An Interview with Will Sheff
Two or three years ago, I found an image online called “The Saddest Band in Texas.” It was a photograph in browns and golds, a stage with a half-circle of musicians: guitar, mandolin, trumpet, Hammond organ, drums. A bearded man at the microphone whose mouth was caught in a sorrowful O.
The man was Will Sheff and the band was Okkervil River—named for a river outside St. Petersburg, for a short story about heartache and gramophone records. Since moving from New Hampshire to Austin, Sheff and a shifting cast of friends have recorded four albums and four EPs of fierce, heartbreaking song—indie rock traced with Appalachian filigree, folk-rock that lurches from melancholy to violence. The recently reissued Black Sheep Boy and Black Sheep Boy Appendix mix raging choruses with thorny scraps of fairy tale. Sheff’s lyrics are careful and incisive, stories of longing and self-destruction. Much of Black Sheep Boy takes its inspiration from the life and music of Tim Hardin, a blues-folk musician who overdosed in 1980.
Okkervil River came to Glasgow in May 2006, and I went to their show with orange-chocolate Jaffa Cakes under my arm. In our interview afterward, Sheff was clear-eyed, confident, and quick to laugh, but onstage he and his band were mostly as they had been in that photograph years before: a gathering of players, Sheff’s lips like an O. The saddest band in Scotland.
I. THE KNIFE FIGHT
THE BELIEVER: So the first thing I wanted to ask you was if you’ve ever been in a fight.
WILL SHEFF: Oh. I was in a knife fight just a couple months ago, believe it or not. I was at a party—kind of a hipster party in Austin. It was New Year’s Eve. And there were lots and lots of people there. I dropped Scott [Brackett, Okkervil’s trumpet and keyboard player] off and I drove back to the party for no good reason. I was really drunk, walking around, and I turned a corner and saw two gentlemen having a fight. One of them pulled a hunting knife out of his jacket. It was like a ten-inch-long hunting knife, and he swung it at the other guy’s throat! And the other guy turned his head at the last minute and he got cut on the back of his neck. But if he hadn’t turned his head he would have gotten his throat cut.
The guy who got the back of his neck cut shouts, “He’s got a knife! He’s got a knife!” So I see this guy swinging this hunting knife around and in a blind, drunken impulse I grab the guy’s hand—the guy with the knife—and I was going to try and pull the knife out of his hand. But the instant I grabbed his hand, I looked down at this knife and I realized that this is a real, very sharp, very metallic knife—and it could very well stab me in the gut or something like that. And so I thought, All right, well, I really have to pull this knife out of this guy’s hand or else something bad’s going to happen. He was holding it really, really tight and for just a second, he loosened up his hand. I saw that as my window, so I pulled as hard as I could to get the knife out of his hand—I actually cut my hand in the process of it. I pulled so hard, and it was such a crowded party, that in the process of pulling the knife out of his hand I stabbed somebody in the leg.
BLVR: Oh my god.
WS: So I stabbed this guy in the leg and he goes [abruptly] “Ow!” And I said, “Hold on a second—I’ll be right back.” And I ran and hid the knife somewhere the knife’s owner wouldn’t find it. But where, in the morning, the person who had been assaulted could find the knife and use it as evidence.
BLVR: That was very responsible of you.
WS: When I got back, the guy who had pulled the knife was long gone. The guy who I stabbed was still there. And he was just sort of drinking a beer. And I said, “Man, I’m really, really sorry I stabbed you in the leg, but a guy pulled this knife…” And the guy said, “Oh, no, no, it’s OK. I’m fine.” And his girlfriend said, “No no no, you’re not fine—you have blood all over your hand.” He had his hand over the wound, and when he lifted it, his hand was slick with blood. There was blood all over his hand.
As it turns out, he was on ecstasy, so he didn’t really care that he had been stabbed in the leg. So I said, “Well, go to the bathroom, look at the wound, and see if you have to go to the hospital, I’ll pay for it or whatever.” So he goes to the bathroom and the news quickly spreads that this guy’s been stabbed in the leg. No one realizes that the other guy actually was assaulted and there was a fight. They just heard there was somebody who pulled a knife and stabbed somebody in the leg.
BLVR: It was you.
WS: Yeah. So I go to the bathroom to check on this guy and there are all these girls in the bathroom and they’re all like [girl voice], “We’re taking care of it! We’re taking care of it! Go away!” And then the host of the party comes out and goes: “Everybody out. Somebody pulled a knife. Everybody out of here.” He’s called the police. I say, “I don’t want to leave. I’m the person who actually inflicted the wound and I feel I should pay for it if he has to go to hospital.” And he says: “You’re the one with the knife?! What kind of sick fuck brings a knife to a party? What the fuck is wrong with you? Get out of here!” And I was like, “But it wasn’t my knife!” And he said, “I don’t want to hear it. Just get the fuck out of my house.” And then the police showed up, so I was like—I’m not sticking around. So I left.
It turns out that the guy who pulled the knife now has criminal charges pressed against him. And the guy who I stabbed was not that gravely injured.
So that was the last fight I got in and it involved a large hunting knife on New Year’s Eve.
BLVR: And for the rest of your musical career, every song will be based on that.
WS: Well, the funny thing is, it’s become this thing in Austin that people talk about—and nobody really knows the story. People think that I brought the knife to the party. And one person said to Travis, our drummer, “Hey, I heard your boy was trying to get fresh with some girl in the bathroom at a party and she wasn’t having it, so he stabbed her in the leg with a knife.” So in a sense I have been typed, now, as a kind of knife-wielding psychopath.
II. ALL THE THINGS I COULDN’T POSSIBLY GET AWAY WITH
BLVR: It was funny reading articles about you guys, or the blurb for the gig tonight. They kept emphasizing how bookish the band is—how you’re a “bookish, literary” band. And I always think of you as such a violent band—violently feeling, violent lyrics, musically violent. Supercharged, big swinging gestures.
WS: There is a definite difference between live shows and the recordings. The recordings are for all time, hopefully, so you do want to bring across these layers of subtlety. But the live show is this primal experience that everybody’s having at the same time, that the recording can at best try to imitate or duplicate. There’s this DVD we’ve been watching in the van—and I can’t believe it’s true but it really is, it’s changing my whole attitude about live music—it’s a DVD of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, in the Netherlands in 1975. It’s going to be a classic one day. It’s the best concert film I’ve ever seen.
BLVR: Dr. Hook… Was that the band from the Muppets?
WS: Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Just a stupid classic rock band. Their big hit was “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” And they’re playing in the Netherlands and it’s a live TV show. And they are so, so wasted. They’re probably on coke. The electric guitarist very obviously has something against the rest of the band and there’s some kind of rivalry happening. Every time the electric guitarist goes to sing he puts a red bandanna over the microphone; he doesn’t want to sing into the same microphone that the other singer is singing into. And the songs are falling apart; they’re apologizing in the middle of them. There’s this ending part where the guitarist goes into a crazy, terrible noise solo and they’re all cowering away from him. There’s all these famous stories of drunken tomfoolery with rock bands, but the thing that’s special about this Dr. Hook concert is that they’re laughing and enjoying themselves. And it reminds me that rock and roll—and more broadly than that, song and folk music in general—is a jubilant, communal celebration of what’s grimy and great about life. I think that that’s what we’re trying to go for in our live shows. Make people remember that they’re seeing a real thing, one time only, in front of them.
I find the bookish and literate tag vaguely insulting to pop music. As if pop music is ennobled when it has some kind of literary aspirations. The Shangri-Las weren’t bookish, and they were brilliant. You know? I don’t want to be some fop pretending to be a half-baked poet. I think the difference for us is that it’s a sort of celebratory, Dionysian thing, as opposed to an Apollonian scene. I’m very happy that the New York Times wrote a big piece and called us “literary,” because it’s good to have somebody say something about you, but honestly I think it’s all bullshit. My favorite groups, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Neil Young or the Shangri-Las, they don’t have anything “literary” about them. It’s like saying that comic books are good if they’re like paintings. In the end, it’s classist, you know? And all these bands that are trying to dignify themselves by coming across as literary are classist.
But then you have somebody like Dan Bejar from Destroyer—who I think is one of the best writers writing these days.
BLVR: He’s a marvel.
WS: Of all contemporary songwriters I think he’s been the biggest influence and inspiration. Because he is pretentious, but in a way that makes it into a game.
BLVR: He rejoices in it.
WS: Exactly. It’s not really pretentious in the end, because he’s copping to it from the very beginning. He takes pretension and turns it into this high-school costume show where everybody’s invited in and we all get to pretend to be so grand. He also has a really clear aspiration to this idiotic rock and roll tradition, and this understanding that it’s supposed to be idiotic, and there’s something very absurd about it.
We have a song called “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” which is a song with all these big words in it. I would hope that people don’t think that the big words are what makes the song good. The big words are my attempt to be pretentious in a way that’s hopefully, maybe, wry? “Oh my God, can I really get away with this?” “Let’s just do all the stupidest things.” A lot of the time, my guiding principle is to try to do all the things I couldn’t possibly get away with, and do them well. I think that that keeps a bit of excitement in there. If you’re going for things that are really terrible ideas you have to really have all your faculties about you to get away with them without being crucified. The best rock music gets away with something, somehow, that it shouldn’t be allowed to get away with.
III. WHEN YOUR HEAD IS SMASHING INTO THE CONCRETE
BLVR: You’ve said before how much you’re inspired by soul music, and that really rings true with what you’re saying now. Because soul music has that kind of stumbling around, saying stupid lines about things you really mean, and hoping to fall into something true.
WS: Look at a song like “Please, Please, Please,” the first James Brown single from 1956, where the lyrics are like: “Please please please please please please please don’t go yah no I love you so I just want to say I I I I I…” It doesn’t need to be some dumb Shakespeare sonnet set to music: it’s an outpouring of emotion. Songwriting is an emotional medium, and rock and roll is an emotional medium. When you listen to something like Otis Redding or even Sam Cooke, in a sense, you know in that Live at the Harlem Square Club recording…
BLVR: Yeah, I love that album.
WS: Sam Cooke and Otis Redding are people that brought this tremendous amount of intelligence and used it to shape this tremendous amount of emotion that they had. And the result is this sculpture, with an insane, wild, passionate emotion that has been very carefully sculpted by a really ordered, controlled thought process.
I don’t pretend to be one twentieth as good as Sam Cooke on his worst night, but that’s a real inspiration for me.
BLVR: You talk a lot about the Incredible String Band.
WS: I think that’s another example of pretentiousness: they’re so pretentious, but it works for me because they believe it. Robin Williamson sings like he is going to part the seas and calm the waters and bring the rain from the skies. He believes it. And it’s such a stupid idea—but believing makes it so, and I think that’s the thing about pop music. It’s a touchingly idiotic, thorough, complete dedication to the dumbest ideas that there are. As people we’re dumb, stumbling idiots—and rock and roll is one of the only art forms that fully cops to that and revels in it.
BLVR: I like what you’re saying about pop music and dumb ideas—turning dumb ideas sort of over in your heart, and then seeing what happens… What dumb ideas do you sing about with your band?
WS: I’ve always just been really impressed by a song that can take a simple sentiment and transform it. Like “Please Please Please,” that James Brown song. It’s almost a meditation on the word please, and his idea of begging someone, and yet he turns it into such a towering thing. Or with the Velvet Underground: they took it a step further and made it adult. So I guess that’s sort of what we’re trying to do, to make pop music that’s adult. Which is not to rule out teenagers, but a kind of music that has a sense of people being compromised and people betraying themselves and selling themselves out, selling themselves short. The weight of guilt and baggage that grown people have—bringing that to bear on this emotional medium.
BLVR: There’s also the adult idea of moral grayness—whereas as a kid it’s all good or bad. “This isn’t fair.”
WS: I always think it’s far more admirable to confuse people than it is to reassure them. Here’s a good example. That song “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols. It’s one of my favorite songs. And one of the reasons it’s one of my favorite songs is that it makes me tremble with pro-life sentiment. When I hear that song it makes me feel so pro-life. And I’m not pro-life. I’m very emphatically pro-choice. But that song fucks with me. Because it is filled with horror and moral outrage and this very sly attitude—and it just makes me feel like a conservative fucking anti-abortion moralistic teenager kind of thing. It’s an amazing song.
BLVR: Your song “For Real” kind of makes me pro-murder.
WS: [Laughs] I could really go for that! I think people misinterpret “For Real” because it’s not supposed to be about murder at all. It’s a lot more about sexuality than it is about violence. But nobody seems to have cottoned to that. Which is not surprising. Hopefully it’s not just about sexuality; there’s a level of—wanting to smash your head into the wall to make sure it’s real? You know what I mean?
God, a couple months ago I tripped and I smashed my face up and I really fucked up my glasses and I haven’t been able to close them since. And I caught my eye and smashed my lip up and I got this deep-tissue bruise. And it was the first time I felt a very severe degree of pain out of nowhere, really suddenly—this is long after I wrote “For Real”… But there was really no mistaking it. That was a very real sensation. You have these moments where you’re like—Do I like this girl? Do I love this girl? Or do I just like her? Do I want a ham sandwich or do I want a turkey sandwich? Are my political beliefs just somebody else’s beliefs that I’ve simply adopted or are they what I really think? But when your head is smashing into the concrete you don’t have that kind of question about whether it’s a real sensation. And ultimately, that’s what’s going to unmake us all—smashing up against the physical reality of death and decay, and being unmade.
And I think that we want it, on some level. Or some people want it, maybe. Or we don’t want it but we wonder about it and we wonder about who we’ll be in that situation and what it will do to us. And then there’s a certain sexualization to that which is very mysterious. To me, “For Real” has a lot more to do with that than it does as some dumb “murder song.” “Westfall” is a murder ballad, straight up.
BLVR: Or “Kathy Keller.”
WS: Or “Kathy Keller,” yeah. But it was sort of frustrating for people to say that “For Real” is a chilling murder ballad. Because to me “For Real” is more—I think of “For Real,” believe it or not, as a kind of tender, happy song. I know that sounds weird. But I do.
IV. MORE STABBINGS
BLVR: Did your parents play music?
WS: No. My grandfather was a trumpet player. He played in a swing band. He paid his way through college in a swing group fronted by an eighty-year-old man, on Newfound Lake in New Hampshire. It was this little club which all the local riffraff would go to and all the people who were somewhat out about being gay—and they would play these six-hour-long swing sets. And then he got asked to tour with Les Brown, who was the swing fixture of the day. He was the only musician in my family that I know of. He’s a fantastic, fantastic guy who is fortunately still alive. But my mother’s just a sentimental lady—she likes Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. My dad likes music but not so much. My mom likes the Shangri-Las and stuff like that. She’s got a great singing voice—I wish I could say the same for myself. But she’s not a musician.
BLVR: So what happened to make you commit?
WS: Ah, it was just a lot easier than any other option. No, I wanted to be a filmmaker, actually, when I was in high school and college. But I just decided it would be more expensive to do, so I sort of decided music would be more fun. I also have a perverse streak—I had a girlfriend in college who was trying very hard to dissuade me from doing music and I think it was sort of a “fuck you” to her, maybe. I don’t know. I just went down that path. But I was always one of these people who is irrationally moved by stupid pop songs.
BLVR: In the car, weeping to Fleetwood Mac.
WS: Oh, I love Fleetwood Mac. Ask Travis about it. The last tour, he would just be like, “I’m sorry but we’re listening to Tusk right now. Shut up and fucking listen to this. I’ll stab you in the neck.” And then we’d be listening to it and he’d be, “No, seriously, shut up!” And then it turned out to be one of my favorite albums of all time. I love Tusk. Travis tells me what to listen to—I just follow his orders.
BLVR: You recently did some recording that your label said you never intend to release.
WS: We just did that thing because I had moved out of my house—so I thought, Let’s move the recording gear in. It was really great to do stuff we knew we were never going to put out. Because this whole indie scene—and even more so the major-label scene—it’s motivated around big releases that have a huge PR campaign around them. And you forget that you’re not going for the gold cup every time you record something; sometimes you’re just trying to have fun. You get so caught up in the pressure of a release for a reason that you forget that the whole point of doing art is to have fun. I’ve often envied painters and artisans—people who make, like, chairs—or even film editors, where it’s all about the process. Because they’re not so built around these results that are highly publicized and promoted. So I thought it would be interesting to do a recording that was 100 percent not for anyone, ever—just for our own enjoyment.
BLVR: And how much was it different as a result?
WS: Do you want to hear a song from it?
[We listen. The band discusses timpani on the downbeats.]
WS: I want it to be Phil Spector style.
BLVR: I’m recording this so I can leak it on the internet.
WS: If you do, I’ll stab you in the fucking leg.