13 December 2013

IN CONVERSATION with WILL SHEFF (OKKERVIL RIVER)


Will Sheff of Okkervil River
Photography by Eleonora Collini


Will Sheff is the mastermind behind Okkervil River. After years of writing cleverly allegoric records exploring the mythology of rock & roll (for instance the perhaps most famous Black Sheep Boy was a phantasmagorical tale based around Tim Hardin’s life), for the band’s seventh album Sheff decided to switch to autobiography, nostalgically romanticising a phase of his childhood spent in Meriden, New Hampshire, which ultimately becomes the symbol of the loss of innocence and the first steps into the conflicts and confusion of the adult world.
But there is so much more in the life of Will Sheff who is one of those unbelievably clever, fascinating guys that need to be always engaged in different projects and constantly challenge themselves.
I caught up with him before Okkervil River’s show at Islington Assembly Hall (Photo Review), London and we discussed new album The Silver Gymnasium (out now on ATO Records), his role in Rick Alverson’s independent film “The Comedy” and his fascination with the sound of synthesizer.


Eleonora Collini : The Silver Gymnasium is your first autobiographic album. What prompted you to write about your childhood at this point of your career?

Will Sheff: I have done a lot of fictional writing based around characters and not autobiography. I am Very Far had a sort of decentralized point of view which was part of the goal when writing that record, so I just thought it would be fun to write something different I hadn’t tried before. I don’t like autobiography that much, and for that reason I felt that it could be a good challenge to try as I have always liked it when someone can do autobiography well because it can be very intimate. I also like writing about memories and nostalgia, so it felt like I should do that about my own life, as if I hadn’t written about my own nostalgia it would have been too frustrating to be general and it wouldn’t have had any meaning to anybody. So I just wanted to put something that was personal on the table.

Eleonora: There is a red amphibian on the Meriden map that William Schaff drew for the album artwork, which I believe is a red eft. What does symbolise to you?

Will: If I went into it in details it wouldn’t be fun. There are things related to it that have to do with the history of maps, but it also has a personal meaning to me. To begin with, it was just something that I really liked when I was a kid. There was something very interesting and unexpected about finding this little lizard in the woods when walking through it, as it was kinda orange and odd, so there was a magic feeling about seeing something that wasn’t supposed to be there. But that’s not the only reason. There are lots of little reasons but I think that like with everything, if you explain too much it would kinda kill it.

Eleonora: Isn’t it also New Hampshire’s state animal?

Will: No, it’s not. Our state animal is the purple finch actually. And we also have our official town’s insect, mollusk and plant, but the red eft is not a symbol of any geographical location as far as I am aware of.

Eleonora: Does your family still live in Meriden?

Will: No, I wish. They moved to Western Massachusetts in 1985 as my dad got a job that he wanted to take. That’s why I probably romanticised Meriden that much, as I wasn’t really there for a long time.

Eleonora: How did you and John Agnello (who produced the new record) meet?

Will: We met through a mutual friend that works for labels and that kind of stuff. I just mentioned that I’d always liked his work, that I loved the way the Kurt Vile album sounded, the Dinosaur Jr. connection, and all the 80’s records he worked on and I grew up with, so my friend said that we should meet. Then John was the first one I thought of to produce this album, but initially it took a while to make things work.

Eleonora: Musically, The Silver Gymnasium has a sort of poppier sound and there is a heavier use of synths. Can you talk about that?

Will Sheff of Okkervil RiverWill: I think I just started to really fall in love with the sound of synthesizer. I don’t actually know why it happened. I was listening to more hip-hop, electronic music, a lot of Arthur Russell. But I have always liked the synthesizer, there is a lot of it on our very first record Starts too Small to Use from 1999, and there is also synthesizer all over Black Sheep Boy. So I have always been a fan, but I think that lately I became more fascinated with non-representational sound and the fact that you are hearing electricity and electric current. And I am also fascinated with sounds that call up specific years. For instance “Unless it’s Kicks” from The Stage Names is very Bo Diddley, there is a very Bo Diddley beat and the sound is very Bo Diddley, and there is also another song there that’s kind of T-Rex-y. I think that when you’re trying to sound like the 50’s-60’s or the 70’s, people take it as general music, but when you try to reference the 80’s it’s a different sort of nerve, which in my case brings back a lot of memories as that’s the decade of my childhood, and I was trying to aim at that. I was also fascinated with the position of the singer-songwriter in the early 80’s, for example Joe Jackson and also Jackson Browne had a lot of synthesizer in their early 80’s stuff. And these guys were trying to make room to listen to all these technological developments, so there was a lot of interesting tension there. I also developed an interest in smoother sound, as in the past I did a lot of jaggy, unsettled stuff, so it started to seem like a cool challenge to do something that had more of a glassy, smooth surface to it. So yeah in a lot of ways this new record is very different.

Eleonora: Speaking of fascination with electronic music, you also have a solo project, called Lovestreams. So far you only streamed a couple of tracks on your website which sound more electronic and dancey than any Okkervil River stuff. Are there any plans for a physical release yet?

Will: I would like to put out a record, I wrote a whole album that I haven’t put out yet as in a way that was my physical therapy. It was me trying to write in a new way, trying to worry about recording in a deeper way. I just needed to go away for a second and rework things. I would like to put out a record but all that material was really very personal which is probably the reason why I was reluctant to. It’s important to have things that you just work on for yourself. I really love audience, I believe in audience and I write for audience, but at the same time I think it’s important to have things that are just for me.

Eleonora: The Silver Gymnasium is Okkervil River first album on ATO Records. How would you compare your relationship with them with the one you had with your ex long-time label Jagjaguwar?

Will: It’s obviously very different. I literally grew up with the guys at Jagjagwar. I crashed on their floor many times, I lived with Darius (Van Arman- founder of the label) for a long time, they hooked me up with a lot of friends, I had a girlfriend that I met through them, or maybe vice versa…so that’s a lot of history there. My relationship with ATO is new so obviously doesn’t have all that, but I love them, people there are extremely artist-friendly, they are incredibly supportive, positive and enthusiastic a lot. I am a person that likes doing projects all the time, I always need to have something to do and have a tiny budget for it, that’s the way I wanna do it, that’s my main goal in life and they are very supportive of that. Obviously it’s going to be different as it’s a new relationship, but they are really a bunch of awesome people.

Eleonora: You mentioned that you like to keep yourself busy all the time, which you seem to be as you have so many non-musical projects going on too. For instance you had a role in the 2012’s film “The Comedy”. How was that acting experience?

Will: That was my first real acting experience. The funny thing about that movie which you don’t really see when you watch it is that it was built around improvisation. What ended up in that movie was like one tenth of what they filmed, maybe a bit more than that, like one sixth. It was kinda odd because the environment, the characters in the movie are shitty people, being shitty and horrible to each other. And like I said it was mainly improvisation, with some people staying more in character. There were things that were rather unpleasant, as it was like hanging out with a bunch of assholes (laughs).

Eleonora: Ha, that must have been fun!

Will: Not really, I don’t like being an asshole. But there was a lot of commitment. Tim (Heidecker) in particular was super devoted to his role. And all in all the whole experience was fun.

Eleonora: You’ve directed most of Okkervil River music videos too, right?

Will Sheff of Okkervil RiverWill: Yes. I am currently directing an hour something version of the music video of “Down Down the Deep River”, a pretty ambitious undertaking. My father was a sort of filmmaker before he became a teacher, and he was trying to make that work but then decided he wasn’t going to do it for a variety of reasons, the main one of which was money. He then became a film history teacher and I used to sit in his class watching movies, so films have always been a big thing for me. I like movies, maybe almost as much as making music.

Eleonora: And you also wrote a lot of film and art criticism which was published on various magazines. Do you still do that?

Will: Yeah, I haven’t done it in a while, I did a lot more back in the days. I do a lot of different shit. But I think there is not a lot of tolerance for people that choose to do many different things (laughs). I know this is going to come off a bit weird, but I don’t care about Kanye West’s fashion line. You know he would do all these things and talk about it, and he gets a special respect. I don’t get that respect as he is a rapper and I am not, but I do the same things, I do music, writing, film. And for me, actually I think for everybody that doubles in all sort of things, it’s all about this crazy problem solving, you try to figure out the rules of problem solving, and trying to make something that people like in music translated in something that people like in movies or writing. And it’s just so much fun to get to make these things. For instance now we are doing a read-along book for kids, with cassette and stuff. I just like doing anything that I haven’t done before, that’s what keeps me excited I guess.

Eleonora: Going back a little, how was working with Roky Erickson on True Love Casts out all Evil which you produced and Okkervil River backed a couple of years ago?

Will: That was amazing. He is a real wonderful person. That really changed my life and inspired me in a lot of ways to embrace who I am and do my own things without being so self conscious about it and worrying so much about how I come across to people. So yeah it was a wonderful experience.

Eleonora: I read somewhere that you and (ex-Okkervil River now Sheawater) Jonathan Meiburg send each other music and are still in touch a lot. Do you think you will collaborate with him again in the future?

Will: Yeah I am sure it will happen at some point though I am not sure when as we are both very busy and it's not something we talk about a lot. In a way we are collaborating already because I send him stuff and he gives me feedback, he sends me stuff and I give him feedback, and there are things on The Silver Gymnasium that are what they are because of Jonathan, and that's also true to a certain extent for (his last record) Animal Joy. I sequenced the last two Shearwater's records actually. So yeah at some point we will write music together again, probably when everything else is exhausted (laughs).

Eleonora: You now live in Brooklyn, but you spent a lot of time in Austin, TX where Okkervil River first got together. How would you compare the two music scenes?

Will: Austin is very laid back, almost too laid back. People there don’t have a lot of pressure to do their work as it's really easy to do what you want there. And I liked that. For a long time I did exactly what I wanted there. But then I just wanted to go somewhere on the East coast to be near my family. They are so important to me. I love my parents, my grandparents, my nephew, my new nephew and I get a lot of strength from that. So that was the sort of spiritual side to it, it just felt good to go back to that. But at the same time there are no cities in New England I am super excited about, whereas I have always found New York pretty exciting.

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