For close to two decades, Okkervil River has seen many lineup changes, but frontman Will Sheff is and always will be its defining voice.
This Monday, October 10, he – along with drummer Cully Symington on drums, Benjamin Lazar on stand-up bass, Will Graefe on guitar, and Sarah Pedinotti on keys – will take on Urban Lounge, the perfect intimate environs for the band’s heart-on-you-sleeve confessional sound.
I first came across Okkervil River about 10 years ago. “Our Life is Like a Movie, Or Maybe” was a track off some free iTunes sampler for college students. I remember, as an aspiring writer and English major, sharing the tune with my cubicle mate at my first music magazine internship. In that cramped but buzzing Lower Manhattan office, everything about the tormented track made sense. And my cubicle mate, who hardly said a word for months, turned to me, pointed at his headphones, and said, “This. I like this a lot.”
When I spoke to Sheff, himself a Brooklyn resident, I was back home in NYC for the summer. Refreshingly, he dished the first interview question; “So you moved to SLC from New York, huh? How has that been?”
Charissa Che: It’s been interesting. I find myself having to defend Salt Lake to people here when they ask me why I moved, and having to explain myself when people in Salt Lake ask me why I’d leave New York.
Will Sheff: I like Salt Lake City. It’s just a specific place where there’s a whole culture and even its own look. It’s almost like a dream, the way it looks. But it’s like a really boring dream. The streets are so wide, and the mountains are off in the distance and everyone’s really nice to you. I think New Yorkers pride themselves on a certain closed-off cynicism. They think it’s wry and snappy and sophisticated, but it’s really kind of close-minded and unhappy. So they get affected when they feel like they’re missing out on something more. They get angry about it. I’m from a really small town in New England, and New York has never been a place that felt fully comfortable. I really do feel like a fish out of water, like I’m supposed to be breathing air instead of water. And I’m like, “Wait! I’ll never get the hang out it! You know what I mean?”
CC: I wonder if anyone really gets the hang of it, or if they’re just good at passing it off.
WS: You know, I can’t tell. When people say, “Oh, I gather all this energy from New York; it makes me feel so alive,” I just think, I’m really, really happy for you. But it makes me feel dead, like I’m constantly defending my soul from being extinguished (laughs). I’m an introvert, so the circuit is reversed. Instead of New York flooding my body with electricity, it’s like sucking electricity out of my body. Everyone wants to be here. It’s so expensive to live here, and you give up so much personal space, privacy, and brain space. And you’re just feeding the machine. Like, New York does not love you, you know?
Like, I was just upstate, in the house where I wrote this record (Away), and there’s this homeless guy who was squatting in an abandoned trailer across the street. And he passed away while I was staying there. The whole community raised all this money for his funeral. He was known by everyone in the town. Even though he was a f-ck up – homeless; mentally ill; Vietnam veteran – he was loved. In NYC, there’s a million stories like that happening simultaneously, and there’s so much less love to go around.
I was looking at a tree on the street today in Brooklyn, ‘cause now I’m back. There’s a really pretty tree on our street. Nothing special about it, but I guess because the branches hang really low so I have to duck down when I’m walking past it, so for like one second I feel like I’m in a forest (laughs). And I was thinking, this tree is great. There’s all these people walking down the street and I was like, what if there’s this one person who is just standing on the same place on the sidewalk everyday and you walk past them, but didn’t notice they were there because you didn’t see them like a person? I mean, I can just concentrate on this tree alone and get pretty psyched. But there’s too much; it’s too subtle of a thing to notice in NYC.
CC: You were living in Austin not too long ago though, right?
WS: Yeah, I moved away from Austin because I was entering the next phase of my life and I needed a change of scenery. It was tough because my whole band didn’t need a change; they stayed behind. And it was really difficult for us to rehearse together, and we got to this point where I started to feel like we were frozen in one incarnation. And we couldn’t grow because there were no resources that allowed us to. So for that reason and for a bunch of others, I dissolved that version of the band.
It wasn’t actually an intentional thing. When I started working on the songs on Away, I was going through a little bit of a tough time, and in a way, I was trying to write my way out of a certain pattern in my life that I didn’t like. I had an old drummer who quit Okkervil but we were still friends, and he was coming to town, and he was like, “Let’s just record and see what happens.” And I ended up writing all this material and we worked on it together, and I just hired other players for it, depending on what I thought they’d bring to the project. And with every little piece of the puzzle I added in, it became more beautiful. And suddenly I started to think, this is Okkervil River. And I spoke to the guys in Austin and said, “I’m sorry, I think I need to kill the band. And at the same time, I need to resurrect the band.” And they were all really cool with it.
And as soon as that happened, my life changed. I just felt like I was a kid again: the energy and happiness of when I first started to play music, with the original incarnation of Okkervil River in Austin. I was going back to the simplest and sweetest version of what music had been to me.
CC: Did this happen right after The Silver Gymnasium?
WS: Yeah, I think that was a good place to end…not that we’re ended, but it’s like a paradox, where there’s one version of the timeline where Okkervil River’s dead and another where it’s alive. That’s a happy, bouncy record but it comes out of a really sad place…I was feeling this painful missing my childhood thing. And a lot of the time, I feel like I make a piece of work because I’m trying to conduct self-therapy. There’s a catharsis element to it. That’s what I was trying to do with The Silver Gymnasium. I was trying to process this deep melancholy I was feeling about my childhood growing further and further away from me. And I think I managed to do it. These days, I don’t feel nostalgic about my childhood anymore. Instead of being this big monster that was menacing me, it became like a friendly little puppy.
Once I was free of that, I was thinking, “What do I do now?” The Silver Gymnasium was still about something. And The Stage Names is about something. And this record is more like, reactions in the moment, like a frozen piece of glass. The molecules inside are like how I was feeling at that moment. And as much as you might call it a Black Sheep Boy a concept album, I think it has a little bit of that element. I listen back to it and I hear who and where I was at that time. So I feel like this is something I’ve done in a while that isn’t me trying to work through something that’s been bugging me for a really long time in a methodical way. It was more just like opening your mouth and a song comes out, you know?
CC: Your whole chronology of Okkervil River makes me think of reincarnation… Why did you choose to use the track, “Okkervil River R.I.P.” as an introduction to this new you?
WS: I was staying at the guy who became my new manager’s house a while ago. And he heard all these songs when I was writing them, and we felt so good about everything. When I thought about Away, I was picturing a pink cloud. Like a big, radiant, expansive, joyful thing. But when I listened to [the songs] all together I was like, “These are all sad! And they’re all about dying! But I’m not dying!” But obviously on some level I was. But at the same time, there’s a lot of beauty. I was literally trying to make the most beautiful thing I possibly can. So there’s this combination of this pain, a fighting against it, and an openness towards your emotion that scary and also freeing.
Reincarnation or rebirth, or resurrection – these are all not just nebulous or mythological things. They’re real processes that we go through in our lives at different times. I guess that’s why it made sense to start the record with “Okkervil River R.I.P.” because you have the death right there, at the beginning. And then you can work through hanging out in the underworld, putting together your new body, then breaking out of the dirt and into the sun again.
CC: So you’re turning the negative connotation of death on its head.
WS: Yeah, it’s like in the 12-step program, it’s hitting rock bottom. If you don’t hit it, you’re not gonna bounce back. So there’s something sacred about that; that’s where you go to confront real change.
CC: Do you see Okkervil River dying again?
WS: You know, I used to think every record needed to sound different, and now I don’t really want to do that. This new band I have is amazing, and I’m so lucky to be playing with them. I rehearsed with them today and afterwards I said to them, “I know that my day is going to be great now because I got to play music with you guys.” Nothing bad that happens later in the day is gonna leave that big of a dent on me cause I had something really nice happen. I just wanna open it up and up and up. And I wanna go on the road and have every show feel different and really be present and let the songs do what they’re gonna do. And hopefully the audience will feel like if you go see 2 shows in a row, you’ll feel like you saw 2 completely different moments in time which will never be repeated.
Now that there has been a complete and total purging of almost everything I was doing before, I just wanna start from a very simple place of love, compassion, kindness, and being deliberate about my decisions. There’ll probably be some time in my life 10 years from now when I’ll think “Okay, well now it’s time for the next thing.” But for right now, I feel like the colors are more beautiful. The air smells better. And everything about my life just feels nicer. So I just wanna keep going in this new world.