"...And the Water Slipped On Slowly Past Our Bodies In the Weeds…" An Interview With Will Robinson Sheff of Okkervil River
by dougie robb
"...And the water slipped on slowly past our bodies in the weeds, pulling plastic wrap and razors on its current through the reeds..."
When introducing friends to the fantastic country world of Okkervil River one of the first things they always seem to remark upon when hearing the Austin four-piece's music is Will Robinson Sheff's voice. Weighing in somewhere between a heart-broken yelp and a classic croon, it's not 'good singing' on a classical/pop barometer, but that doesn't matter. So what if he doesn't hit the right notes all the time, or that his voice cracks and breaks; it fits the music perfectly. It's impassioned, lonely, betrayed, heart broken, angry, desperate, heartfelt and utterly unique and undeniably wonderful. We believe what he's singing about, what he's feeling, and if you were feeling the same gambit of fucked up and strained emotions then I doubt you could or would want to sing perfectly...it just wouldn't be right. Mr Sheff's singing is what made me fall hook and all for the music of Okkervil.
The music press as a whole seem entranced by it too, and often wheel out any number of slightly tortured vaguely folky singers to compare him to, Conor Oberst, Jeff Tweedy and Stuart Staples all gaining honourable mentions, but the guy whose name pops up most in those shiny magazines and matte newspapers around the world is the dandy hat-wearing Will Oldham. It's a comparison that confuses an ever modest Will: "I don't mind the Will Oldham comparisons, though I think they seem to apply less and less, especially with the new record. In my opinion, we're really doing something quite different than Will Oldham. I think that sometimes critics just reach for the easy comparison, and in the beginning they just compared me with Will Oldham because it was easier than having to describe in detail what a shitty singer I was."
He's not as genial about all comparisons, though. "I must add, that while Will Oldham comparisons don't bother me, comparisons to Bright Eyes do," he says. "When the first Bright Eyes record came out, my girlfriend at the time bought it on the recommendation of a record store clerk. When I listened to that record I was really struck by how much he sounded like me and what I was doing. I even sent him a copy of our first CD with a note that said something like "you might like this - I think we're doing similar things." I never heard back, but ever since he got huge all I ever hear is that Okkervil sounds like Bright Eyes, which annoys me so much I've deliberately avoided the last four releases he's put out."
He may sound a little bitter, but I think he has every right too be pissed off, because as much as I love Bright Eyes - and I really do, a song from Fevers and Mirrors is inspiring a name change for my fanzine - I'll take Okkervil River over them every time. And whilst the two bands aren't poles apart, neither is exactly duplicating the other...
Anyway, lets skip back a bit to the beginning, and Will's exposure to the music that would go on to shape how his band would sound. Living in a small New Hampshire town " in the Middle of nowhere with only 2 TV channels and a music scene that consisted of the odd Zeppelin cover band every few years." Up until high school a young Will's musical knowledge was limited to him picking out his favourite records from his parents' collection, which luckily included Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, the Stones and "what other stuff my friends (including band drummer and spoon player Seth Warren and, later at high school, Zach Thomas) and I could find out about on our own, mostly through old weirdos, potheads, and loners who lived around town and had old records."
It was through a friend that he first discovered The Incredible String Band. "His parents were old hippie musicians and he'd gotten into the Incredible String Band through them. We used to listen to their old vinyl copies of those records over and over and over again. We'd go camping with a boom box and play tapes we'd made of Wee Tam and The Big Huge at three in the morning in the middle of the New Hampshire woods. They seemed to contain certain vital inexpressible secrets in them. I still feel that way about the Incredible String Band - they're still one of my very favourites. In spite of all the hippie shit, there's a deep sincerity and a vital emotional urgency to those records that I continue to find really inspiring. They really believed in this somewhat ridiculous idea that they were continuing the bardic or shamanistic tradition in popular song, and by believing in that idea so much - and on so much acid - they made it so."
But it's not just the Glasgow-based 60's psychedelic, scientology dabbling, gimbri-wielding hippie folk bands that boast Billy Connolly as a fan while singing about witches, minotaurs and amoebae who've had a profound effect on our erstwhile country pioneer. In fact it's quite hard to think of a genre of music further away from the Incredible String Band than soul, but it and Otis Reading more than anyone else have influenced Will's song writing - the way he writes anyway, if not the sound. As he says, "I don't ever try to imitate soul - that would be ridiculous. I just try to take from my favourite soul music the elements that resonate deepest with me. I'd like to believe that soul music is a huge influence on my songwriting. I love soul songs - the intelligence of the arrangements, the simplicity of the lyrics, the really supple grooves the bands play. I love it in a song when people come out and say really straightforward things like "Why don't you love me?" There's just something so unpretentious and direct about that kind of a line, but it only works if you're 100 percent emotionally invested in singing it, which is where Otis Redding comes in. I think he might be the best singer of all time. Songs like "I've Got Dreams to Remember" or "I've Been Loving You Too Long" are just so unbelievably wrenching I can only listen to them a few times a year."
I digress. Heading off to pastures new with bulging record collection in tow and with the number of musical ideas and influences growing everyday, as he was introduced to or uncovered hitherto unheard bands, Will went to Uni in Minneapolis and attended classes like "The Sociology of Food," "The Mind In Sleep," and "The History of God," while writing songs and having nervous breakdowns that went entirely unnoticed by his girlfriend.
Zach and Seth. After Uni and deciding to be a "total failure" Will moved to Austin. Texas, as did Zach and Seth. Okkervil River was born. The trio retired to a friend's house and recorded their first album Stars Too Small to Use in a few days.. Numerous small gigs around Texas quickly followed and it was the aftermath of one of these gigs following the release of Stars To Small To Use that fourth Okkervil member Jonathan Meiburg was drafted into the band's ranks. After witnessing a gig he remarked to them "it was the worst thing I'd ever heard, but I could tell you were doing it on purpose!" Not impressed with such an outburst Will, Seth and Zach threatened Jonathan with physical violence and ganged him into playing Wurlitzer and accordion for them, a job he launched into with mucho gusto and surprising expertise.
Thus Okkervil's frantic, passionate, heartfelt, rough-round-the-edges' alt-country soulful sound was solidified, ironed out and made more palatable for those who weren't hardcore fans of lo-fi spastic folk/country whilst still maintaining the band's lo-fi soul. Okay, I may have made some of that up. But were the band really like that when you were first starting out? "Yes and no. I think that in our early days Okkervil was extremely spastic and out-of-control, a spectacle that would either disturb, amuse, repulse, or excite the few rubberneckers assembled to witness it. We were (sort of) doing it on purpose, though."
Split EPs and the (until recently) hard to find Stars Too Small To Use album put out by the Jound and Tight Spot labels followed over the next few years, before the band came to people's attention with their debut album for Indianan imprint Jagjaguwar: Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See. Everybody from the press in their high-rise offices to the kids on the street fell in love with it. This was country that was heartbreakingly melancholic, brutally honest and beautifully lo-fi. Laden with harmonicas, mandolins, accordion, pedal steel guitar, and guttural organ all made to sound like you didn't know they could, these poetic retellings of life dealt with heartbreak, death, loneliness, betrayal, love (lost, found and unrequited) friendship, pride and childhood, took in elements of traditional folk, country and soul music mixed them around and spat them out as indie. Marvelous…
One of the many highlights on Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See was the sixth track, 'Happy Hearts'. Upon listening to it it's clear that not just Will is singing. Hmmm…a glace at the liner notes reveals that it's no one less than Daniel Johnson. Yes, that Daniel Johnson , he who Kurt Cobain was such a big fan of , he who has just had an exhibition of his art shown in Barcelona.. So what was it like to work with a man of who so much has been written…I mean, was he easy to work with? "Working with Daniel Johnston was one of the biggest honors of my life. We drove down to his parents' house in Waller, TX, to pick him up and rehearsed the song all the way up there in the car. When we got to the studio and set about recording Daniel's vocals, he sort of matter-of-factly changed the melody slightly in a way that was quite an improvement, so then we decided to re-record my vocal part to use that change. Then we went and bought hamburgers and comic books." See, for me to hear something like that brings a smile to my face because as soon as his name is mentioned - and I have to hold my hand up and admit to doing this too - then talk almost instantly turns to the whole mythology that surrounds him - his history of mental health problems, his erratic behavior, his 'freak art' - the fact that he's a brilliant songwriter, lyricist and beautifully ragtag musician comes second to all of that and its wrong. It's quite sad to say, but it's true, he's written some beautiful songs but because of who he is, the circumstances that he lives in he remains underground, an enigma who will more than likely remain in people's perceptions as a troubled guy rather than a modern genius.
"I agree that it's sad that no one can talk about Daniel Johnston without reeling off the whole "he's crazy!" spiel. This is a man who has written maybe 1,000 songs that have been covered by everyone who's anyone; I'd like to read just one article that talks about him as a craftsman - a working songwriter in the tin-pan-alley tradition - rather than some kind of idiot savant.. Daniel's far more savvy than that and he's aware of how people see him. He also has a killer sense of humour, though I think people often take seriously things he means to be funny, just as they sometimes laugh at things he means in dire seriousness." I suppose the whole situation is self-reciprocating, with Daniel being as shy and reclusive as he is, only a few people really know what he's really like, and so we on the outside are left to wonder what it'd be like to be his friend and spend our free time weaving our own stories out of half-facts and hearsay, almost out of a necessity to keep this strange aura that surrounds his mere mention intact...
One of Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See's other standout tracks was "Westfall", the poetic retelling of a true-to-life teenage murder that shook middle America, whilst 'Lady Liberty' spins a yarn of cheating lovers and 'Happy Hearts' questions what being in love is and why it hurts so….Does this mean that for Will the best songs are the ones that tell stories?
"A lot of people go on about the "storytelling" aspect of Okkervil River songs, and though I don't mind that, it's not a term I'd use myself. I merely try to avoid speaking from the point-of-view of "Will Sheff" and instead try to build a song around a persona or character. I think that songs where "I" means the person singing are often tedious and sort of embarrassing. I get a lot of inspiration from books I've read, and I sometimes use in songs techniques I've learned from writing poetry or prose. But I really dislike it when songwriters give the whole "I'm actually a slumming poet" speech. To me, the song form predates the watered-down abstractions of both poetry and prose - there's no reason to make justifications for not having won the Booker Prize for your pop song..."
Whilst we're on the subject of storytelling, one of my favourite quotes is from Plato.. He says "Those who tell the stories also rule the society." Is that a utopian dream? Is it really those who rule society love power and use stories, tales and half-facts to get where they are, wrapping us round their little finger as they go?
"As for the Plato quote, I totally agree. But I don't think Plato meant storytellers such as I. I think that those who tell the big stories - like the one about the guy who died on the cross, or the one about the land of the free and the home of the brave, or the old chestnut about man being the measure of all things - the people who fine-tune and broadcast those stories are the ones who really have us all by the balls in this world."
Hmmm, okay, now the songs of Okkervil, especially those found on Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See, have a real melancholic touch to them, a real heartfelt touch to them, and to listen to it is almost to peer into the lives of strangers we don't know. All we can do is watch and listen as we see them yearn, grieve, regret, reminisce of happy times and fall in and out of love. Tears are shed, promises are forgotten, hearts are broken and dreams dissipate into nothing and all we can do is gawp, strain our ears, and wipe our tear-stained eyes. Helpless by-standers wanting to help, wishing things to change but knowing full well we cant do a thing. And despite this, something intangible is breaking through the melancholy and loneliness that enshrouds the record. The listener can't help but lie back and smile as the songs unfold. After all, this is beautiful music, what is there to be sad about? If anything it's a comforting, warming record.
Its almost as if the sadness, loneliness and heartbreak that lies so deep at the heart of these songs is medicinal. Almost as if sadness is medicinal. Medicinal.
"I agree - some sad songs make me happy. I think that the reason for this is that these songs are not really sad so much as meditative. They cause me to think about what's bothering me and gain some kind of insight about it. There are definitely sad songs that make me even sadder (I can't bring myself to listen to Leonard Cohen when I'm depressed), but my favourite 'sad songs' cause me to tunnel through their sadness to some kind of deeper understanding."
And although Will is happy to be touched and comforted by the songs of his peers, having his songs scrutinised by those same peers, fans poking and prodding around his scribblings trying to find their own meaning in them doesn't appeal as much...
"I guess the exhibition of my emotions is sort of uncomfortable (it's not like I'm spilling my guts onstage, but I certainly try to be there emotionally in the moment), but isn't that how it is with every performer? The only time I really feel uncomfortable is sometimes when people impute certain emotions to me after the fact. It feels strange when people have a really heavy emotional attachment to something you did one day in a shed in Texas..."
In the intervening year or so since Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See was released, Okkervil has changed. Or rather their sound has…in between touring lots the boys managed to escape to San Francisco to John Vanderslice's (he of Mountain Goats fame) Tiny telephone studio. And those who were expecting more of the same from the follow-up, Down the River Of Golden Dreams, will be slightly surprised at the sounds that seep out of their speakers once they hit play; this here fanzine-type-writer sure was.
Thing is, it's very hard to explain what exactly is different. The soul of the songs are still there, it's still heartfelt and impassioned, it's just well, the whole band appears to have grown and matured. Horribly clichéd I know, but true. One of the most striking things is that it all sounds much more lush, and it's most definitely more hi-fi than previous releases. Another is that with this record it's very difficult to pigeonhole the boys as an alt-country band anymore. Yeah, it's still Americana but it's just much more subtle. Will's throaty anguished yelp has been tempered and smoothed till it's more of a croon than anything, while folk elements sit side by side with lush complex orchestration, chamber pop swooning and middle-America porch strumming. There's even a touch of 60's pop psychedelia to be found and a hint of Nick Cave's dusky doom too, if you dig a little. On initial listens to the album it's easy to jump to the conclusion that the band have lost their edge, but trust me it's a grower. I know his isn't exactly a concise description of the new record but even Will has trouble explaining the changes, look - "It's hard for me to describe how the new album is different from the last. At a certain point the Okkervil boys and I stopped trying to "make" things different or to put a lot of thought into how each album might progress from the last. We decided to just keep doing whatever we wanted to do at that particular moment. If I had to generalize, though, I'd say that the new record is certainly more lush and a little more high-fidelity than the last. Also, we were having a lot of fun in San Francisco and wanted to make a record that was more happy/sad and less sad/happy." Well the record has certainly retained the melancholic feel of the first, the dramatic plays and flourishes have been fleshed out allowing the stories that are told to be even more theatrical. Some may dislike the new crisp, polished sound, the ordered lo-fi musical chaos the band captured so well on record made them a lot of friends and the band losing even just a little bit of that might be hard for some fans to except.
One song on the new LP that has retained all the hallmarks of Okkervil of old though is "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks," a rawkus militant alt-country song out of the draw marked 'really, really good songs.' It's a combination of the climactic part of "Westfall" in attitude and "Kansas City" and incorporates some of the finest military brass action I've ever heard - a really nice touch. So what's it all about then? (As if we didn't already know.) "Part of the inspiration for "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" came from current news stories, but was changed around a little bit" Alas Will doesn't let his secrets up easily and so we are left confounded as to what exactly he means… it's probably best to move the subject onto the beautiful brass in the song, cos it's ace…
"Thanks about the brass part; recording the strings and brass for "The War Criminal Rises and Speaks" was such a blast, because we'd written this unbelievably bombastic part and we weren't sure if it was going to sound great or just ridiculous. When the First National Brass players finally came into the studio and started playing that part, we practically fell on the floor laughing. It was so perfect - both great and ridiculous. I personally intend to commission Charlton Heston to tear the shirt off of his sweaty chest and fall to his knees in agony and rage during our live shows when we play that part of the song." Oh, please, please, please someone let Will's beautiful idea come to fruition, it'd be the best gig in the world; the Okkervil boys getting down with their bad selves whilst Mr Heston roles around on stage, it'd be car-crash genius...
Anyhoo, with the making of Down The River Of Golden Dreams it wasn't just the sound the band tinkered with, compared to previous trips into the studio it was the whole recording process: "Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See was recorded in Austin, so we puttered around a little bit more, working really short days over a long period of time and just laying down a part here and there. There were sometimes gaps of several months where we did no recording at all."
Ah-ha! However there's no time for such a laidback approach to recording when the almighty dollar is holding hands with time and both are hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles and you're cooped up with your band-mates for weeks on end! "Since we decided to do Down the River of Golden Dreams at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, we had to take a totally different approach with it because you can't putter around when you're spending hundreds of dollars a day and sleeping in the back of a van in a foreign city every night. So the whole process was done differently from top to bottom; we learned all of the songs there, and then recorded everything in one long 3 ½ week run. I think you can hear it in the recording, too; the band sounds really together and a lot of the performances are very energetic, because we were working constantly..."
Despite all the changes that the band has undergone, one thing remains constant. Water. It's everywhere in Okkervil (and the side project band 'Shearwater'). Firstly the band name: Okkervil River. Easy, it's named after Tatyana Tolstaya's story. Ok then, maybe this water reference mystery isn't going to be that hard to get to the bottom of. I'm guessing "Okkervil River Song" is Inspired by, erm, the Okkervil River. "That song isn't supposed to refer to the actual river Okkervil. I know that's a bit of a no-no, but it's true. It's more of an imagined river." Okay maybe its not going to be that easy; in past times Will has claimed that all the references to and constant images of water in his songs are purely coincidental, and he's still of that opinion. If anything, he's as bewildered as the rest of as to why it keeps appearing: "I have no idea why water imagery is constantly cropping up in everything I do. Maybe it's because I'm a water sign. I try not to question it, but it is interesting." However, the San Francisco air might have had something to do the with prominence of said liquid on the new album: "While we were working on Down the River of Golden Dreams, we noticed there was a lot of water imagery in the songs and that some of them also had a sort of sea-chantey feeling. We were also thinking of that John Vanderslice line "it's like a whaling ship, is being on tour." I guess, in that city by the sea, we were feeling a little bit more like sailors - disembarking for parts unknown - than usual."
So considering the overall feel of Down The River Of Golden Dreams, does this mean the next call for the good ship Okkervil is full-on chamber pop? Don't count on it. "I think that, now that we've crossed that golden bridge, the next step might be to blow it up behind us."
It's not just been all about the new LP though. The boys have been busy on other projects too, recording a version of Elvis Costello's 'Riot Act' for Will's friend Eric Zappa, to put on a Costello tribute compilation he's put together and put out on his own label, Glurp Records. (Its called Almost You: The Songs Of Elvis Costello. Check it out, some good bands are on there.) Will was originally drawn to the project because it was being spearheaded by his friend, but is Elvis someone he has always had a soft spot for? And anyway how do you go about choosing a song to cover by a man who's written so many good songs?
"I got into Elvis Costello through a college girlfriend who was a fanatic. 'Riot Act' has always been one of my favourite Elvis songs, but we were considering quite a wide array of songs including 'I Want You,' 'Shabby Doll' 'All Grown Up' and 'Why Can't a Man Stand Alone?' I think we just chose "Riot Act" because we thought we might be able to do the most interesting spin on that particular tune."
Not only are they a flourishing cover band, they've found fame as muses and soundtrack writers with Alex Holdridge 's independent, bittersweet take on modern relationships and true love, Sexless. Well, sort of. "Alex is a fan of our music and told me he wrote Sexless as his response to how a couple of our songs made him feel." The band's music is used throughout the film, "sort of used in a Harold and Maude/McCabe and Mrs. Miller/The Graduate kinda way." And as proud as Will is about his band's music (maybe) appearing on the big screen, he's far more enthused by the way it's used; the moments in which Okkervil star usually coincide with when the necking begins. "Yeah, it does seem like our songs always come on when people's clothes start coming off, which thrills me to no end." Sadly, its' not all good though, as bureaucracy, legal wrangling and petty mindedness may have scuppered the whole project, or at least it'll not be in a form that will please any of those involved in it. "My understanding is that it's been effectively taken over through a kind of legal coup by the guy who initially funded it, and that he's swapped out a lot of the music and re-cut the whole thing. It'll probably be a miracle if the original movie comes out intact or even at all."
And as yet another of my poorly paced and constructed interviews comes to an end it's time to whip out the questions I couldn't crowbar into any other part of the interview. Hurrah!
Why is Texas such a hotbed of really cool music, bands like Lift to Experience, And You Will know Us By The Trial Of The Dead, American Analog Set, knife In The Water, the Polyphonic Spree...it's much cooler than this whole 'New-Yawk' scene that's supposedly going on at the moment, has it always been like this or is it just a sudden upsurge of bands who've started making waves?
"Well, there have always been a lot of great Austin bands, but I do think Austin is really undergoing a boom in great music right now. I could fill a whole page reeling off Austin bands that I think are just phenomenal. As for reasons, I'm not really sure. I think that bands show a lot of friendliness and support for each other in Austin (and Denton - and, to a lesser extent, Dallas - as well), which is intensified by a sense of geographic isolation from the rest of America. NYC is maybe a little bit more sophisticated and self-conscious - it seems like almost every NYC band these days has this imagined rock-crit lineage that they're trying to evoke - which makes it a little harder for the sloppy, unpretentious, brain-damaged mentality that's behind really great rock music to truly flower. Plus people in TX drink a whole hell of a lot of Lone Star."
Finally as another of the many interviews Will has to endure winds down to an end, its good to know that he likes to keep himself amused and the interviewers on their toes, admitting he occasionally makes stuff up in the interviews like this.
"My favourite thing lately is to publicly accuse Jonathan, our ornithologist keyboard player, of killing, smuggling, and desecrating the corpses of rare endangered birds, he gets really defensive about it."
Mucho thanks to Will Sheff for his pretty answers and for agreeing to do the interview in the first place. Thanks also to the nice people at Jagjaguwar for helping me sort it all out.
Stuff on one of the best bands in the world at the moment can be found at www.jound.com/okkervil and their contributions to Sexless and a more general look at the film are to be gazed upon at www.sexlessthemovies.com. Also check out the Jagjaguwar site at www.jagjaguwar.com.