33-year-old Austin-based Will Sheff’s ultimate goal as a musician is to be a total failure. But as the frontman of indie folk-rock outfit, Okkervil River, and its equally-prolific offshoot, Shearwater, his renowned ability as a songwriter and performer make this aspiration somewhat of a distant fantasy. Sheff, it would seem, fails at failing.
So what is one to do when the terribly romantic notion of the long-suffering artist, who sacrifices everything for their art only to have it perennially misunderstood and overlooked, is apparently out of reach? Pay homage to those who can’t for the life of them escape it.
“My heart goes out to those people who deserved more than what they got,” offers an empathetic Sheff. “It’s really unfair, they’re deserving of a fair shot. And then there are those who aren’t so deserving, but somehow became successful. It’s really disproportionate, but that’s just the way it is, life isn’t fair. Those not-so-well-known artists who could’ve been as big as The Beatles, but it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons. I have a sense of responsibility to them and in a special way I want to honour them. They gave something for their art like what I gave, but they lost things in the service of that art, and fell on the battlefield. So I want to find them where they fell and erect a monument to them.” And with that in mind, Okkervil River’s fifth album, The Stand Ins, was conceived.
Simultaneously recorded with 2007’s full-length, The Stage Names, The Stand Ins was released a year later. It’s a continuance of the former’s insight into the relentlessly bleak world of the lonely, flailing artist and their mercurial and vacuous hangers-on. Sheff, lauded as the one of the brainiest, most literary songwriters around, weaves together an array of poignant characters, solid rhymes and pointed references with the deft hand of a lyricist who knows the value of a clever turn of phrase.
Not he doesn’t envy those less fastidious and deliberate. “I’ve always loved writers who can be really impressionistic and really simple and sort of eccentric,” he promptly admits. “There’s a tradition in rock – “n roll of really odd, goofy phrases that just work. You know that line, “My wishes visualised/You’re real, so real,” something like that, or even in Kangaroo, “I want you like a kangaroo.” It’s so stupid, but there’s something about the essence of rock – “n roll in that stupidity. There’s a sublime beauty and spirit in it.”
It’s this concept of the brilliant fluke, that sudden stroke of genius that came as if from nowhere, that Sheff identifies as one of the fundamental qualities of that doomed artist he holds so close to his heart. “I look at a great song, one that made me feel more human or made me have a good time on a Saturday night. The band might have made this one song, but they’re not actually that good. But there was this one moment, something really important and special, I don’t know what the hell that was, but I made it this really specific goal to chase it down and honour it.”
Sheff’s appreciation for the techniques of his musical peers points to his experience as a respected reviewer for the now-defunct Audiogalaxy.com. His prowess not only as a composer of lyrics, but also of prose, earned him the prestigious honour of being invited by the highly-regarded indie publishing house, McSweeney’s, to contribute a piece for the Endangered Species edition of their quarterly journal late last year. Sheff’s prescribed genre? Fornaldarsaga, the Norse saga.
“It was so much fun writing that saga because it put me back in a place like where I was for Black Sheep Boy. That’s where it comes from, it has a fairy tale quality to it. That’s what I was going for when I was writing it. With The Stand Ins and The Stage Names, I didn’t want that. I wanted a more paperback, journalistic quality. But the fairytale is a part of who I am. I came from a poor background, an extremely poor town. Writing the saga, I got to be in that world again. With Black Meadow [Sheff’s Norse saga], it’s so violent, there’s so much cruelty and severity to the stories, and that came through a lot.”
This fascination with violent sagas, ill fate and desperate characters has earned Okkervil River the affectionate reputation of – “The Saddest Band in Texas’. Sheff keeps himself confidently removed from the – “pessimist’ tag. “How I feel about it, I just try to be real. I don’t get frustrated. You can’t lose too much sleep worrying about what people think about you, it’s always going to be wrong, even if it’s nice. If they say something really brilliant about you, you’re not exactly going to pipe up and say it’s wrong, because they’ve made you seem so smart. You just have to take a step back from all of that.”
As Okkervil River prepare to return to Australia in May to tour The Stand Ins, Sheff discusses his latest project with that modest admiration for his songwriting peers.
“I’m producing with Roky Erickson at the moment. His way with words is kind of weird. His word play is really off-the-cuff, and I that’s something I adore. You have to be sort of be loosely holding your pen, letting something go and believing in it. Isaac Babel once said something like, – “Every phrase needs to be turned once and then let go.’ I really respond to that. With any song or artwork, when something very delicate has been done to it carelessly and then it was put down, I really admire that.”
Set to star at the Groovin’ The Moo festivals in May, Okkervil River is also fitting in some sideshows.
2 May – Groovin’ The Moo, Townsville
Sunday May 3 – The Zoo, Brisbane
Tuesday May 5 – Capitol, Perth
Friday May 8 – The Annandale Hotel, Sydney
9 May – Groovin’ The Moo, Maitland
16 May – Groovin’ The Moo, Bendigo
Sunday May 17 – Billboard, Melbourne