Will Sheff at Peace With Okkervil River’s Course Correction
Macdougal Street is, like many of us who don’t get remotely better with age, not what it used to be. This is not the empty nostalgia of Dylan / Van Halen / Louise opening credits fetishists; the street, like much of the West Village, is inarguably a mess. The street is predominantly NYU beer-soaked detritus going in and out of Off the Wagon, fauxcaine street dealers grifting said credulous meatloaves, and a legion of start-up stand-ups with clipboards and flyers desperately asking indifferent tourists if they “like to laugh.” What’s left is high-rent blight and tagged storefronts waiting to become banks. Mamoun’s is still good, but that’s wildly beside the point. The hippies and jazz bohos and Richard Pryor are long gone, and ain’t none of them coming back. No use crying about it — and, for god’s sake, don’t stand in the bike lane.
Of course, to be unkind is easy. There is still life on Macdougal; it’s just easier to focus on the irritating and inane. To pretend that it’s an ocean of awfulness worth traversing only with teleportation is to willfully ignore the other truths: There are bright spots if you want to see them. When I meet Will Sheff outside Meskerem, the wonderful Ethiopian joint next to the (also very nice) bar I work at, he excuses himself to go upstairs with Frank, a local gentleman who I occasionally give a cigarette to, who he’d just met on the sidewalk. Frank was going to sell him some 1935 sheet music to Gershwin’s “Summertime” for three dollars. Sheff and the older man — a longtime Macdougal resident, vibrantly still standing — are clearly having a swell time. Sheff and I have previously discussed Garry Wills’ dictum to just ask how Jesus would behave, but rather to treat every person one meets as though they were literally Jesus. With solid dudes like Frank, it’s, like, not even a strain.
Sheff is a shaggy and compelling figure — good-looking in his fashion, the kind of exhausted handsome that the West Village used to trade in when it was a folk music mecca. His eyes brighten considerably when he talks about Leonard Cohen, faith, a song working. If it was 1963, you’d let him crash on your couch and see what happens. He’s here at my asking to talk about the new Okkervil River record, Away, the first since 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium.
(Full disclosure: I've known Sheff for a minute. I like him, and assume he likes me, too. We drink together occasionally, but don't talk on the phone. By old standards, we’re friendly; by contemporary standards, we’re friends; by music industry standards, we’re practically married. My partner, Zohra Atash of Azar Swan, played textural percussion on Away.)
Away is a divergence from the Okkervil River catalog. It’s entirely anthem-free, with none of the arguably easy soaring of previous works. It’s full of knotty language, indebted to Kendrick Lamar, cohabitating in towers of song with Blue Nile / Japan bass tones and, while it’s decidedly warm and full of classic songcraft, it also feels like a new bruise. Away is also entirely out of step with any contemporary “indie rock” fashions (meaning that, even though it’s guitar music, it sounds like neither AM radio snooze rock nor any Springsteen / Westerberg hybrid ). I have to admit to Sheff that, as much as I liked him personally, this was his first album that I actually loved. Many of my friends were always Okkervil River obsessives, and the other albums always sounded cool to me, but — perhaps because of my general aversion to both indie rock and things that critics of a certain mode like — I’d never really given the band a fair shake.
Sheff takes this in stride. He talks a bit about some compromises that he’d felt he’d made in the past, some subconscious desire for a single or a synch. He’d been moving away from easy solutions on the last few albums (vagaries of the public’s tastes be damned), and he makes it clear that Away, while most assuredly the end result of a decisions to stop seeking approval years ago, is not a conscious break with anything: “I wish that I could say that with Away I just manned up and was like, 'No,' but that’s actually not how it happened. It was the back door way because I was making the record for me, and I didn’t know what it was supposed to be, and I was just like, ‘This is just for me, and maybe it won’t come out, and maybe it’s demos and I don’t know … ’ I was at the point of feeling a certain despair that was liberating. I just didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, and I did everything I wanted to do. I just didn’t ever want to be false. I told Nate Thatcher [who did all the orchestral arrangements], ‘I don’t ever want the strings to just come in and sell the emotion.’ I never underlined anything.”
Midway through the interview, I make the lazy mistake of calling Away “sad,” even though it’s not even what I thought. I just couldn’t formulate exactly what I thought the album was. Sheff hooks me up, saying, “It’s contemplative. Contemplation is uncomfortable, so people put in the ‘sad’ thing.”
Chastened, I add how much it annoys me when people call Leonard Cohen depressing, and Sheff says, “People always talked about how sad and depressing Leonard Cohen records were, and I listened to them and was like, ‘This is sexy and cool. What are you talking about?’” He concedes, though, “I thought of the record as this big, warm, positive thing, and then I started listening to it and I was like, ‘I sound very sad.’ But I think both of those of those things are true, because I think the record is positive and warm and I was sad. I was crying out to this record, like, ‘Help me out here, record.’ That’s what I hear when I listen to it. You hear a sad guy, but the record is giving him a hug.”
Away isn’t a sad record. It’s clear-eyed. Maybe, despite Sheff’s protestations, a bit brutal. It’s full of long songs about men and women taking stock and not always loving what they see. I ask to what degree it’s autobiographical, especially songs like “The Industry” and “Frontman in Heaven,” which has harder edges, a slightly meaner streak, than some of the other material on the record. About “The Industry,” with its destined-to-be-speculated- about lyrics referring to some major dude “grinding on some poor girl who is backstage at the 6.8 rock fest,” Sheff cops to a fair amount of first-person narrative, while taking pains to be hella cagey about the exact subject matter. He tells me, “It’s not about Pitchfork. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about a lot of people I know in the music business. It’s about a lot of trends that have freaked me out in the music business. It’s about a lot the most insecure feelings I’ve had trying to make a living in the music business. It’s about the ways that I feel like I’ve fallen short as a musician.”
I ask him he anticipated 20 years of “You're So Vain”-style guessing games. Sheff just looks at me and replies, “I really hope not.” When I ask about "Frontman in Heaven," Sheff claims a more complicated source. “That one is narrated by a character that is me and not me," he says. "I was picturing the worst possible version of me at 67. Very embittered. Because I was singing in that voice, I was able to be really honest. I would say that particular song is sort of autobiographical and sort of a character. I do find it liberating. I used to say to Beth [Wawerna, of Bird of Youth], “Are people going to think I’m a sexist pig?” just because I feel like that guy is such a scumbag. I used to always write from a character standpoint, but there was always a bit of me in there, and then I started writing from a ‘me’ standpoint and there was always a bit of a character in there and now … I can’t really explain it.”
I ask if that's a cop-out — a way of writing what you are, but then after the fact, seeing how unpleasant one comes off and saying, “Oh, that’s just a character.”
“No,” Sheff explains nicely, but firmly. “That’s not how it feels to me. Sometimes you’re just trying on something. You know how you might have a charged feeling about somebody, positive or negative, and there’s something you want to say to them that might be beyond the pale for you to say, like, ‘I want to fucking kill you.’ Or, ‘I want to lock you up so you can never escape because I love you so much.’ Just something that’s really messed up that you might, in some really dark part of yourself, you might feel … but it’s not really you. You let out a little line and let yourself say it.”
This leads to a long digression on the merits of Afghan Whigs Gentlemen, an album that came out while we were both in high school and one that affected me and many male peers greatly, to the detriment of any women we knew. Singer Greg Dulli’s “characters” are all sexy shitheels that make lovemaking a blood sport. After listening to me rant a bit, Sheff says, “That’s what always turned me off specifically about that album. I remember getting that album in high school and being like, ‘Ew.’ And it was somehow different than Lou Reed, who I was listening to at that time … ”
I interject that Lou Reed sounded like he was describing a hip scene, whereas Dulli was singing about fucking the drunk girl in the college town. It was a base scumbaggery that’s just a little too attainable for twenty-something Lotharios looking for a sultry soundtrack to hurt somebody's feelings. But that could have just been me. Sheff was apparently made of less jerky stock than I. “Yeah, there was a thing that was like, ‘This is just how men are … they’re just telling it like it is,’" he says, "and I was like, ‘No, I’m not like that,’ and I’m not saying I’m amazing … I’m sleazy and bad, but not in that particular way.”
To be clear, and to avoid clickbait headlines and an indie rift that could destroy us all, neither Will Sheff nor myself think that Greg Dulli is guilty of anything beyond making a record that came out when we were both at the age and cultural settings to think about said record a lot. Dude made a strong piece of art. There were responses and repercussions. Most people make art that doesn’t illicit a damned thing, so … good for him!
Expanding on the dangers of dangerous characters in songs, Sheff tells this story, “We have this song, 'Westfall,' from our first album, that was about this awful series of murders, the Austin Yogurt Murders. The song was this attempt to project myself into what kind of person does something like that. In a non-judgement way, almost like, ‘Let me see how you can get there in your mind.’ And we started to play it live, and the more we played it, the more it would get rocked out, and we turned it into this anthemic thing. In my mind, I was doing this Johnny Cash let’s-let-people-feel-this-uncomfortable-feeling of rocking out to something that’s creepy. What happened was we started getting these crazy cheers for it, dudes screaming, ‘Play the song about killing the chicks!’ So, we don’t play the song anymore. And that’s an example of the Gentlemen thing. I tapped a thing I didn’t mean to tap, and it was immediately frightening ... There’s something about laying bare the ugly truth, and it can be healing, and it often is, but sometimes you lay bare the ugly truth and people are like, 'Yes! Let’s be ugly! Let’s be truthful and ugly!'”
Lessons from '90s alternative bad boys aside, Sheff came late to punk and anything else left of the dial. He wouldn’t hear of certain bands that Okkervil River were originally compared to, like the Pogues or the Waterboys, until the comparisons were made. He explains, “My town was so little — the nearest movie theater was 45 minutes away — and I was the older brother. I didn’t have cool older friends — I didn’t have many friends, period — so nobody was telling me that I should listen to Bad Brains. I didn’t even know what punk rock was. A lot of my friends were heshy kids … they listened to King Diamond, not punk rock. And that stuff scared me.”
Sheff, like all of us sad sacks born before the internet, listened to the radio without even the language to know what he liked and what — as in the case of "Wind Beneath My Wings" — he didn’t. “I never said to myself, ‘This is bad.’ I just felt antsy. It never occurred to me that music could be bad.”
Even now, when I ask if a song that makes so many ostensibly good people happy can be “bad,” he says, “There are songs that I know are bad that mean a lot to me, so in that sense they’re not bad, or within the realm of my brain they’re not bad, but I wouldn’t really defend them. Like 'Wild Wild West' by Escape Club. When that song came out, I was really into it. When I listen to it now, I hear the song that I was really into, that is not really there, but I can still hear its ghost. But I also hear the mediocre stupid song that it really is.” He later adds, “I used to overthink pop music, which I got from my mom. My mom would go on a 15-minute rant about why 'Young Girl' by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap was bad and, why it was creepy and sexist and musically bad, and she would just rant for 20 minutes uninterrupted and I would soak it all up ... I guess she gave me an analytical mind about pop music.”
Sheff’s musical awakening came through the diametric opposite creation myth of the Ramones touring the U.K.: Christian folk musician friends of his mom turned him onto the Incredible String Band. He tells me, “One thing that really opened up things for me was my mother had taken guitar lessons from this guy, and they had become good friends, and then they had become friends of the family and they were professional musicians, very much struggling, and they were very devout Catholics, and they played this Christian folk music. It’s funny — I went on eBay recently, and their records are 200 bucks and they would be ‘private press Christian rarity!’ They were really truly brilliant at music, and they came out of that world. The guy in the band started talking to me and his son, and he said, ‘So, did you kids ever hear about the Incredible String Band?” and he played those records and I made tapes of them, and The Incredible String band cracked everything open for me. They were 12-minute folk ragas that were spiritual and sexual and druggy and silly and insanely ambitious. I didn’t know there was music like that. I was 13. I sat down and transcribed every single lyric to every Robin Williamson song in all these notebooks. I knew that if I did it, I would learn about songwriting. That changed everything for me.”
After aborted forays into saxophone (“I realized I was never going be able to play 'You Belong to the City.' And even if you learn to play 'You Belong to the City,' that riff, you’re just standing alone in your room playing that riff.”) and piano, Sheff’s mom gave him her nylon string guitar and “just because I was stupid and I wasn’t thinking in terms of technique, what Brahms would do, I was just hammering away with a Beatles fake book, I was like, ‘Oh, OK, it’s easy.’” Sheff’s aptitude at music is something he seems to take for granted, especially when he, while explaining his love for Irish music and particularly folk band Clannad, says, “Clannad I will forever credit for making me obsessed with 9ths. They would very often have a 9th on top of a lot of their harmonic clusters,” like I was supposed to know what the fuck he was talking about. (He explains, but I refuse to be cowed into grasping it.)
The intervening years are pretty much common knowledge. After being miserable in college, Sheff convinced his high school band to move to Austin and make a go of it. Struggles, critical adulation and an ex-member list that — while largely seemingly amicable, rivals Quiet Riot in its scope — ensued. 2005’s Black Sheep Boy was an album that, coming from metal and hardcore, I find unjustly considered “overdramatic.” But Sheff disagrees, saying, “When I call that album ‘melodramatic,’ I don’t necessarily mean it in a critical way. It’s what I was trying to do. That was my goth record. Or like Douglas Sirk. Everybody likes Douglas Sirk! Look, I wish I could sing like I was cool and I didn’t give a shit, but I’m not cool and I do give a shit, and it comes through in my singing and it connects with other people who give a shit. It’s not even intentional on my part. It’s like having a red beard. I didn’t decide to do that, and as much as I might wish that I looked different, I am the way I am. So, I sound emotional.” Black Sheep was followed by the equally lauded The Stage Names. Then … it gets a bit complex.
Sheff and I are doing an interview, but we're also two friends having lunch, sharing a communal plate of injera and vegetables, shooting the shit. We go off the record whenever we (mainly I) want to bad mouth some contemporaries (most of whom he defends, which is some indie rock union bullshit I don’t appreciate at all), and we, over the course of two hours, aren’t shy about our various and sundry insecurities. A habitual bitcher by nature, I draw out and want to include what I considered especially valuable about Sheff’s misgivings about his own career, while he, quite understandably, is concerned about coming off as more woe-is-me than he might actually feel. But it’s not a trade secret that a band’s level of success is rarely static. And invariably, fans prefer “the old stuff,” and will say so. Often, and with a fervor that can hurt a man’s feelings.
I ask about post-2008 Okkervil River in a roundabout way so as to not give offense, but it's clearly something that has been on our guy’s mind for a while.
“I used to be making music and I didn’t know how to make people like it," he begins. "And then I started to try to make people like it. Then, eventually, people did start to like it. I don’t know why. Not necessarily because I was trying. I started to see who people wanted me to be, and I started to play into it a little bit, and that just made them like me more, and eventually I let myself slide ever so slightly into being a caricature; and the more I did that, the more money and success I got. And then I had a hangover from it. I said, 'This is cheesy. I’m going look back on this and be embarrassed by it.' I then made a really concerted effort to change, and maybe it had nothing to do with that, but right after that concerted effort to change … I had the first I record I did that sold dramatically less than the one before. And suddenly fewer people started coming to our shows. I found myself really believing in what I was doing and really feeling it, and then reading people on the internet saying I’d lost it. I felt like I’d course-corrected. I still feel that way.”
There’s something really appealing to me about stories like this. We tell ourselves that the story of the artiste is one of the fans growing with and following through the brambles, but that’s not how it usually works. Just ask '80s-era Neil Young.
Seeing that I wasn’t going to bum Sheff out any more than I already had, I remind him of a party we were at a while back where I introduced him to a young friend of mine, and my young friend — both drunk and by temperament somewhat innocent of certain social mores — opened with something along the lines of, “I used to love you. I haven’t heard any of your recent albums.” Sheff, understandably in the context of both the offense and the late hour, got upset. I deeply wanted to hug them both 'til we all disintegrated.
When I remind Sheff of the night, he just laughs. “Yeah, well … I guess it’s such a weird thing. There’s what you think about your work and there’s what people say about your work. Sometimes, often, what people say about your work becomes the narrative and stays that, and sometimes it changes, and sometimes, in a mysterious process I don’t really understand, people sometimes just get sick of somebody. Like Louis CK. We couldn’t get enough of Louis CK, and he might be doing his best work right now, and I wouldn’t know because I’m not watching. With [2011's] I Am Very Far, in some ways it’s a worse record than Black Sheep Boy and Stage Names, but in another it’s far better, because I started to get rid of affectation. Especially with Stage Names, there was a level of, “Oh, look how smart I am” that people just loved. They were so tickled by it. And it was so vain. It was dating my work, and people couldn’t get enough of it. I read on the internet people saying, 'They haven’t done anything good since The Stage Names.’ It’s interesting: your own lived experience of making records and going through life and feeling this deepening relationship with your creativity and being told that you’re treading water.”
I ask: Well, why are you reading that online stuff?
Will says, “I see it sometimes."
I tell him that I ego-search myself all the time, but I’ve never been remotely famous, so I only occasionally see someone calling me a hack or bad singer or whatever, and even that sets me back a bit.
Sheff takes a minute and says, “It’s difficult to extricate yourself from a relationship with that. You can feel like you want to please people. And you can feel like you’re trying to defy expectations. And the third way is … I’ll tell you this: I have this clear memory of listening to these songs [from Away] when we had finished the first two days of recording. I was stoned, and I was walking through Brooklyn listening to mixes, and I just felt so right about them, and I just, in a flash, saw all the instrumentation I wanted, and it just came to me; and, also in flash, I was like, 'This is the record where you’re going to do what you want. And you’re not gonna care about what you should have done. Periodically, when it became clear that this was going to be the next Okkervil record, I’d have moments where I’d go, ‘Judey on a Street' is a long song. Maybe if it was shorter, you could get airplay … ’”
I ask: How do you shut that voice up?
“I was just like, ‘You’re going to kill it. If you do that, you’re going to kill these songs. You’re going to take the life out of them.’”
Sheff goes on to talk about how his producer and longtime mentor, Brian Beattie, would say that overdubs can kill a song. Overdubs, yes, but mainly second-guessing would have ruined Away. Sheff had specifically sought out musicians whose “energy” was as vital as their playing. He tells me, “There’s a scene in Jodrowsky’s Dune where he turns down this big special effects guy because he’s not a 'spiritual warrior.' It was like that. Everybody who works on this record is going to be bringing that full wave of goodness and life and skill onto it.”
The talk of the metaphysical leads to the final thing on my mind. As alluded to earlier, Will Sheff and I both believe in god (the size of the “G” is immaterial). Sheff was raised Catholic — his upbringing and degrees of faith have been apparent to any fan inclined to look for either — and I was raised secular Jewish, currently believe in a non-denominational mystery, and will be happily marrying into a Muslim family. I figure both faith and atheism are being claimed by so many complete fuckwits these days that those of us who opt to quietly and peacefully worship our whatever / whomever should hold onto any progressive notion with both hands. So, though he’s generally loath to discuss it publicly, I say 'fuck it' and ask Sheff what’s up with his faith.
He laughs a little and says, “It’s actually a big influence in this record. I, being raised Catholic and maybe a sensitive kid, always had this thing about looking up at the sky and being like 'God is up there.' I didn’t have any … God might as well have been the whole sky. But there was a sense of a rich magical power, bigger than existence even. I went through a pretty manic Catholic period where I was worried all my friends were going to go to hell, and that was the beginning of my disenchantment with the Church. This was in high school, and I started seeing how sexist and homophobic and closed-minded it was … and I became really angry, in that way that you get really anti-religion, but I always had this thing of wanting something. What they call the 'god-shaped hole' — like I wanted something to put back in that spot. I would look around and be like, ‘Buddhism is so smart and amazing, but I’m not from Tibet. I feel like a tourist here.’ Eventually, I had this moment where I was like, ‘I want a deeper relationship with that God, that big, big thing that I know is there.’ And I feel like ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ is not cutting it. It’s such a non-commitment. I need more. I want something to sharpen this feeling against. I thought, why not just come back to Christianity? I don’t have to believe anything I don’t want to. I can have my complete own version of it that might be considered heretical or whatever. So, I went about piecing together my own radical, ecstatic, esoteric Christianity. It’s not something I necessarily take dogmatically, but it’s something I try to have be a practice, because it hones my empathy and it hones my creativity.
"The way I describe it is ... I know it’s imperfect, but it’s like putting a hat on an invisible man. The hat is not the point. But you can’t see the invisible man, so you put a hat on him and you’re like, ‘I know he’s there. I’ll never be able to see him. But the hat’s moving up and down.’ I feel so positively about anyone with a religious discipline: Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, even Satanists. If someone was like, 'Satanism is a really big deal to me, and I take it really seriously, and it has made my life feel magical and exciting,' I’d be like, 'Yes! We have something in common.'”
Away is a truly lovely and — without any emotional or musical shortcuts — soaring album. If it was a golden calf, I’d pet it mightily. And Will Sheff is treading treacherous ground in his willingness to be relentlessly honest in both speech and music. He’s relying on a perceived positive energy to carry himself forward, and I subscribe to his belief and knock on all the wood on his behalf. Who’s to say how accurate he or I were / are in any of our analysis? Like the neighborhood we were in, the storied past is a lie. The canon will try to tell you what came before is always better, whitewash Stonewall, and why should the West Village youth growing into their own lives on Macdougal give a damn about Dylan? What’s he done for them lately? Maybe Okkervil River are out of fashion and maybe they always were, and that’s why the band’s art worked. For a while, at least, which is more than most rockers get, and why not again? A person can’t possibly know anything for certain. All we can do is interrogate our present as best we can and, using whatever faith is at our disposal, try to be kind in the future.