Interview: Okkervil River

Hilary Hughes

By Hilary Hughes

on 09.03.13 in Interviews

Memories of adolescence tend to be peppered with moments of mortification: Puberty, first kisses, monumental heartbreaks, awkward attempts at experimentation, initial encounters with real world vices and the last dwindling bits of innocence between the final days of grade school and the moment we move into our freshman dorms. Revisiting these milestones can be a painful endeavor, but for Will Sheff of Okkervil River, it proved inspiring.

Their first record since 2011′s I Am Very Far, The Silver Gymnasium takes all of Okkervil River’s familiar elements — unapologetically approachable rock, lyrics that touch on universal themes in plain language — and puts them in service of Sheff’s most autobiographical effort to date. The Silver Gymnasium draws directly on Sheff’s memories of growing up in Meriden, New Hampshire.

Hilary Hughes talked with Sheff about the stories behind the album’s creation.

I’m a New Englander myself, so when I found out that you had such a strong tie to New Hampshire and that The Silver Gymnasium draws from your experiences growing up there, I was stoked! I usually associate you with Austin.

It’s kind of funny — people see the word “Texas” and they don’t see anything else after that. I’ve seen all manifestations of us being a country band and Texas boys and all that stuff, which is totally hilarious, because I’m from New Hampshire, and I have no special feeling for Texas, other than the fact that I have lived here for awhile. I was living in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the other members of the band were living in Appleton, Wisconsin. We decided Austin would be the easiest place for us to try and do something, but I never realized it would basically categorize us as a country band for 15 years. People will not stop thinking of me as Southern. But the truth is I’m from New Hampshire. [Sheff currently lives in Brooklyn. — Ed.]

I don’t hear a shred of a New England accent on you, though.

There are certain times I have it — if I’m around people from New Hampshire it comes out more. I think that accents are more of a personality type, and some people are more susceptible to accents and some less so. I’ve known people who’ve gone away to another state for a year and they come back and suddenly they have the accent. It’s not a poser thing; it’s like your brain absorbs the accent. My brother has a stronger New England accent than I do, and genetically, we’re pretty darn close, so I just think it’s some kind of combination of how long you’ve lived in a place and the way that your brain soaks up language.

I’m in a really good mood when my accent comes out, but when I’m really inebriated, I suddenly have a Texas accent.

Can you hear any sort of regional discrepancy — accent, colloquialisms or otherwise — on The Silver Gymnasium? Would you say this record sounds like it comes from New Hampshire?

With Okkervil River, I’ve been writing about New Hampshire from the very first record. I was writing about New Hampshire while I was living there, because I was always aware that it was an interesting and special place and that my town was very unique. There aren’t a tremendous amount of regional expressions on the record. I think here and there, there may be a couple. There are definitely a lot of references to very specific places in my town. A lot of this stuff was done out of my belief that when you’re being specific, you’re being universal, and if you’re being really honest about your feelings, even if those feelings are very, very specific to you, other people are going to relate to them because people are very similar. That’s really the only rule that I can just go by and believe, is that it’s okay to get really specific on a record, because the specifics will translate to more people.

What are some of these places that we’re talking about? Which ones conjure up the most visceral experience for you, where you have your strongest connection to a sense of place?

In “Black Nemo,” it starts out when I’m talking about Indian summers in Meriden, and in the third verse, I’m saying “through Bonner Road basements.” I’m thinking about specific friends and their houses that I’d go to. “Black Nemo” is very much a New Hampshire travelogue song for me.

As you share some very specific memories and places on The Silver Gymnasium, would you say you’ve delved into a deeper place, personally, with this record than with previous Okkervil River material? What are some risks you took here that haven’t necessarily encountered before?

That’s a funny thing about me: I very often will write a song that isn’t personal at all and it’ll get taken very personally. I think that’s partially because there’s something about my voice and the way I sing. There’s a feeling that gets mistaken for a deep personal investment in the material. People have a tendency to overanalyze things, like looking for clues about my personal feelings. There’s a kind of a tendency for people to really read into really, squirmy personal stuff, and that makes me kind of uncomfortable, which is a funny position to be in. Sometimes I think my impulses as an artist are at odds with my preferences as a human being. I don’t necessarily try to make a very big deal out of myself; I don’t want people to pay much attention to me in a personal framework. I enjoy the general vibe of my friends and being in a group and not necessarily making the focus come back to me. It makes me feel anxious and embarrassed and awkward. In some way, I guess because I feel a responsibility to bring something that’s real, and emotional, and direct, and genuine into a song, I very often go for something that’s close — but I don’t necessarily love the consequences of my tendency to do that. I didn’t write this record in an attempt to get people to focus on my personal life; I wrote the record because I’ve been chasing down something that I was passionate about, and I felt a responsibility to have some measure of passion in my work and what I was writing about. Right now, in rock ‘n’ roll songwriting, I hear an apathetic disconnection from emotion. It feels very disassociated from emotion and feeling, yet you hear a lot of people using a lot of emotionally charged language. They’re kind of using it in place of having to think about things in novel ways, and for that reason, I felt like it was important to write something that was direct and honest and straightforward and had a little something on the line. I think that was why I went a very personal route.

The Silver Gymnasium is rooted in a certain time period for you. Does its time capsule-like quality make it a timeless or nostalgic record?

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a timeless-sounding record. I think that when a record becomes absorbed into our consciousness enough, it starts to sound timeless to us, because we listen to it so many different times and in so many different situations. I think that every record is dated, and I like that. I think that’s something to be embraced.