By Thomas Gilchrist
The Stage Names is the transcendent fifth album from Okkervil River, an indie-folk-rock group based in Austin, Texas. The Alibi had a chance to speak with Will Sheff, the band's singer/songwriter/guitarist whose lyrics and music are the driving force behind much of the band’s critical acclaim. Although Sheff calls it good ol' rock ’n’ roll, perhaps a better phrase would be "lit-rock," a term coined by New York Times writer Kelefa Sanneh to describe the smooth narratives serving as lyrics. But Sheff doesn’t want to be branded as anything, and leaves it up to the listener to decide for his or herself what they hear. Any way you spit it, The Stage Names is a musical treat, and hearing the band live seems even sweeter.
How do you feel your band has evolved since your previous album, Black Sheep Boy?
There was a definite desire to try and avoid many of the things I was doing on Black Sheep Boy on this record, because you don't want to repeat yourself. There is a certain point when you know things are going to work, that it's braver to leave them in your tool kit and try to work with some new tools. I just felt that I didn't want to be typecast as this one specific band and one specific thing. Black Sheep Boy is more about very big, painful, unpleasant things where The Stage Names is more about everyday disappointment. I think what you hear is a focused song-friendly live band that likes to play, and likes each other.
What was the impetus for writing Stage Names?
I never had a "Eureka!" moment or anything like that. It's more a matter of noticing that the songs are pointing in a certain direction—that they naturally and organically are heading a certain way. There are things you always think about and you say, “I guess this is my chance to talk about the stuff that's always on my mind.” As I started realizing that things were heading in that direction, I guided everything else in that direction as well. There was an attitude that was curious, but playful, and a tone I felt I wanted to write in, in which I wanted to address the listener. I wanted the record to feel like it was ranging all over the United States, and also in Europe. There were just places, a kind of person, and a kind of character I wanted to represent.
The New York Times described you as writing like a novelist. Do you agree with that assertion? How do you go about writing a song?
I'm trying to find not necessarily a story in a song, but a character. I'm trying to figure out who somebody is and why they are that way to really give an empathetic portrayal of them. If you try to think about who a person is, then you know where they came from and what their home life was like and what they do for a living, and where they're hoping to go in life and what they're afraid of. As a result, a story gathers around them. It's not like there's a story in the sense that things happen and then there's a conclusion at the end of it. You try to get a specific portrayal of who these people are.
You talk of them as though they are fictional characters—are any of the songs based on events in your life?
I don't really care about trying to make listeners aware of what my life has been like. I'm assuming I’m not that different from anybody else and I don't want to waste people's attention on me. I'm just more interested in provoking some kind of thought in people. It might have something to do with me, but chances are that in the process, I'm going to change the details anyway to make it more interesting. I don't feel like there is an allegiance to the facts. It's more like an allegiance to the truth.
What is the best part about your live shows for your audience members?
I wouldn't know because I've never been in the audience, but I love playing live. We try to make it feel like a real moment that everybody is sharing right there. I take live performance very seriously. It's the oldest form of music and in many ways it’s the most special, and worthy of deep respect. We just try to make it a fun show.
Okkervil River plays the Launchpad on Thursday, Aug. 30, with The Lowlights. $8 advance tickets at (plus $1 service fees) at Natural Sound and Virtuous.com. 21+.
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