetime, the world is gonna be a very different place. And that's very terrifying. And what's especially terrifying about it is that people don't seem to be altering their behaviour that much in light of this.

SS: Mm-hmm.

WS: I feel like a lot of people are, I don't know if 'apathetic' is the word. It's just that they're so bombarded with things that are going on, that they don't have the focus to take on the entity of problems, you know what I mean? And it's interesting because the sixties generation for example, there was so much of a sense of activism, and that feeling is not really around now, and I'm starting to worry that we're going to have to get some kind of absolute vision of Hell on Earth before people are going to go, "Oh, OK. Maybe we have to change our behaviour in terms of our relationship with other people, and our relationship with the planet." And it's terrifying, especially for somebody where, I feel guilty when it comes to environmental stuff. I put out--I may not be as guilty as some--but I put out a lot of petroleum in the service of my so-called art, y'know?

SS: Yeah.

WS: And you start to think, "Well am I, personally, having a good or a bad effect on the world?"

SS: I was going to ask, how do you feel about the occupation of 'musician'? I feel that's one that's going to have to undergo a lot of change, even in the way that an indie musician pursues what they do.

WS: It's gonna have to go through a lot of change. I feel like, in some ways I wish I had thought about this more before we put out our record, because I wish I had been more prepared to think about things. I don't know, it's funny. It's like, when Al Gore was putting on all those concerts all over the world, you're thinking about all these people traveling to see these shows...

SS: (laughs) Yeah.

WS: ...and all these people flying on planes to see them, all this crap. It almost definitely had a negative environmental impact. It's all in the name of raising awareness, and you're sort of like, "Does awareness offset carbon emissions?" I don't really understand quite how that works. How many tons of awareness do you have to create? Y'know, it's sort of like this thing with me being a musician. I kind of think that in a lot of ways--it's sort of sanctimonious, but I'll say it--my job is to sensitize people. And that's not to say that my job is to make them believe in a political system or accept a certain system of beliefs, because that is absolutely not my job. I think my job is to punch holes hopefully in certain things that people think are true and real. So I think that the ultimate goal is to try and sensitize people in some kind of way.

So you think, maybe that's good, maybe that's an abstract goal, but when you actually look at what you're doing--driving all the fuck over the world, and taking planes everywhere and putting out these hunks of plastic--you sort of like, "Wow, I'm just a low-level, poor man's version of any other major polluter." It's a frightening time to be alive. I don't really have a good answer for that question.

SS: Well, it is a interesting time. You talk about how in the sixties there was that sense of activism, and I remember a comment about Neil Young's Living With War record (2006) when it came out, something to the effect of, 'It's a really bizarre time when the most politically aware and angry record is being released by this 60-year old musician. Why aren't younger musicians carrying the torch?' I'm not saying this to put you in a corner, but do you ever wonder why it's not in vogue to be more direct about this? Or why the message has to come from these higher-tier celebrities, that it's not very grassroots?

WS: I think that in some way there's a sanctimony that a lot of the children of the 60s had that leaves a really bad taste in the mouths of people in my generation. It just seemed a very much holier-than-thou, hectoring instead of doing anything, lecturing and often there's a feeling of hypocrisy to it. And it's just not very fun to have people lecturing you. So I think people feel an aversion to that kind of thing, I feel an aversion to that kind of thing. I don't like being lectured and I don't like people telling me what they think that I should be doing. So I think that there's a kind of distaste for that kind of thing that a lot of people of my generation maybe have. But what I think is frightening about it that if you're not really active and sophisticated about how you're thinking about these things, there's a tendency to not be able to distinguish between when it's necessary to do things and take action. People kind of need just a no-nonsense, like I never felt like it was important to tell people what to do in a song or get up on a high horse and be like...

SS: Yeah, yeah.

WS: ...this is what you need to be doing. But I always felt like the better thing to do was to just not involve yourself in that way, and then just on your own take action. But it's just very hard because people aren't organized and everyone is very much more splintered. When I think about people, I kind of picture them all, everybody just on their own sitting... y'know people don't really talk to each other very much if they don't know each other and everybody has their circumscribed group and it's in a lot of ways more isolated than ever. And I think that entertainment, which is the big thing with our record, I think that entertainment, and the way that entertainment works these days, encourages that even more.

SS: Right.

WS: Where there's a kind of umm, you do feel a part of community when somebody sends you a really cool or funny or shocking or interesting clip off of YouTube. You see that and you feel like it's a nice feeling to know that other people are watching this, that there's this communal value of entertainment with something like that. But on the other hand, everything just gets increasingly broken into bite-sized chunks, and when you're watching TV shows that advertise within the TV show and, I don't know, it's very interesting. Sometimes I think that entertainment can have this power to really sensitize people and change the way they look at the world, and other times I think that it just distracts them from what is going on around them, you know what I mean? Like, "Hey, look at this hand puppet while I'm about to stab you with my other hand!"(laughs)

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