Interview: Okkervil River’s Will Sheff

Amanda Petrusich

By Amanda Petrusich

on 05.12.11 in Interviews

There’s no better anchor for Okkervil River’s brawny, brainy art-rock than the band’s hyper-articulate frontman, Will Sheff: His vocals rush and recede, swell and shrink, changing every few bars to better suit the stories he tells.

eMusic’s Amanda Petrusich spoke with Sheff — fresh off a week of doctor-ordered voice-rest — about ditching the concept album, living in New York, keeping quiet and pursuing “a bigness that’s not polite.”

I’m glad to hear that you’re able to talk again. How was it, functioning without your voice?

I’m talking, but I’m still in the danger zone. This happens to me again and again and again, and I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it. I feel like people are just looking at me incredulously, like “What’s up, dude? How come you’re not using your fucking voice?” [Laughs] I sing in a very strenuous way. And I don’t live in the same town as the rest of the band — the drummer lives in L.A. and the rest of the band is in Austin and I live in New York. So it was hard to wrangle people’s schedules. Around South by Southwest, we wound up in this position where we had to do 10- or 12-hour rehearsal days, four days in a row. And when you’re singing for 10 or 12 hours a day, four days in a row, you lose your voice — it’s that simple. So I was thrust into the South By experience — which I’m sure you’ve been through many times yourself — where people are constantly talking to you and you’re constantly doing shows and it’s really hard to insulate yourself. And then I went to do a press tour in Europe where I was talking for eight hours a day again. It never really let up. So I went to this doctor, and because I’m in New York, he was a voice doctor to the stars! It’s hilarious; he’s got these framed pictures of Michael Bolton and Madonna and David Hasselhoff on the wall…

You gotta get your picture up there, Will.

I do! I have my picture on the wall! He knows just how to deal with artists — ask them for a signed picture even if he’s never heard of them. [Laughs]

Well, you’re in fine company.

Yeah. Justin Bieber and me — up on the wall. He said I had pre-nodules in my throat. From what I understand, that’s a growth, like a vocal chord blister. And when they get out of hand, they have to be surgically removed and that can change your voice. It’s very scary.

I would think that as a singer — and also as a writer, in a strange way — that would be a really tough thing to face: not being able to communicate your thoughts.

And with somebody like me, I just love the sound of my own voice. [Laughs] It’s very hard for me to relate to the world if I can’t grapple with it using language. And I mean that as a day to day thing; I’m the kind of person who can’t get the simplest task done if he’s not talking to himself while he does it. It’s like, “Okay, I’m putting the mayonnaise on the bread now, I’m cutting the sandwich in half.” If I don’t do that, I’ll make the sandwich wrong. So it’s really, really hard for me to have all that stuff taken away. I get really fidgety and start to feel lost.

I do the constant narration thing, too — like I’ll mentally add “she said” to conversations I’m having.

How about if you’re going through a horrible breakup, and you start seeing the words typed up in a script. “This is such a great breakup scene! This is the quintessential breakup moment!”

It’s a little fucked up, but here we are. What advice did you get for taking care of your voice?

Not talking is the big, No. 1 thing to do. There are also warm-downs that bring the chords back together. Hydration is incredibly important. Sleep is incredibly important. A lot of singers, including such luminaries as Ashlee Simpson and myself, have issues with acid reflux, so there’s some diet stuff. There was a period where I was on absolute vocal rest — no talk — and this diet that was no alcohol, no smoking, no caffeine, no fried food, no tomatoes or pasta or anything tomato-based, no vinegar, no lemon juice. Anything that was enjoyable in life, I was expressly forbidden. I’ve been through a lot of weird little periods like this, where I wasn’t allowed to talk. So I thought “I’ll write it on a pad.” So you go out to buy something at the store, and you hand the pad to the guy, and he looks at you like you’re an idiot. And then your friend comes up to talk to you, and you hand them the pad, and they look at you pityingly. You just end up hiding in your apartment. I would hide in my apartment and I couldn’t drink; I couldn’t do anything. I got so hard up for cheap thrills that I was like “I guess I’ll try meditating.” It was the last thing I could do that sort of felt like drinking. [Laughs] I actually liked it. Sometimes I think I should do it again, because I enjoyed it, but I’m such a toxic person! Detoxing is so unlike me.

How long have you been living in New York?

I’ve been here for about three years. I moved here to write The Stage Names, and I realized that I liked it. I like being near my family. I’m a northeasterner originally; I’m from a really small town in New Hampshire. This is something that comes as a surprise to people who don’t know the band too well. Because we started in Texas, gosh, I can’t tell you how many times we were called “alt-country” or I was referred to as a Texan. I’m not southern. I’m very, very un-southern. I think it was just time for me to relocate to a completely different — or, rather a completely familiar — place, instead of being the one uptight guy in the incredibly laid-back town of Austin, Texas.

I feel the same way when I’m in the south sometimes — I don’t want to be that gross, ugly New Yorker, but I’ll be in a grocery store behind someone who’s walking really slowly, and suddenly, I get filled with rage.

Then there are the driving habits you pick up. It’s a really common east Austin thing to just stop your car in the middle of the road and start talking to someone. People do that in New York, and you drive around them, you don’t even think about it. But you do that to someone in Austin, and they get so angry at you. I think I might have said this in a Tweet — so I’m now rehashing a piece of banter — but every time I’m back in New York from a trip, I have to remember that I can’t turn right on red. And when I’m in any other part of the country, I have to remember that I can’t drive like an asshole.

I Am Very Far is your first record in a while without a specific narrative premise. How was it, working without a predetermined theme?

There are unifying thematic elements to this record, too. But I didn’t want to make it so clear from the early outset that it would become this defining press narrative. For example, The Stand-Ins and The Stage Names — those records were me trying to articulate my incredibly cloudy thoughts about what I want out of art, and what I get frustrated and depressed by, and all these ridiculous things I expect art to do. But it was very vague and cloudy; I couldn’t really put it into words. It was kind of a bummer and a drag to see people going, ‘This is Will’s meditation on the perils of fame.’ The Stage Names was not a meditation on the perils of fame. I’m not famous and I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t really give a shit about the perils of fame! It was this broader thing. And [this time] I didn’t want to present this weird, broad, nebulous thing — that I am pathetically unable to even put into words — and then have it chopped down to a soundbite that made me feel squeamish. But it was a deeper thing than that, too — I didn’t even want to be able to soundbite it myself. So as I was writing the record, I didn’t allow myself to really think about what it was about. I knew what it was about, on a very deep level, but I didn’t talk about it with myself. My subconscious was aware of what’s happening — ‘We’re taking care of it, don’t worry, it’ll be fine’ — and I didn’t really articulate what it was. So in a lot of ways, it wasn’t that different than writing previous records. It’s just that I felt more liberated. I felt like everything was in the pot — any kind of potential color that I might have used. Nothing was off limits. It all worked together because I felt very centered in where it was coming from.

It’s interesting to hear you say that, because I think people tend to think of you as a really cerebral songwriter, but this record, in particular, is very visceral.

I really wanted to shake off that sense — because I don’t really pride intellectualism in songwriting. I don’t really care for cerebral writers. It’s not anything I’ve ever wanted to do — to prove to the world that I’m smart and I can have a cute pun in my songs. There are points in late-period Elvis Costello where he bums me out because it’s like, “Great, dude; we get it, you’re smart, you can put words together.” I don’t feel like that’s what a song should do — I feel like a song should fuck with your world. Or it should feel like it comes from another world. There should be something really transporting and mysterious about it. That’s how I feel about my favorite songs and paintings and films, and that’s really what I aspire to. As much as I do process the world through my brain, I don’t feel the world through my brain — I experience it as an animal. It’s very basic and raw and unprocessed, and I wanted the album to feel like that.

You sing a lot about rock ‘n’ roll mythology. When you were a kid, what was your relationship to rock music?

I had a really rural existence. Rural New Hampshire is not a place people think about, unless it’s the primaries. TV seemed like a whole different universe; like it had nothing to do with the world that I lived in, and it might as well have been news from a different planet. When I went to college in St. Paul, I was so amazed that sometimes St. Paul would be in the news! I was completely unfamiliar with the idea that the place where you were living could ever be in the news. So music did feel like this alien universe, like it was beamed down from above. But I think that’s how media feels to you when you’re a kid. Probably before that, it was the stories by the campfire that felt like they had everything to do with the secrets of the world and who you were and who you were going to end up being. Saturday cartoons and pop songs from the radio — there are certain stupid pop songs I remember hearing on the radio when I was a kid, and they feel like ancient mythology to me.

As an adult, I miss that — that sense of music and art feeling mythic.

I absolutely miss that, and I really wanted to return to that attitude on this record. Not in terms of pop cultural songs or anything like that at all, but [going back to] when things felt real — like, holy shit, this experience that I’m feeling, it’s overwhelming me.

I know you can’t talk for much longer because of your voice, but in terms of the instrumentation here, a lot of things are doubled. Were you looking for a specific kind of interplay? Or a specific kind of assault?

I think there’s an overwhelming, over-the-top, bombastic and unafraid to be bombastic thing that you can only get from five people whose job is to sit there and play the exact same thing next to each other, in unison. With no clever interweaving parts, nothing fancy — just idiotically simple giganticness. There’s something grand and scary about that. It’s like being in a mob of people screaming and waving torches. You’re terrified by it and thrilled by it. It’s a very primal feeling and I wanted to pull a tiny bit of that flavor out and put it on the record — the idea of a surge, a scary surge. A bigness that’s not polite.