After kicking around the music scene in Austin, Texas for several years, Okkervil River finally made a national impression with 2005's Black Sheep Boy, a rustic folk-rock record marked by Will Sheff's sublime melodies, disturbing lyrics, and unhinged vocals. It felt like its own weird little world, which Sheff further explored on the follow-up EP, Black Sheep Boy Appendix. Now Okkervil River is back with the very different The Stage Names, a consciously modern collection of songs that reflect on how movies and pop music can shape people's goals and aspirations, setting them up for inevitable heartache and disappointment. Sheff recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the album, his background as a pop-culture critic, and whether being a fulltime musician is all it's cracked up to be.
The A.V. Club: Okkervil River albums always seem to have an overall theme tying the songs together. But do people still listen to albums that way?
Will Sheff: I was in Italy recently doing a promotional tour, and the first thing the publicist said to me was, "I'm really glad you came, but you should know nobody buys records anymore." She meant that people just download them for free. You start to think, "Is it worth spending all this money to make a record sound good, especially if it's going to end up as an mp3?" But I can't drive myself too crazy thinking about that. On one level, being involved in art is all a quixotic thing to begin with.
AVC: Jack White got upset when Icky Thump leaked to radio early, it seems, because somebody else had taken control of his music.
WS: The weird thing about it is, if you do what Jack White did and get all angry and chew somebody out on the air, you immediately run afoul of all these idealistic Internet ideologues, who will make you look like this cranky old dinosaur. You have to pretend that you're not bothered by it. So that's the tack that I'm taking. It's like if you're working in a store and people come and openly shoplift from you, and you're not allowed to say anything about it. Instead, you're supposed to smile and go, "Hope you enjoy that!" I'm not going to complain about it, I don't get to make the rules. It's just really funny how that works.
AVC: Setting aside the stealing-music issue, has listening to an album all the way through become an antiquated notion?
WS: Whether it's antiquated is not for me to say, but The Stage Names was definitely conceived as a whole album. In my mind, there are several topics I'm trying to dance around on the record, and every song has a different take on them. It's all united conceptually, and it's integrated with the artwork. If you're just downloading "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe," you're missing the wholeness of what I was trying to bring across. But I can't affect people's behavior. I can only do something that I think is meaningful, and hopefully everything will not work out for the worst.
AVC: You've said the reason why there are so many pop-culture references on The Stage Names is that you wanted it to have a more modern feel than Black Sheep Boy. Do you typically begin a record with a general guideline like that in mind?
WS: It's just something I intuitively do. If I'm working on a set of songs, and thinking about putting them together in a collection, I start to think about what they have in common. Either on purpose or without meaning to, I shape them all in the same kind of way, because I'd rather the album feel like a galaxy of things that all have to do with each other. I do that with sonic elements, too—it's a matter of each record having its own specific identity.
AVC: The characters that populate The Stage Names use the vocabulary of pop songs and movies to talk about their lives. Is that something you do as well?
WS: Absolutely. It's a really common trap to want your life to live up to some standard that you believe in, and then you start to really examine those standards and realize they come not from experiences you've had, but things you've seen in movies, or feelings you've felt listening to pop songs, or ideas you've received from reading books. And not just happy things, but a lot of the time, sad things. It gets kind of depressing, when you see how movies and songs make these promises to us. If I was being flippant, I would say that a big theme of the record is trying to show that for the bullshit that it is.
AVC: But that's not true of your songs, is it? You depict your characters in a non-romanticized way on this record.
WS: On Black Sheep Boy, there was a sense that the characters were like fairy-tale characters. And in a lot of Okkervil songs, that's what I've been going for. But with The Stage Names, I wanted the people on the album to be real people going through real problems, which is to say, not overly dramatic, exaggerated problems, but the day-to-day disappointments and bullshit everybody goes through. Everybody has had the experience of something they love—whether it's a pop song or a painting or a movie—feeling so perfect to them that it's almost like it came from another planet. It has nothing to do with ordinary life, which is very plain. And there's something depressing about that in a way, because you feel like you're this small little human, and you feel like it has nothing to do with you.
AVC: Even though you write about characters in your songs, you seem to be talking about yourself. Are you ever tempted to distance yourself more, so people don't mistake a story for a page torn from your diary?
WS: I don't see what's valuable about a page torn from somebody's diary. A good writer can simulate a page torn out of somebody's diary, and give you every little voyeuristic thrill you might get from that, but actually tell you a broader story. I think it's a noble idea that it's cathartic to open a vein for everybody to see, but ultimately, you're just getting blood everywhere and making a mess. I like the idea that there are deeper and more meaningful things to talk about than your own misery. But at the same time, there's something really interesting about skirting that line and making it seem like you're doing that.
AVC: It's like how Randy Newman can sing from the point of view of a serial killer in "Suzanne." If an actual serial killer was capable of writing a really good song, it might sound like that.
WS: Randy Newman is exactly who I'm thinking about. I'm loving Randy Newman right now. He has this CD that's called The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1, which has him doing some of his best songs with just piano and voice. It has this really intimate quality. Talk about a guy who in some ways is egoless as a writer. There's so much force in the way he writes, and so much edge. And at the same time, there's so much compassion. I see somebody like Randy Newman, and it seems like there's so much more potential in the approach he uses.
AVC: You've said you don't like how your voice sounds on early Okkervil River albums. Do you think your singing has improved on The Stage Names?
WS: I think it's one of those things where if you've been doing it for a long time, hopefully you get better at it. What's funny about my voice is, no matter what I sing, I sound like I'm really sad. I don't even mean to do it, it's just something my voice has. I think that's one of the reasons why Okkervil has been dubbed as really mopey—I have this tone to my voice that sounds like that. When Okkervil started out, I wanted all of us to sing and all of us to write. I would write songs and give them to other members of the band to sing. I was never a kid who dreamt of being a performer. I started singing the songs because nobody knew who I was or cared at all. If I wasn't going to sing them, nobody was going to sing them, so I had to step in and fill that role myself.
AVC: Does your background as a film and music critic influence your songwriting?
WS: I guess I'm a really analytical person, but when I'm writing, all that stuff goes behind a screen. Analysis and taking things apart is really important and really interesting, but it's the direct opposite of creating something, which has to do with taking things and putting them together and hoping to make something unique that's more than the sum of its parts. And you can't do that with analysis, you can only take things into smaller and smaller pieces.
AVC: Are you still interested in critical writing?
WS: I love reading criticism. I really enjoy the extremely entertaining music critics of the '70s, and I really love contemporary film criticism. Even a dumb review of a dumb movie I don't want to see, I enjoy reading. Culture is really important to me. Me and Jonathan [Meiburg] from Shearwater—who is in Okkervil River—always get into arguments, because he's a very nature-oriented guy, and it's hard for him not to see humankind as a plague upon the world. And I'm always like, "But great movies! And amazing food! And coffee! There's great stuff!"
AVC: Do you read Okkervil River reviews?
WS: I do occasionally. I try not to read them, but if it's a really important review or somebody sends it to me, I'll read it. It's really interesting when you read a review of yourself, you see this weird reflected image—it's like looking a funhouse mirror. Like, "It's sort of me, but is my neck really that elongated?" Sometimes it's vaguely embarrassing what people think of you. When I was in Italy doing this press-interview day, this guy asked me, "Are you a tortured soul?" It's embarrassing to have somebody think you're a tortured soul, or that you think of yourself as a tortured soul.
AVC: You used to work in a video store. How long ago was that?
WS: I was working there every day when I was doing Black Sheep Boy. I would record all day long, and then go do a night shift. Because working in a video store does not pay very much, I had to work every single day. People think that because they've seen your name in print, you're rich. I assume that. But all it means is that there was some intrepid interviewer who bothered to give you a call.
AVC: Is being a full-time musician what you thought it would be?
WS: I don't know, because I don't know what I thought it would be. I always just wanted to have the wherewithal to make another record. I never really dreamt of fortune or fame, because it seemed so unlikely. I'm much more interested in people's perceptions of me than what my life is really like. It appears that some people think it's all cocaine and caviar for Okkervil River. And it's not. I'm making a little bit more than I was making at the video store right now.
AVC: Now that writing songs or playing shows is your job, has that changed your perspective on the creative process?
WS: When I was making Black Sheep Boy, I was seriously ready to quit music. I was going to quit if the record didn't do all right, because I was just really tired. At that point, I had been doing it for seven years, and I was broke. These days, I'm in a little better position. Having that little bit of breathing room to work, and not feeling like it's going to fall apart at any second, has allowed me to recover the feeling I had when I was a little kid, when I was writing stories for fun or drawing pictures for my parents to put on their refrigerator. It was about playing and doing something fun, and kind of making your own little world. And that's how art should feel for me, and how having a little bit more distance between my ass and the ground has helped me.