Okkervil River's Will Sheff Talks New Album, Showing Up Arcade Fire and New Music Trends.
For over a dozen years at this point, Austin's Okkervil River has been making intelligent, defiantly lyrical indie rock. And next week, after a few years out of the spotlight, the band will return to bask in it, thanks to the release of their sixth full-length studio effort since 2002, I Am Very Far.
But it's not like the band was dormant over the course of the past few years. Quite the opposite, actually. In addition to writing new Okkervil material, frontman Will Sheff stayed busy by working with other artists -- among them Roky Erickson and Dallas' Own Norah Jones.
Despite such high-profile dalliances, though, Sheff mostly sounded excited to get Okkervil up and going again when we caught up with him over the phone earlier this week. And, OK, maybe he's a little bit intimidated, too. Tomorrow night at Gexa Energy Pavilion, the band kicks off its promotional tour for the new album by playing a one-off gig opening for Arcade Fire.
After the jump, Sheff talks to us about the pressures and delights of touring with other bands, his thoughts on how Okkervil River currently fits into the indie music landscape and how Bob Dylan influenced the band's new music video (see above).
Where are you at the moment? Austin?
I'm in Brooklyn. I'm headed down to Austin in about five days, or something like that. We are going to start rehearsing for the record. It's a ton of stuff to learn.
What's going on in Brooklyn today? I know you were recently across the pond over in the U.K. doing your own shows. Is this just more of that travel?
No. I split my time between both places, but more recently I've been kind of living here. The whole band is in Austin, except the drummer who lives in L.A., but he also travels a lot.
So, when did you start to split time between the two cities?
About four years ago, we started to go back and forth. It kind of like started out, I'd be here like a month or two, then it turned into a full-time thing.
That's interesting, because that's probably when you started writing this new material.
It stared around the time that I wrote The Stage Names. At that time I was just here to write.
It's been three years since your last release, The Stand Ins. And, in the six years before that, you released five albums. There's been a little bit of a change of pace there. Was that intentional?
It's funny because I think some people have a certain impression that we've been idle and haven't' really been doing anything. I wish that was the case, I wish I had the relaxation associated with that idea. In fact, I've been working constantly. Part of what happened is that we did The Stage Names and we did another record, The Stand Ins, right after that.
And those were kind of connected, in many ways, right?
It was sort of an appendix. I have often, in the past, recorded a ton of extra songs. And then thought, "Well, why don't I just split these up?" Because they're all related to each other. Tere was Black Sheep Boy, which was supposed to be an EP, and then there was The Stand Ins, and it was actually album-length, and Black Sheep was also album-length, but I wanted to sort of just release it as an EP, like before. But I think that there were some people who wanted to do it as a full-length record. In any case, that came out, and we toured a ton, and then I started working with other people, and that's when I got the Roky Erickson gig.
And then there was also Shearwater stuff in that time too, right?
Well, I don't work with Shearwater as much.
But Jonathan is still playing in Okkervil, right? Or is he out?
Not really. He plays on the record, but Shearwater's a real full-time thing. He does a ton of stuff. He works with other people, too, I think.
Well, still, as far as other projects that you guys had your fingers in...
Yeah. So I did the Roky record, I produced a record for the band Bird of Youth, I worked with Norah Jones. I was kind of working with a lot of other people. So, yeah, I mean there wasn't an Okkervil record that was coming along, but we were working constantly. In fact, the Roky Erickson record was almost like an Okkervil River record.
[Laughs.] That's not my preferred term, but it started to attach itself to the project, whether I liked it or not.
Was it refreshing, though, to return to the Okkervil stuff?
Oh, god, yes, absolutely! I love working with other people -- I mean, I love working at all, period. It's a blast because I get to fuck around and make music for fun, and people actually give me money. As far as I'm concerned, I'm the luckiest man on Earth. I know that there are other people with more brilliant careers than me, but I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing. But yeah, obviously Okkervil is the reason that I got into my own songs, and all that shit -- the reason I got into music in the first place. So I was completely itching to go. I loved working on the Roky record, but the whole time I was there, I was like "Oh, man, I can't wait to get back to recording our own stuff."
Was it because you'd come up with your own ideas while working on this other stuff? Or was it just a matter of you just wanting to work on your own stuff ?
Partially, it's because I came up with ideas while working on the Roky record. You're always kind of coming up with ideas, being around Roky is just sort of inspiring and powerful. He's a wonderful guy; there's something so creatively alive about him. So, yeah, you kind of get a contact high from being around him. It made me go, "Holy shit, I can't wait to start working again."
When did you actually start the formal work on the new record?
Right around the time we were finishing up working on the Roky record. So I think it was maybe February, something like that. We were still doing the finishing touches on Roky, I believe, around that time. It was funny because all of the records I worked on kind of overlapped. I just had some of the songs that were done kind of already, were written, and I thought, "Let's just do a recording session for fun," and so we scheduled a recording session for three days, and for three days we recorded "The Valley," "Pirated," and a song called "I Guess We Lost," which I really liked, though it's not a single. Then it was like, "Wow." Immediately after recording "The Valley," I said, "Well, there's the first song for the record right there."
You kind of have this reputation as this very lyrical songwriter, or a narrative-heavy songwriter. You just mentioned knowing immediately where to put "The Valley." Is album sequence something that you think of a lot?
Are those two things connected, do you think? The lyrical, narrative songwriting, and the album sequence?
They're connected, but so is the musical aspect of things, too. I mean, I love writing lyrics, and I love writing, and I love work, and all that stuff, but I feel like a song is about a lot more than just words. And, in a lot of ways, this record is an attempt to do justice to the non-lyrical aspects of things. And there's something that certain songs might be saying, musically, that they aren't saying lyrically. "Show Yourself" is a good example of that. I feel like there's something the music is saying.
What is is saying, then?
I don't know! That's why I didn't say it with words. I know that sounds pretentious, or something like that, but that's the beautiful thing about music -- that you hear certain things and you think, "God, this makes me feel something. This is just a beautiful sound."
Absolutely, and there are obviously instrumental bands that are able to pull that off.
Oh, yeah. I was listening to the Scott Walker song "Farmer in the City" today, and the music is so at odds with the lyrics. And that's true for the whole record, overall. The lyrics are kind of depressing, about this impoverished farmer at the end of his rope, but the music is opulent, this beautiful orchestra that's just, like, incredibly rich, gorgeous sounds, and there's a feeling of hope in this music. It's telling a very different story than the lyrics, and I really enjoy that. I am moved by the music in that.