Delivering one of best live shows of 2008, Okkervil River return to New Zealand for two encore dates in May. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM interviews the band’s frontman Will Sheff.

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LAST YEAR’s Okkervil River show in Wellington was quite remarkable. The almost unanimous audience feeling was that they’d witnessed something quite special. But it was a too-small audience who witnessed one of rock n roll’s best lyricists (and phrasers) unleash the melodrama and tension of his lyrics with the backing of a killer live band. The decade-old Austin-based band gained some critical acclaim following 2005’s brilliant Black Sheep Boy, while 2007’s The Stage Names cemented Okkervil River as one of indie music’s most talented outfits. (The side project Shearwater isn’t too bad either). But it’s their live shows which have garnered fame for the band all around the world, and luckily they’ve decided to do an encore couple of performances for those who missed them to support the release of last year’s excellent album The Stand-Ins.

Will Sheff’s last Wellington experience was however, slightly mixed. While there was no doubting they enjoyed their performance (it was guitarist Brian Cassidy’s last show in the band as a permanent member), Sheff almost got his head kicked in by some of Wellington’s ruffians following the show while going to the aid of a woman being dragged away. It was lucky he wasn’t put off coming back. “I think that kind of thing can happen anywhere. I have a negative memory of Wellington from that experience a little bit, but it’s outweighed by positive memories I have from being there.”

Critics and fans are quick to read autobiography into Okkervil River’s work, and Sheff’s lyrics and personas have been read in these frameworks – a charge the band have frequently tried to deny. Sheff is well-known fan of American confessional poet John Berryman (the last track of The Stage Names was a tribute to him). Berryman’s poetry has a similar playing around with personas and characters – however, Berryman’s poetry acknowledges the inability of these personas and characters to escape Berryman’s own subjective frameworks. In other words, autobiography is inevitable. I ask if this is hard to reconcile for Sheff. “John Berryman, he was so strenuous about denying that Henry [one of Berryman’s ‘key’ characters] was him. But it seems clear that Henry was, in most significant ways, him. I don’t know. To me, I think that a persona is something enjoyable to play with, and not something you should labour over too much. Around the Stage Names, I started thinking about issues of persona and how it’s entertaining to construct a persona.” Sheff adds that “in The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, it was helpful for those records and it was fun for those records to bring in my own persona. Parts of me have to exist in every record, and probably won’t exist as much in the next record.”

Artist whose lyrics come in for a lot of attention, are often read in one-dimensional terms by many critics and fans. People tend to think that they know the artist, and will read the work in a fixed kind of way. (Hence, someone like Dylan’s constant chameleon shifts.) In Sheff’s case, this ignores the differences lyrically between the albums – an album like Black Sheep Boy is full of melodrama and unusual characters, while Stage Names and The Stand-Ins has more of a gritty realism. “Sometimes you hear people say things about you as if they know you really well. Especially dedicated fans, you’ll come across something they’ve said about you that’s written in the tone you might talk about an old friend you know real well. You hear that and you think ‘I hope I’m not like that. That doesn’t sound like me. It’s not how I think about myself, and I don’t think my friends will think about me in that way.’ I think that’s frustrating to me as it would be frustrating to anyone. But in the end, talking about something like that seems kinda ungrateful. I’m happy to have a job in something I like. I don’t want to endlessly obsess about how people get it wrong in a press piece or the internet.”

Sheff’s lyrics manage to fit in considerable shades of grey into them, an admirable task given the seeming constraints of a pop song. “When you look at poetry, it’s much shorter and lighter on lyric. There are great many great poems that have far fewer words than ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’. I don’t think that it’s hard to do. I think it happens in pop songs that aren’t necessarily having a high level of artistic ambition. It still happens. Hank Williams – these timeless songs which will be around as long as you have people – shades of grey.” Sheff’s a stated fan of Henry Miller too, partly for his avoidance of dichotomies in his writing. “One of the things I always enjoyed about Henry Miller was that there was a sense of good and bad and disgusting and sublime and pain and joy – and all these things were existing at the exact same time in the exact same space. To me, that rings true about powerful moments in our lives.”

The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins were conceived around the same time – in fact The Stage Names was rumoured to have been planned as a double album. However, Sheff says most of The Stand-Ins were written subsequently to The Stage Names. “I think that The Stage Names was helpful to have first because it laid the groundwork for The Stand-Ins. In many ways it was more fun to make The Stand-Ins because we’d done the work of figuring out certain things about the project on The Stage Names. Stage Names, in my experience of making the record, was very hard to make. The Stand-Ins, in my experience, was very easy to make. I love both of those records equally, and it’s hard to say when an album is hard to make or easy to make, but it was a very different process both times.”

Both albums have similar thematic concerns. The lyrics have often been read as being pessimistic and disillusioned with the role of music, fame, and the trappings of popular culture and fandom. “I don’t think of that stuff as disillusionment. So many people when they talked about The Stand-Ins and The Stage Names, they talked about it being bleak and bitter and disillusioned. The funny thing for me is that weirdly enough, my experiences of those songs isn’t that way. I think of them as trying to be realistic. A sort of, reminding myself how what I’m doing is silly in a great many ways.” He elaborates by discussing the role of the music industry and canonisation. “There’s a whole industry especially for older listeners. When rock n roll started out, it was just business. It was just kids trying to cash in on each other’s success and trying to jump on a bandwagon and trying to make money and sleep with girls and go out on the road and have fun. That’s all it was. Or pop music was older men writing songs for young girls to sing – really weird, sleazy stuff. It was meant to be disposable crap, it wasn’t supposed to be art. It was only over time, when the Beatles came around that people started thinking [it was art]. Even now, pop music is still exactly the same. It’s still intended to be disposal crap made by sleazy old men. Because of things like Mojo and Uncut and stuff like that, we so lionise these old artefacts of the 60s and 70s and make these things special and sublime. I buy into that 100%, I love that stuff. I canonised it personally in my life. And every now and then you slap yourself and throw a bunch of cold water into your face and remember that you’re essentially some kind of collector. You might as well be collecting My Little Ponies or something like that. It’s personally meaningful for me, but to me that’s just a reality thing, it’s not a disillusionment.”

And as a song like ‘Plus Ones’ on The Stage Names shows, pop culture and fandom can be a creative thing – the lyrics are a collection of other songs. “It was this constantly veering back and forth between being really excited about art, almost manically excited about art, and then remembering that it’s all bullshit. That for me was sort of a big part of The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins.”

However it’s easy (as I have done) to completely focus on Sheff’s articulate and witty lyrics. The band writes great pop songs. Motown bass lines, explosive guitar-work, catchy-as-hell melodies, great vocal gymnastics, and top-notch song-writing are also an integral part of Okkervil River. And it’s a very underrated element too. “I always felt a little short-changed by bands that were very lyrically focused where I got a sense they didn’t care about the music. Even Bob Dylan, I felt that way about sometimes. He wasn’t really trying very hard in the music department, he had other people working on the music element for him. He kinda felt like the lyrics justified the music a lot of the time. I don’t feel that way about Dylan most of the time, but I know people who hate Bob Dylan for that reason. For me, I always felt like the music has to at least try to rise to the same ambition of the lyrics. Ultimately I’d like to believe that if you only spoke Swedish you’d still enjoy the songs. If that’s not true, then I’m probably doing something wrong. I enjoy a song like ‘Please, Please, Please’ by James Brown where ‘please’ and ‘please don’t go’ is basically all he’s saying in the song for the entire three minutes. I enjoy that more than ‘Mr Mudd and Mr Gold’ by Townes Van Zandt.”

You get the sense talking to Sheff that he doesn’t take his success and critical acclaim at all very lightly – even if he admits that it’s all a joke and bullshit. The music world for him is a world described by Henry Miller, where things are serious, funny, ridiculous, sublime all at the same time. The band’s live shows are incredible, and witnessing the band rip out their songs, you’ll never accuse them of not trying or playing half-heartedly. Sheff says “playing in a travelling band, it’s a very old job. It’s something that’s been around for as long as human civilisation has been around. It’s a noble role, and I take it really seriously. When you follow art back to the beginning of anything, this is depending on how you define it, but you trace theatre back or writing back, and you always get to the point where it’s just entertainment. So like Greek theatre and you have stuff like Aristophanes which the gross-out comedy of its day interspersed with the Oedipus plays and stuff like that. I think being an entertainer is such a noble tradition and I try to aspire to it.” He doesn’t take the band’s critical and commercial success lightly either. “I feel immensely lucky that I get to do what I love for a living. All my life, this is all I ever wanted to do is to do creative projects like this and the fact I get to do that feels immensely lucky to me.”