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Death, covers and the Yodeling Brakeman – Siobhán Kane interviewed Okkeril River‘s Will Sheff ahead of their gig at The Button Factory tonight.

Death, covers and the Yodeling Brakeman – Siobhán Kane interviewed Okkeril River‘s Will Sheff ahead of their gig at The Button Factory tonight.

Okkervil River‘s sixth record I Am Very Far is another interesting chapter in their musical novel that has taken in another incarnation (Shearwater), working with Roky Erickson, and living up to their (Russian) literary name with Will Sheff’s poetic lyrics, and preoccupation with epic, meaningful subjects; love, death, and Tim Hardin (on Black Sheep Boy).

Their latest record is an even bigger version of the band, replete with more instruments, more musicians, and more ideas – it is almost operatic in scope, yet retains those trademark Okkervil River touches; intricate instrumentation, vivid images, a sense of inventiveness.

In some ways their wonderful covers album Golden Opportunities Mixtape (2007) is a telling point of reference for their own life pursuits, Randy Newman’s ‘Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear’ nestles alongside Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘I Came Here to Say I’m Going Away’, and Jimmy Webb’s ‘Do What You Gotta Do’ keeps company with Sandy Denny’s ‘Solo’; and there is also a Sheff original in there too ‘Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas’, evidencing that he is not only in the lineage of great songwriters, but right in the middle of them, Siobhán Kane talks to him.


Your latest record once more delves into a preoccupation with death.What has your relationship with the sense of death been like over the years? Has it changed a great deal?
I had so many thoughts when I was younger that led to the gradual realisation that one day in fact I wouldn’t exist anymore, which is a hard thing to wrap your mind around when you’re really little but which is also something you intuitively understand once you realise it’s true. As I got into my teenage years, I still understood that I was going to die eventually but I became a lot more cavalier about it, the way you do when you’re a teenager. The actual reality of it was something I didn’t really understand and didn’t care to understand, then later I started writing about it.

There is a gothic feel to I am Very Far which is reflected in the beautiful artwork on the sleeve. It is Will Schaff again, isn’t it? You have a long relationship with him, how did you meet?
Will Schaff has done the artwork for us stretching all the way back to our first “real” record Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See. We’re really different people on the surface, but I think that we have a lot of similarities underneath all that. In a lot of ways Will has been responsible for informing how people think about the band visually, because although I give him general direction for our artwork I don’t ever tell him specifically what images to create and so what he comes up with ends up being his take on the material, often before the actual recordings have even been made. With I Am Very Far I knew I wanted Will to do something with this papercut style he has kind of an adapted – Japanese. What I like about the papercuts is that they’re simple. There’s no gradation, it’s all just positive and negative space; black and white. I told him I wanted all the art to be papercut-based and that I wanted the cover image to be of some kind of “guardian” figure or figures. The rest was him.

Do you look back often at any previous Okkervil River records? You seem to be someone who holds the sense of mystery dear, never revealing the Wizard of Oz, so to speak. You are always striving towards the unknowable mystery?
Yeah, that’s really true of what I try to do. I don’t like prosaic art and I don’t particularly strive towards any kind of naturalism and realism, and I kind of never have, even though some of our records might have felt more grounded than others. Look at The Colossus of Rhodes or Easter Island… I love the idea of an artwork that just is – it doesn’t particularly signify or “mean” anything besides itself. There’s a beautiful sense of possibility in something like that, there’s a chance for the artwork to feel alive, to almost be a presence you’re communicating with, as opposed to an object you nail down and interpret and then file away somewhere.

You often explore the dark matter of life, yet obviously believe in goodness, but strive to understand or at least engage with why darkness exists, and why bad things happen to good people – perhaps it makes us stronger?
I think you just have to engage with the dark stuff if you’re going to be honest as an artist, because the art you’re making won’t be as useful to people if it’s blind to the painful aspects of life or if it just tells them lies about the way life is, lies like “everything’s going to be all right.” I don’t view life as some horrible experience or some tragedy – I’m a generally happy and enthusiastic and life-loving person – but obviously life for some people is quite frightening and unfair and all of us at some point will experience pain and fear that challenge our ability to go on, and we all wonder why that is. I think that art can sometimes help us at times like that, help us to examine what’s scaring us, or strengthen us against it.

Is it a way of expressing the more raw version of yourself, that you wouldn’t necessarily be as comfortable doing in everyday life? The way that Larry David always says that his ‘character’ on Curb is a hyper version of his true self?
I guess in some way that’s true. I hate the idea that art has to be “confessional” or that we should all be deeply fascinated with the personal lives and passing feelings or some songwriter or other, but I think you can’t escape your art being personal even if you’re writing from the point of view of a Japanese fisherman in 1919. I think that might be why I sometimes feel awkward when fans come up to me and want to talk about songs. In a way, they’ve had a close experience with some side of my personality that I don’t show to barely anyone or don’t even fully understand myself, and that’s an awkward thing to have to think about when you’re talking to someone who is otherwise a complete stranger.

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