The G-Man Interview: Okkervil River

In conversation with the master-Sheff...

Texan rockers Okkervil River recently released seventh studio record The Silver Gymnasium, a concept album with a centre firmly planted in 80's Meriden, New Hampshire. Songwriter Will Sheff's tribute to the spirit of pre-adolescence was recorded with producer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Cyndi Lauper) with the basic game-plan being to "to make a band record and not a fussy studio creation, and to make the most fun record we could possibly make." Thankfully, OR's bandleader was up for a chat about crying teenage girls, 30's screwball movies and the new record.

The G-Man: With moments of big brass accentuating a big sound in general on the album, such as on 'On The Balcony', the music on the record is quite uplifting. Did you enjoy your childhood?
Will Sheff: I enjoyed some aspects of my childhood and didn't enjoy others. I mean, it was over a decade! I think most people probably feel that way. I had my own specific things I enjoyed and some other specific things I didn't, probably somewhat unique to me, but I want to stress that I didn't make The Silver Gymnasium to tell the world about my childhood. In fact, I have decidedly mixed feelings about anyone knowing any autobiographical information about me. I wrote The Silver Gymnasium because I wanted to make a record about childhood, and about the past and nostalgia, and I felt that it was important to make it personal or else it wouldn't ring true. For that reason, I don't feel a tremendous amount of enthusiasm about going into exhaustive detail about my personal life and my biography. It's in the songs, and it's only in the songs because I felt like it had to be.

Am I right in saying that you grew up in a boarding school or was it a dormitory? What unique take do you believe boarders have on life?
No idea. I was a day student. I grew up in a dormitory, but I lived there. Every summer the boarding students would go away and my siblings and I would get the campus as our playground. I don't know what life was like for the boarding students and at the time; I didn't care. The boarding students at my school tended to be rich kids. The day students were townies and when I got older those were the kids I hung out with, by and large.

I'm interested as I am currently reading John Irving’s In One Person, a novel about Billy’s coming to grips with his own sexuality amongst this “family” of students that pick up on every single word or act he says or commits. It must be difficult, never feeling like you have the space to experiment, as much with your personality as your sexuality. What do you think?
This wasn't really me. I lived in a dorm with my family, not with a bunch of students. Every dorm has a house attached to it (or an apartment), and the adult teachers kind of become de facto "parents" for the students there. I have lots of memories of girls (we lived in a girls' dorm) consulting with my mom or even my dad about heartbreak and homesickness and anxiety. Lots of memories of crying teenage girls. But even though some of these girls came to view my parents like their parents, we didn't view each other as siblings, possibly because of the age difference. However, I think being surrounded by teenage girls - some of whom would do dubious things like take me privately into their rooms and shut the door and put me on the bed and feed me chocolate bars - made me feel really attached to women and kind of informed the way I relate to women as an adult.

As far as the boarding experience - again, I wouldn't know. A prep school is like a commune in some ways, and in many ways I was raised by the community as much as I was raised by my parents. But that's different than living in a cramped room surrounded by other boys. I didn't really have that experience, though I sometimes wished I did.

Most can relate to “VCR”s and “Atari”s but, being such an autobiographical record, was there ever a fear of leaning too much on personal nostalgia?
Not really, because on a certain level the album is about nostalgia and what nostalgia does to you emotionally, and what it feels like to lean on it.

'Down Down The Deep River' is a riveting rollercoaster of an emotional journey with some great images such as the perfect summation of two new friends wanting to know each other inside out:

“Tell me about the greatest show,or the greatest movie you know, or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio.”

What happens to this hunger to know more about people as we grow older?

Well, I think when you're a little kid you don't really have a love-relationship world; you have a family world and a friend world, and then you pour all the love-relationship energy you will eventually have as an adult into your friend world, which makes for some pretty intense friendships. On a certain level I miss those kind of friendships, but on another level I feel like I appreciate my friends more now than I ever have.

Going back to 'Down Down The Deep River', some of the scenarios hint at quite menacing memories...
There's definitely "menacing" or maybe just sad stuff in that song that is real, but it would feel wrong to me to talk about it in an interview because it doesn't belong to anybody but the people it happened to.

The plan with this record was not to come out with a “fussy studio creation”. How did you set about achieving that? Were there any ground-rules set beforehand?
Yeah! I always set ground rules. I feel like ground rules help keep focus, because really truly no one wants the record to be a "kitchen sink" thing - definitely not the audience and not even the artist, though they may think they want that. So every record since Black Sheep Boy has had ground rules, and they are always different. On this one some of the ground rules were: everything should be based in live performance, the rhythm section should be the most important element of the song, whenever we added a synthetic element we should then add an organic element (and vice versa), and the whole was more important than the parts.

What did John Agnello bring to the process that surprised you?
An unquenchable thirst for negronis!

In all seriousness, I knew John would be great but I didn't realize he would be as great at arrangement suggestions as he ended up being. He was really helpful in bringing certain of the songs into focus. He and I made a great team that way. And he is a stupendous cheerleader, which is incredibly important in a producer.

It must have been great to pick his brain during recording. What kind of guy is he and what stories did you most enjoy during your chats?
John is a very fun-loving, social, and hilarious guy who has basically set up his life in such a way that he gets to stay a little kid while also being a responsible adult. I envy the hell out of his set up. He never seems to get tired and is always enthusiastic. He works hard, plays harder, and then works even harder than that.

Although the words ‘bookish’ and ‘literary’ are often associated with your music, Okkervil River songs have always felt very cinematic to me. What role does your dad’s love for film-making play in this do you think?
I grew up loving movies. I'm not sure what part of this was my Dad's film-making (and the film courses he taught, that I sat in on) and what element was just being the kid I was born as. Regarding the "bookish" and "literary" tags - it's so funny having a third-person viewpoint of who people think you are. I kind of personally hate things that most people think of as "bookish," and I hate fetishizing "bookishness" in the same way that high-school nerds hate it when a hot popular girl calls herself a "nerd" to be self-deprecating. But maybe the shoe fits, I don't know. I guess I like the idea of making semi-serious art that some people find meaningful and valuable, and a certain amount of ambition comes with that, and I like words, and all those things put together make people call me "bookish." I don't think of my work that way but whatever. Yeah, I think maybe the cinematic thing works just as well but only because I love when something is immersive, and cinema is more naturally and immediately immersive than books are.

So you'd consider yourself a film fan? What kinds of movies did you love growing up?
I absolutely consider myself a film fan. Growing up I loved all the 80's movies that every kid watched, with a preference for sci-fi and fantasy with darker themes. As a teen I loved David Lynch and the indie film that was popular in the 90's, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee and all that stuff. In college I got heavy into the experimental film of the 60's - people like Brakhage and Carolee Schneeman and George Kuchar. I kind of went from that to 30's screwball stuff, silent film (my favorite if I had to choose), and documentary stuff like Les Blank and Ross McElwee and John Cohen. Not sure what my main favourite style and era is today. Probably a mix of all those still.

'White' is possibly my favourite track on the record, your subdued vocal particularly. Fronting such an energetic band, how difficult is it to restrain yourself for such songs?
A few years ago, I started feeling like it was personally important to develop a restrained delivery. I felt like the heated delivery that myself and a lot of my peers had worked with was turning into a kind of cliché with newer bands and that all music - not just indie music but pop music too - was turning into this "I'M SHOUTING!" thing that often didn't seem very emotionally genuine. So I started trying to pare back. I did that with lyrics, too. I kind of made an effort to be a little more artless and a little more direct. When you get good at something, you start to feel it hardening into shtick. Then you have to tear most of the thing down and build something new and potentially more lasting.

Was there a specific event/conversation that inspired 'Stay Young'?
Not really. This is going to sound weird but I wrote that song in my sleep, or while falling asleep or waking up, over the course of a week or two. There's definitely stuff in there that happened to me or was bothering me, but nothing that triggered that song specifically. It grew more out of the melody and the sentiment.

“Don’t ‘Get on with it’.”:  It feels like something happened that sent you over the edge...
This is just how I feel. As people get older, lame stuff starts to happen to them. I don't know whether it comes from society or from age or from their own personal limitations, but…they get limited. They constrict. They close up and seem to become smaller. An incredible richness of character develops, and that's a beautiful thing, but it needs to be paired with a gratefulness for being alive and a spirit of adventure and a willingness to engage with the world rapturously. You have to keep that stuff around. It's obscene to let yourself lose that stuff.

How proud are you to finish such a personal record with such simple-yet-beautiful words?
Ha, thank you! I love this record, not just because I'm proud of it but because I was very happy during the writing and making of it. Actually I wasn't really fully happy all the time, but the tools to create and maintain happiness were in my possession in a way that they hadn't been before. This record and the Lovestreams record [Will's solo release from earlier in the year - click here for more]. Actually I can't really separate them because they were written at the exact same time. But both of those records I personally associate with breaking through to a new phase in my work approach that was a wonderful thing for me.

For more on Okkervil River visit:

- Okkervil River's The Silver Gymnasium is available now from all good record stores
- To play the 8-bit Silver Gymnasium computer game click here

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