Okkervil River frontman discusses most recent ‘play’ of art
By Alan Sculley
One gets the feeling that when Will Sheff walks through a museum he doesn’t look at a painting as a “work” of art.
“I’ve always felt like art should be like play,” Sheff said in a recent interview. “I remember dating this girl who was a writer and she had a lot of writer friends, and the word they always used to described writing was work. You’re doing the work of this or that thing … I would always think, ‘That sounds like a fucking drag, man.’ Like, my experience of writing is not that it feels like work. It feels like play.”
Sheff certainly did his share of playing around in writing and recording the latest CD by his band, Okkervil River. Called I Am Very Far, the project found Sheff toying with everything from his songwriting methods to how he recorded the songs.
In making I Am Very Far, Sheff said he took a cue from Roky Erickson. He teamed up with the legendary psychedelic rocker, who famously was diagnosed in the late 1960s as a paranoid schizophrenic and went through years of mental treatment (including electroconvulsive therapy) before recovering in recent years to the point where he frequently plays live shows and was able to make the 2010 album, True Love Cast Out All Evil. Sheff produced that album and Okkervil River played on the disc and toured behind the record as Erikson’s band.
Sheff was struck by Erikson’s intuitive approach to music and liked the idea of being less cerebral in his writing approach.
“I was really influenced by Roky’s vibe. This chaotic, mysterious vibe that swirls around him. It really kind of starts to get to you and starts to get inside of your head when you’re around him all the time,” said Sheff. “He has this sort of an openness to new ideas and different approaches and to any feeling that is kind of flickering across his brain at that moment.
“I think that sort of approach is something that’s very freeing for anybody,” he said. “So as a writer myself, I just started to sort of see that I could do things like that, that I could believe that whatever was going to roam within my brain is all going to be unified because it’s me.”
What also allowed Sheff to feel freer with his songwriting was the gradual confidence he’s gained since starting Okkervil River in Austin, Texas in 1998. As the band has progressed, putting out six albums — including the acclaimed recent albums, 2007’s The Stage Names and 2008’s The Stand Ins — Sheff has seen his perspective on his music evolve.
“When I was starting out as a songwriter, I had a lot of anxiety about who people thought I was, what they thought I was trying to do, whether I was good enough at this, whether I was good enough at that, whether or not this thing I was doing was cool enough or uncool or whatever,” said Sheff. “Then, as I started to do it more and more and more, I started to realize rules like that are just boring, and they’re the reason why art becomes boring, and that I should have the faith to go into a project not really knowing what I was doing. And I should also concern myself less with what people are going to think.”
In shaking up his songwriting approach for I Am Very Far, Sheff took Okkervil River’s music to a different place. The overall folk-tinged pop flavor of recent albums remains, but I Am Very Far is more musically diverse and idiosyncratic.
For instance, “Rider” is a driving number that blends frisky folk and chiming pop. “Lay of the Last Survivor,” by contrast is a lush, pure pop song played at a relaxed tempo. “Piratess” mixes an ornate pop quality with its edgy shards of acoustic guitar and odd sounds, to create an effect that is simultaneously soothing and jarring. “Show Yourself” is a hypnotic ballad whose swells of instrumentation and noise add a psychedelic edge to the tune.
Because Sheff was also open during recording to adding all sorts of instruments to the mix and other sonic touches (“White Shadow Waltz” includes crowd noise and the sound of objects — including a file cabinet — being thrown around a room), translating songs from I Am Very Far for live performance has been a bit challenging. But he likes how things have progressed as the group has added the new songs to its live repertoire.
“Every song is kind of a completely different little Rubik’s cube that we have to solve,” he said. “Every single song has been kind of like try and fail with a different approach until we find the approach that works.
“As much as the record gets experimental here and there, I actually think it’s very suited to a live performance.”
Okkervil River will perform September 23 at 9:30 p.m. at the Dewey’s Pizza Main Stage at Grammer’s as a part of the Midpoint Music Festival in Cincinnati. Tickets are $20 at the door. Three-day passes for the festival can be purchased for $49. For more information and for a full schedule of bands, visit www.mpmf.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Alan Sculley at AlanSculley@DaytonCityPaper.com.