Lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff took some time out before yet another international tour to clear up his misunderstood persona and to ponder the spirit of classic rock and folk music. He also reflected on his current creative output outside of Okkervil River and recalled some fond impressions of the city of St. Louis.
Matt Stuttler: Okkervil River is playing the first date of a long tour tonight in New York. What are you doing to prepare for the tour?
Will Sheff: Absolutely nothing. Scrambling around like crazy people. We are completely and utterly unprepared -- which is great! I don't really mind that at all. You know, you're kind of learning on your feet anyway, and you can do all kinds of preparation that would all turn into nothing, or all come to nothing. I have an experience recently on this last tour that we did in Spain and England, where my computer just completely crashed and I lost a lot of my data on there, including set lists and all kinds of information about this upcoming tour. I'm right now seeing if I can get it back at all, so I've been kind of just sitting here held hostage trying to see if it's going to ever come back. So, I might have to start everything all over from the beginning, but to me I feel like that's an exciting thing. It's something I always kind of embrace, the opportunity to make something different and a change. I don't really believe in trying to hold onto things, you know, and force them to be a certain way.
Definitely. What has Okkervil River been up to as a band since the release of "I Am Very Far" back in May of this year?
We've been touring a whole bunch. I think we're about to start doing some more recording maybe just for fun. … But we've been out on the road just playing and playing for people. I've been doing some prose writing and nonfiction writing and stuff like that, which I think I'll be putting out at some point. I just like to continue to work and work. I acted in a movie that will be coming out probably later this year or next. I just like to try to do as many different things as possible.
Okkervil River has worked and played with rock legends like Roky Erickson, and opened for Lou Reed. What do you think it is about Okkervil River that attracts these rock veterans from the past and present?
Gosh, I don't know but it's an incredibly flattering thing that they have been attracted. I really do think that the '60s and '70s was kind of a flash point for popular music and probably unparalleled, certainly in mine and my parents or even my grandparents' memories, I think. Well, with my grandparents there was a lot of great folk music that was being written and recorded right around the time they were very young. I try to stay true to that spirit. Of course you know new things have to happen and old things have to disappear. Sometimes things just have to go away, but there's something about the spirit of that time that really appeals to me.
Okkervil River has been a band since 1998. In the past few years, there has been a huge resurgence of folk music in the underground and indie music scene, with the likes of Mumford and Sons and Fleet Foxes. What role do you think Okkervil River has played in this revitalization of folk rock?
Well I've always been really into folk music. Coming from a really, really small town that's just a 500-person town, I think that it really spoke to me from really early on. It was always something that I knew that when we started the band back in 1998, I knew I wanted it to participate in the folk music tradition. You know, I don't really believe in revivals or anything like that. I can't speak to whether or not we played any role in that or whether we were just bystanders or not.
I can't really speak to what role I feel like the new bands play in that. Some of the bands you've mentioned, I listen to them and think, "This doesn't really have anything to do with Clarence Ashley or Dock Boggs." I think it's just the most cosmetic similarities that got like that. But really it sounds just to me like it owes a lot more to college rock and indie rock. It's like a new hat, like putting a hat on the same person and going, "That's a totally different person! Don't you see that new hat?" That's okay, I'm not saying it's bad, I'm just saying that it seems like a very minor thing. I think that those bands are doing their own thing, and they're good at doing their own thing. I'm not sure how in the world you would ever go about trying to resurrect the spirit of Dock Boggs and Clarence Ashley.
Whenever I see people put on suspenders and try to play a banjo and try to look like old timey, I really want to double over and vomit until I pass out. It just really feels like such a bullshit lie to me. I mean, at the same time, that's my favorite music ever. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I feel you can't bring that back. You're being very silly if you think that it's about the trappings of that because it really should be about the spirit of that. I think that if Dock Boggs or Clarence Ashley were around right now I don't know that they would play banjo, and I don't know if they would sing about the same stuff. I think it's about the spirit of something, and the only thing you could ever be true to is the spirit. If you're trying to be true to the trappings of it, you're just like some middle-aged guy that's fixing up cars from the '50s to drive around his neighborhood. It's about as real of a turn to the '50s as that. I think it's the same with old-time music. You can't really go back to the '20s and '30s. You have to just try to be true to the spirit of what the artists were doing then.
How do you feel doing the late night show circuit with appearances on Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Letterman has affected Okkervil River?
I think it's just taken in an extra dimension of stage fright. I don't really feel, and I haven't really felt stage fright in a really long time, but when I first started doing TV appearance I started to feel it again. It was kind of fun because it provided me with a new opportunity to overcome an even stronger version of the same thing that I thought I'd licked. [It's different from] playing a live concert, because an entire concert is a stamina game. You're trying to play like two hours and really bring across an arc and slowly develop a relationship with a room full of people. These are really specific things.
When you're playing late night, you kind of just play three minutes and 30 seconds. The audience you're trying to hit isn't even there in the room with you; they're spread out all over the globe. You really don't know what it's going to sound like, or what it's going to look like. You kind of have to believe in that. So, it's a lot more surreal. It's fun, but I really don't know what you can take from it as a live band. I mean, if you're the Roots or something, and you're playing on Jimmy Fallon every night, I'm sure when they emerge from that, they're going to be this complete force to be reckoned with.
If Okkervil River collectively existed as a film maker instead of a band and "I Am Very Far" was a film rather than an album, what would "I Am Very Far" be like?
I'm a big fan of silent film. I kind of feel like it was a shame that sound came along. A lot of people don't really notice that about the time when sound came along, film had really reached a level of development that was pretty incredible. I mean the special effects, the set, the costumes, the way the camera could move around and swoop through sets without having to worry about what you were hearing. All of that stuff had really reached a beautiful point of artistry, and story was developing in a certain way too. It didn't have to be told the same way it does when you have people talking. It was a whole different style of telling a story that was a lot more like a dream.
It was a real shame when sound came along. Suddenly everyone had to put the big camera in a box, and everyone had to stand around and talk into the microphones, and it kind of took this beautiful dream and turned it into a really clunky, boring, bad play. I'm a big fan of what happened right before that, the silent films. "Sunrise" by F.W. Murnau is my favorite movie. It's actually the first movie to win an Academy Award back in 1927. I think if "I Am Very Far" were a film, it would be a big, silent sort of weird film like "Sunrise."
What elements would you think of it visually having?
I think there's a kind of a darkness, and kind of a stylized quality, and a harshness that comes with it. I think there'd be a lot of shadow. I think there'd be a lot of very, very, bright, blazing light and then a lot of very, very deep shadow.
You started this band 13 years ago. How has the function of music and performing grown with you since? What is it about music that keeps you recording and showing up on the road?
I just love music more and more. I mean, God, I love music you know like, 50 times more now than when I started out doing it. It's just something that's grown and grown and grown. I think I started out doing it because it was the easiest thing to do of all the different kinds of art. It just doesn't require somebody giving me a ton of money like a film or something like that, so I could do it for really, really cheap. Over time, I guess maybe out of the consequence of being a professional musician and trying to rise to a certain standard, I've realized just the incredible amount of skill and beauty that underlies some of my favorite music and I started feeling an intense pressure to do justice to that, to not be completely ashamed of myself when it comes to the recording, writing and singing. I think that in the past it was like all the arts were equal to me, but overtime there's an incredibly powerful joy that I've started to get out of music that I don't really know I'd get from anything else in the same way.
I recently started following Okkervil River on Twitter. The first tweet I read upon following was: "When I die, I would like the Tetris theme song to be played as I'm lowered into the grave."
That's from yesterday! (Laughs)
Could you please tie this into your view of your music career or your perspective on mortality? Does this reflect your influence of video games in the modern age?
(Laughs) I just had this hilarious, hilarious image of being lowered into the grass with Tetris. I guess you're playing Tetris on your phone and there's that big, long block and I was just picturing that as my sort of my rigor mortis stiff body wrapped in a sheet being lowered into the ground, and the Tetris theme -- I was schooled by Twitter users that there's actually several Tetris themes, there's A, B and C. The one I was thinking of is this kind of demented, Eastern European sounding thing. … It has this antic, Russian dance quality, and I was just picturing this lugubrious, slow rendition of it as they lower me into the ground.
Do you have any good memories or stories of playing in St. Louis?
Yeah, we played there pretty early on. We played some punk club, you guys have there, it's kind of this real greasy, sweaty pit.
The Creepy Crawl?
Yeah! The Creepy Crawl. We had a real great show there one time, and we also really loved playing with the New Pornographers [at the Pageant]. St. Louis is a really cool town. As a fan of old-time music, I'm really compelled by St. Louis. You know that's where "Stagger Lee" takes place, the famous, famous old blues song that's been reinterpreted a million different times. All that stuff happened in St. Louis. I'm really amazed by this image of what St. Louis was like a long, long time ago. At the same time, I have friends in St. Louis, so I have positive associations with the place.
Have you picked up on any key differences when playing Midwest shows or playing with Midwest bands as opposed to different regions?
When you're talking about that, you're talking about the most general observations, but there's this legacy in the Midwest, that's sort of this hard drinkin' rock 'n' roll bands and hard drinkin' rock 'n' roll crowds. That's why the Replacements are probably everybody's quintessential Midwestern band when they think about rock music in the Midwest. I've experienced that too from audiences. There's kind of an unpretentiousness in their willingness to party, when you get to Midwestern audiences that I find really nice and comforting.
What would people find surprising about Okkervil River?
I think people think we're a lot more self serious than we actually are, and I think that's a shame. It makes me sad anyone would think that. I think that if you think that you're really projecting something of your own and no offense to anyone who thinks that -- no actually, fuck you, don't like my band -- but still, I think you're kind of projecting your own image of me, as this guy who wears glasses and writes these kind of big, luxurious songs or something like that. But the truth is I'm not the sort of person who sits around feeling depressed about the world. I like to try to be happy and fun loving, you know. A lot of people have been kind of shocked when they've met our band, that we're more raucous and normal or less precious than they might think. It kind of irks me, it kind of makes me sad that people think of us as this kind of serious, bookish group of guys, but then again you know maybe I guess we look like that, so who am I to really look in the mirror and see the same thing as everybody else.
You mentioned you're working on some nonfiction and some prose. Is this your first stab at it recently or is it something you're just trying to get out there now?
I've done it on and off my whole life. Before I even wrote songs, I wrote nonfiction stuff. So, it's like I said, I started doing rock music because I could afford to, you know? It was an art form that had a popular media quality to it that I could try to reach people with and it's fun, so that's really why I started doing it. But before I did that I wrote and I've continued to write throughout that time. I take music really seriously and it's incredibly important to me, but I've done other stuff.
KDHX welcomes Okkervil River to the Pageant on Tuesday, September 20.