Whenever I get incredibly discouraged now, or pessimistic about human nature, or fatalistic about difficulties that get thrown in front of people, I think of Roky.
Earlier this summer saw the release of True Love Cast Out All Evil, the first in over a decade from Roky Erikson, legendary frontman of early psych-rockers the 13th Floor Elevators. Despite easily attaining cult status, and having influenced generations of musicians, Erikson was never free to enjoy the fruits of his fame, which, materially, were patchy anyway. Having been singled out early on for his drug use by the Texan police force, he was picked up in 1969 for cannabis possession, and made an example of. When released in 1972 from the Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, he was already mired in the horrific side-effects of mental illness and its various treatments. A handful of solo recordings followed, notably the song 'I Walked with Zombies', but by the late 80’s, he had disappeared. By reports quoted in the liner notes of the album, those who still knew him feared irreversible mental breakdown.
All the more surprise, then, that he came back, and with an album that was so tranquil, hopeful, joyful and redemptive, that you didn’t need its accompanying press release to see that something good preceded it. Produced by Will Sheff of Okkervil River, and comprising of songs chosen from the last thirty years of Erikson’s output, the album is a triumphant, complete piece of work, elegantly woven together with field recordings from those early hospital years. In the review on this site, we said that there was no need to look at the album in context of the Erikson’s story for it to be enjoyable, indeed inspirational. However, if you do know the story, it will be impossible to separate it from your interpretation of the music. Reading the liner notes, a 6000 word mini-biography written by Sheff, you will be surprised by the sudden change in fortune, and the realization that – bizarre to behold in a cynical world – it was in fact love that saved the day. In this context, songs such as 'True Love Casts Out All Evil' take on mysterious new meaning.
Reading these liner notes, it was clear that Sheff had a role more than that of the traditional producer. He was in many ways a witness who became a part of the story, and, as an occasional music journalist, he has the ability to put his observations across to great effect. He’s interviewed here about the entire process, from meeting Erikson to the gigs after the release, where he and his band were the accompaniment. He also speaks about his early days making music in his then-adopted city of Austin, where bands were still aware of the myth of the 13th Floor Elevators. Through no effort of mine, this is an engrossing read, for anyone interested in this album, in Roky Erikson, in the power of music as a shared experience, or simply in the ability of life to exact miracles from us. As Sheff says, “Being around [Roky] kind of makes the entire world seem more beautiful and scary and mysterious and exciting, and prolonged exposure to him makes everything seem to kind of glow a little bit more. I don’t want to lose that ever.”
When you first moved to Austin, was Roky Erickson a figure people were still aware of? Were there participants of the 13th Elevators history still hanging about, and could their, and how could Roky’s influence still be felt in the music coming out of Austin?
Roky and the 13th Floor Elevators cast a huge shadow over the TX music scene, all over Texas but especially in Austin. In their music and their personalities, they really captured something very specifically Austin, this sort of combination of the redneck rebel thing from rural Texas, the esoteric intellectual element from the crackpot fringe around the University of Texas, and that sort of drug-culture philosophy that Austin has picked up from being a town that a lot of contraband was smuggled through. In a lot of ways, I think those three elements have always defined Austin counterculture, and the Elevators are kind of the apotheosis of that. Over the course of his career, Roky dabbled in - and influenced - psych and garage rock, metal, blues-rock, the Texas songwriter movement of people like Townes Van Zandt (who was briefly his roommate), and "outsider music" (whatever's that's supposed to mean). By the time I got to Austin, his influence could be heard all over but he himself was kind of like a living ghost. People were aware that he was alive and that he was somewhere in town, but if you ever heard anybody talk about him it was to relate these stories about how all his teeth were gone and he was living in a housing project and stealing mail. Jegar's son told me that one time a bunch of Austin musicians threw a big "birthday" gig for Roky and it didn't even occur to them to invite him.
You grew up in New Hampshire. What was it about Austin that drew you there, and which would you now call your home?
I love Austin, but there was nothing that particularly drew me there beyond the fact that my high school friend Zach Thomas - who I wanted to play bass in a band I that wanted to form - lived there already. It was easier for me to move there, and convince my other high school friend Seth to move there, than it was to arrange a mass relocation of some kind. But I think Austin is an incredible place and probably exerted on me a lot of the three influences I describe above. That said, I currently live in Brooklyn and I love it equally. As a Northeasterner, I was always the most uptight and anxious person in Austin. Now that I'm back in the Northeast with eight years of Austin living under my belt, I'm the most laid-back person in New York.
You were approached to make this record after Okkervil played with Roky at the Austin Music Awards. What happened in that meeting that made Roky, or his manager, decide to call you?
I think Roky really enjoyed playing with us that night, and the feeling was mutual, and it went over really well in the audience too. We didn't rehearse with Roky at all beforehand, but the show just clicked and I think it just felt really surprisingly appropriate to everybody pretty immediately, so things sort of proceeded from there.
How does your attention to arrangements change, or indeed how do your priorities change, when you’re working on songs you didn’t write, and have a different relationship to?
I don't know if it's a "priorities" thing or "attention to arrangements" thing, but I definitely feel pretty noticeably different when I'm working on somebody else's song. It actually feels like a less complicated process where it's easier to listen to your immediate intuitions. When I'm producing for another artist I think, "Well, obviously this is what should happen" and that thought happens pretty immediately, whereas when I'm working on one of my own songs I can kind of picture fifty different approaches I might want and one hundred approaches I emphatically don't want, sometimes to an extent that verges on neurosis or paranoia. Also, when I'm working on some brand-new Okkervil River song that sometimes no one in the band has even heard before, I don't know if it's good yet; I don't even know if it's anything. Whereas when I'm listening to someone else's song there is no doubt in my mind whether I think it's a good song or a bad song. If I think it's a good song - and I knew that these Roky songs were all incredible songs going into this project - all I really have to do is not fuck it up.
In my review of the album (see below), I cast you as the biographer. Did you feel like you were handling a historical record in a sense? Did you feel a sense of responsibility, or that you needed a certain degree of reverence for the task? At any point did you think ‘what if I fuck this up’?
I knew that - for better or for worse - everyone was going to come to a new Roky Erickson record with all kinds of ideas about Roky's biography, his personality, his mental state, just a ton of questions or assumptions that don't necessarily have anything to do with the music. At the same time, it kind of bothered me that all the talk about Roky's life story had been done by people who were not Roky, when in fact Roky had addressed all of these issues in his own beautiful and eloquent words throughout his songwriting career (that fact still bothers me; everyone who asks me about the Roky project seems eager for me to give them freakshow details, and I've also read a lot of reviewers who very brazenly hold forth on Roky's mental state and have no idea how off-base they are and how mean and stupid they sound). So I really just wanted to give Roky a platform to tell everyone how he felt about his life, and to answer the everyone's questions people calmly and in his own words.
As far as the project requiring a certain degree of reverence, obviously that's true but that can be a slippery slope. Overly-reverent producers have a way of sometimes making art that's really safe, or complacent, or bland. I always thought that the worst thing I could have done would have been to sort of try to clean Roky up, to autotune the vocals and slick everything out and give him a shave and a haircut and a top-hat and tails and make him duet with Sheryl Crow or something. Roky is kind of the very essence of the rock-and-roll savage, the scary out-of-control guy on the periphery, the insurgent dangerous fringe element in rock and roll, and I didn't want to make him a caricature of that but I wanted to make sure the record was funky and warbly and weird and stayed true to the general credo of psych even if it was more mellow. What was slightly strange is that we had these beautiful, perfect songs - kind of like these treasures - and we had to smear dirt on them and smash up a little bit, which felt deeply perverse sometimes but necessary. But Roky himself has a very irreverent, improvisational, and just generally mischievous approach to all music, especially his own, and he was usually really encouraging, especially towards some of my very weirdest ideas.
When you started making this album, there were over sixty unreleased demos to choose from. What kind of state were they in, and how did you pick the songs on the record? Did they make the cut because of the way they fit together, for thematic reasons, on an individual basis…
The songs were in all kinds of states, from 30 second fragments that basically just sounded like mud (some of which were really cool) to complete studio demos with a full band and a pretty high level of polish. I guess I started out choosing the ones I liked the best, but there was probably a thematic reason subconsciously guiding me even at the earlier phase. As the process went on, I cut more songs out of the running based on whether I thought they fit with the rest of the songs or based on how well I thought the band arrangement or the recording was working.
You’ve said that, recording with Roky, it’s necessary to strike while you can and catch the take before he moves on to the next. Does that lend a vitality to the process, does it ever become stressful, or manic? How easily did the recording team find themselves slipping into a rhythm and getting used to the performer’s tics?
I think Roky, without necessarily trying to, trained us all to be incredibly sensitive to his performing style - to rise in energy when he rose, to drop down when he sang quieter, to play more smoothly when he was being really mellow and soulful vocally. It was incredible training for us; I tend to be very type-A and cerebral and disciplined in the way I work - and that aspect of my recording approach was strengthened by how much preparation I had to do for every recording session - but all of that would go out the window once Roky would show up and do whatever he wanted to do, regardless of my plan. I had to just led everything go and completely live in and trust the moment of recording fully, come triumph or disaster. As for the rest of the band, I think that people who tend to obsess about their own personal performances were basically forced to subjugate everything they did to the mood Roky was setting, and completely serve him as a vocalist and frontman, which can be really hard because great musicians know they're great and have a lot of ego wrapped up in that.
There’s a strong message of hope, and a great sense of peace, running through the songs on this album – was that something you tried to bring out in the production?
Roky is an incredibly sweet and positive person. It can actually feel very therapeutic to be around him. And the fact that he's not only alive but happy and thriving blows my mind on a daily basis. He has this song I kind of wish we'd put on the record whose chorus goes, "Well, I found that I just can't be brought down." I wanted to let listeners in on his secret just a little bit.
You wrote the liner notes for the album – all 6,000 of them – and they do great justice to an incredibly affecting story. Do you feel like, in getting to know Roky and becoming a part of his happy ending, you’ve also become his advocate?
This sounds really corny, or even smug or something, but I sincerely think musicians have a duty to help out other musicians they admire. Being a musician is a weird and often really thankless job, but it's an old and sacred job, kind of like a brotherhood, and you have to be there for your brother. I felt like, out of loyalty for Roky's incredible songs, I had to be there for him and fight as hard as I could to make these songs as beautiful on record as I could picture them being.
You’ve been a music journalist and broadcaster in the past, and, as well as the liner notes, you’ve also interviewed Roky for this project on video. Do you have any plans to flex your journalistic muscles again in the future?
I don't think about it that often, honestly. If some kind of writing or journalistic project that I'm interested in comes up I try to do it if I have time, but I haven't been actively pursuing it very much. I think with the Roky liner notes I had become such a lover of Roky's work and his personality and I felt so kind of absurdly proprietary over this project that it was almost a case of not wanting to let go.
Why did you decide to take an interview yourself? The video looks like it’s been cut from longer footage. Was it much longer, and will it be released? Were there certain things you wanted him to get across to which you tailored your questions?
Yeah, I guess I just felt that I had gotten to know Roky really well both personally and artistically by that point, and I felt like I had certain very specific personal and artistic questions I had been itching to ask him. That interview actually went on and on for almost an hour I think, and I thought it was just really funny and interesting throughout, but the decision was made, not by me, to cut it down to a more manageable length to accommodate the typical YouTube attention span. Which was probably a good decision from a business standpoint I guess, but not my favorite aesthetic decision. I would love to see the full version of it come out some day.
What will you take of the experience to the next Okkervil River, or Will Sheff project?
Roky has definitely changed my life, both musically and personally, but I think if there's any way Roky has affected the new Okkervil River album it would be someone else's job to point it out and not mine.
And what will you, personally, be taking from the experience? You write in the liner notes that it’s forced you to be uncynical, at least in reference to his recovery – is this something that will affect the way you view the world from now on?
Well, I always try to be uncynical, though it's getting really difficult in because I think the world is very dark right now. But I do believe in the goodness of people, or at least of individual people, and I think that being cynical is kind of like a pretentious version of surrendering. So I try really hard to always be hopeful, or sometimes I try to fool my brain into pretending I'm hopeful, to at least keep from being paralyzed by anger or by fear.
This may sound strange, but one thing I've taken away from my experiences with Roky is that the world seems somehow more strange and mystical now. A lot of old Austin hippies will kind of blather on about Roky being able to read minds and stuff like that, and as silly as it is there's actually something to it. Very strange and fascinating and completely unexpected things happen around him all the time, both in his life and his music. Being around him kind of makes the entire world seem more beautiful and scary and mysterious and exciting, and prolonged exposure to him makes everything seem to kind of glow a little bit more. I don't want to lose that ever.
What’s been the reaction to the collaboration in Austin?
It's been positive as far as I can tell. I think there might be a subset of Roky fans who love the wildman hairy gnarly side of Roky's music and were disappointed I didn't play exclusively to that, but I was really interested in showing the other dimensions in Roky's work, that there's an incredible mysticism and soulfulness there - and also an intelligence and craft - that I think people didn't always credit much before. And maybe there's a certain brand of rocker dude fan out there who thought I didn't have the right clothes or the right beard or the exact garage-rock resume or whatever to deserve to be given the project. But fuck those guys - I've taken just as many drugs as they have and washed my hair just as infrequently.
Okkervil have been playing backing for Roky throughout 2010. What are you next steps as a band?
Right now I'm totally happily buried in making a new record, which should be out earlyish next year.
Do you feel like there are still legends like Roky’s being created in music today? Or that there are people heading towards that kind of iconic status?
I don't really know. It does seem like the music scene has splintered and subsplintered into all these millions of genres and subgenres at this point, but then again Roky was kind of one of the original underground subgenre artists to begin with. I do think that it's tough to categorically rebel in quite the same way Roky and the Elevators did. It was only barely more than 10 years after Elvis came along that you already had bands like the Elevators preaching LSD use and incorporating philosophical and metaphysical themes into rock and roll, or the Velvets singing about S&M and transvestites. Rock and roll had already mutated from Buddy Holly to Black Sabbath in 11 years. Where do you go from there? There are so many rock bands out there desperately and sweatily trying to demonstrate how rebellious they are, but it's mostly just copping a pose from people like Roky, or off the covers of records that were released before they were born. And outside of rock and roll you have pop stars like Lady Gaga who is somewhat interesting but often just seems like Madonna pretending to be David Bowie. I don't know how many more rock and roll icons our culture has left in it, but I don't know if I care that much really as long as the music is good. Maybe we all need a break from icons anyway.
Do you think there’s material there for another Roky Erickson album?
There definitely is. I'm not sure when it would happen, but I think another new Roky record that's totally different from "True Love Cast Out All Evil" would be an amazing next step. Maybe something rawer and more frightening. We actually recorded a song of his called "The Singing Grandfather" that I think is pretty fucked-up and wonderful, but it's just kind of sitting around waiting for release.
Any plans for turning the experience in a more extensive archive – such as a documentary, or an actual biography?
Roky's son Jegar filmed almost every single aspect of the making of the record, and I know he's talked about making some kind of documentary at some point, but I'm not sure when that would come out.
Do you have a favourite anecdote from the recording, or the entire process?
I think making this record was a really therapeutic experience for Roky in a way, and it was a really powerful experience for all of us. There were actually extremely moving moments in the studio where people were brought to tears, but it was just because we were all so happy. As Roky came to trust us and himself more, I really got to know him better and everyone saw sides of him they hadn't seen before. This is even true of his own son, who told me that at one point in the car ride over to the studio Roky apologized for moments he'd gotten frustrated during the making of the record (recording vocals in general can be an incredibly frustrating and discouraging process, as any singer can tell you - it's not an exaggeration to say that I have seriously considered quitting music during the vocal overdubs portion of every record I've made) and said that he really genuinely appreciated all the help everyone had been giving him. Jegar said that for that moment Roky became a person he'd never really known before.
And what has been your favourite thing about this whole experience?
My favorite part of this thing has been knowing without a doubt that I was working on a record that's important and meaningful, not only in context of Roky's life and my own but in a larger context. Whenever I get incredibly discouraged now, or pessimistic about human nature, or fatalistic about difficulties that get thrown in front of people, I think of Roky.