DiS meets Okkervil River's Will Sheff (Part Two)
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Picking up where we left off in Part One of our interview with the Okkervil River frontman, we delve further into his thoughts on the turning tide in the US, what he meant, exactly, by deciding to become a "professional failure", whether he considers himself an optimistic lyricist or not, and why fronting a band is of such import to him.
Do you feel it’s important that bands engage in wider political issues?
You know, this is where I start to differ from some people, because – you look at somebody like Bono and he’s done a whole lot of great stuff, but there’s…there’s something that’s really…annoying about him. We saw this book, actually – I was at this publicist’s and they had a coffee table book, about Hurricane Katrina. And the book featured faces of famous people, crying... and all this stuff celebrities had written – and it was the most obscenely self-aggrandising thing ever. There’s this impression you get from certain celebrities – that part and parcel of their social activism is they think their example is so incredibly meaningful to the ordinary, non-famous people, like they’re on some messianic quest for social perfection, which is just... gross. And I’m not that into it.
But at the same time it actually works, you know? I was talking to somebody I know who was in the Congo, and he was talking about celebrities trying to raise awareness of the plight of the people there, and his attitude about that was... he said: "you know, I have to honestly be really non-cynical here and say it’s a really good thing; it’s actually helpful; it actually does raise awareness." So it’s one of those things where I find it somewhat distasteful, but I do see that it’s a good thing. You know – the thing with the Green Tour was that it was expedient, we had to talk about it a bit.
Returning briefly then to Obama – I think it’s fair to say that there’s a general sense of optimism abounding…
I think there's a lot of work to be done – Obama’s inherited a broken country, which will be very hard for him to fix. My fear is that if he can’t fix it – and it is a pretty Herculean task – that it’s going to reflect badly on him, unfairly. But he’s an energising figure. People look at him and they compare him to JFK, but you know what? He’s at least as exciting – if not more exciting than JFK. And I think – you can look back at the titans, but this is a moment that we’re living in right now; it’s a historical moment, you know? And it’s a special thing – people are very excited; I think there is much more of a sense of optimism.
I was curious as to something you wrote in your biography of the band, about how one of the most important decisions you made in your life – this was around the time of the band’s inception I think, maybe before – was to be a total failure, a "professional failure." Does that synch with how things have been going since?
If…if you’re too concentrated on the idea of success, there’s a kind of conservatism that comes out of that. And I found that deciding to be a failure – professionally, personally, and artistically – were very helpful things for me. Personally, it kept me from being disappointed when my relationships fell apart and if I didn’t have any money, stuff like that. Professionally it kept me focused on the art instead of being like "why aren’t we more successful?" and artistically, deciding to fail right from the beginning means that you’ll take chances that you might not otherwise, ‘cause you have nothing to lose. It’s like, "obviously I’m not going to pull this off anyway, so I’m just going to go for it." And so, I think as a result we flew without a net a lot more, took a lot more chances and did a lot more stupid stuff that probably wouldn’t have worked if we hadn’t believed we were going to fail from the beginning. Like: "it’s all gonna go to shit anyway, so do what you want." That was sort of the root idea of the failure thing.
You can take it further and think, "I’m going to die" – it’s awful, but all this nice green room stuff and getting to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire is all well and good, but one day I’m going to die a presumably painful death – that can be a scary thought, but it’s also quite an inspiring thought. It’s like "fuck! If I’ve got something I want to do I better fucking do it, as one day I’m not gonna be able to," you know?
I was thinking, when listening to The Stand Ins, that there’s often a sense of jubilant instrumentation – particularly on 'Bruce Wayne Campbell...' for instance – married to lyrics that are still marked by an air of pessimism. Obviously that’s one song about one particular person, but it made me wonder how you, personally, consider yourself as a lyricist. Do you think of yourself as optimistic in your songwriting, or is it not really something you dwell on too much?
I guess I do in a sense consider myself optimistic...I’ve always thought it’s very important to be optimistic. When I look at my favourite artists, or specifically time periods, where you look at all the amazing work that came out of the 1920s or the 1960s, you can see there’s a spirit of optimism, an idea that the future is going to be an amazing place. That idea comes very much out the notion that we’re going in a good direction. Now, that may not be true – it may be complete bullshit – but sometimes you have to fool yourself into thinking that it’s true.
I think it’s so important though, to try and be positive, to try and look for the positivity in a situation you might find unbearable; for the good in people that you might not see. But at the same time, people say that Okkervil River songs are really dark and bleak. I don’t think of them like that, I just think of them as realistic – I’ll try and acknowledge the worst-case scenarios in some aspects – like with Bruce Wayne Campbell, you know, Jobriath – like, that’s the worst way your career could go. And that’s what you open yourself up to when you decide to be an artist. That doesn’t mean that there’s not joy, or pleasure, or fun and glory in that path, ‘cause I think that there are all of those things. So while I do try to be hopeful, I also try to not pull punches when I talk about how things seem to be.
With regards Black Sheep Boy, I know you weren’t keen to make another record exactly like that straight away. Obviously that was a fairly expansive project, as these two albums have been, but I was wondering if you have any idea where you’re going to go next with the band...
I have, yeah, but I don’t really want to talk about it too much, because... I don’t put it into very specific words even to myself, you know? It’s one of those things, like, when interviewers ask me that the way I explain it is like: you have a camera, an old camera with film inside, and you could pull the back off the camera and pull the film out – you’ll get to see the film – but you’re not going to see the pictures of it: they’re never going to develop. I think talking about something too much changes it.
You’re playing some solo shows and also putting a 7" out with Charles (Bissell, of The Wrens), is that right?
Yeah – he played guitar with us for a little while – he actually just had a child. So yeah, we’ve got that 7” coming out and then there’s a few instores and stuff – just a mini, mini tour.
Is there anything musically, that’s really taken your fancy recently?
We toured with this band called Black Joe Lewis, and the guitar player Zach gave me a CD of Jerry Lee Lewis live at the Star Club in Hamburg. The Star Club is one of the places The Beatles played at, when they were starting out. This is from ’64 I think – maybe even later – when The Beatles have already become huge, and now it’s Jerry Lee Lewis, in a much lower state than he was in his heyday, playing at this dingy, Hamburg club. He plays these songs so fast – just blazes through them, the energy’s incredible – you can really hear this brutality to his piano playing and this incredible cockiness he has. The audience could not be more into it, they’re all there screaming "Je-rry! Je-rry!" and he starts making fun of them, like imitating their accents and chanting his name…it doesn’t really get much more badass than making fun of your own adoring audience! Especially at a time when he probably wasn’t finding that many adoring audiences…but it’s just – for everybody that heard he was a badass but never really knew what to listen to 'cause 'Great Balls of Fire' has become such a cliché, it really does strip the paint and the gunk off your image of him and restore him to that swaggering, diabolical stature that people talk about. Been really enjoying that a lot.
How do you feel about your role as frontman in the band? Obviously it’s something you’ve explored a lot in your lyrics, but in terms of you, yourself, as a performer?
My favourite performers I’ve seen are people like Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop, James Brown – even somebody like Guy from Fugazi, he’s a really great frontman. I think performance is a very noble thing, and I think that in the end, no matter what route you’re taking through a show, you’re trying to make the audience feel something – like they’re there at that one moment seeing something special. And it’s supposed to be life-affirming thing. And it’s a lot about physicality, fun, partying…a lot about emotions too. It’s just really good to engage people. And each person as a performer has to find their own way to do it. But I think that frontman is a really nice role, a traditionally nice thing. And when you’re standing up there and you’ve got this whole group of people staring at you – at a certain time it used to really sketch me out; freak me out – but then there was this one point where something just switched in my brain, and I realised this is a fantasy position to be in, so I’m just going to live it like it’s my fantasy world, and at that point I started to have a whole lot of fun playing.
It really is all about us having fun onstage. It’s about the entire band enjoying themselves – a fun that the audience is invited into. I don’t know – one of the things people think about The Stage Names and The Stand Ins is that I’m acidly criticising entertainment, which isn’t true. I don’t think those records are saying entertainment is false – I mean, I think that they are, but they’re also saying that entertainment is great – and it’s what I do for a living, and it’s what I’m obsessed with when I’m not doing it for a living. It’s…my whole life, so I take it very seriously; it’s very meaningful to me. Even a song like 'Pop Lie' – which is really nasty and bitter, I think that there’s a lot of celebration in there too.
An air of celebration certainly surrounds the band's performance later on – a set resting heavy on the latest records engages and delights Shepherd's Bush Empire, Sheff buoyant and irrepressible as he caterwauls about the stage. A closing encore of 'A Girl in Port' (mournful), 'Okkervil River Song' (stomping) and 'Westfall' (riotous) bring down the house, leaving this scribe keenly anticipating whatever it is gradually developing on the spools of Sheff’s antiquated, weather-beaten camera. A wait lies ahead, mind, but hey: it's never too early.
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