“What gives this mess some grace unless it’s kicks, man? Unless it’s fiction?
Unless it’s sweat or it’s songs?”
I’m a total sucker for lyrics. Of course I love the music too – a stunning guitar solo, the kick of a bass drum, some otherworldly vocals – but there is something about the words themselves that really hits me. I guess it comes down to the fact that I can pick up my guitar and strum along to some of my favourite songs but the lyrics can only ever truly belong to the person who first put them on a page. We can of course apply them to our own situations and find solace, or joy, or whatever we want in them and that’s usually because they seem to have been written just for us in the way they relate to our lives or current situation and that’s why music mean so much to us. On the flip-side of that a lyric can also appeal to us simply because it offers us a glimpse of something more than we have, some snap-shot into a world that we won’t ever be a part of but that we admire all the more for that reason.
The above lyric is taken from the song Unless It Kicks by Texan indie-rock stalwarts Okkervil River and it’s one that has stayed with me from the very first moment I heard it. When it first came out, over four years ago now, I was still in my early-twenties and feeling full of life and positivity and all of that nonsense. There was a good chance that I was reading On The Road too and is probably why it appealed to me so much. To me, its saying that, yeah, life is fucking hard sometimes but there are still moments of joy that make it all worth while. I certainly know that I find them in fiction, and in songs and, occasionally, in a little bit of sweat. I could never put those feelings into a line as effortlessly cool as Will Sheff did above, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t stir something inside of me.
Over a decade, and six studio albums, in to their career, Okkervil River sound as fresh, challenging and other-worldly to me as they ever have done. This years I Am Very Far is certainly one of the strongest LP’s released in 2011 and with a new EP just around the corner their drive shows no signs of slowing down. GoldFlakePaint had the pleasure of sitting down with Okkervil’s main-man Will Sheff to chat about his childhood, his thoughts on I Am Very Far and what drives him to continue making records…
How are you doing today? Has the tour been going well?
I’m alright. We have five shows left all year long so it’s been a long tour and it’s been a lot of shows and we’re all kind of tired and achey. I woke up this morning and I felt sick or like I had been far drunker the night before than I thought I was. My whole body was rebelling but then as the day has gone on I’ve kind of loosened up a bit.
Do you enjoy the whole touring process?
I enjoy playing live shows. I enjoy travelling and seeing different cultures. This is a clean, nice venue but I haven’t taken a shower in six days, for example. There just hasn’t been the opportunity. I dont enjoy that side of things so much! Also I like being off tour, because I just try and write as much as possible and I make t-shirts and new film things. I just like to work as much as possible, all the time.
Do you write songs while on tour?
This morning actually I wrote a song because I couldn’t sleep. Sometimes I have ideas for songs when I sleep or when I’m coming out of a dream and this morning when I was feeling sick or hungover or whatever it was, I had a song in my head so I wrote some stuff down. So sometimes I do but not always and not as often as i would like.
Were you pleased with peoples reaction to I Am Very Far?
Yeah I really was.
Do you follow reviews for your own records?
Yeah. I mean the label will send you a big fat file of them and sometimes they’ll be in Spanish, or Italian, and sometimes in English…(Laughs)
It’s been great though. I’m very proud of the record and I feel like I’ve finally escaped from some of the things that I wanted to escape from as an artist and I feel like I opened some doors that I wanted to open. It feels like a really faithful and true version of who I am as an artist right now and what I want out of art right now. So I’m pleased for that reason.
Is it a challenge to keeping writing albums at this stage in your career?
I think it’s a challenge in the sense that you dont want to repeat yourself and you always want to grow as a person and that’s just as challenging when you’re fifteen as it is when you’re thirty-five. It’s maybe slightly more challenging when you’re older and when you have actually made records because then you have more things to avoid and more to move on from. When you’re operating in a vacuum and nobody knows what you’re doing or who you are, that gives you a lot more freedom, in a weird way, to be anything you want to be. When you’ve gotten known for being a certain way, anything you do differently is going to piss off a cerain section of your fanbase in some way. People get really proprietary and very opinionated about who you are and what you do and also they try and tell you who you are. So I think that maybe there is more constriction, and I think you feel more pressure to please those people who are telling you who you are, but if you start listening to them you’re sunk. That’s when you turn into a cartoon. I’ve always spent my career trying to avoid what people were saying about me. I dont know why, I guess its just me being contrarian. So to come back to your question I think maybe its more challenging as you get older. Actually it’s probably not even an age thing, I think its more a a career thing because you’ve been things before so you there are less new things for you to try.
So do you think that by ignoring what people say about you makes the whole thing more natural?
Natural is a good word, yeah. That’s what I really try and do as an artist; to do what feels natural and right and not what feels strained. A lot of the time the fact that the sound and approach changes from record to record is a very natural thing. It’s what feels right at that time and what suggests itself at that time. This new EP that we just did, I knew very clearly what I wanted it to sound like, and the vibe it should have, and what the artwork should be like and I didn’t sit around thinking about it, it was just there. That’s usually the best art, I think, when it just suggests itself naturally.
Moving on to the recording of I Am Very Far, were you ever worried that having such a dis-jointed recording process would make it difficult to make a cohesive album?
I think these days it’s not so much of a difficulty because of the abilities of people at mastering and mixing. In the past with Okkervil River all of our records have felt majorly dis-jointed in some way so I didn’t really worry about it. The reason that I recorded in so many places was because I really didn’t want to feel like I was going through the motions; like punching the clock at work. I wanted to feel excited every time I came to record and that approach helped with that I think. Next time we’ll probably do something different, because we always try to…
Has moving to, and living in, Brooklyn had an effect on your song-writing do you think?
I think it has. I think it’s brought some more urbanity to my song-writing. I was brought up in a very rural environment and there is a part of me that is a real small-town country boy but I think that being in Brooklyn has brought a city vibe to the music.
Are you enjoying it there?
Yeah, I feel very more plugged in to stuff that’s going on and more aware of what’s going on in music and that’s nice and quite invigorating actually. I think in the past I might have felt quite threatened by that or confused by it in some way, but now I really find it stimulating. I’m all set-up now. I have a room I can write in and a room I can record in and I can find anyone to play any instrument at any time. If I want a harp, or a double bass, or a saxophone I can get it really quickly! Also I’ve got friends there and an infratructure there. I’m really enjoying it.
I read that you wrote a lot of the new album back in New Hampshire. Did you go back there specifically to write or did the songs just come out while you were there?
No, I went there to write. I wanted a natural feeling to the record and there is an aspect of the theme of the record that deals with nature and so I wanted to be in a more natural environment. There is also an aspect of the record that deals with childhood and I wanted to be in a place that I had been as a kid when writing. It made sense to do that.
Did you enjoy your childhood? Was New Hampshire a good place to grow up?
Yeah… Well, I mean my childhood was not perfect but I did really love my family and I love nature a lot. New Hampshire is really beautiful and hasn’t changed a whole lot either, which is rare these days. I love the landscape of New England, it’s really important to me. I dont know why. I guess everyone feels that way about the landscape of their childhood.
What drives you to continue making records?
What drives me? Joy drives me. I get more out of this whole thing now. Well I think I get the same amount of joy as I always have done, but I think I appreciate it a lot more because I’ve realised how dark and depressing the world can be so the joy that comes out of art feels even more precious than I had even realised when I was younger. It really is a miraculous thing and it genuinely gives me a reason to get up in the morning. I feel more intensely about that now than I ever have done before.
Finally, how are your Christmas plans shaping up?
I’m going to go home and see my family for Christmas so that will be really nice. I’m missing Thankgiving with them because of this tour which is really sad. It’s not a huge holiday for us but it’s a holiday that is really sad to miss out on with your family. I’m looking forward to getting back though. My brother has a kid on the way so I get to be an uncle soon. I’ve always wanted to be an uncle…
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I Am Very Far is out now and you can purchase it here.