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Okkervil River: Staying Stupid, Keeping Sane

Staying Stupid, Keeping Sane

By Gordon Campbell

Will Sheff

Around 2am after a triumphant gig in March at the San Francisco Bath House, Okkervil River’s lead singer Will Sheff was walking the block or so up Cuba St back to his hotel when he ran into a young woman, staggering, blind drunk. As Sheff tried to encourage her to get a taxi home, some guys – who she didn’t know – pulled up and tried to bundle her into their car.

Ever the gentleman, Sheff intervened and just about got his head kicked in. Welcome to Wellington, sport. In the melee she escaped, he got to the hotel, the guys went away steaming mad. A pretty poor reward for a gig that – as Brannavan Gnanalingam said in his review on Lumiere Reader was one of the best live performances he’d ever seen.

The Stage Names: Okkervil River's fourth album

One contributing factor being…the melodramatic quality to some of Okkervil River ‘s best songs – like ‘For Real’ or ‘Unless Its Kicks’ or ‘Black’ or the song that combines references to poet John Berryman’s suicide with the ‘Sloop John B’ folk song - came across devastatingly on stage. Bigger can be more beautiful. If you go to the band’s website, try checking out the free download called Golden Opportunities, a live covers album by them of songs by John Phillips, the Fugs, John Cale, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell and Serge Gainsbourg, among others.

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People may think Okkervil River is an alt country band, named after some river in Appalachia, maybe. Wrong. It’s a real river in St Petersburg, Russia – and the band took its name from a short story by Tatiana Tolstaya, whose brilliant “See The Other Side” is readable online.

Since the New Zealand shows and a SXSW gig backing Roky Erikson, Okkervil River have announced that Charles Bissell ( of the Wrens, who did the fine Meadowlands album) is joining them. Which means Sheff, Bissell and Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater are all now in the same miraculous line-up.
I caught up with Sheff a couple of hours before the Wellington show.

Black Sheep Boy: Okkervil River's third album

Campbell : That Golden Opportunities download has you doing cover versions of songs you like. Conversely, do you have Okkervil River songs that you think other artists could do really well ?

Sheff : I always wanted to write for women. There’s something fun and exciting about that girl group music, but also, when you think about the stuff by Patsy Cline or Dusty Springfield…The fact is that the songs are so feminine and vulnerable, but they’re often written by men. That often adds a weird, fun tension – a man putting things into a woman’s mouth and the woman reclaiming the words, for her femininity. Its like a man GETS to be a woman in the moment he’s writing the song. There’s something so electric about that. I always wanted to write for a woman, but I guess I’ve yet to find my female muse in that way.

Well, you mentioned Patsy Cline as an example. If you think about that song ‘She’s Got You’ then yeah, you’re right. It’s about a particularly feminine kind of jealousy and loss, and yet was written by a couple of old Nashville veterans, Hank Cochran and Harlen Howard. Did you know that song was one of the out-takes on the new Cat Power album ?

Really ? Chan Marshall is a great singer.

I’m kind of glad it wasn’t on the album. People might have read into it an autobiographical, Bill Callahan scenario.

Yeah, but I don’t know. Surely any grown up has dated lots of people. I don’t think its necessarily fair to read an autobiographical component into it, in that way.

So there’s nothing in Okkervil River’s repetoire that you think would be better suited to some modern Dusty Springfield out there?

No no, I do write songs like that, frequently. There’s one song I’ve had that’s been banging around for a while that I always knew a girl needed to sing it. I’ve never found the right one. Then sometimes I’ll write like, a stupid country song that only a country singer could do ..but then I end up doing them. One of the great pleasures about not having the pressure of writing for yourself is that you can try on these different personas.

The only time with Okkervil River that I’ve felt autobiography staring in the face was with the free download, and the remake of your own song ‘Listening to Otis Redding at Christmas’ which namechecks New Hampshire at the end. That one does sound like a confessional song.

Mmm. I am from New Hampshire, but that song is a fictionalized story. The crazy thing about the whole Golden Opportunities thing is that it is probably the most personal record that we’ve ever made, in spite of the fact its all covers. In picking covers I was able to pick songs that very closely expressed my sentiments. And I would have maybe felt cheesy doing that, if I was writing my own sentiments like that, straight up. When I was assembling those songs I was feeling very moved by them. Because that album says a lot about how I feel, way more than albums where I wrote a lot of the songs.

Why is that – because this time you’re responding as a fan, as well as being a creative ?

Yeah. That’s a big part of the essence of fandom. You hear a song that really means something to you – its like couples, who have ‘our song’ . Sometimes when you’re single, you identify with a song so much you feel that it becomes your song. You want to walk down the street singing it, because you feel so much the same way. I don’t want to single any of them out, but on Golden Opportunities there are those kind of songs, ones that that have felt kind of totemic for me.

Its an artificial milestone, but its exactly ten years since you made your first record, the Bedroom EP. Has this career been what you expected ?

That’s kind of impossible to say. When I started out – in the back of my mind, I expected the world – and in the front of my mind, I expected nothing. Like I wanted everything and yet I knew it was likely that I would get nothing.

Yeah, but its all on a different scale now, don’t you think? It used to be assumed that people went into music with a level of ambition that nothing less than becoming a Mick Jagger household name could satisfy. Now, there’s an honest journeymen role… where if you’re paying the rent through your music and maybe managing to get round the world doing what you love doing, then that’s cool, too.

I love Mick Jagger, but I don’t know if you can be Mick Jagger anymore. It may be the way the music business has changed. For me, I don’t think I want to be a household name, or a journeyman. I just try and find ways to do things that enable me to keep going from one thing to the next. Doing what’s fun and rewarding. Just hoping there’s enough momentum in my career to make it work for me.

Which can be fine in your 20s, maybe into your 30s. Where it kicks in sometimes, don’t you think, is when you realize your creative life is dependent on the disposable income of the kind of people who might have been your classmates at school.

Right. Hmm. I never even thought about that. Though I guess there is a ‘grass is always greener’ thing, if you’re a musician. See, what I did was follow my dream even though it was stupid. A lot of people are too wise to do that. You need a kind of stupidity to believe in yourself. So maybe some people are jealous that I got to do what I want. And I dont make a lot of money doing it, but I do get to do it. And you know..the thing is, I’m jealous of THEM. Because they have families, and they have sort of a depth and a rootedness to their lives emotionally, that I truly do not have. That’s a perpetual bummer for me.

But some people do just walk backwards through their 20s and 30s knowing what they DON’T want to do, until that becomes a career path. Til you get to the point where you ask yourself, is this a lifetime project or just a holding pattern? Or like in that song you wrote about John Berryman, you get to where wise men know when its time to go…

For me, I think I was lucky enough because 98 per cent of the things there were to do, were things I didn’t want do. So I had to go - I will absolutely be miserable. At a certain point in my life, I realised I will be absolutely miserable if I don’t do what I want. Which is music, and writing and all that stuff. If I don’t do it, I’ll feel like I’ve wasted my life, and that’s the point where you justify going ahead and doing the stupid thing, and jumping into the void. Hey, because otherwise, you’re going to be miserable anyway. But maybe if you don’t feel that way..don’t feel that that you’’ll DIE if you don’t do it, then maybe you’re free to do something else. Because there’s no hierarchy here. No one says that its better to be songwriter than a teacher. Because its not.

What do you see as the main difference in the way that you sing, between the last two albums ? Forgive me for this, but a lot of people coming to Black Sheep Boy for the first time could hear an emo, Bright Eyes thing going on. On The Stage Names, was there a conscious effort to dial back the emotion ?

I never thought of ourselves as emo or as having anything to do with Bright Eyes, but that’s certainly something we’ve been saddled with from very early on. It has to do with ranges, and styles of singing. I have a quality where I sound like I’m emotionally involved, no matter what I’m singing. I wasn’t ever trying to dial back the emotion, but I think when I get to a certain fever pitch of my singing style I do sound kind..kind of emotive. Whether I mean to or not.

And sad as well.

I know. Its funny, because that is the way that I sing. Its really funny you say that. I’ve been listening to that Ray Charles song ‘ Lucky Old Sun’ the last track on his Modern Sounds in Country and Western album, and he sounds like he’s going to break down and weep like a child, the whole song. Its very moving. If it wasn’t Ray Charles, you would say its emo. I think that term is not particularly useful.

Yeah, it’s a disparate quality. For me, its what always made Ghostface Killah stand out in Wu-Tang. That shaky, whiny quality in his voice puts a vulnerability behind all the usual guns and hos kind of stuff. .

Yeah, and I always thought that was part of what was appealing about Jay Z, that he was the archetypal swaggering rap guy, with a sort of vulnerability. There’s a sort of secret catch in the way that he sings, it makes him sound sensitive and sincere, beneath everything.


And I guess what I’m saying is…having an emotional connection in your voice is something you can hear in Patsy Cline, or Ray Charles or Ghostface. Or in Tracy Thorn, from Everything But The Girl. Whether I like it or not, that’s a quality I have in my voice. But when I was singing the Stage Names stuff, my main focus was trying to sing it as best I could. You’re just looking at a voice that’s two years down the line, maybe gotten a little more skilled.

Even while this decade has gotten so smart about its musical half lives, Jack White and just about everyone else has gotten into Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Frank Stokes and all those other blues and country people from the 20s and 30s ..I mean, how can we square those two impulses – living postmodern, while hankering for something a bit more enduring ?

Well, I think Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Frank Stokes and those other singers from that period were absolutely hip to postmodernism. I know that sounds crazy, because the term postmodern didn’t even exist. Modernism was something they didn’t even think about. Bascom Lunsford maybe, but Frank Stokes wouldn’t know what modernism was. Folk culture has always been extremely hardy, and incorporated things we think of as postmodern, like referentiality, taking someone else’s thing and making it your own. Altering things from the original source without worrying about the original source.

Yeah, but I was really asking about how it plays out in the modern consumer. I don’t know. Maybe our reverence for old timey music is just another form of that nostalgia for childhood, for the simpler, purer time.

I always thought nostalgia for childhood was always such total bullshit. Emo is very nostalgic for childhood. Emo artists have a problem with sexuality. You’ll notice this, in emo music, that’s there’s a longing for a simpler time when we were all kids, and all pure of heart. We were sexless. To look back at Bascom Lamar Lunsford as somehow pure is kind of condescending. It comes with thinking he was ignorant, or untrained. Point of fact, he was a very erudite man. The folk tradition is unsurpassed in terms of the intelligence that was brought to bear in those songs. Absolute wisdom in why people act the way they act. Longing for childhood is…kinda just gross. You’re an adult, and you have to deal with the realities of being an adult. That’s something to be valued and prized. Returning to some infantile pre-sexual time, which I think is at the heart of so much emo, is not.

That’s what so cool about some of those old blues and country songs. Its not unsophisticated. Its distilled sophistication.

Exactly. It was so revelatory to me when I realized about this idea that music be pure. So much of it ultimately has to do with this weird idea that music should be good for you. Or art should be good for you, like eating your vegetables. I don’t think that makes any sense. I enjoy Bascom Lamar Lunsford. I enjoy David Bowie, I enjoy Kelly Clarkson. And I don’t think I’m stupid for liking any of those people.

That’s pretty evident on the last two albums. The Black Sheep Boy, without negating his dark side for one moment, is attractive. Deal with it. While I think The Stage Names is sort of about how we use pop culture for guidance, for better and worse. Both embrace dualities, without resolving them. With you, do those linking concepts emerge from the final sorting process – as in hey, these songs seem to be coming from the same neck of the woods - or are they written with a common theme in mind ?

It’s a mix of both. It usually starts because I’ve got something on my mind. And I just write a bunch of songs. As I write and look at them, I start to notice they have certain things in common. Often there’s a point where I go - holy shit! – I see EXACTLY what these things have in common. And its fascinating, like I never realised it before. After that point, everything starts to speed up, and I start to herd them all together, and I’ll start to rewrite and change things so they’ll fit the form. Usually I get to the bitter end of that and I’m writing shit that’s way overly obvious and hitting you over the head. They either get thrown out, but…you never know. Sometimes you get to the end and you’re writing songs that really, totally crystallize it. But its not like I start out intent on writing something as precise as…oh, how agri-business is destroying the world. Now, that WOULD be horrible.


Gordon Campbell is a former Listener journalist, and editor of Scoop’s election coverage, Pulse08.

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