I spoke with Will Sheff of Okkervil River on a scorching hot day across the board in the United States. The air conditioning in the building I was calling from was broken, and the vents seemed to be blowing hot air directly at my face. I was nervous for the interview, as I have been a fan of the band’s work for quite some time now, but was still a tad bit preoccupied with the increasing discomfort of my own situation. When I mentioned my surroundings to Will, he was all too understanding. He admitted that he understood the midwest heat, and that he had been in Kansas City shooting his most recent video for his song “The Industry” off his upcoming album Away. I was flummoxed by the idea that a man could wear a full-blown, astronaut suit of that caliber under the heat of the sun like that. (If you’re wondering what kind of astronaut suit I am referring to, check out the video below. He’s straight up out of Martian.)
Even if Okkervil River’s music wasn’t something of note, this man would be my hero for enduring that kind of heat.
But the fact of the matter is that Away is mind-blowing. It’s a departure from some of his previous work–understandable, as the lineup of the band has changed in recent years–and influenced by some very dark and heavy times for him, namely a period of time when he was contemplating existential thoughts while sitting in hospice with his dying grandfather. The most interesting aspect of the forthcoming album, however, may just be the fact that Will didn’t create it in order to release it. He created it for the sake of creating art, and came back around to it after months of pondering its place in his life and in his evolution as an artist. That is, perhaps, why we are so keen on the work. It’s raw and real in a way that most music has lost touch with.
Our interview with Will gained us some serious insight into the way that his mind works, the interesting turn Okkervil River has taken with the album, and exponentially increased our appreciation for quirks in music. Read more below.
Was there a moment in your life when you realized music was what you wanted to pursue?
Nope. I always grew up doing creative type stuff like drawing, writing, making little movies, making sculptures, singing songs. Part of that was that I have really really terrible eyesight and I was practically blind but I didn’t realize it. I was in a weird mist. I also got sick a lot. A lot of the time I was isolated from other people and I was in the hospital. That made me feel like I wasn’t quite able to interact with the rest of the community in the way that other kids could and it left me more to my own devices.
I didn’t have an a-ha moment with music because in elementary school I wanted to be an actor, then I wanted to do movie special effects. In high school, I wanted to be a writer or a filmmaker. I basically ended up going into music because I realized it was cheap. Making films is really expensive, but with music all you need is your voice, an accompanying instrument, and something to record yourself with. I started making music because I thought, “Well, I can do this now. I don’t need a ton of money from people like I would to start making movies.” I had just gotten out of a creative writing program in college that was very academic and stiff and there were a lot of politics and it was a very 1997 college vibe. I just thought, “This is miserable. If being a writer is like this, then I am not OK with that.” And they all had snobby attitudes about music so that kind of made me want to do music more. I just wanted to do something that they would have no respect for.
You had a pretty quick turnaround, with the album recorded in just three days. Do you prefer recording quickly as such now that you have that experience?
I recorded most of it in three days with some overdubs and mixing and stuff, which probably added another three days or so. The funny part is the whole process was spread out over about two years. I originally started out not even knowing if this was going to be a record, it was just a chance to express some feelings I had been having. I used to make records the way that everyone used to make them until budgets started drying up and Pro Tools and Logic became a lot more pervasive. I went into a studio, and I’d make the record while I was in the studio for as long as I could afford at the studio. Then I got into the style of recording which I feel a lot of people are into right now, which is that people have Logic or Pro Tools and you can spend as much time as you want polishing and making this perfect thing. Your performance in the moment is a lot less important when you’re recording that way. You can record a guitar solo twenty times and take the best parts of each performance and put them together to make it sound like you played a really great guitar solo, when in fact you didn’t. You weren’t really bringing your all and being present in your guitar part, sort of distractedly working away. I feel like that way of working isn’t satisfying on a deep level.
There’s something about music–when you hear a Motown song–and it fills you with warm, fuzzy happiness. I was watching the Democratic National Convention last night and they were playing Motown music between each speaker. And I just thought about how funny it is that these songs are still so appealing in a cross-generational way. I think the reason that Motown sounds like that is they had some really great players who really loved music and really knew their instruments. They really knew each other and really knew their skills, and they were recording with gear made by people who really loved and knew gear. There were people who wanted to make the absolute best microphone and wanted to tune everything perfectly. It was to the point where even a place like Motown, which wasn’t a big budget studio, could get some really, really great stuff. They could put people in a room and record some really great stuff that sounded human and alive.
It took me a while to realize how much of that quality was missing. I started to realize that the idea of perfection in a modern sense–free of errors, and these crazy standards–just leaks out of your speakers and takes over. That persuasive, punchy, loud digital perfection that you hear on things isn’t really rewarded in the long term, it’s rewarded in the short term. When something is really, really good you don’t have to turn it up. Even the problems with it are charming instead of problematic.
So I started to think that it’s a waste of time to perfect things. The faster I can work, the better. If I have really great musicians working with me and I have songs that I really believe in, and I am putting my energy toward stuff that matters, then it speaks to people. And I don’t really care if it’s not up to the same standard of really high compression levels or really clear frequency separation that other stuff is. All I really want is something that’s really, really alive and vibrant. Hopefully it’s sort of nourishing to listen to.
I totally understand. I’m a big believer in vinyl because it wears and feels differently over time.
It’s funny because I specifically conceptualized this whole thing for vinyl. I didn’t think of modern concepts like having a single or a certain song length. When I pictured the end product, I would just picture a big LP. I even got into weird little fights with my manager because I had so many songs and I really wanted to make the vinyl sound good. But you can only fit so much music on one LP. I wanted to make a shorter record so it would fit better on one LP. He didn’t want me to make decisions on my whole album just for the sake of an outdated format. In the end, it ended up being what it was supposed to be.
As you said, you didn’t intend to make an album with this music. What made you change your mind?
I just kind of made it and put it on the shelf. I thought, “I’ll see about that.” If you put something on the shelf in the corner of the room and you see it and you’re like, “Oh, that’s nice.” And then you go again and you think, “That’s kind of good.” Eventually I started to realize that this little project that I didn’t have a place for was an Okkervil River record. It was the future of my life. There was no part of myself that didn’t believe in it. I was fully, 100% present in what it was and what it meant and there was no calculation about it either. It was the most honest version of what I want out of music and out of my life. If that’s not a good enough criteria, then maybe I shouldn’t be releasing music. It became very very clear to me that this was the most important thing that I have.
After everything that birthed this album, do you have advice for people who may feel like their world is falling apart?
It wouldn’t necessarily be creative advice. If you feel like your world is falling apart, take a second to just try to not think too much about that narrative. Move yourself to the present moment. Realize and try to conceptualize how many other people might be feeling the same way.
I would also say that when something is falling apart, it’s a really great opportunity for the person who it’s falling apart on. Maybe it should fall apart. Maybe this is a thing that wasn’t meant to last. If it’s falling apart, you can’t stop it anyway so there’s a lot of opportunity to start all over that you might not see initially.
I was in a state of being frightened and feeling a certain level of apprehension or pain. I felt free then. I took the opportunity – in hindsight – to just be honest and bring a level of honesty to my work that I think is gracing if you listen to it. I am grateful for that. There’s a lot of time that I think people spend in fear of pain or of loss. People run and run and run and don’t always recognize that it’s an opportunity to grow.
If you were a pizza, what kind of pizza would you be and why?
I’d be some funky vegetarian pizza. Not the fancy vegetarian pizzas in New York. The weird, like when you go to Des Moines, vegetarian pizza when there’s something on there that you didn’t expect like almonds or something. And you’re like, “Ok. Well, it’s sort of good. Don’t think I’d order it again but it’s not as bad as I thought.” That’s the kind of pizza I would be.
Your tour schedule for this fall. Holy shit. What are you most looking forward to?
Playing. My band that I play with is the same people that played on the record and they’re all brilliant. I love playing with them. Getting on stage, they’re just plucking these melodies out of the air and they’re just beautiful. They play the song differently every night and I really want to get a chance to shuffle up the sets and change things around. I want to bring a realness every single night to the set. I can’t wait to do that. I feel re-invigorated. For a while, I was struggling with playing live. I still enjoyed it, but I was having a hard time and I knew I had to break through to something else but I didn’t know what it was. Now I feel like I get it and there’s a new plan and a new way to how I perform. I’m looking forward to each and every single show. It’s going to be such a delight.
“Away” is out September 9th via ATO Records.