Like a Midnight Cowboy

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Will Sheff

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ou Reed called Okkervil River one of his favorite bands, but back when I met frontman Will Sheff, he was working behind the video counter in Austin, Texas. "Ah, I remember that well," says Sheff. "Those were the days." Those days were 2002, to be exact, and I was intoxicated by Okkervil River’s Don’t Fall in Love With Everyone You See, a dark and beautiful album with appearances by ravaged lovers, murderers, and dead, floating bodies. But I could never quite reconcile the band’s singer — wild with passion, sometimes scraping his throat raw as he lurched into a chorus — with the shy intellectual at Vulcan Video who knew where they kept all the Woody Allen.

Like the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, Sheff has been pegged as a "literary songwriter," and Okkervil River albums often feel like a satisfying collection of short stories. (The band takes its name from a short story by Tatyana Tolstaya.) But reserved as he is off-stage, Sheff is equally unbridled in his performance. The band’s breakthrough album, 2004’s Black Sheep Boy, was a sonic melodrama that found Sheff’s vocals in full abandon.


Okkervil River’s most recent album, The Stage Names, scales back a bit from that pitch, but Sheff is still drawn to doomed characters. "Savannah Smiles" is about the lost childhood of porn star Savannah, who committed suicide after a car accident left her scarred. And the album’s closer, "John Allyn Smith Sails," finds poet John Berryman as he jumps from the bridge that will end his life. It’s a stirring collection about people in the margins of fame — the groupies, the artists no longer able to create, the tired and traveling bands, a subject about which Will Sheff certainly knows a lot. It was at a pit stop on his most current tour that I spoke with Will Sheff about Stage Names. We spoke for a while about sex and art and fandom. But first, he had to order his sandwich. — Sarah Hepola

So where are you right now?

I’m at Subway, and I’m getting a sandwich.

Are there sandwich artists there?

Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. This is where the real art is being done these days. We’re up there in our ivory towers, but meanwhile, there’s all this street-level sandwich artistry going on.

So you wrote a song about the porn star Savannah. What interested you in her story?

I guess I was angered by, and interested in, the way people reduce women who do things that are possibly controversial into some kind of daytime TV explanation. Like, if she’s an adult-film actress, she must have been sexually abused. They immediately write those women off. And you either get this hostility or this condescension. I wrote another song about Savannah, "(Savannah Takes the) Starry Stairs," which is from Savannah’s perspective, but the song didn’t make it on the album because it wasn’t finished. Anyway, it was interesting when Savannah died, because the adult industry pointed fingers at her parents, saying they had molested her, and her parents pointed their fingers at the adult-film industry, saying they exploited her. And I wanted to embrace the ambiguities of not knowing why people do what they do.

Also, Savannah was a groupie. That’s how she started out. She was with Duane Allman. She was connected with Slash at some point, and maybe the guy from Motley Crue. She’s in the Tom Petty video ["Don’t Come Around Here No More"]. And none of those people went to her funeral, either. Only Pauly Shore, believe it or not.

The only things I know about Savannah are from an E! True Hollywood Story.

And I love taking something like that and making it a song. I would have been afraid of that in the past, but I really enjoyed taking something very lowbrow and trying to wring something out of it that I thought was more, maybe, soulful.

Do you watch trashy TV?

Yeah, I do. I think low culture is all culture. Rock and roll is low culture that has been elevated to high culture. There is something so boring about the idea that something must be an opera or an etching to matter. It’s all human beings trying to connect, trying to understand one another.

Do you watch porn?

Sometimes. I think porn is a really interesting subject. Especially for what it means to people. It’s the most simple art imaginable: It’s people and sex. You might throw in costumes and a storyline, but that’s not what people rented it for, or downloaded it for. They downloaded the porn to see people fucking. There’s so much debate about what it means. All it means is what it is. And I think rock and roll is supposed to be about sex. It’s my duty to talk about sex, just a little bit. Especially in indie rock, because there’s this trend toward kind of fetishizing childishness and being freaking out by sex. But the songs that I loved, the David Bowie and Iggy Pop, those songs were all about sex, and they were the people I found extremely entertaining.

What are some of your other songs that talk about sex?

"Maine Island Lovers," from Down the River of Golden Dreams, felt like a breakthrough in a way for me. "For Real" [from Black Sheep Boy"] has a lot of sex. Even a song like "John Allyn Smith Sails" [about the poet John Berryman] is about sex, because we’re talking about an older womanizer who was married many times, and he wrote about sex all the time, and he had that old-school poet thing, connecting his work to his masculinity.

Another thing you talk about on this album a lot is groupies.

That was a big theme, yeah. I guess I’m trying to look at people who are such big fans of art that they would throw their lives away. And they’re such big fans that art becomes sexual. This is your way to interact with this person, that you want to have sex with them. You’re having sex with the person who wrote the song and who might not be the person you think he is.

Does Okkervil River have groupies?

Any band, whether you’re hugely famous or you’re trudging from shitty club to shitty club, there is an opportunity for you. It’s like being a bartender — it’s part of the lifestyle, there are opportunities, yes. But politicians have groupies. Brilliant scientists have groupies.

Is it strange to be someone who grew up feeling maybe alienated from people and now to be the object of such instant affection?

It feels wrong sometimes. It feels a lot more honest if someone wants to sleep you than someone wanting you to give them all the answers to their life. The implied power. The fact that I don’t know anything. I’m just trying to figure this out, and you think I have answers? That is a lot more frightening.

You called the album Stage Names, which evokes the idea of alternate personas. Do you have a stage persona?

I’m a very introverted person, but when I get up onstage, I take my glasses off, so I can’t see anybody, and so I don’t see them and suddenly start wondering what they’re thinking of me. It’s just as much who I really am as the person I am offstage. But if you’re expecting to meet that guy after the show, you’re not going to.

Knowing that you’re a fan of movies, I’m curious if there were movies you were thinking about as you wrote this album.

Yeah, a couple. "A Hand to Take Hold of the Scene" describes the television shows where our music has been used on TV. I mean, there’s only two. It was Breaking Bonaduce, which is a show I never saw. And then Cold Case, which I watched with my family. The show was about some kind of demented guy who buries men alive, and he goes out and picks up a male prostitute and buries him in the rocks, and then our music comes on. I mean, my grandmother was there. It was so embarrassing.

Another movie I was thinking of was Midnight Cowboy, because I like the way it has this feeling of being really realistic and gritty and yet it feels like it’s all taking place on the set. There’s a staginess to it. I like the idea that things that are so repulsive seem almost pretty.

The majority of your work seems to be about really sad people. Why?

I don’t think of the songs as being sad. I think of them as being ecstatic. Like having a blended sadness and happiness and poured on in enormous quanities. I like the idea of these strong emotional states, for those things to be present at once, that there is something jumbled in the way they co-exist.

Black Sheep Boy was your breakthrough album. Tell me about one of the more surreal moments of your new fame.

Probably meeting Lou Reed, because I just couldn’t believe it was happening.

Meeting your heroes can be a disappointment sometimes.

It was not disappointment. I’ve heard people say he was difficult. But he was extremely warm and kind and gentle, and his relationship with Laurie Anderson seemed really sweet.

So how was your sandwich?

Oh, it was good! I had a veggie patty, and I’m not a vegetarian, but if you are, and you’re out on the road, get the veggie patty. The sandwich artists will take care of you.

To order
The Stage Names,

click here.

© 2007 Sarah Hepola & Nerve.com