“When I look back at things in hindsight, I don’t always know why I did them,” Will Sheff, the creative force behind Okkervil River, says. “I don’t always know why I did Black Sheep Boy the way I did. I don’t know why I cared for what I was talking about as much as I did on The Stage Names. And, I think it is because you work through those issues so thoroughly over the course of a record cycle. Not just writing the songs and recording the songs, but going on stage and playing them for people, and doing a million interviews about them and doing videos that tie in. By the end, all that’s left are these cold ashes. Then you just want to do something different. You want to build a new fire.”
Sheff’s new fire, his seventh full-length LP under the Okkervil River banner, is The Silver Gymnasium. For long-time fans of Sheff, the album is noteworthy in that it sees the songwriter drawing from his own life rather than imagined or historical characters’ experiences and emotions. For people with a more passing interest, the album is noteworthy for the care put into its creation, a watchful eye that doesn’t demand any experience with Okkervil River to gain enjoyment or comfort. Whereas he described his previous album, I Am Very Far, as an “impenetrable fortress,” The Silver Gymnasium is written as a friend inviting people into his world, not keep them out to appreciate from afar.
“By the time I was finished with the I Am Very Far stuff, I wanted to leave the extravagant mansion and I wanted to go live in a clay hut in the woods,” Sheff explains. “That’s how I feel about The Silver Gymnasium. It’s homely, and friendly, and structurally sound, and a nice place to kickback. If you think of I Am Very Far as the Winchester Mansion, and think of The Silver Gymnasium as your parents’ house. The Winchester Mansion is more ostentatious, but there is a lot to feel at your parents’ house.”
The ability to draw from his own experience and make those experiences relevant to others is not to be undersold, and the process of discussing Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, N.H. predates Okkervil River, though the point he was ready to make this album pays dividends in the amount of life experience and wisdom he can draw from.
“When I was in high school, I was very into regional-based works of literature,” Sheff says. “Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas was really important to me. I really loved Faulkner and the Yoknapatawpha stuff, and I was very aware that I lived in place like that, a town that had a bunch of intersecting stories and narratives, and that it was different than the rest of the world. And I was always aware that it was important and special to me, and that I wanted to write about it throughout my career, and specifically in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to make a whole work about that.”
“I’ve also always had a perverse desire to glorify New Hampshire,” Sheff continues, “partially because it is such a left-field thing for some people to talk about. People don’t really have an image in their mind about New Hampshire. It’s frustrating to me that people lump it in with Vermont. It’s frustrating to me that people think of it as this Mayberry; Anytown, USA type of place. Because, it has a real specificity to it. If you think of the way Stephen King wrote about Maine, that’s the way that I felt like my experience was with New Hampshire, minus all the horror and supernatural elements of his work.”
New Hampshire appeared in works from Okkervil River previously, notably “Listening to Otis Redding at Home During Christmas,” but never directly through real experiences from Sheff’s youth. You would never expect that Sheff was writing from a persona based on how Okkervil River’s music sounds, through the way Sheff emotes past songs from the perspective of a murderer facing capture (“Westfall”), from a citizen on the day of a presidential assassination (“The President’s Dead”) or from noted poet John Berryman. Of course, the content of those songs reveal the experiences to be fiction, a reaction to over-saturation of personal songwriting in the indie scene when Sheff was first creating as Okkervil River.
“There was stuff that was good in that autobiographical vein,” Sheff explains, “but there was a lot that was also very self-indulgent and self-absorbed, done with the belief that people really gave a shit about the personal life of songwriters. And around that time, I was taken with the concept of writing from a point of view. I was really interested in character, and somebody like Loudon Wainwright or Randy Newman, and the way you can bring about somebody else’s experience.
“That tendency is does not really exist anymore in quite the same way,” he continues. ”When I look at contemporary rock songwriting, especially among young bands, it is a general, vague, slouchy avoidance of stakes. An avoidance of putting something on the line, an avoidance of having emotion and an avoidance of cutting too close to the bone. For that reason, as a corrective, I thought it would be useful to write a record that was very direct and that didn’t play that many games. To talk very openly and directly to the listener. When you think about something like John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band or certain later Van Morrison records where it’s almost like there’s nothing really to hide, like they are talking directly to someone. I wanted to make a record that had that open and engaging quality. And I knew that one sure way to get there was to just open up on my internal desires to write about what was going on in my head exactly at that moment. My feeling is that is not a self-absorbed thing to do because my desire is to get at something that other people can relate to. You put your personal stuff on the table, because you are anteing up and getting in the game, saying ‘well, here is what I am carrying, and I’m just going to let you all know that. So, for me that was the impetus behind writing in a much more personal way.”
Though writing from personal experience has never been Sheff’s method previously, his music has never struggled to resonate, but he still notes the importance of that element to this current project.
“I think that people respond to knowing something is authentic,” Sheff says. “Like, when someone is doing their own stunts. On some level, Buster Keaton could have gotten a stunt man to do his stunts, and people probably would have still liked the movie. You don’t necessarily need to know that it’s him doing his own stunts. But, the fact that it is makes it very special. And that quality of actuality and specificity was something that I wanted to color the record with. The fact that it is not fake. That I’m doing my own emotional stunts.”
Highlighting these “emotional stunts” are songs that stand up to the best work Sheff has ever done. “Down the Deep River” is six-and-a-half minutes of Springsteen-esque grandeur, playfully interchanging horns and synthesizers to stand behind his reclaiming of the idea of nostalgia away from the current obsession with lists and escapism. “Tell me about the greatest movie you know or the greatest song that you taped from off the radio,” Sheff asks in the second verse, while the song’s characters remain blissfully unaware of the life that is to come. Later, a more difficult request comes when Sheff sings “Tell me you’re always gonna be my best friend, you said it one time, now why won’t you say it again?”
“I think friendship becomes more and less important as you get older,” Sheff says, explaining the desire to write about friendship rather than romantic love on The Silver Gymnasium. “Nobody ever tells you this, but the first part of your life is about family and then you get into a pretty important friendship period. You’re not having romantic relationships and you pour all your love and feelings into your friendship. And then for some reason, part of which are societal, part of which are just part of the human race, you make the latter part of your life about family again. Or, about love and family.
“At the same time,” he continues, “as you get older, friends come in and out of your life, and you watch some of your friends really drop low. And you watch some of your friends really stick to their true colors. You realize how hard it is just to get along in the world. Everyone is carrying their own cloth and their own burden. Friends can be a tremendous comfort. And sometimes we just need friends to have a meal with you and be like ‘tell me what’s up. Unburden yourself to me.’ And that’s really special. I think a lot of people write about love because it is a big one, but there also is a laziness to throwing love into a song. It doesn’t feel as easy to me to talk about friendship. I think Bill Fay was inspirational to me for that. He talks a lot about brotherhood and about friendship. And it’s righteous. So I wanted to do that; I wanted to write as a friend.”
Sheff speaks directly to his audience on “All the Time Every Day,” in a call and response heartbreaker that sounds more like Okkervil River’s signature sound than anything they have made on the last couple albums. “Do you fall so short of all that’s in your heart when your friends, that you should pull up, you instead pick apart?” Sheff asks, just one in a series of questions to the listener. The listener’s response to each is “Every day, all the time,” possibly a presumption on his part, but probably a correct one. Sheff concludes the song with both understanding and advice: “Don’t be ashamed, I’m that way. But I try, everyday, and all the time.”
“My number one thing that I want to be in life,” Sheff says, finishing his discussion about an album that should become beloved over time, “is I want to be a good uncle. A good brother. A good son. A good boyfriend. A good grandson. A good friend. And a good stranger. And that’s most important to me. If I knew that those things would change if I became a better artist, I’d just say fuck it, I’m gonna become a teacher. So, that to me is an inspiration. As an artist, I have a serious responsibility to keep it real, and to keep my chops up and to truly mean it. To give people something that is truly useful and not just me jerking off. I feel the need to give people something that they’ll find helpful. Like, how an athlete for the Olympics is training their asses off for four years, I put a great deal of thought and care and love into staying engaged with the world on a spiritual level, so that I can make my best work. Because, it is kind of obscene and disgusting when you are belching out something you don’t care about and expecting people to pay money for it.”
“And maybe sometimes you won’t get something out of it,” Sheff adds, “and that might mean I failed, but I’m always trying to put something in there that is useful to people.”