Okkervil River are brilliant. And so is their new album, The Stand-Ins (though it’s not as good as The Stage Names). I can only imagine their upcoming gig in Glasgow this Sunday is equally brilliant, so I do recommend you head along. In the meantime though, here’s a little e-mail interview I did with singer/songwriter/guitarist Will Sheff that you can enjoy.
EML: Are you looking forward to coming back to the UK to tour again?
Will: Absolutely. I personally really enjoy UK touring. I love British peoples’ sense of humor and gift for putting words together and I love the food, which is something you don’t hear people talk positively about often enough in my opinion. I’ve only been to Scotland a handful of times and not for long, which is something I really regret. On this tour we have a day off in Glasgow, which I’m really looking forward to, and I have a few friends there to show me around, which is one million times better than being totally on your own in a place with no idea where to go and what to do.
How have previous gigs in Glasgow been?
Our first show in Glasgow was fine but our most recent one, at Nice and Sleazy, was extremely fun. That’s a pretty great tiny club, and the audience really helped make the show enjoyable.
Is there a favourite place that you’ve played in or visited whilst on tour?
I think so far my favorite stop on this tour has been Bruges, Belgium, a really well-preserved medieval city. We visited the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is really two churches: a dark and cramped ground-floor gothic chapel full of terrifying wooden sculptures of Christ in agony and death, and the upper basilica, done in a more baroque style, that was one of the more unearthly places I’ve been in my life. The main attraction of the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a crusades-era relic, a vial supposedly containing the blood of Christ. The vial is an ornate golden capsule with a glass window in the middle of it, half of which is taken up by a vividly brown-red and slightly fibrous-looking substance. It rests on a table on a kind of altar, with a pale, small, papery-skinned, manikin-like priest guarding it. The tradition is to walk up onto the pulpit, lay your hands on the vial of blood, and say a prayer, but it’s kind of awkward with the priest staring at you. The upper basilica itself is warm and both gorgeous and grotesque, with so many odd curlicues and alcoves and gold-leaf flourishes for the eye to rest on that it was almost uncomfortable being there. I felt pressed in, claustrophobic, surrounded by an almost oppressive sense of slightly perverse beauty. I couldn’t tell if the place felt holy or not.
Also, my experience in Bruges is colored by the fact that the U.S. election was happening the day we were there.
Why did you move to Austin, Texas, to start the band?
By the time I’d graduated college I’d come to the decision that, instead of trying to get a “real job,” I was going to start Okkervil River. I was living in St. Paul, Minnesota at the time, where I’d gone to college, my friend Seth who used to play drums with me in high school was living in Appleton, Wisconsin, and our friend Zach was living in Austin. I figured Austin had the best music scene of those three places and it was easier for two of us to move somewhere the third was already living than it would be for us to all go somewhere new. So I convinced Seth to come down to Austin with me and I sold my electric guitar, bought a bass, and convinced Zach to learn how to play it. We all moved into the same house and we’d practice every night.
Your last album, The Stage Names, was the first album to really get people talking about you in the UK. How pleased were you with its reception?
It was great to finally feel recognized and appreciated by people. That said, I always try to keep myself at kind of a remove from praise or criticism. Fans come and go – you can see that if you look at any artists’ career. Sometimes it takes decades or more for a great album to be recognized, and sometimes mediocre albums get praised unjustly. I try to mainly keep myself satisfied and try to please the critic and audience who live inside my head.
The Stage Names was originally meant to be a double album, though eventually being trimmed down to one album with the leftover material the basis for The Stand-Ins. Are you worried that people might see this latest effort as the songs not good enough for The Stage Names?
Not really because that’s not how the album was conceived. We set certain songs that we felt extremely happy about – “Lost Coastlines,” “Pop Lie,” “Blue Tulip” – aside on purpose, knowing we’d try them later for The Stand Ins. It wasn’t a leftover mentality. I think I may like The Stand Ins more actually.
In The Stand-Ins, you continue a lot of themes that were touched upon in The Stage Names. How should the relationship between these two albums be viewed?
The way I usually explain it to people is that, in general, The Stage Names is more teenage and jubilant and focused on the stories of artists, while The Stand Ins is more adult and cynical and focused on the stories of fans. I think the cover art, too, says a lot about the relationship between the two albums.
Many of your lyrics deal with the empty, often hypocritical, realities behind pop culture. Have you always been cynics of this world of superficial celebrity?
It’s not so much that I’m ranting and raving against the hypocrisy of pop culture – I’m just trying to acknowledge and describe it. I’m not necessarily sure it’s a bad thing that pop music and Hollywood movies and fine works of classic literature basically lie to us a lot of the time – it’s just something I noticed. And I’m taken in by the lies too – I want to believe them just as much as everyone else. Half the time I forget I’m being lied to, and I kind of like it that way.
Is the title of ‘pop star’ a suitable aspiration for people, and is there a place for shows such as American Idol?
I mean, sure. “American Idol” has turned out to be a lot less malignant of a presence than people thought it was going to be. In fact, most of the winners of that show are better singers than the more manufactured Britney Spears-type singers who are their competitors. I think a lot of people need or want a pop star or rock star figure. Also, I personally don’t spend a lot of energy thinking about what’s “suitable” or not. It’s not my job to say how the world should be.
On The Stand-Ins’ closer, you sing about Bruce Wayne Campbell, aka Jobriath, a man who died of AIDs after his singing career floundered, and on The Stage Names you explore John Berryman and his suicide. Is this a fascination with the tragic lives of the renowned and revered?
I think it’s just a matter of walking out to the very most extreme edge of what can happen to artists sometimes, where they can end up. And even if you leave aside Berryman’s suicide and Shannon Wilsey’s suicide and Bruce Wayne Campbell’s death you still see a tremendous amount of sadness and pain in their lives. They’re very unhappy figures, in a sense the worst-case scenario your parents have in mind when you tell them you’re going to go off and be an artist.
As part of the album’s promotion, you’ve got several of your favourite singer/songwriters to cover your songs. What’s the value in imitating someone else’s creative work?
In traditional folk music, this sense of a “cover” or an “imitation” wasn’t as keen since everyone was stealing everybody elses’ songs and styles. And when they stole them, they’d change them, intentionally or unintentionally, and make it their own. I think these days there’s a little too much emphasis on authorship, on someone’s written work being completely their own, produced in a vacuum, protected by copyright. I don’t think creativity works that way.
Lou Reed requested your performance at a gig in New York. How does it feel to know such legends in music appreciate your work?
It’s a tremendous affirmation, especially since we’ve spent so much time in the past working so hard with so little a sense of encouragement coming from outside. It was so validating having someone like Lou Reed, who has been a major, central influence on my writing, give us such a vote of confidence.
You’re encouraging fans to go green on this tour, and keeping everything carbon neutral. Is the environment an important issue for the band?
I think it’s the most important issue there is. Everything else hinges on it. If the world is a miserable place to live in, all of the other problems start to seem a whole lot smaller.
Who would you rather see win the U.S. Election on 4th Nov (interview questions were sent before 4th Nov)?
The guy who already won.