During the photo shoot for this interview, the photographer asked me to talk to Will Sheff—so he would look more natural, I think. I started by asking him about what, if anything, he misses most about Austin, the city he lived in for nearly a decade before coming to Brooklyn in 2007. The food, he said. He doesn’t think we’ve made quite the strides we think we have where Mexican food and barbecue are concerned.
This, I would learn when we continued our interview on the phone a few days later, is but one of the many strong and potentially unpopular opinions Sheff is willing to share. He’s openly critical of recent trends in indie rock and the culture as a whole, but he’s also refreshingly willing to step up and offer what he sees as a solution.
The Silver Gymnasium is the seventh Okkervil River record in just over a decade, and it’s the first one that’s comprised of songs about Sheff’s personal experiences—specifically about his childhood, growing up in the small town of Meriden, New Hampshire. Admittedly, it might be difficult to imagine how another indie-rock singer making a record about his own life could be a solution to anything, but it’s also hard to argue with him. Sheff is thoughtful and deliberate about how he uses his art to interact with the world around him, always questioning his own decisions even more so than anyone else’s. Also, he made fun of BuzzFeed, so that was pretty cool, too.
You’ve said this album is the most personal work you’ve ever done. I was curious, given the degree to which so many of your songs have always read like fiction, what led you to change directions?
Around the time that I started putting my material out there, there was this diary entry-style writing that was happening a lot, and I guess we sort of got associated with it. I have the kind of voice where, for better or for worse, what I’m singing sounds really personal no matter what it is. And there’s a tendency that people have to want to read into what I’m singing about and look for clues in my autobiography and wonder who I am, or they assume that I’m spilling my guts on the page. And I always thought that was kind of a bad look. I always thought there was something kind of adolescent about that.
I didn’t get into music because I wanted to draw attention to myself. I always wanted to make stuff, and I ended up singing it myself because nobody knew who the fuck I was or gave a shit, so I had to sing it myself. Early in my career, I always used to say I wished I could just write for other people. I remember really loving songs like “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine, or Randy Newman songs or Loudon Wainwright songs, where instead of talking about themselves, they’re writing from the point of view of a character. I was really into the idea of bringing a fictional discipline to songwriting and not making it be about the tortured diary entries of someone spilling their blood on a page. I think there was still a tendency for people to read my work like that because of the way that I sing, but that was never the goal.
That said, I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and I’ve gone through a lot of different attitudes about music, and different stages in terms of what I’m trying to do with my work. More recently, the tides have turned with rock music, and especially whatever you would call the remnants of what used to be indie rock. And I started to feel like what I was seeing with songwriting in that genre was that it was withering a little bit and that people were more concerned with vibe and production and stance than they were with construction. Specifically, I started to feel like it was rare that there was a song that had anything emotional on the line. Almost as a corrective to this, I started to notice that people were using language that had very loaded, elemental, emotionally charged words, but the words didn’t seem to be referring to anything specifically. They were just used as decoration. And I felt like I should be a counterbalance to that, like I should try to write something that was more structurally sound and that had a little more meat on the bones. In order to bring that passion and substance and emotional investment to rock music, which I feel is becoming a little milky and watered down right now, I felt like I should put something of my own on the table.
Yeah, it’s been a weird few years, and this whole thing where indie-rock musicians are shying away from making any sort of statement, whether it’s personal or political, has been particularly infuriating. Even more so because those statements are still being made in other genres, just not in indie rock.
It’s kind of like in the Great Depression, when everyone just wanted to watch Busby Berkeley movies. I think there’s a real strong current of anxiety and fear and uncertainty about the future in our culture right now. When I was writing I Am Very Far, I was trying to write about that stuff directly. By the time I got out of the I Am Very Far experience, I was a nervous wreck because I was so immersed in dread. At a certain point, you go, “All this dread is something that’s definitely in play, but I can’t live in dread forever. I have to live my life.”
How do you think the anxiety that musicians are feeling manifests itself in terms of the music that’s being made?
Well, indie rock went from something that was, you know, this alternative, post-punk reaction to the mainstream, and there was a lifestyle of rejecting the corporate control that was associated with it. Now it’s turned into, like… playing the private Red Bull after- party for $50,000 with a little wristband or being featured in an Apple ad. The way that hip-hop is openly materialistic; I think a little bit of that has started to creep in. A big part of that is that the money is drying up in the music business, and the world is really scary, and there’s a lot of people out there who are just looking to get what they can get. And so when you’re doing that, it’s not necessarily a time to take artistic chances. It’s a time to sell your lifestyle brand. Music is a lot more of a promotional accessory now, and everyone out of necessity has to cozy up to corporate sponsors. I don’t know, man. I see it a lot like the 30s. When that stuff is happening, you’re trying to get people’s minds off their troubles and make fun, high-dollar, light entertainment that doesn’t have a lot at stake. That’s my little armchair theory about it.
How have you guys handled the licensing and commercial aspect of things? I imagine you’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions.
I’m pretty cautious about it. I filter it pretty hard. I very much remember the attitude of indie rock, when people still called it that, where you’d get in a van and, you know, DIY or whatever… I think I still have that part of my brain, so it’s a difficult terrain to navigate because my number one goal in life, after being a good person, is to be able to make stuff for the rest of my life, and that’s a very difficult path to walk when you’re walking it with limited resources. So every single month is a different negotiation, where you’re trying to figure out how you can keep doing stuff.
It’s a real balance, though, because when you start getting into the whole contingent of people who look at bands like The Lumineers or The Black Keys, or whatever bands people are talking about when they say, “That’s real music, man”—if you’re desperately searching for quote-unquote real music, and you’re locating it in white guys playing blues riffs, or you’re locating it in an instrument that’s made of wood, I think you’re
The Silver Gymnasium is driven by stories from your own childhood, so there are obviously some elements of nostalgia, which is another big part of what’s going on in music and the culture as a whole. What we see a lot, though, is people creating these sort of vaguely 90s-ish vibes and sort of vaguely remembering this time that they probably weren’t actually old enough to remember in any meaningful way. But your new songs are packed with very specific details and facts and fleshed-out stories. How important to you was that distinction?
Well, that’s a distinction I do want to make. It would be disgusting if this record was just me being like, “My childhood was so cool!” That’s not really the point. The point is I believe that if you get really personal and heartfelt with your own material, that people are going to respond to it because people are similar and people can relate. Hopefully people who grew up in the 80s can relate, but hopefully people who grew up in the 90s can relate, too, and hopefully people who grew up in the 50s can relate. Like, I relate to The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, which was about growing up in the 50s. My autobiographical material, you can just think of it as the wood that you throw into the locomotive. You’re trying to get somewhere, and it just so happens that when you use some gross old wood, the locomotive’s gonna go extra fast, because you’re putting in real stuff that’s deeply meaningful. Although a lot of it is meaningful to only me. There are things in these songs where I don’t think anyone, not even my brother or sister, would know what the hell I’m talking about. Those things are put in out of the faith that there will be a charge that comes out of it. Not necessarily where people will literally know what I’m talking about, but where they feel a crackle of electricity that comes off of it. A lot of what I’m talking about, when you break it down, is standard memory stuff—you know, looking back on your life from a later date. But because it’s very specific to me, hopefully it feels lived in and authentic, as opposed to cookie-cutter, general nostalgia, which is something that seems to be smothering the culture right now. It’s a minefield that I walked through with every single thing related to The Silver Gymnasium, trying to avoid a knee-jerk, BuzzFeed nostalgia, or a twee, ukulele nostalgia and try to go for the real stuff that sort of smells a little bit, if that makes any sense. •