DiS meets Okkervil River's Will Sheff (Part One)
- Okkervil River »
Following a mad dash across London to Shepherd’s Bush Empire only to encounter mad levels of difficulty getting into the venue (the staff refreshingly pleasant in their refusal, however), before I know it I’m tucked away in the green room, deep in conversation with an ebullient, aching-of-neck Will Sheff. Around this time last year Okkervil River played two sold-out shows at the 250-capacity Luminaire; tonight they’ll play to around 2,000. Then, they were coasting on a wave of acclaim for The Stage Names, tonight they’re here in support of its triumphant sequel, The Stand Ins. Ten years in and having had, it’s fair to say, something of a breakthrough of late, Sheff is on grand form as we discuss perma-touring, proselytising artists and a certain President-elect. We delve deeper into these subjects – plus his thoughts on the themes resonating through his music, optimism vs. pessimism, and what it means to be a frontman – in the forthcoming concluding half of the piece.
What, an interview in two halves? Consider the two complementary – a premeditated expansion to follow, if you will. A bit like the relationship the band’s latest records hold with each other – think of them like that. Don’t think there’s so much good stuff here this particular DiSser couldn’t bear the arduous task of selecting highlights. Or do, if you like. Either way, though: get involved.
How’s the tour going? You’ve been on the road a fair amount of this year…
We’ve kind of been on the road for the last six years. In 2003 we found somebody who was able to book us tours and we just jumped at it, and have toured constantly ever since. And it went from playing really shitty places for gas money, asking people in the audience if they had a floor we could sleep on, you know, to going to Europe and doing better there, to going back to America and doing better there – just slowly building something. But yeah…most of every year has been spent on tour. So it’s been kind of a constant slog. And we’ve been on tour a whole lot this year…
It doesn’t feel like that long ago I saw you at the Scala – and just a few months before that the Luminaire too…
We’ve been to the UK many times recently. More than any other place except for the ‘States. There’s been a continued demand for what we’re doing, so it’s nice to come back – things seem to have been going well for us here.
How have the rest of the shows been? Apart from throwing your neck out last night…
They’ve been great! The throwing my neck out part was not very great, but besides that…
How do you find playing The Stand Ins live?
The songs on that album lend themselves well to a live presentation I think – a song like ‘Starry Stairs’ is always really fun to play live, and ‘Lost Coastlines’ was almost structured as a live song. As we were making The Stage Names we sort of set a few songs aside for The Stand Ins, and when we came back to work on them we’d already been on tour for a while. When we first did Stage Names material, that style – that more upbeat, sort of populist rock and roll sort of thing was new to us – it was like reinventing the wheel after the Black Sheep Boy stuff. So when we came back after having taken those songs on the road, playing The Stand Ins was very much second nature. Like ‘Blue Tulip’ on that record – that was our second take of the song ever, and what you hear on the record is pretty much live, so in a lot of ways playing the songs live is really fun – more-so than playing a record like Down the River of Golden Dreams which is a little bit more detailed.
There’s been a big interactive element, with this album – notably your invitation to fans and peers to cover its songs, the results of which you’ve been running on your website. Were you pleased with the response?
Yeah, absolutely, it was great. I didn’t realise that the response was going to be so positive – at the time it was just thinking well; the label was asking if we wanted to do anything around the time of this release, and I thought maybe we should track down some of our friends and get them to do covers of the songs. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever heard of anything before where the first time you hear something would be a cover – and I like that.
It fits in nicely with the themes explored too…
When we’re in the midst of these records – whether Black Sheep Boy or The Stage Names – which were much more involved than the previous records we did, there’s much more of a sense of choosing the songs, choosing the cover, choosing the artwork – the marketing even – all in a way that’s constant with the thematic aspects. And I always really liked that about somebody like Bowie, who was always extremely theatrical – I thought there was something really nice about integrating a record’s theme throughout every single aspect of it – even down to the sort of promotional decisions that get made. It’s a way to cheekily, consistently wink and nod to the fans with everything we do, and say, you know: “this is not just crass marketing, it’s all part of the same…art project,” I guess.
There was the Golden Opportunities covers mixtape you guys gave away on your website too…
A lot of those songs peripherally relate to the songs on the records, so I think of it as like a ‘Cliffs Notes’ or ‘Studies for…’ the albums – a song like ‘The Blonde in the Bleachers’ for example, is referenced on a couple of different Stage Names songs.
There are still songs from the original sessions that haven’t yet seen the light of day – ‘Love to a Monster’, for example…
There are others too. You know, with ‘Love to a Monster it was very simple. It was on The Stand Ins, I was listening to it, and…I just felt like it shouldn’t be there. When I took it off I liked it better. And yeah, it’s a shorter record without it – and that’s a bummer maybe – and I love that song…but in the end, it was dragging the entire album down.
And there’s more?
There are some others, yeah – and sometimes I think it would have been nice if they were on there, but…I wanted The Stand Ins to be short. Like, just because you can put 80 minutes of music on a CD doesn’t mean you should do it. I really like how you can listen to an old Beatles or Stones record and you’re like – “it’s half an hour?!” And I thought, also, as we were putting out two records, let’s make it two short records – let’s not get too carried away here. I mean, there’s something self-indulgent enough about doing a double record, without the ultimate indulgence of putting absolutely every song you wrote for them on there.
You did a ‘Green Tour’ in the USA – what prompted you guys to really go for that?
I think…really, Okkervil River’s…the amount of carbon that we generate on tour – it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the amount being generated by all other kinds of enterprises all around the world. But it’s not so much that we’re a problem, as much as it is a personal conscience thing. You look at what you’re doing with a project and with your life, and you say okay: I’ve got this band – is the band a good thing or a bad thing in the world? And you look at like, when somebody says for example that a particular song helped them through a really bad time; that an album really makes them happy and is very meaningful to them. You put that on one side of the scale, and then on the other side there’s this figure, of how much you made the world hotter on the other side, and it starts to become very difficult to quantify. And in the end, if you can zero out that ledger, so at least I know that we’re relatively neutralising our impact on the environment at the end, then we can take a look at whether or not the band is a meaningful, good thing in people’s lives. But it was like – it was something that was in our reach and we could do it; it just seemed a really obvious thing to try and do. I didn’t even want to draw that much attention to it but in the end I found that the only way to make it happen was to do so. ‘Cause I don’t like that whole…proselytising artist thing, you know – but it wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t proselytised at least a little bit.
So…how do you guys feel about the US election results?
I don’t think it’s going to come as any surprise to Drowned in Sound readers that we – like many Americans – a huge percentage of Americans, in fact – are thrilled. We did what we could to try to help with that; I mean, I donated to the campaign, which is something I’ve never done before. We all voted before we left…we were actually registering people to vote on the American tour. I felt very personally invested in it, and you know – for once…it sounds cheesy but – for once I can say I’m proud to be an American, with no ironic aspect. It’s nice to know that after the eight-year nightmare of Bush that Americans are also capable of electing somebody like Obama. And not just because he’s the first black President, but because he’s such…his intelligence and articulacy is such a rebuttal to the pig-headed aspects of the Bush years.
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