When the Pope's in town, shit stops dead. That's what Pope Benedict XVI's publicist told me when I called up to schedule an interview. Hey, the Pontiff is going to be hitting DC, why not put in a request? To my surprise, the Pope agreed to be interviewed and I packed up my digital recorder and camera and headed out the door.
But that's where the trouble began. I wasn't the only American hoping to catch a glimpse of the former Joseph Alois Ratzinger. Throngs of people forced New York Avenue to a standstill. I glanced at my clock and realized I would never make it in time for our session. I frantically called the publicist, but her sentiments echoed the snarling traffic. Shit stops dead. No Pope for TMT.
That's where Will Sheff of Okkervil River graciously stepped in. His band, getting bigger by the moment after last year's amazing The Stage Names, was in town opening for a little group called The New Pornographers. As my Papal appointment faded into another failed endeavor, I dialed up Sheff's people and hooked up a last-minute tête-Ã -tête. Fortunately for me (and you, dear reader), Sheff was as engaging and witty as the music he writes.
It's been a big last year for you with the success of The Stage Names. How has it been?
It's been really nice. We've been doing this for 10 years now and kind of very slowly gotten more attention. It's taken awhile. At first, I used to hate that or I used to feel frustrated. But when I look back on it now, I feel kind of grateful because at a certain point having people ignore you for a very long time gives you the power to ignore them, too. The power to do what you want more. It's really nice once your expectations have been lowered by people not knowing that you are around and to finally have people come around to you. This year's been really, really nice. It's good to know that people care. It's made it a lot easier for us to keep doing it, like it's worth it to keep going.
Wouldn't you say it was with Black Sheep Boy when you started to really get major recognition?
I guess so. When I look back on it, I see it was kind of a slow climb. You gotta understand it took us around four years to even put out our first record because we couldn't get a record deal, we couldn't afford to record. We didn't have money to pay for our first recording. It took awhile to save that money and we weren't able to get gigs. So when our first record came out, that people knew who we were at all felt like we'd made it. When our second record came, Down the River of Golden Dreams, the fact that more people knew about us felt like it was gravy. Yeah, but I think that when Black Sheep Boy came out things started to get more heated and there was a sense of who we were and people being familiar with the name of the band.
Was there something about that album, or do you think you had been in the game long enough and it was just your time?
I'm not the person to ask that because I don't really know. My perspective of it is the person who was there the whole time. Maybe Black Sheep Boy hit a nerve with a certain kind of listener. I don't really know.
"Our producer thought it was a disaster. He didn't want to put it on the record."
There has definitely been a progression in songwriting. I think between Black Sheep Boy and The Stage Names there has been a big jump. You've become more literate in your lyrics and you've become more comfortable as a songwriter. Do you feel that way? It's probably becoming a little easier, isn't it?
I guess so. These things are different from album to album. I knew that I wanted a certain level of frivolity and humor and fun on The Stage Names. That meant playing up the wordiness of certain things in a humorous way or in a playful way. That also meant doing things that were a little cheeky or a little stupid just to bring in that sense of fun. So I think that what you are hearing is a little bit of a progression and also a different emphasis.
Okay, bad pun, but there is definitely a weight to some of the songs on Black Sheep Boy like “A Stone.” That's gone on the new album. Though you do explore some darker themes, the lyrics aren't as weighed down.
For us instead of being pulled down to some deep, dark level by the weight of that stuff, we wanted, on The Stage Names, that weight to be something we were dancing across the surface of. To have it still be there, and everybody knows it's there, but not wrap ourselves around it and get sucked down.
I saw you last year at the Rock and Roll Hotel and you weren't feeling too well. Are you feeling better tonight?
Much better! I had forgotten that was in DC. I was really super fucking wasted/tired/sick for that show. It was a very long tour, six weeks straight. We hadn't gotten any sleep for days and days and days. One of the things that's funny about DC that didn't happen this time is that it's very common that DC is the place you play, or Philly, after you play New York. Usually when you play New York all your friends come out and you get really fucking wasted and the hung-over show goes to DC or goes to Philly. It's not that way this time. We're really excited.
Let's talk about this current tour. You're actually opening for The New Pornographers whereas at the point your band is right now you could headline your own shows. What is behind the idea of this tour?
I think that Carl (Newman) really likes the band and we wanted to put together something that was like a value bill. Instead of an opening band you'd never heard, you are going to see two different bands you think are really neat that you like.
Last night I covered Colin Meloy and it was the same price for just one guy that it is tonight for two bands. It's a good bargain.
We're budget rock. It's like you can't afford to see Colin Meloy? Pay the same amount and you get to see two quality bands. It's like when you go to a truck stop and you can get two different movies with Charles Bronson on one DVD.
Let's get back to The Stage Names. There are two songs I want to focus on. The first is “Plus Ones” which is kind of like an indie rock nerd's wet dream. What went into writing that song? Did you just think of any song with numbers in it?
I was at South By Southwest and it was one of those nights when you're up really, really late and you're kind of bleary and you've had a long day and sort of out of it. Travis' roommate put on “96 Tears” and I was just thinking, “Man, this song is so timeless.” Then, later on that night, I couldn't sleep and it was like four in the morning and I was suddenly like, “97 tears!” Something cracked me up about 97 tears and then I was like “No one wants to hear about your 97th tear.” Then I got this idea for an unbelievably stupid novelty song. I couldn't sleep and I wrote the whole thing. I was cracking myself up while I was writing it. I was writing it really fast. The big debate after that is, do I actually record this song or is it too silly? We decided to go ahead and do it in the spirit of making a more playful album.
"I don't understand how it is that John Berryman keeps on haunting over people's songs in the last two years."
The names you reference in the song go from R.E.M. to the Zombies to David Bowie to Nena. Are these your influences?
I used to love “99 Luft Balloons.” That was one of the first songs I ever remember loving. When I was a little kid, whenever it came on the radio, I would jump around. There is something about the way little kids respond to insanely overly poppy stuff, and I really remember that feeling. It's like a sugar rush. Obviously, I don't take that song as seriously as I did when I was jumping around to it on the radio, but I still think it has a nice melody. But yeah. I love the Zombies; I love R.E.M. I love David Bowie. He's a huge influence.
That segues nicely into my next question. “John Allyn Smith Sails.” You took a major risk by ending your album with the same melody as “Sloop John B.” Both you and I know this could be a total disaster. But it wasn't. So what went into that? What do you think pulled it through from being a novelty into actually a really good song?
I've also been really interested with trying to do things that seem like horrible ideas. I get really drawn to things that's like “That's a terrible idea. I should never do that. I should never do that.” In that particular case, it was the horribleness of that idea that made me obsessed with it and made me want to do it. We wanted that song to be either first or last. In the end, we decided to make it last. It happened really naturally. “Sloop John B” just kind of walked right into the song I was writing. I just thought, “All right!” I was very open to it happening, to it being there. If you look at it, it's telling the same kind of story that “John Allyn Smith Sails” is telling. I liked the Carl Sandburg connection. I don't know. In the past, I would have second guessed that, but I had the idiotic ability to just go ahead and do it.
Have you heard “Road to Joy” by Bright Eyes?
It ends one of his albums, but it uses the “Ode to Joy” melody. The jury is out whether that was successful or not.
He sings the melody?
The song is set to that melody. But I haven't read anything that says Okkervil River made a disaster with that song.
Our producer thought it was a disaster. He didn't want to put it on the record. He thought it was so terrible, there was no way we could put it on there. He had me believing it almost. But I was like, “No, no, no! You're wrong! You're wrong!” Finally, we put it on there anyway.
Do you play that one live?
What's up with John Berryman these days? Not only you, but Nick Cave...
Nick Cave is doing it too! I know! It's crazy. When I wrote that song, I may have written it before The Hold Steady, who knows, but when we recorded it, I didn't know that the Hold Steady one even existed. I actually found out about The Hold Steady song about John Berryman the day that we mixed “John Allyn Smith Sails.” We had just done a mix and I was feeling really good, and then I found out about this Hold Steady song. I was really shocked. It's like, what are the fucking odds of something like that? I don't know, man. Something about John Berryman speaks to people, I guess. I don't know why. I guess Clap Your Hands mentioned him in a song as well.
Have you heard the Nick Cave quote?
Yeah, I really liked it. It's really good. It's funny. I was doing an interview in Australia and while they were interviewing me they played that song. They didn't even know there was a similarity and I said, “What the fuck is this?” I don't understand how it is that John Berryman keeps on haunting over people's songs in the last two years. If it draws more attention to people who are actually going to read this stuff as opposed to just buy it and put it on their bookshelf, then I think it's a really good thing.
We just finished The Stage Names Appendix. Kind of like how we did with Black Sheep Boy Appendix. Basically, I had written twice as much material as we needed. I even thought about making a double album, but decided not to. Like with Black Sheep Boy Appendix, these songs needed to be recorded because I really felt good about them. Some of them were already recorded, some of them were recorded but not mixed, and I just wanted to make sure they all got a home. Waiting two years and putting them on the next record seemed like a really stingy thing to do because they have to do with The Stage Names, that's kind of a cop-out. We finished them up. Once I got rolling on it, I just started thinking and thinking. We had a day off the other day and I thought, “Man, I want to put one more fucking song on this record.” So I just wrote something super quick and we went in and recorded the whole thing live in an afternoon on our day off in Bloomington. That's last thing we recorded for The Stage Names Appendix and that will be coming out in the fall.
You also have that Golden Opportunities thing that came out. The songs on there are actually some really obscure covers.
Yeah, I just wanted to put something out for free for people who would enjoy it, if they wanted it. It was kind of like a Christmas gift.