This Is 40: Okkervil River’s Music Matures With Experience
Photo by Fionn Reilly/Courtesy of Shorefire Media
Puff Daddy is back on the road with his Bad Boy Family Reunion Tour. Doc Martens have begun to pop up at shopping malls again. Hell, Bill Clinton may be back in the White House by this time next year. Point being, nostalgia is in full effect here in America. Okkervil River mastermind/front man Will Sheff wants nothing to do with it.
“Nostalgia is dangerous,” he says. “We cherry-pick our memories and assemble them into this beautiful lie, like it was always our reality, and that’s not true. “
For Sheff, who recently turned 40, this is growing up. But the former Austin resident, who now calls Brooklyn home, wasn’t always so at peace with his surroundings. For Okkervil River’s previous album, 2013’s The Silver Gymnasium, Sheff found himself living in the past. He doesn’t recall that era as a particularly satisfying time in his life.
“When I made that album, I was so nostalgic; I was feeling a level of nostalgia that was almost painful and missing this innocent time in my youth,” he says. “I made the record because I was trying to deal with it, so that’s what I did and got it out of my system.”
Of course, Sheff, who brings Okkervil River to White Oak Music Hall’s downstairs room on Monday, certainly understands why others choose to live in the past a little longer than did he.
“We live in a really frightening time, with all kinds of violence and intolerance and hatred,” Sheff says. “It’s like this looming collapse is upon us, and we are aware of it, but we are dealing with it poorly. Instead of rolling up our sleeves and trying to fix things, to fix the human infrastructure of how we deal with one another, we are hiding in our childhood toys and running back into the nursery, pretending nothing bad happened or will happen.
"It’s very understandable, but it’s also dangerous and sad," he continues. "The world is what it is, and reality is what it is; you don’t solve things by pretending they’re not there, by being a kid again. You solve things by facing reality and bringing compassion, empathy, resourcefulness and open-heartedness; that’s how you fix things.”
That nostalgic mind-set even spilled over into Okkervil’s live shows.
Courtesy of Shorefire Media
“There was a period of time where I would get onstage and people wanted me to play the songs they remember from college exactly as they sounded on the record,” Sheff says. “They wanted me to be who I was in 2004. I felt bad, like I should give them what they want.”
With such strong opinions regarding our inability to live in the moment, it’s no surprise that Okkervil River’s newest album, Away, which dropped earlier this month, is not a nostalgia record. Rather, it’s a record about living in the moment.
For Sheff, Away — perhaps more than any Okkervil record before it — comes from a personal place. Will fans dig it? He’s cautiously optimistic.
“It’s so wonderful and gratifying that people seem to be responding to this record, because I wasn’t sure if they would,” Sheff says. “I had kinda already made peace with that. I know that I love this record more than anything I’ve ever done, and that’s all that matters. Maybe it’ll be too much or a little overwhelming for some people, or perhaps it will be a little meandering and people won’t get it, but that’s okay.”
Not only is Sheff at peace with his new record, he’s also at peace with what basically amounts to a new band. Okkervil River, like a Nine Inch Nails or LCD Soundsystem, is essentially a one-man band with a rotating cast of characters in the background.
The recording sessions for Away, however, didn’t feature a few subtle tweaks. Instead, Okkervil River – save for Sheff – totally turned over its lineup for its latest release. In a way, the overhauled lineup has allowed Sheff to reboot the band a bit and start fresh.
“This is not something I’m used to at all,” he says of overhauling the entire Okkervil River lineup. “It’s like starting a new band culture from the beginning. It’s been really wonderful. I’ve been in this band for 20 years and along the way, I’ve grown. The growing process is not always pretty, and I’ve made some pretty ugly mistakes, but I’ve let these experiences warp my life and allowed them to let me create a warped culture. This is my chance to start over in a transparent and calm place, not in the mess that I’ve made.”
Sounds like a man at peace with the next chapter of his life.
“A lot of folks go through some pretty difficult experiences, and when you see other people go through that, you start to care a lot more,” Sheff says. “You want to help out your friends and give people support. For me, that started to bleed into my work. I want to earn my keep. I don’t want to be a self-indulgent musician who just gobbles up drugs and booze on his travels across America. I want to be proud of my contribution to culture.”
Okkervil River and special guests Landlady perform Monday, September 26 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 North Main. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.