Okkervil River: Rock ‘n’ roll dilettante

American indie rockers Okkervil River, who play Wellington tomorrow, formed in Austin, Texas 15 years ago.

Slowly but surely the band, fronted by the multi-disciplined Will Sheff, have built up a following in the United States and abroad. They’ve even performed with Lou Reed and The National.

Then last year, the band released its seventh album The Silver Gymnasium and it went into the American album charts at No 7, the highest placing for any of its releases. In one go Okkervil River went from being a cult favourite, to, well, a big-selling rock band.

But Sheff, speaking from New York, has mixed feelings about making the top 10. “I don’t know, man. I’ve always found that being happy about success and being sad about failure, whether it’s like awards, or chart positions or anything like that, is kind of dangerous.

“You can start chasing after that, but if you look at the history of your favourite artists you’ll find that a lot of their best records were not appreciated at the time. Sometimes their worst records were their bestsellers.”

Not that Sheff, 37, is saying that The Silver Gymnasium is the band’s worst album. In fact, the album is not just a critic and fan favourite. One reason for its big sales is that it is one of their most accessible records, pulling in many first-time listeners to the band – listeners who enjoy the same mix of indie rock from the likes of The National and Arcade Fire.

Like Arcade Fire’s popular The Suburbs in 2010, The Silver Gymnasium is a concept album of sorts. The songs are vignettes based on Sheff’s memories of 1986 growing up in his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire. The album title refers to a gym at his boarding school.

“A lot of what I do is pretty intuitive,” says Sheff on making the album. “A lot of it especially becomes more clear to me in hindsight sometimes. You have an emotion and you follow it somewhere and after a while you look around and go ‘oh, this is where I am’.

“I’ve always been a very sentimental and nostalgic person. I always pined for my vision of time gone by. You start to realise that a lot of it is sort of silly and even delusional – but it’s stuff that you can’t let go of.

“The word nostalgia has the [Greek root] word pain in it – algos. It can really, really hurt and I was feeling that sense of pain. I wanted to exorcise those demons a little bit, but I think I also wanted to write – not necessarily about my own childhood and say ‘everybody look at me’. I really wanted to write for people who were experiencing that same thing. Explore why it is that we feel these feelings.”

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It’s with that basis that The Silver Gymnasium is Sheff’s very personal take on his memories of being 10 years old, while also being universal. “It should be like that. The record would be of limited use if it was just about this guy in Meriden, New Hampshire in 1986, who wrote about the street that he grew up on. What is really good is that it can talk to other people about their own experience of childhood.”

Sheff is explaining all this while seated comfortably in a new work space he has in New York. It’s only recently, he says, that he feels he can give his full concentration to numerous projects.

“The thing that really used to drive me nuts was coming home from tour and not being able to get into any kind of work rhythm because work is the key to my happiness. It is very therapeutic for me,” he says.

It shows. There’s Sheff and the rest of Okkervil River, which can number up to half a dozen members. Besides albums, they’ve released mixtapes on their website of cover songs – although they recently had to remove a cover of The End of Innocence after being asked to by its composer, The Eagles’ Don Henley.

Sheff was also a member of another Austin indie rock band, Shearwater, for a number of years. Now he juggles other musical projects, as well as his drawings and artwork. Several of his drawings can be seen on his website.

Renaissance man Sheff prefers what he was accused of being while a child. “I’m very aware of being a person who does a lot of different things. I remember when I was a kid my uncle said ‘Will, do you know what the word dilettante means’ He was basically trying to tell me ‘don’t be a dilettante’. But whatever it was I didn’t get his message.

“When I look at other artists who do all this stuff I think ‘Oh god guys, stick to something else [like] acting. I don’t care what you’re painting.’ But I can’t help it. It comes from a very sincere place for me. Art is like religion to me. It’s my very favourite thing in the whole world. I just want to try as many different media as I can before I die. I just can’t stop it and I’m fascinated by what you learn from music.”

Sheff’s latest passion is film-making. It’s come about from making a music video “but really more of a long film,” he says, for one of the songs off The Silver Gymnasium.

“Film is kind of the ultimate. With film you can direct actors and style them in whatever outfits you want and put them in these beautiful sets that you’ve worked with a brilliant person to make. You can put music on top of it and make it feel however you want it. You can edit it whatever way.

“It’s really this wonderful way to create a world. Everything comes into play. Doing this film makes me think I should do film forever because everything else seems to be combined in film.”

Not that music would be forgotten. This reminds me that I have to ask Sheff a fanboy question. In 2010 he and Okkervil River produced the album True Love Cast Out All Evil by Roky Erikson.

Erikson was a founding member of pioneering psychedelic 60s band The 13th Floor Elevators. But Erikson is as much known for what happened after the band. He was arrested with a small amount of cannabis in 1969, but rather than go to jail, pleaded insanity and was then sent to a hospital where he underwent electroconvulsive therapy.

He was later released, but in 1982 he claimed a Martian was inhabiting his body. It meant that Erikson’s music career see-sawed for many years due to mental illness and he could be hard to work with.

True Love Cast Out All Evil was his first album of new material in 14 years. So how did Sheff find Erikson “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t realise to the extent that the guy was going to change my life. I fell in love with everything about his story and his musicianship and his vibe,” he says.

“But it was even harder than I knew. I very much wanted to represent a side of Rocky that I felt other people didn’t credit. It was imagining a different path for Rocky.”


Okkervil River play Wellington’s Bodega tomorrow and Auckland’s Kings Arms on Sunday.