OKKERVIL RIVER, arguably the finest indie/alternative band in America right now, will play their only Irish show - apart from Electric Picnic - in the Róisín Dubh on Monday September 7 at 9pm.
A rural childhood
Okkervil River is centred around the gifted songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist, Will Sheff, who grew up in Meriden, in rural New Hampshire. “I was sort of isolated as a kid,” Will tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “I grew up before the internet was in everybody’s home. We only had two TV channels. The town had a population of 500. I was sheltered from a lot of things.”
In his childhood and teens, Will listened to his parents’ record collection - Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell - as well as “things I heard on the radio that didn’t suck like Nirvana”.
All would influence the future sound of Okkervil River. However Irish traditional music also had a lasting impact.
“I went through a long phase of listening to a lot of Irish music in High School,” he says. “That influenced my feelings on melody and the emotional content of melody. Irish song appealed to me and being from the country, that music spoke to me a lot. You can see that in Okkervil River in the use of the acoustic guitar, the mandolin, and accordion.”
Literature was also a potent influence. Will’s lyrics have a novelist’s sense of fine detail with a poet’s ability to convey large ideas in epigrammatic and rich language. Allusions to René Daumal, John Berryman, and The Gospel Of Thomas dominate such albums as The Stage Names and The Stand Ins.
“I was definitely influenced by Flannery O’Connor and Faulkner,” says Will, “but I don’t want people to think I was more influenced by that than by Nirvana. Songwriting is a noble, old, powerful, sacred, and profound art form. It’s been around longer than fiction and to me it’s an equal of, not greater than, fiction.”
By 1998 Will was at university, writing songs, and interested in forming a band. During the summer holidays he teamed up with Zach Thomas and his old school friend Seth Warren to form My Wet, which played one show at an open mic night. The trio relocated to Austin, Texas, where Okkervil River was truly born. Literature would play its part in giving the band its moniker.
“Trying to come up with names for your band that don’t sound stupid is really hard,” says Will, before laughing, “I don’t know if we’ve achieved that.”
“I was reading a short story by Tatyana Tolstaya called Okkervil River. She’s a contemporary Russian writer and great-grandniece of Tolstoy. Everybody liked the name but I said nobody is going to know how to say it or spell it. We had made 10 copies of a demo and had to call it something so we put the name Okkervil River on and then we couldn’t change it. All the other guys in the band have left and I’m stuck with the burden of carrying the name around.”
Over the band’s 11-year existence, numerous members have come and go (notably Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg ), and today Will is the only original member left.
“Everybody is from different eras of the band,” reflects Will. “We’d be in the bus on tour, telling stories. Travis our drummer, he’s been with us for six years, but every now and again there will be a story even he doesn’t remember, but I think the band has always maintained an essence, a feel to it, no matter who the members are and the spirit continues to go and it feels like the same band.”
In 1999 Okkervil River released its debut album, Stars Too Small To Use. This was followed in 2002 by Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See and 2003’s Down The River Of Golden Dreams. The albums enjoyed critical acclaim but poor sales and a disillusioned Will was on the point of quitting.
“I was completely broke,” he says. “I hadn’t a place to live, I was crashing on other people’s couches. I was sick and sick of being broke and being worn down. I will always write for fun, but could I do it as a career? Black Sheep Boy turned out to be successful and things have been a lot better since then and much better more recently.”
2005’s Black Sheep Boy proved to be the band’s breakthrough album. A powerful, epic collection, it is dominated by lyrically and musically sophisticated country-rock ballads, based around themes Will saw in Tim Hardin’s song ‘Black Sheep Boy’. Further success would come with the even more impressive The Stage Names (2007 ) and The Stand Ins (2008 ).
The trouble with indie?
The Stage Names saw Will perfectly balance his writing between a full blooded indie-rock (‘A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene’ ) and country-rock ballads (‘A Girl In Port’ ). Lyrically, the album was rich with literary and pop-culture references, post-modern musical and verbal puns, and homagés.
Two songs on The Stage Names dealt with people who committed suicide - ‘John Allyn Smith Sails’, which chronicles the suicide of the poet John Berryman, and ‘Savannah Smiles’ about Shannon Wilsey, a porn actress who killed herself in 1994. What drew Will to this subject?
“It was not the suicide but what brings you to a point where you want to do that,” says Will. “In their case it was a loss of what defined them, and what defined them had to do with ego. It was not with being a good father and husband for John Berryman or with a good home life for Shannon Wilsey, it was more to do with the loss of an assumed identity.
“Shannon Wilsey couldn’t work anymore because of an accident which scarred her face. John Berryman felt his poetic gifts had abandoned him and that he would never write good poetry again. You think about the personalities they built up, trying to constantly live up to that, and not wanting all the other stuff of just being a human, so they just threw it all away. That was an interesting idea. I wanted to figure out what makes you feel that way. What makes you think life isn’t worth living after you lose your alter ego?”
This willingness to delve into such troubling subjects marks Will out as different from most other indie rock songwriters. While indie/alternative is rock’s most consistently diverse and creative genre, it is marked by a narrow secularism and, as Will puts it, can be “very phobic of sexuality”.
“If the most bourgeois music is James Taylor than indie is in second place,” he says. “Indie is the music of the privileged. In the genre we work in there is a sort of burying your head in the sand and fear of adult responsibly and ‘adultness’.
“If indie rock is more afraid of anything, it’s even more afraid of spirituality than sexuality. I’m not talking about organised religion but Sufjan Stevens is a Christian and he doesn’t deal with that in his writing. Indie rock’s subject matter isn’t very wide and it is afraid to go to that place.
“I am a spiritual man and it’s very, very important to me. I was raised a Catholic. My father was president of the Catholic Holy Cross University in New Hampshire. I have a hard time with the Roman Catholic Church and organised Christianity generally but I still identify with the ideas and feelings I was raised with. If you are raised in that environment you will always see the world through that lens.”
The next release from Okkervil River will be as the backing band on the new solo album from Roky Erickson (13th Floor Elevators lead singer ), which Will is producing.
“After that we will be good to go for a new Okkervil River record,” says Will. “I want to keep doing what I love and keep evolving.”
Tickets are available
from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.