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an interview with Will Sheff by Stav Sherez
At the end of last year, I remember a conversation with the editor of this magazine about how the last twelve months hadn't really presented any new bands that had made us rush screaming into the streets to proclaim their glories. Well, maybe we wouldn't have done that anyway (being modest and rather nervous, as we are) but just as we were voicing our displeasure and musical ennui, as it often does in life, something came to remind us what we both found so alluring and enchanting about music in the first place. Okkervil River's 'Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See' came out of nowhere and seemed to contain everything that a great record should. Most importantly there were songs that swung between the depths of despair and pinnacles of ecstasy, songs about cold-eyed killers, dead pooches, depressed cocaine-fuelled strippers, parental discord and unopened letters. Songs that detailed a mood, a sense of place and character. But there was also the sound of the band, banjos, pedal steels and fiddles mixed with horns, Wurlitzer and other sounds to create a fully realised vision, uncategorisable, sometimes recalling The Band, other times sounding like nothing but itself and, in Will Robinson Sheff, here was a vocalist who, like Mark Eitzel, could articulate heart-wrenching pain, loneliness, despair and happiness in the swoop of a line, the cutting off of a breath. Sure to make many people's best of the year lists, 'Don't Fall In Love...' is one of those records made for clutching tightly to your chest, for the long nights that never seem to end, the becalmed aftermath of things unresolved. There's a huge difference between 'Stars Too Small To Use' [the band's previous mini-album] and the new record. It sounds like you've finally found your groove and achieved a sound that's totally your own. What would you say accounts for this great leap, musically and production wise?
The reason the two records have such differences in feel and sound has everything to do with our working methods in each instance. We spent three days on 'Stars Too Small to Use', which was originally intended as a demo and basically consists of a very straightforward representation of our live sound at that time. It was recorded in a pay-by-the-hour studio with a minimum of production flourishes - one accordion overdub and one keyboard overdub. For 'Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See', we decided to cough up a great deal more money and forsake any attempt to create a sound we could reproduce live in favour of adding all the production bells and whistles I'd always dreamed of. We then spent about a year working on it with Brian Beattie, who is an extremely gifted engineer and who taught us, in the process of recording, a great deal about arranging and performing pop music. Brian also worked tirelessly on the record and made every sound on it just about perfect. As for the songs on 'Stars...', I think they're mostly of the same quality as those on 'Don't Fall In Love...', just not as well executed.The songs on the new album seem to be very thematically coherent - is that the way you choose what ends up on the album or just the way it all fell together?
Sort of a little bit of each. We recorded quite a few songs for 'Don't Fall In Love...' and then excluded many of them according more to what we thought worked. We didn't have any over-arching theme in mind for the album - which doesn't mean there isn't a theme - but we tried to make the different songs on it all subtly rhyme in places. The next Shearwater album, though, was conceived and written with a definite, if light, 'concept' in mind.Bad Days seems to be about depression and how it affects us. Is this something that affects you (or has affected you) in your life?
Not any more than anyone else. My emotional state seems to follow a six-year cycle of freaking out and then feeling a lot better. That song wasn't written from the depths of depression or anything, though; it's more about accepting the fact that feelings - both happiness and depression, and physical states like health and sickness, too - are essentially transitory.Westfall sounds like it was based on a real story - was it?
Westfall was based on a few different stories, but mostly upon something that happened here in Austin a few years ago when some college-age boys broke into a frozen yoghurt shop and then killed and disemboweled the young women working there. The authorities caught one of the guys who did it recently and before long the local news networks started airing courtroom footage of him, the secret reason - to my mind - being so that the folks at home could scan his televised face for the evil hiding behind it. I recall thinking that evil isn't as easy to detect as that. But when I wanted to write a song about that idea, I fictionalised the narrative because that's the only way I could write it from the first person perspective and feel OK about singing it.A main theme that crops up, for me, on the album is people doing things that are bad for them, knowing this and yet still being unable to resist - is this how you see it?
It sounds familiar. On your press bio you state "Each of my nervous breakdowns fell away when I made the most important decision of my life: to be a total failure. A professional failure." Can you expand on this? How does the (musical) success of the new album affect your attempt to be a 'professional failure'?
First of all, becoming a professional musician represents failure of a certain kind. It means that, unless you're very lucky, you won't have health insurance, you won't have money - I'm currently watching as my friends' salaries start to outstrip mine hundreds of times over - you'll have a harder time staying in relationships, you'll be perceived by many as a slacker or a freeloader, your parents will start to "worry about you," and - as you leave your 20s and advance through your 30s - it will become harder and harder to escape the suspicion that you've thrown away most of your chances for stability in life. For me, accepting that and trying to live with it is easier than revolting against it. Secondly, I decided, at the same time as I decided to pursue music, that I didn't ever want my work to stagnate - I wanted to be the kind of musician whose work derived energy and life from its perpetual proximity to artistic failure, or even its perpetual courtship of failure. I want to be the kind of artist who consistently sets up for myself challenges that I might not be able to rise to, so if I don't fail sometimes it should indicate that the challenges weren't outrageous enough. In order to make really great art, I believe you have to open yourself up to the possibility of making something that's laughable. I don't want to make safe art, conservative art, or tidy art - I want to make a mess. As for the accusations that 'Don't Fall In Love...' doesn't artistically "fail" per se - I was actually backed into a corner and angrily accused of this by an overweight, middle-aged, drunk, and insane audience member during a show in Minneapolis, and his proposed remedy was "stick your finger up your ass before you go onstage!" - just give me time.Again, on the website, when one clicks on the FAQ, there is only one question and one answer - "We are not an alt.country band," it states defiantly. Do you find such terms limiting, both creatively and commercially?
I'm from New Hampshire, waaaay above the Mason-Dixon line. I never even heard country music until I was in college, and most of the bands that people refer to as alt.country - Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo and whatnot - I've only heard in passing and am definitely not influenced by. Still, when the record came out a lot of people referred to it as 'alt.country,' and some even denigrated it as 'alt.country.' One review even called it "fairly rote alt.country." That was never our intention - we just enjoy using instruments besides electric guitar. But some critics are lazy and, as soon as they hear the pedal steel and mandolin on our record, overlook the horn section and the Wurlitzer. We're much more interested in old-time music and even soul music than in country music of any stripe, though I enjoy Hank Williams.You write a lot about music for Audiogalaxy.com. How does that affect what you do in the band? Does this make you more critical to your own output? Do you find being both music critic and musician produces a certain split in you?
Absolutely. The skills and methods I've developed as a critic hinder more often than help my songwriting - there's a certain level of stupid blind faith necessary to picking up a guitar, piecing together a couple of chords that have probably been used in that exact order a billion times before, and singing a little melody with words along to it. If you think about writing the way a critic does - in terms of picking apart something that's already been finished - you won't even get started. You just have to leap into writing, and being overly conscious of all that's been done before, brilliantly or terribly, can choke you up. So you have to figure out a way to isolate your critical and musical mind-sets, which is so difficult that I'm considering getting out of music criticism altogether, actually.You have links to both J.L. Borges and Henry Miller on your website, two authors I'm very much into - tell me something about why you like them.
I think Henry Miller continues to be underappreciated as a writer, partially because most people just focus on the sex in his writing and then, often without even stopping to read his work, pigeonhole him as some kind of literary stud or else a rank sexist. What's interesting to me about Miller - aside from his language, which is evocative, lyrical, and pungently poetic - is his worldview. He shuns binaries - death or life, love or hate, the soul or the body, the human or the non-human - and has it both ways, and with gusto. He sees the world complexly and invests it, on the page, with the sloppy passion it deserves. Instead of a moony fixation on decay or a perverse obsession with sex, he sees the shocks of fecundity - sex, birth, disease, death, rot, and re-growth - as beautiful, natural, and even holy. The health, humor, and organic flow in Henry Miller's writing has yet to be recaptured by any writer I've read. I like Borges because he mixes the unreal and the real in a way that seems so uncannily natural it immediately rings true and can't really be reduced to an explanation. His writing seems, to me, to outline certain mystical truths about the way the world works on a spiritual level.Do you find that literature influences you as a songwriter?
Absolutely. The arts that interest me - literature, pop music, film, painting - all sort of run together in my head to the point where I'll accidentally disrupt a conversation about writers by babbling about filmmakers without realizing I've changed the subject. I'm often moved to write a song after I've just finished a book, because all the depth of feeling that book has stirred in me bubbles up after I finish the last sentence. What are you currently listening to?
I'm currently addicted to and obsessed with a lot of old-time music from the 30's: Skip James, Riley Puckett, Julius Daniels, Washington Phillips, Dick Justice, Jim Jackson, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and Clarence Ashley are some I've been listening to with regularity. I've also been listening to a lot of Nina Simone, Richard Hell, the Fugs, and Michael Hurley recently, as well as Art Garfunkel's theme to 'Watership Down' - a much underrated song, if you ask me, one of the only pop songs ever to be both saccharine and harrowing. As for contemporary releases, I really enjoy the relatively new records by the Radar Brothers, Destroyer, and the Microphones. Tom Waits' 'Alice' is largely excellent as well.Tell me a little about your side project, Shearwater, and your recent tour with Swearing at Motorists.
Shearwater is a band in which I co-write and split singing duties with Jonathan Meiburg, who plays Wurlitzer and accordion in Okkervil River. Jonathan's wife Kim plays upright bass in Shearwater and our friend Thor plays drums and vibraphone. The music is more subdued, the songs are shorter, and Jonathan has a very different voice than I do - more of a choirboy falsetto. It all has a bit of a 'late night' feel. We started the band because I was writing songs that were too short and quiet for Okkervil and Jonathan was writing songs that were too out-there for his aggressively accessible other band. We're coming up on the second album now and are very excited - it'll be released on Misra here in the States. As for Swearing at Motorists, I toured with them in July as Okkervil River solo - 'Okkervil Stream'?. The other band members couldn't get away from their jobs, so I went it alone because Dave Doughman and I wanted to tour together anyway. Going on the road with different configurations of the band - even though we'll keep the same nucleus for recording and the majority of touring - is something I might be trying to do more of. We'll see.Finally, what's next for you? Are you working on the follow-up to 'Don't Fall In Love...'?
Any possibility of British/European dates?
We'll probably start working on the new record this winter. Though we've got more than enough tunes already, we all have pretty full schedules. I'll be doing some tours with Okkervil and in support of the new Shearwater album in the fall and winter. We hope to tour Europe very soon, but we're still making the necessary connections. It's a very high priority for us, though.
CWAS #11 - Autumn 2002