Features | Interviews

Okkervil River

By Aaron Newell | 23 February 2007

Aaron Newell (CMG): I’ve noticed that in your music criticism, you spend a lot of time focussing on “Outsider” music, debating whether Daniel Johnston should even be called that. Aside from the connection with Hardin, some people will see that as a co-theme in Black Sheep Boy, just from the album’s name. What’s the fascination with pariah music?

Will Sheff (WS): I’m not interested in “Outsider Music” in the way someone like Irwin Chusid might categorize it — i.e. the music of the utterly untrained and/or mentally unstable (with the latter element providing a ghoulish kind of allure for those who would gawk) — so much as I’m interested in the footnotes to the traditionally-accepted rock and roll canonical history. I’m drawn to and charmed by figures like Chris Bell and Nikki Sudden, talented artists who only saw fame and fortune as through a chink in an impossibly high fence, and so had to settle into a life of deflated average joe-hood or else manufacture poignantly outsized iconic personas for themselves. There’s something moving and heroic about these also-rans; they seem to embody the real essence of rock and roll so much more than someone like, say, Billy Joel.

CMG: Do you think it’s possible for a “popular”-ish indie artist like Carey Mercer to make “Outsider” music? What “now” artists do you see as falling into that category, and why? DJ Shadow might count, but is not a complete answer.

WS: I don’t know who Carey Mercer is, and I certainly don’t consider D.J. Shadow as “Outsider Music.” Honestly, I think the term is stupid and condescending.

CMG: From the Audiogalaxy archives:

“Take It Easy.” Don Henley’s three-word mantra struck an immediate chord in thousands; its core complacency and anti-intellectualism contrasted starkly to much of the rock music of the time, which was still absorbed in protesting the Vietnam War, fighting for Civil Rights, distrusting politicians and money men, and being – in short – difficult. Henley’s message, expanded, was “Hey man, relax! Your life is good, right? So don’t worry about everything else so much. What can you do, anyway?” 17 years later, soft-rocker Billy Joel would revisit the site of Henley’s radical detachment, and, attempting a similar form of soft-rock lyrical abdication, mindlessly reel off an out-of-sequence litany of the global cataclysms Henley was implying his listeners should ignore. Mentioning Evil Everyman Adolph Eichmann alongside “Lebanon,” Palestine,” “AIDS,” “Crack,” “Russians in Afghanistan” and “The H Bomb,” Joel sang “We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning,” implicitly washing his hands of any responsibility for the crassly-positioned images of point-blank executions and naked children being burned by napalm that decorated his video-shoot stage.

I note on your tour EP you’ve got an anti-Pres song: “The President is Dead.” Do you think that political music like that, or protest music, helps or hinders the process? A lot of people might say: “Go do something, instead,” because when you just sing about it, you end up with a bunch of kids smoking pot, wearing Che t-shirts, wearing political icons like Polo horsies. How far do you think political music can go? When does it become just another useless newscast or opinion piece?

WS: I’m personally not into protest songs. For every one half-decent protest song, there are 500 unbelievably boring, embarrassing, tedious ones. I don’t consider “The President’s Dead” a protest song. For one thing, it’s written from the point of view of a young Republican who is horrified at the assassination described in the song. I tried to write “The President’s Dead” as a song whose narrative and musical accompaniment feints in one direction and then goes somewhere else.

CMG: More from the archives. You wrote:

Sleater-Kinney’s retirement: It’s that bravery and fierce independence which, in the total absence of Lilith exposure and MTV airplay, got the band their tremendous underground following. That, and songs like “All Hands on the Bad One.” A song which is powerful enough to shine a 50,000 watt spotlight on the inexcusable behavior of the new rock misogynists while transforming Lilith clones into a small pile of ash with a Bioré strip on top.

Do you think, at their “retirement,” SK still played this role, a counter-cog to glassy-eyed Lilith? Who do you think is going to fill this role now, or will the void just get filled-in?

WS: Pass.

CMG: Do you think that Sleater-Kinney is more “important” than Lilith because they’re musicially better or because they don’t foreground the essentiallity of femininity (or, I suppose, gender), and subvert the stereotype of mid-‘90s feminist-tinted music without saying: “we are subverting the stereotype of mid-‘90s feminist-tinted music”? Apologies for the dorkiness of the question, it’s Mark Abraham’s, who took special note of your differentiation between the Stones being overtly unsensitive to females and Cat Stevens’ somewhat-ignorant faux-sensitivity.

WS: I mean, I think the whole point is to make something good. It can say something or it can say nothing. It can be sincere or it can tell total lies. It can be made of wood or it can be made of plastic. It just has to be good, or else it’s getting in the way. And the best part about pop music is that nobody out there has any more right than anyone else to define what makes something good. It’s popular music — if you like it, it’s good.

On the Stones vs. Stevens debate, a Stones song like “Stupid Girl” feels to me less like a misogynist anthem than a cheeky, almost flirty provocation. I mean, not many actually intelligent women would mistake “Stupid Girl” for something serious. In a warped way, it’s almost cute. Whereas “Wild World” is couched in all these sensitive-singer-songwriter mannerisms and comes with this oh-so-serious autobiographical element, but it’s a song written with a cruel, condescending meanness on the part of the narrator, which is even creepier given the fact that he’s trying to come across as uber-compassionate. Compare this:

The way she powders her nose,
her vanity shows and it shows.
She’s the worst thing in this world.
Well, look at that stupid girl.

With this:

If you wanna leave, take good care.
Hope you have a lot of nice things to wear,
but, then, a lot of nice things turn bad out there.

Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world.
It’s hard to get by just upon a smile
Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world,
and I’ll always remember you like a child, girl.

It’s hard to make the case that the former isn’t more misogynist — and in a way that is far more truly fucked-up — than the latter.

CMG: Your tour EP is very much in the country-folk vein, while the Black Sheep Boy Appendix was a little more experimental and used the studio a bit. Which direction are you going in with the next record? Will we see something as equally “thematic” as Black Sheep Boy?

WS: Pass.

CMG: What did you think of the reaction to Black Sheep Boy — do you think the “inspiration” of the record stole some attention away from its contents?

WS: The truth about “Black Sheep Boy” is that the Tim Hardin song isn’t any kind of code or key or anything. I just thought it would be fun to kidnap a character from someone else’s song — especially a very small character from a song nobody else thinks much about — and perform a few surgical alterations.

CMG: A lot of people saw it as over-literary. What do you think about records like Destroyer’s Rubies, where there are intense online debates about “interpretations” of the record? Would you want to get caught in that trap?

WS: I think that using the word “literary” to describe music is about as helpful as using the word “musical” to describe literature. It doesn’t say a hell of a lot. We’ve never used the word “literary” to describe our records. They’re intended to be rock and roll records, just rock and roll records that don’t talk down to anyone. What bugs me about the whole concept of lit-rock is the feeling I get that the word “literary” is being used superlatively, as if literature were somehow more respectable or “artistic” than song. The truth is that people have been singing songs longer than they’ve been writing books. I don’t think I’m slumming as a songwriter, and I don’t feel the need to convince anybody that at heart I’m secretly a memorist. If I pretended to be some kind of literary figure, I would be putting on the most ridiculous kind of airs.

As for Destroyer, I’m a big fan. I think Rubies is a really fun record, and anyone who tries to analyse it like it’s a novel is missing most of the point.

CMG: Any plans for the 25 song pre-tour sessions that Jagjaguwar mentioned?

WS: Nope.

CMG: Any plans for a novel?

WS: Nah.

CMG: Audiogalaxy archives again:

The great hypocrisy is that many of these soft-rock artists’ self-congratulatory reflections are far from deserved. Jackson Browne, for example, is famous for both co-writing “Take It Easy,” and brutally beating his wife, Daryl Hannah, while soft-rock figurehead James Taylor was hardly soft on Carly Simon. Easy-listening patriarch Glen Campbell was a notorious wife-beater, and John Denver, my favorite soft-rock artist, is semi-infamous for being unremittingly cruel, if not physically abusive, to his wife Annie Martell of “Annie’s Song” fame. Not surprisingly, the pantheon of soft-rock hits is full of dubious treatises on gender, often disguised as tender love songs. Take Cat Stevens’s “Wild World,” for example, in which the hardened male narrator condescends to his wife even as she leaves him, sarcastically telling her “I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear,” sneering “it’s hard to get by just upon a smile,” and finally pronouncing her a “child.”

Sometimes, the jaded moral numbness in soft-rock rises to the level of campy hilarity. One such moment is the breezy “Take a Letter, Maria,” by R.B. Greaves (nephew, notably, of smooth crooner and reported rapist Sam Cooke).

The notable thing in this passage, for me, is that you use the artists’ personal lives, sordid and undesirable as they are, to colour the music they make, as an example of how soft rock breeds evil. I have a huge problem with R Kelly and was sort of disgusted at the amount of positive press he received for his “Closet” tracks, simply because, you know, he pees on children and tapes it, and the evidence is that he’s been doing that kind of thing since he met Aaliyah, in the early ’90s. What’s your take on separating the “music” from the “person”, letting the music stand alone, to be praised or criticised on its own merits, as opposed to digging deeper to enjoin the music and its author in criticism. I’d assume your concept of “sincerity” in music might influence your response.

WS: I’ll tell ya later.

CMG: On Jound.com you posted a small treatise on “file sharing.” You seemed more concerned that there were “hours and hours” of crap-sounding Okkervil bootlegs out on the internet than you were losing (hypothetical) money from record sales. A lot of online criticism recently, maybe for the past two years or so, has noted that because of the free availability of “everything, ever” on the internet, music is becoming more “single”-oriented. Do you think this is because of the nature of music availability “now”, as a substantial “packaging” shift from the “album” form, or do you think it’s deeper than that, that, like you also address in your post on Jound, there’s a music-ADD psychology now, people spend twenty minutes making thumb-circles on their ipod wheels not knowing what they’re looking for, and songs are more “disposable” than ever before?

WS: I have a lurking suspicion that music is becoming ever more disposable, but I’m not sure how much of that is me being a crotchety old man. Ultimately, I think it’s crucially important for anyone hoping to make a positive impact on culture or on the world at large to maintain some kind of optimistic about the future.

CMG: So, yesterday, I downloaded the newest Oxford Collapse album, the new Method Man album, the new Kelis, a couple of Max Richter pieces, the new Decemberists, and about four Boot Camp Click albums from the mid-‘90s. I’ve listened to about 3 songs so far. I spent more time yesterday seeking and obtaining music than I did listening to it.

WS: Well, the question there seems to be whether the music is boring or you’ve become desensitized. Or, maybe, both.

CMG: In a similar line, “Wikipedia” — democratic, or can’t truss it?

WS: Wikipedia seems fated to mirror either the most inspiring or the most depressing qualities about the human mind. I think it’s too soon to tell which is going to prevail.

CMG: Last question: popular music: who’s good, now?

WS: I don’t really know, since I don’t listen to much new music. Not because I’m a snob, necessarily, it’s just that I’m kind of in my own world. I hear huge indie releases, colossally huge major releases, and my friends’ bands, and all of the rest kind of passes me by. Every now and then my sister will play me a single by Kelly Clarkson or something, and I’ll think that’s all right.