Musicscan: Where you surprised by the very enthusiastic critical reception of your previous album “The Stage Names” and did that in some way also change the way you looked at your own music?
Okkervil River: I suppose I was a little surprised by the reception, and I suppose that reception may have slightly changed the way I look at our music. It’s hard for me to say. I guess I was really, more simply, grateful that people understood and appreciated what we were trying to do. When I’m making a record, I’m somewhat more focused on pleasing some kind of hypothetical inner audience and inner critic that exist only in my brain, taking on faith that they correspond in at least some small way with the world outside.
Musicscan: Do you see a significant conceptual and aesthetic difference between “The Stand-Ins” and “The Stage-Names” even though most of the songs where written around the same time?
Okkervil River: The way I usually explain it to people is that, in general, The Stage Names is more teenage and jubilant and focused on the stories of artists, while The Stand Ins is more adult and cynical and focused on the stories of fans.
Musicscan: What are you looking for in a song? What is the perfect song to you and would you say you have achieved something close to it?
Okkervil River: I don’t think the word “perfect” is very useful because it’s very hard for me to put my finger on what it means. I feel like there’s some kind of conservatism at the core of many critics’ definition of “perfect,” that a “perfect” artwork doesn’t do this and doesn’t do that, avoids this trap and avoids that pitfall. In the end, I guess people think of a “perfect” artwork as having a kind of elegant simplicity, whereas many of my favorite songs or books or movies are complicated, sprawling, overreaching, passionate, messy, unwieldy. I’ve often had this weird gut feeling that the most-celebrated “perfect” songs or books or movies are so perfect they’ve become kind of airlessly self-reliant and don’t need me to even pay attention to them. But, to engage the question, I guess what continually beguiles me in a song is when an aspect of the song points to something outside itself. When the song doesn’t just seem to have a deeper thematic meaning but something more, a kind of sublime, mystical meaning that can’t really be put into words that can only be expressed indirectly through the particular notes, chords, lyrics, and even recording aspects of that song.
Musicscan: How does your songwriting process work? Does everyone contribute equally or is there one major songwriter?
Okkervil River: I come into the band with finished songs – lyrics, chords, maybe a few arrangements or “hook” ideas – and everyone in the band works through the songs together, each band member suggesting changes to everybody else in the band. Though I’m sort of gently steering the ship, the process is extremely collaborative.
Musicscan: It seems like you very much appreciated the “staging” of different personalities and characters in your music. Do you also feel irritated that a lot of people seem to expect a certain attitude of “he/she should sing about his/her own experiences and about what he/she knows”? Why do you think great songwriters as Dylan or yourself as well manage to play with various identities and figures and still seem authentic?
Okkervil River: I used to feel irritated at people’s assumption that when I’m singing the word “I” in a song I’m specifically referring to me, Will Sheff, but then I realized it’s actually a gift because it handicaps the listener and provides me with a kind of power to manipulate them that I might not have otherwise. The power of art to manipulate is so incredible to me, and I think it can be used in wonderful ways to sort of subtly change the way people look at the world after their experience with an artwork. As for your Dylan question: I think Dylan is a genuinely chameleonic figure, but there’s a kind of moral weight at the center of everything he does – whether he’s protest-singer Dylan, hipster-asshole Dylan, howdy-neighbor Dylan, Christian-sourpuss Dylan, or any of his other incarnations – that makes listeners consistently feel an emotional connection with what he’s doing.
Musicscan: After over nine years of working on music, releasing albums and plenty of touring how do you keep everything fresh for yourselves?
Okkervil River: I think it just gets more and more fun the more you learn. I think I’m a better singer and performer, for example, than I ever was. I used to hate performing because I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing. Now I just love every performance. I think you have to continually check in with yourself and make sure you’re having a good time, but it’s not hard to have a good time when you essentially work your dream job.
Musicscan: Do you think there is a difference between art and entertainment?
Okkervil River: Not really, or rather: I think attempts to designate whether something falls under the label of “art” or “entertainment” are a little bit pretentious though more or less well-meaning. Emily Dickinson’s designation for what constitutes a poem was: “"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I think that’s a wonderful, even useful definition, but I can personally attest that I’ve gotten that top-of-the-head-taken-off feeling from trashy films, radio pop summer jams, and late-night infomercials as much as I have from “fine art.” It’s an uncomfortably, un-punk-rock fact that completely cynical entertainment done purely for cash can – whether accidentally or in a coldly calculated way – touch the most sublime parts of us. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Art belongs not to the creator but to the audience, in my opinion. Also, there are plenty of genres we now think of as having high-artistic merit that were originally thought of as pop-culture crap, like comic books, pop music, and film to name just three. Buster Keaton reputedly got irritated if you called him an artist, and not in a dilettantish way but sincerely – he was a hardscrabble son of travelling actors slumming in a not-very-respected art form and he considered himself an entertainer, not in a corny hambone way but out of the no-nonsense humility of someone who works very hard and takes their audience very seriously. Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, fell all over himself to be called an “artist,” putting on airs and filling his films with treacly sad-clown sentimentality. I think that’s why Keaton’s films aged better and are more genuinely entertaining than Chaplin’s.
Musicscan: What would you like people to take away from an Okkervil River show?
Okkervil River: Like Sam Cooke says at the end of “Live at the Harlem Square Club,” I just want them to keep on having that party.
Musicscan: Do you have any aesthetic goals with the band? Is there something that you set out to achieve?
Okkervil River: Yeah, of course, but the goals tend to change with each record.
Musicscan: What social function does music carry in your opinion and in how far has the value of music changed through new consumption patterns (e.g. downloading, listening to individual songs on the internet, etc.)?
Okkervil River: I kind of feel like those are two different questions. As for the second question, “how far has the value of music changed through new consumption patterns (e.g. downloading, listening to individual songs on the internet, etc.)” – I do think there’s a sense of music being slightly worth less in some intangible way when it’s turned into some digital file sitting on a hard drive. When I was a kid and holding some big beautiful record platter in my hands – literally holding the sound waves of an album, carved into vinyl, wrapped up in a big piece of visual art, it felt like this totemic thing. Carry Sergeant Pepper around with you and use it to shield yourself from demons! Having Sergeant Pepper on my iPod doesn’t feel the same, and the music doesn’t sound as good either. For the first question: “What social function does music carry in your opinion?” I think a million functions. Music can do social good, it can bring people together, etc etc etc, but it’s also just fun. That’s why, of all artforms, people respond so enthusiastically to pop music. You don’t feel like it has some kind of “social function” and that’s what justifies it being good. I think there’s this weird assumption that “Art” and “Culture” are supposed to be “good for you” – like eating your vegetables or something. That’s what scares people away from opera and ballet and poetry. On a very basic level, music is fun and art is entertaining, even “difficult” art.
Musicscan: In how far has your personal relationship to music changed over the years? Can you still remember what it felt like when you finished your first song and what it feels like now?
Okkervil River: It still feels the same! It’s such a thrill to write a song. No antidepressant can make you feel any better than doing work you really enjoy.
Musicscan: What can we expect from Okkervil River in the near future? Any new releases, collaborations, tours planned?
Okkervil River: As I write this I’m about to head out for our European tour. There’s some stuff going on next year but I don’t want talk about it yet.