Like a Punch in the Face

Okkervil River's current lineup: In front, Sheff; in back, from left, Cully Symington, Patrick Pestorius, Lauren Gurgiolo, Justin Sherburn, and Michael St. Clair. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos. Hair and Makeup by Sarah Graalman for Dior Beauty.

Will Sheff grew up in rural New Hampshire, at a Catholic boarding school where both his parents taught. The family lived in the dorms, and the summers were heady for a little boy: Sheff would have the run of the abandoned campus, pretending tractors were spaceships in elaborate Star Wars fantasies. One afternoon, he and his brother were playing in the school pool. “A teacher was spinning my brother around, roughhousing with him, and my brother lost his direction underwater and he almost drowned.” Sheff remembers envying his brother’s disorientation. “I wanted to be in that situation where I don’t know where I am,” he says, a sensation he is trying to duplicate in I Am Very Far, his band Okkervil River’s latest album. “When interiority takes over, it becomes all about errors and static, which are almost as important as what you sit down and think about and craft. As much as I enjoy showing that I can put a line together, I never wanted to be the kind of writer that people go, Oh see, he’s smart. As a matter of fact, I find that gross and obnoxious.”

Sheff, 34, is part of a rarefied group of tweedy singer-songwriters that includes the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. And despite his affection for the loss of consciousness, he is famous for his braininess and hyperliterate wordplay. His band is named after a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. He has written for McSweeney’s and was nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes to Roky Erickson’s latest album, True Love Cast Out All Evil (which Sheff also produced). He even dresses like a shaggily foxy English professor, all suede elbow patches and earth-toned trousers. “I sometimes fantasize about teaching, because I really enjoy the sound of my own voice,” he says with a laugh. “I’d like to hold some AP class captive while I pontificate on things they could care less about.”

Okkervil River formed in earnest in Austin in the late nineties; of the three original members, Sheff is the only one left. In 2001, the band signed with the indie label JAGJAGUWAR, but it wasn’t until 2005 and the release of Black Sheep Boy—an album loosely based on folk singer Tim Hardin’s descent into existentialist dread and fatal heroin addiction—that anyone paid attention. Considered something of a modern classic now, it showcased Sheff’s twin gifts: intellectual, often violent narratives set to explosive indie rock. That was followed by The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, which were originally intended as a double album exploring fandom, suicide, and the ephemeral nature of fame. By this time, Okkervil River was a fluctuating lineup of musicians, with the band’s live shows celebrated for Sheff’s raging intensity: Glasses fogged with condensation, he would wail so ferociously into the microphone that he shredded his vocal cords. (The singer now gets regular treatments from Mick Jagger’s and Jay-Z’s voice doctor. “Sometimes he’ll give you a shot in the ass, some kind of steroid stuff, and I’ll think, He gave Jay-Z a shot in the ass too; this is amazing!” Sheff says. “I like to pretend it’s the seventies in New York, a Dr. Robert scenario, and I’m Edie Sedgwick.”)

I Am Very Far is Okkervil River’s most ambitious album (including string and horn sections, and choral and orchestral arrangements), as well as its most enigmatic. The songs, says Sheff, are the first to be written by his unconscious mind. “There are themes, but I didn’t articulate them to myself. I kept them secret. It was like the subconscious was down in the lower level of my being, going, ‘We’ll handle the conceptual elements; don’t ask about it, it’s being taken care of.’ ” The shift in his songwriting began in 2006, when he moved to Brooklyn. “I remember I was writing ‘Calling and Not Calling My Ex’ [for The Stand Ins], and I felt like it was all brain,” he says. “The emotions were not deep, just sort of lovelorn. It felt like a dead end.” Sheff began to experiment with ways of sidestepping his signature certitude and precision. “I’d get a cheap warbly cassette recorder and say to myself, you have to sing for ten minutes, like a gun is to your head. What comes out is something you would never write. It’s mind-vomit and meaningless, sensual, animal, spiritual,” says Sheff, who employed unlikely instruments—file cabinets thrown across a room in one song; a fast-forwarding and rewinding boom box in another—to accompany his new songs. He likens the effect to “a punch in the face that you don’t know what you did to deserve, but it alters your worldview.”

When he was young, Sheff suffered from a then often fatal disease called epiglottitis (there is now a vaccine cure). “Your throat swells up and you can’t breathe, so when I was 18 months, they had to cut a hole in my throat and put a tube in,” he says. “I was immobilized by it and forgot how to walk.” That sense of fragility, combined with the exceptionalism that can develop from being an outsider, has never left him. “I always picture myself in nature as the antelope that gets eaten in like five seconds. My antelope parents would be like, ‘Here is the savannah, we’re home free,’ and I would immediately get taken down by a cheetah,” he says. “At the same time, I think of myself as the strange shaman in a tribal society who, while everybody else is going out to hunt, stays home taking drugs and having weird visions. That guy is trying to make something very intangible and yet useful in some mysterious way. It’s my job to be that guy. Or at least it’s the job I aspire to.”

Okkervil River will play Terminal 5 on June 7.

I Am Very Far
Okkervil River.
Jagjaguwar. $9.68

Like a Punch in the Face