Okkervil River are undeniably one of the finest rock bands of the past ten years. The Stage Names and Black Sheep Boy are two of my personal favourite albums of all time. So imagine my delight when I got to speak to lead singer Will Sheff down a crackly phone line just in the mouth of Christmas 2007? This short but sweet interview was published in The Skinny in January 2008
Whilst it’s undeniable that revelations write headlines, it’s also incontestable that sometimes such revelations can be uncomfortable. It will come as no surprise to any fans of Okkervil River that their lead singer and chief songwriter Will Sheff is an articulate, informed and topical conversationalist. Nothing groundbreaking there, but the extent to which his conversation mirrors his art is comforting and perhaps explains why, even in interview, it’s more like speaking to an old friend than a distant stranger.
2007’s brilliant semi-autobiographical release The Stage Names deals with literature, film, theatre and performance, all subjects the affable Sheff is ostensibly well versed in and glad to discuss at length. “I always wanted to make movies, way before I started singing or playing an instrument,” he explains. “I love a film that creates its own world, like David Lynch’s work. But there are also some very silly movies that do the same. Take Slap Shot (a 1977 movie based around the tribulations of a mediocre hockey team). It was a real inspiration when I was writing The Stage Names – how often do you see sports movies that aren’t either fantastical like Field Of Dreams, or based around some sort of massive success? The same goes for any fictional work about rock bands. I think the record shows more realistic scenarios… it’s about just plugging away and trying to confront why we are doing this. It highlights the massive frustrations that inevitably come before success.”
Success is not something that has eluded Okkervil River of late. Sheff admits his life and career have changed immeasurably over the past year. “Some of the things I was terrified about before are gone now, I don’t have to worry about them,” he offers, although he’s adamant that the stress and work it took to put the band in its current position almost outweighs the benefit. Relentless touring (February’s gig in Cab Vol will be their second Scottish date in a little over three months) seems to correlate in tandem with the increasing amount of music piracy which means bands have to fight for their money these days. “Even if you’re Coldplay you’ve got to work hard these days. There’s so much that goes into our records: love, care and affection, that we can only be exhausted, but very proud.”
With such a hectic schedule, Sheff has little time to himself. “I just get to steal a week or two here and there, not very often though.” It’s again unsurprising to learn that he likes to spend these stolen weeks reading and relaxing. The band name itself is taken from a Tolstoy novel and their latest album features a track written about tragic American poet John Berryman – quick and easy proof of the way in which Sheff’s cultured nature manifests itself. He personally, however, is uncertain as to how inextricable the link between his two loves of literature and music is. “It would be remiss of me to say you couldn’t just like a rock song without being up on the literary knowledge that’s behind it. While I like to read, I don’t like to put on airs. I’m just a rock singer!”
Maybe so, but at this point in time, at the top of his game, rock singers don’t come much more refined than Will Sheff, and bands don’t get much better than Okkervil River.