Okkervil River are one of the most critically acclaimed acts on the indie-rock circuit, subject of laudatory New York Times profiles and scads of Pitchfork Media praise—yet amid all the ink spilled on behalf of the band, almost none of it has touched on their ties to the Twin Cities. Before frontman Will Sheff made good via a slew of literate folk-rock records whose sound morphed over the years from creaky and rustic (2002's Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See) to buoyant and hand-clap happy (2007's The Stage Names), he was a St. Paul college student scared to share the songs he was writing in isolation, many of which later wound up on early Okkervil River records. Post-college, Sheff's found his voice and grown confident with his muse, the best evidence yet arriving in the form of the bold and brash I Am Very Far, Okkervil River's first album in three years and a dense blast of sonic catharsis that blurs genres and plays for keeps.
Prior to his band's headlining gig at First Avenue, Sheff took time out to talk with City Pages about escaping the working-musician grind, his time in the Twin Cities, and how Steppenwolf keeps him humble.
City Pages: A lot of people don't realize this, since it's rarely talked about in the press, but you actually went to college here in the Twin Cities [at St. Paul's Macalester College, graduating in 1998 with a degree in English]. Was that a particularly formative time for you artistically?
Sheff: College was a funny time. Even when I was at Macalester and doing a lot of writing—whether that was writing songs or writing articles for the Mac Weekly or short stories for the Chanter—I never thought that I could be someone who had their own band. That just seemed like something that was exclusively for the cool kids, which I was definitely not one of. During the time I was at Macalester the big student bands were a funk-rock band and this artsy metal punk band, and I just didn't see how I could fit in. Finally during my senior year I just thought, 'Fuck it, I'm at least going to play a song or something in public.' I had a friend burn a CD of some of my songs, which was a big deal back then because basically nobody had CD burners. Then I brought my CDs over to the Dunn Bros. on Snelling and Grand and ended up booking like three shows out of it—one in St. Paul, one in Uptown, and one out in Wayzata. I specifically remember that at the Uptown show there was literally no one there, not even the baristas because they had another separate room they were working in. I felt like such a loser because there was this big glass window behind me and people kept walking by seeing me play songs to an empty room [laughs]. The whole time I lived in the Twin Cities I was always writing and four-tracking songs but was really afraid to show them to anybody. I was in a creative writing program that felt really cutthroat to me and it seemed like everybody wanted to see each other fail. By the time I graduated I just felt like, 'Screw it, I'm going to do music for real.' After graduation I immediately moved to Austin and started Okkervil River with my high school friends.
CP: Okkervil River has worked hard and arrived at a pretty enviable place career-wise, with the new record debuting on the Top 40 of the Billboard chart at #31. How much do you allow yourself to pause and enjoy it?
Sheff: Before I even answer that question I just have to make it known how psyched I am to actually be playing First Avenue. I remember reading the City Pages every week and listening to Radio K obsessively and I never in a million years dreamed that I would be written about in the paper or playing the Mainroom. That's just massive for me personally. In terms of keeping things in perspective I often think of Steppenwolf, which is kind of a dumb book in many ways but I think had a great point about art. In the book there's this concept of the timeless Gods of Art who are masters up in heaven laughing at all these lesser artists' achievements. That image always stuck with me as being helpful. Everybody in the world right now could say you're great but it doesn't really mean anything, it's about the work being judged over time and trying to sort of please those gods. We're not the most successful band, but we've had our share of success. It's hard to say if that really even means anything when you look at all the really garbage music out there that sells a ton of copies. I try to remember that it's a passing moment and it's nice to have the success and recognition we do have. There are bands that everyone was into at a certain point in time and now everyone is embarrassed and doesn't want to talk about it. Popularity is pretty much all bullshit and has nothing to do with the quality of the work. I don't deserve it but I try to enjoy what success I have anyway because it would be gross not to.
CP: You were pretty much on the road or in the studio from 2002 through 2008, releasing five records in that time. How important was getting off the record-tour-record treadmill in making I Am Very Far?
Sheff: I don't want to sound like an ungrateful spoiled prick, but I hate the record-promote-tour treadmill. I hate two years going by without really writing. When I finally had the time and budget to actually step back and make a record again I was just raring to go, I felt like a dog that had been locked up too long and sees a dog park coming its way on the horizon. When I listen back to the record now I hear that sense of joy, just being uninhibited and really having a great time. On some of those older records I listen to them now and I hear a tight, worried quality, like I'm still trying to figure things out and am worried about what other people's reactions might be.
CP: Back when Down the River of Golden Dreams was released you told me that part of making memorable records is a willingness to take chances and risk failure. I Am Very Far feels like a risky record, as you frequently opted for challenges like recording 15 players live in a room and trying to find a usable take. Are those kinds of self-imposed challenges still essential to your creative process, six records in?
Sheff: Absolutely. Maybe it would be better if I tried to actually aim for perfection and just went and made a record where everyone concentrated on playing to their strengths. Personally, I always want to push myself toward something new because I feel like it's offensive to phone it in. I'm always searching somehow, and trying to be born into a new version of myself. I never want to feel like I'm just coughing out another record. I definitely like to create challenges during the recording process that are in a sense artificial, but it's not really about the challenges themselves as much as the state of mind they put me in. The key is in throwing away the formula and reaching for something new.
OKKERVIL RIVER play with Future Islands and Titus Andronicus on SUNDAY, JUNE 12, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775