When InDigest asked me to interview an artist who worked in a different genre, I thought immediately of Will Sheff, the lead singer and songwriter for Okkervil River. I have long admired his work and since we orbit the same ten blocks in Brooklyn, we’ve met a handful of times in a handful of bars. This interview, as with most of my conversations, spirals into more of an ethereal dialogue about the struggles of the artist’s life and how one attempts to remain anchored in a world of constant over-stimulation. It’s not a traditional interview, but I gave up on “traditional” a long time ago. Luckily, I picked the perfect subject with which to ramble, like picking the right album for a road trip, or the right book of poems for that long afternoon. -Ada Limón
Ada Limón: Hi Will, thanks for joining me in this little box.
Will Sheff: Oh no problem. Hold on, trying to make the box bigger…
This kind of chat style is weird because you can’t see what you wrote two sentences ago. But it’s a little better now.
AL: Agreed. I find it a little odd. But I like how fast it goes. Though I make a lot of mistakes when I type too fast.
WS: Yeah, I’m gonna try to watch my typos lest I come across as an internet mouth-breather.
AL: You’ll be just fine. Dear David and Dustin will edit us.
Everyone needs an editor.
I do, anyway. For real.
So, I have to ask how the Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival was? I so wanted to go.
WS: It was fun. More recently we’ve played at these festivals that aren’t strictly indie rock: folk and blues and bluegrass festivals that, over time, have kind of broadened their lineups to include younger bands but still have a lot of veterans headlining. I always like playing those festivals because I kind of got sick of indie rock and watching the same bands all the time. It’s great to know you can cross the festival and go see a band from Mali or a real old-timer like Doc Watson or a new-wave songwriter like Nick Lowe. As opposed to the same indie band that’s playing the same 10 festivals in one summer. (Which would be us.)
AL: Yes, when I saw you were playing there I thought, “That’s perfect, they’re not hardly strictly any genre.” With poetry, everyone is always trying to find out “what kind of poet you are.” I like to say, “the nice kind.”
Or “the thirsty kind.”
WS: I don’t like the combination of those two words, “Hardly Strictly.” It’s like a San Francisco-ite’s idea of how their favorite idealized bluegrass hick would talk.
WS: But the festival’s great. I would play every year probably. They throw a free dinner for their musicians every night and I’m a cheap date.
AL: I like any concert that has a “Banjo stage.” You know, Okkervil River has some of my favorite album title’s of any band. Do you know what the next one’s called? No pressure. It doesn’t HAVE to be one of my favorites. I’m just saying.
WS: I have some thoughts, but can’t reveal anything yet. I joked with a friend that it’s gonna be called “You Guys Are Really Gonna Hate This: Volume I.”
AL: Ah, I see. Working on alienating the audience? An all-metal tribute? How’s the band looking these days? How is the road treating you? You have some time off now, right?
That was a lot of questions.
All at once.
WS: Yeah, I think H.S. Bluegrass was our last for the year. So now I get to actually spend more than 6 days in one place in a stretch. I’ve been writing a lot and just kind of getting my life back in order, doing the laundry and chores around the house, that kind of thing. The writing aspect was starting to drive me nuts because touring, ironically, takes your guitar out of your hands and hides it in the cargo hold of a plane or the back of a trailer or the berths of a bus. You only get to touch it during shows, and then it gets taken away again. So it’s hard to write, other than revising lyrics or occasionally making up a melody and trying to remember it.
AL: Do you always have to have your guitar to write a song? And are you doing any other kinds of writing these days? I always sort of expect you to write a novel. I don’t know why.
WS: I don’t always have to have it. I wrote “Red” when I was stuck in rush-hour traffic for hours and the CD player in my car had been stolen and I had no AC in the TX heat, so I was basically humming a little melody to keep [myself] from going insane. I wrote the whole thing and then got home and immediately grabbed my guitar and figured out the chords. But it’s hard to write like that, especially if you can’t grab your guitar to make up something to go with the melody line, which, if unattached to anything for too long, starts to kind of get vague and watery and then eventually disappear from your head. At least in my experience. But I still write like that periodically. There’s a new song I’m working on that I wrote on a flight to Australia when I couldn’t sleep, and I was able to keep the melody in my head for long enough to get to a guitar and attach it to something.
I would absolutely love to do more prose and non-musical writing. It’s really just a matter of time to do everything I want. Right now the band is doing well and I have the energy to tour 6-9 months out of a year and come out alive and in decent health and not completely miserable, and who knows how long bands last? People stop caring, audiences are fickle, etc. I always knew I wanted to do this and I plan to keep hurling myself at it until I’m physically unable to do it or am not feeling like I mean it anymore. Along the way I’d love to continue to write – I try to write 500 or so words of prose a day just to keep those muscles working and because I really enjoy it, and I’ll write something non-musical when I have a long enough stretch of time to do it.
AL: You know, that muscle you’re stretching is so evident in your song writing, too. Your songs go so far beyond the tight simple refrains of a lot of music today. I have nothing against simple, but I love how you expand the songs’ constraints. I suppose that’s why I could see you writing a novel, or a movie. All the artists I love tend to want to try their hands at all sorts of different genres. I think we get inspired and want to push ourselves. But you’re obviously focusing on the right thing at the right time. I hear you everywhere now; it’s so delightful to hear a band you love on the radio regularly.
When you say that you don’t come out completely miserable anymore after a tour…what are you doing now that’s different? How do you stay sane on the road for so long? You know, what anchors you?
WS: Well, to respond to the first part of that – I love a simple song. Like a Hank Williams or Merle Haggard song, where every word is short and simple and perfectly chosen, and there are like 10 lines in the song and that’s all, but a complete and perfectly-formed idea comes across. I try to write that way, too, on some songs. “Get Big,” on “Black Sheep Boy,” was a deliberate attempt to do something that simple. And on “A Girl in Port” I also knew I wanted relatively simple language and a repeating refrain chorus, which is something I don’t always do. But when I got more comfortable with myself as a writer I also got really excited about the playfulness of language and the way you can give people these powerful but also kind of cloudy feelings with words, and the way the human voice stringing out a long line of words over a breath can captivate people, which is something I hear a lot in early Dylan and also [in] a lot of hip-hop, the power of the human voice and the sounds words make. My major fear is trying to walk that line where there’s a lot of language in the song but it’s not overpowering the musical elements.
The thing about traveling most of your year is that you figure out sort of quickly how to stay sane and it involves living constantly in the moment, which is a wonderful and important skill to have. You learn how to content yourself in the smallest things and focus away from things that bother you, and everything seems very light and like it almost doesn’t really exist. The problem with that is that the rest of the non-traveling world doesn’t live that way, and almost immediately you fall out of sync with them and start to drift away from them. Everything becomes lighter and lighter and less and less meaningful and then relationships just sort of disintegrate and you don’t relate to people in the same way. And then you get home and you realize you don’t really belong there any more and it’s really lonely and isolating, like your life doesn’t have any weight and grounding to it. I look at my friends who are married and have kids and I feel like in some way they’re more human and complete and substantial than I am.
AL: I think that living in the present, this “now” we’re given is the only way to stop from opting out of the whole thing. (That sounds morbid and overly dramatic, but I do mean it.) So, I agree with you completely. Right now. I agree. Look! I just wrote that. See? Taking pleasure in this part. The process. I wonder if it is hard for all of us, the traveler, the non-traveler, the artist, the non-artist to relate to the world at large when we become aware of the true joy of letting go, of letting go of obsessions. When we become unattached to objects or to pain, then we get left out of the global dialogue in some ways.
Oh and I love a simple song, too. I really do. I only meant that I like the risk you take with language, how it feels dangerous and overwhelming and yet, as a listener, you always feel safe in the sound, in the music.
It’s a lovely gift you have. And I’m glad you’re out there offering it up.
I sound like a soccer mom.
(A strange Buddhist soccer mom.)
WS: What do you mean when you say “opting out of the whole thing?” What’s the whole thing?
AL: The world?
I guess I mean to say, being in the “present” has given me that…that wanting to remain alive and here. That letting of the pain we get attached to, that always-wanting, that always leaning forward.
WS: Well I guess it can go either way. When you’re on tour you sometimes feel like nothing is real. I remember being in Seattle and crossing the middle of a street and a friend of mine who lived there saying “Seattle has really strict jay-walking laws, you know,” and me thinking “big deal – I’m not actually here.” When you’re on tour it seems so ridiculous that one morning you can be in London and the next in Tel Aviv and the next in Portland (as happened to me on our last tour) that you basically just don’t believe it. And this feeling is intensified by things like lack of sleep or jet-lag or drugs: the whole world is a mirage offered up for your general bemusement. Which ultimately at times means that you don’t take other people seriously or treat them with the respect they deserve because to you they just seem like part of the mirage. I’ve seen touring musicians be incredibly rude to others in unwarranted ways – I’ve been rude like that – and it’s part of that “lightness,” that letting-go and living in the moment that is, in some ways, such a great way to live. It can make you arrogant. Respecting and connecting with people in some ways is about tethering yourself to the same earth they’re on, in a permanent and meaningful way.
I think about that a lot with little kids. Kids have all this energy and imagination and vitality, and that’s part of why we love them so obsessively and some people are so obsessed with the impossibility of getting back to childhood and how much greater life was when they were young. But little kids also fundamentally don’t seem to understand that people besides them actually have feelings and value. They are completely focused on their own sensations and impressions. And that’s a really important thing to always keep in mind.
I guess the trick is to draw enough from the living-in-the-present mentality to keep yourself happy, but to remember that in some ways you’re living in a dream world when you’re on tour, and that’s not an entirely good thing.
AL: Ah yes, I see what you mean. How the surreal quality of travel, the road as the only constant, makes you not connected. And I was speaking of the presence and living in the now, as making you more connected. Not wider, but deeper. Wow, we’ve gotten very large for this little box.
When I was writing my second book, This Big Fake World, your first two albums were my soundtrack. Now, I can open it up and hear certain songs. So I want to thank you for that. Also, for your honesty. It’s hard to work on being connected and being appreciative of each other when our roles as artist can require such isolation. It’s always good to talk to another artist who feels the same way.
Before I let you go and get settled into your real daily life of human routine, is there anything you’d like to tell me about what you see next for yourself, for your work?
WS: Well, thank you, I really appreciate that. It’s still weird to me, when I think about it, that some song I came up with somewhere by myself would eventually be listened to by anyone else. It’s funny when I’m writing new songs because they just don’t seem real, and the old songs just seem like they’re in the past, a moment you moved away from over time.
I’m trying to move away from the “Stage Names” stuff pretty definitively. Part of the reason I’ve done “appendices” and double albums in the past is to kind of completely exhaust my appetite for a certain tone or feeling in my writing so that I have no choice but to move on because I’m completely bored. What I’m writing now has a very different flavor, in my mind, than the “Stage Names” stuff. Which is a funny feeling because “The Stage Names” and “The Stand Ins” were by far our most successful records. I’m aware that if we do something completely different that a lot of people will go “This isn’t why I liked Okkervil River!” But if we tried to just duplicate that sound and feeling, other people would go “Oh…more of the same.” So the only thing that’s ever worked for me is just chasing down something that I find exciting enough that I wake up in the night with an idea and feel like I have to immediately write it down.
AL: I think that’s been working pretty well for you so far. Can’t wait to hear what’s next, Will. Thanks again. And welcome back to Brooklyn!
InDialogue brings together two artists working in different mediums to create a dialogue about their work and art at large. With the InDialogue series InDigest continues to foster a dialogue between the arts, about the arts. You can find more InDialogue features in the “archives” section of InDigest.