Ironically enough, Will Sheff has come to learn that there’s a downside to being famous, even when that fame is at the grassroots level. When last year’s The Stage Names became the official breakthrough album for his decade-old band Okkervil River, the 32-year-old front man suddenly found himself playing late-night talk shows, hanging with Lou Reed and Roky Erickson, and popping up in all the music magazines that matter.
Considering how The Stage Names found Sheff examining the obsession that average Joes and Janes have with those who live life in front of the klieg lights, it’s funny that the singer ended up attracting his own share of unwanted public attention.
“Somebody forwarded me a message board where someone wrote a review saying how they knew me in college,” the easygoing Sheff says, on the line from his hometown of Austin, Texas. “They were talking about how they knew me, and how I was a total asshole. And that I dyed my hair black. I’ve never dyed my hair in my life, and wouldn’t even know how to do it.”
Laughing, he continues: “Also, I’m positive that this person was not a friend of mine in college, because I didn’t have any friends in college. So what I mean to say about all of this is that when your face and your likeness and your name and your persona are all in the public exchange, you pretty much open yourself up to people saying anything they want to about you, without you being able to defend yourself. That’s an interesting position to be in. Most of the people who I know in that position—who are at all sane—learn to tune it all out.”
That’s going to be a bigger challenge than ever for Sheff in the coming months, seeing how Okkervil River’s just-released The Stand Ins is likely headed with a bullet for the year’s Top 10 lists. Officially, the album is being touted as a sequel. Sheff obviously wasn’t lacking inspiration when he wrote The Stage Names; by the time he was ready to hit the studio he had enough material for two full-lengths. Rather than make indie rock’s answer to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Okkervil River’s main man decided to bank material for a follow-up.
“Some of them were fully finished, some of them were half-finished, and some of them were kicking around but hadn’t been recorded,” Sheff says of the songs on The Stand Ins. “They were all in slightly different stages of completion.”
Once it was ready to record, Okkervil River worked fast on the album’s 11 tracks, which swing majestically from woozy pure pop (“Lost Coastlines”) to cascading new wave (“Pop Lie”) to unvarnished Americana (“Calling and Not Calling My Ex”).
There’s no shortage of drama. Lyrically, Sheff paints detailed portraits of desperate wannabes who never get closer to the red carpet than the velvet rope, and of left-behind losers who stare at their exes on the pages of star-obsessed magazines. Musically, Okkervil River’s ambitions are epic, whether it’s the way “Blue Tulip” meshes symphonic string swells with ozone-crackle guitar, or the mix of sunset mandolin with saloon-lite piano in “Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979”. Amazingly, it all sounds effortless.
“Sometimes, when you start to look at things too closely, you can kind of ruin it,” Sheff explains. “It’s kind of like cooking a fish and flipping it so many times that it turns into a crumbled pile in the skillet. You’ve got to turn things only once or twice. The Stand Ins was fun that way because we worked very quickly on the songs. There wasn’t time to dissect them and rip things apart and constantly recombine in new ways to see how they would work. It was like, ”˜Make your first intuitive decision and stick with it.’ ”
As sequels go, The Stand Ins is a rarity in that it’s arguably better than the original. Sheff is again fixated on fame, but in a way that suggests he might have more than a passing interest in Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, as well as David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. As a major fan of the latter, he has learned that one of the surest ways to diminish the importance of one’s art is to explain every little mystery to your audience.
He’ll allow, then, that he feels bad about some of the lines in “Singer Songwriter”, a guitar-flared shot of gunpowder country where the main character takes a shit-kicking for loving the Kinks, for bragging about shooting reversal film of Angkor Wat, and for coming across as perpetually self-effacing about being born to a famous family. But beyond admitting a twinge of guilt for seeming to disparage the Kinks—whom he loves—Sheff tellingly takes the Fifth when pressed for details.
“I always get very vague when I have to talk about stuff like this,” he says carefully. “A lot of what I’m looking for in a song is very intuitive, and even if I could sum things up in a snappy little sentence, it would be doing myself a disservice. What I like about David Lynch’s films is that I feel like I’m seeing someone who’s working through things without looking at things too closely.
“I always have this image of when you’ve got your hands in a lighting tent when you’re changing a reel of film,” Sheff continues. “You can’t look at it or else you’ll destroy the film. You’ll overexpose it and none of the images will show up. So you’re feeling around in the dark—and similarly with songwriting, there’s always that idea of doing what feels right. And if something feels right, you go further in that direction.”
Even if, to your horror, it starts to make you famous.
Okkervil River plays Richard’s on Richards tonight.