Okkervil River Fights for the Mystery

Austin’s hyper-literate indie rockers Okkervil River are perhaps best known for their critically acclaimed concept albums Black Sheep Boy, The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. The Will Sheff-fronted band has spent the past year recording and producing fellow Austinite Roky Erikson’s first new album in 14 years as well as putting out a new record of their own, May’s “I Am Very Far.” OffBeat had a change to catch up with Sheff to discuss varying thematic interpretations of the album, Viking sagas, and the potential for an Okkervil River laser show.


I Am Very Far sounds like the least conceptual Okkervil River album, with more stand-alone songs without a single unifying theme.

I think that there’s sort of a constellation of themes. The main difference was that I didn’t want the themes to arrive screaming their existence from the very beginning. In the past, the thematic aspects of our records disappointingly became the lens through which everybody views our work. For example, The Stage Names was taken as a lot more rude than it was intended. I sometimes have a hard time putting what these albums mean into words, but bloggers seemed to have an easy time doing it. I’d read it and think. “God, that’s not what I meant.” And I don’t mean to sound picky or bitchy because I’m delighted that people have their own interpretations of things; it’s just that I don’t want this album to be direct about it.

When I write, it’s a lot more vague and cloudy in my mind, but people don’t want vague and cloudy. The human mind rebels against that and tries to assign meaning. I don’t experience art that way. I don’t stand in front of a Rothko painting and think, “What is this about?” I didn’t want to sell the record on something specific and direct.

I’ve heard you describe interviews as “autopsies for your music.”

It’s just that I feel like they can kill the mystery. I think mystery is one of the best things going for certain kinds of artwork and that’s what I was trying to do for my own art.

Compared to the other albums, how did the writing process differ?

I wanted to feel like the production was happening in the earliest writing stages and that the writing was extended all the way through the end of the production. I wanted to feel like the studio decisions I was making were motivated by the songwriting. That was the main reason I decided to produce it myself, since I knew it could continue to change as I worked. There were key moments on past records where I would be kept up at night by how the producers would be changing my music, and it would drive me crazy.

Many of the songs on the new album are densely layered with instruments. What was it like recording this involved sound, with some songs that have two drum sets and two pianos, etc.?

It was particularly challenging. You really have to not just listen, but also feel a tremendous amount of what everybody else is doing at once. And also let go of it mentally and have it be a physical thing. We would play these songs so many times that the repetition would become second nature. By the end, you’ve nearly memorized this incredibly difficult complicated process. As challenging and modern-hippie as that is, it’s almost the antithesis of a jam band with everybody locked in and forced to do this regimented style. There’s this great moment, though, when everybody almost loses their individualism to form this one larger collective sound

How has this translated into live performances?

On one level, it doesn’t because we can’t have two drummers and seven guitarists and three bassists touring with us. At the same time, it allows the philosophy of Okkervil River to shine through, which is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite how lyrically ambiguous this album is, some people have described I Am Very Far as your most sonically accessible album.

That’s a funny thing to me because other people have described it as our least accessible album. I’ve also heard that it’s our most upbeat and positive album as well as people saying it’s our darkest and most miserable. I like that combination of aspects. Something that pushes you away and pulls you in at the same time.

Accessibility isn’t something I’m thinking about when I’m making a record. I wanted to make an album that’s challenging not only for listeners but also for myself. It’s a lot harder to make something that you yourself are a little freaked out by because you get so familiar with your own work.

Would you say you’ve progressed as a songwriter and musician?

I think so. As a musician, I can barely stand to listen to our earlier songs. As a songwriter, it’s been a matter of pushing the boundaries and doing something that feels risky to me. I’m tremendously happy with how it turned out. There were certain intangible, nebulous things that I was trying to do, and I feel like I succeeded.

You wrote that piece about Viking black metal for McSweeney’s, and I know John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats is also a huge metal fan. What is this strange correlation between wordy indie rockers and Norwegian black metal?

I’m not as big of a fan as John is, but I respect all heavy metal. To me, it’s a matter of the masculinity of it, and the sensation of aggression that’s really powerful about metal. I really enjoy it when I put it on, but it’s not something I’d do on a daily basis.

It’s funny you bring up that McSweeney’s piece because that piece in a way was very informative to how I Am Very Far was written. Not in terms of sound but the writing style of it. I’d been reading all these Viking sagas, and the way they were written blew my mind. They’re very no-nonsense, and there’s this powerful plot that thrusts itself forward, and incredible moments of epic violence, and an awkwardness in the poetry. It’s sort of a Rosetta Stone of what I’m trying to do. A lot of people talk about how I Am Very Far was influenced by working with Roky Erickson [Sheff produced and played on Erickson’s True Love Cast Out All Evil], and it was in a way, and Roky is sort of a Viking. He’s loved in Norway and Sweden, but it was more of an older Viking influence.

A lot of your older music deals with the idea of achieving musical recognition, so I was wondering what it was like being nominated for a Grammy Award this year, especially being in attendance when the Arcade Fire won? [Sheff was nominated for writing the liner notes for Erikson’s album.]

I’m happy for the Arcade Fire, and they certainly deserved it. They’re great people and an excellent band. It was kind of a thrill when they won because people were so pissed off. You could feel it. Justin Bieber, I think, was aghast. He probably goes around cursing their name.

To get back to your question, I’ve just never been that taken with the idea of a PC approach to what’s happening in music. It’s not really my job to think about how we’re positioned, but it is nice to be able to make a living. A lot of people tend to think of themselves in terms of a multimedia brand, and it allows the money to become very central to what they do as an artist. In a fundamental way it undermines their work. It feels like you try to stay really pure artistically, but on the other hand you’re like, “Give me money, I don’t care. I like money.” I try not to lie to myself. I never really planned to make money for my songs, but now that I’m here, I’d kind of like it to be worthwhile.

So what are the chances that we’re going to see an Okkervil River 3D Laser Extravaganza?

Probably not going to happen. You have to draw the line somewhere. It’s the people who make the 3D laser show who I worry about.


Okkervil River plays at Tipitina’s tonight with Wye Oak opening. Tickets are on sale now.