The Nest of Hope and Despair: A Chat With Okkervil River
Okkervil River’s densely lyrical, humanist brand of saloon rock attacks with a punk backbone and crescendos into high voltage, often thanks to baroque arrangements. Slowly perfected over seven albums, the stuff is instantly recognizable today as indie rock thanks to big-picture turning points in pop (Win Butler on the Grammys, Justin Vernon backing Kanye West, etc.) and the qualifying trend pieces that love big-picture turning points in pop.
But singer Will Sheff’s outfit was doing just fine before cultural thinkers began asking context questions about the genre. “I am not a person who ever really wanted to feel like there was this massive burden to fill a stadium,” Sheff says. “Or get everybody en masse to give a shit.”
Speaking to Sheff is like conversing with an NPR liberal who lives in seclusion and talks about war crimes perpetrated on the American public: outspoken and polite, both as a consequence of being well-read. It’s why he’ll never be more famous. “There’s a common tone in indie—this ravishing beauty and positivity and it makes me an odd man out,” Sheff says. “I don’t view the world as positive. There is friendship and love and devotion and faith, but you look at what’s happening in the world and we’re headed for disaster. There’s fear and pain and cataclysm and mortality and betrayal. These are rules of life.
“I feel like I could make people love life but it’d be all lies. There should always be an element of hope and despair in order for work to feel honest.”
This code of conduct leads to killer meta-commentary: cathartic gems about surrendering to your public (“And I want to tell her, ‘your love isn't lost,’ say, ‘my heart is still crossed”); sprawling concept albums with central characters based on heroin-addicted folk singers (2005’s Black Sheep Boy); redemptive narratives about adult film actresses (“Savannah Smiles”); and aggressively specific break-up songs. On 2008's “Singer-Songwriter,” Sheff takes shots at an ex and her entitled culture: “You got outsider art by an artist you arguably kidnapped and hid on the wall,” “you got taste what a waste but that’s all that you have.”
Last month’s I Am Very Far sheds the concept tag slapped on the last three albums, choosing instead to overdub everything for delectably loud chunks that bleed into the sonic fuzz territory of current tour mates, Titus Andronicus. By Sheff’s own admission, the work is a “cloudy collection of ideas about certain sort of topics and themes…I felt like Mother Bird collecting every little bit of something blue to put in a nest.”
For Sheff, this media day begins with cleaning his New York City apartment, getting coffee, and then spending several hours on his cell having similar conversations. He apologizes for the tangents.
“People keep asking me if I consider myself pigeon-holed,” Sheff says in response to a question about recent work with baby-boomer legends Steve Earle and Roky Erickson. “Standing on the outside of things it makes sense for you assemble trends. But my experience of being alive is that I eat breakfast and run errands. I’m not a Bono guy.”
Sheff won’t hold back when naming names (“Mumford and Sons is trying to take what we’re doing and turn it into arena rock”); but he’s more interested in clarifying that he’s not bitter about the suddenly accessible, comfortable nature of indie rock (“It would be sad if you printed this and made it about me dogging those guys”). It just kinda sucks.
Okkervil River performs tonight at the 9:30 Club with Titus Andronicus and Future Islands. The show is sold out.