A few years ago, I stumbled upon a picture called “The Saddest Band in Texas” while browsing the internet. The image was done in shades of brown and gold, displaying a stage with a few musicians – guitar, mandolin, trumpet, Hammond organ, and drums.
In the center of the stage was a bearded man with his mouth open in a sorrowful “O.”
Will Sheff and his band, Okkervil River, were inspired by a river outside St. Petersburg and a short story about sorrow and phonograph records.
Since relocating from New Hampshire to Austin, they have created four albums and four EPs of intense and sorrowful music, a combination of indie rock and Appalachian influences, as well as folk-rock that moves between sadness and violence.
The reissued Black Sheep Boy and Black Sheep Boy Appendix features wild choruses and intricate folklore tales. Sheff’s words in the songs are precise and insightful, narrating tales of yearning and self-destruction.
Much of Black Sheep Boy was inspired by the life and songs of Tim Hardin, a blues-folk musician who passed away in 1980 from an overdose.
I attended an Okkervil River show in Glasgow in May 2006, and I brought orange-chocolate Jaffa Cakes with me.
In my interview with Sheff after the show, he was composed and jovial, whereas onstage, he and his band were as they had been in a photograph from years before a gathering of performers, with Sheff’s mouth shaped like an “O.” They were dubbed the ‘saddest band in Scotland.’
— Sean Michaels expressed
A knife fight was the scene.
I’m curious if you have ever been in a physical altercation, so that was my initial question.
At a New Year’s Eve gathering in Austin, WILL SHEFF found himself in an unexpected knife fight. He had just dropped off Scott [Brackett, Okkervil’s trumpet and keyboard player] and was walking around while highly inebriated when he made a turn and saw two men engaged in a physical altercation.
One of them had drawn a ten-inch-long hunting knife and was about to slash the other’s throat. However, the man was able to duck his head away at the last second, leaving him with a wound on the back of his neck instead.
I heard the man scream, “He’s got a knife!” I saw a person brandishing a hunting knife. Without thinking, I reached out to take the weapon away, but the moment I touched it, I knew it was a natural and sharp blade.
I understood that something bad could happen if I did not get it away. Even though the individual’s grip was firm, they briefly loosened their hold, and I used this opportunity to yank the knife away, cutting my hand in the process.
Unfortunately, my action resulted in someone else getting stabbed in the leg due to the crowded nature of the party.
Q: Goodness me.
A: At one point, I jabbed a person in the leg, and they exclaimed, “Ow!” I then told them, “Just wait a moment, I’ll be right back,” and sprinted off to hide the knife in a place where the rightful owner wouldn’t locate it, yet where the victim of the assault could discover it in the morning and use it as proof.
Q commended the individual for their responsible behavior.
Once I returned, the person who had brandished the knife vanished. The individual I had stabbed remained, leisurely drinking a beer. I expressed, “My apologies for stabbing you in the leg, but a person pulled a knife…”
His response was, “No, it’s fine. I’m OK.” His girlfriend, however, declared, “No, no, no, you are not alright–there is blood everywhere on your hand.” His hand was covering the wound, and when he raised it, it was covered in blood.
He was high on ecstasy, so he wasn’t too concerned with the fact that he was wounded in the leg. I told him to go to the bathroom, inspect the injury, and decide if he needed to go to the hospital and that I would cover the costs.
After he did this, word got out that a person had been stabbed in the leg, but nobody knew that the other person had been attacked and that a scuffle had taken place. All they’d heard was that someone had wielded a knife and injured someone in the leg.
Q: It was you who did it.
A went to the restroom to check on the guy, only to find a bunch of girls saying, “[girl’s voice ], ‘We’re taking care of it! We’re taking care of it! Go away!'” Then, the party’s host shouted, “Everybody out.
Somebody pulled a knife. Everybody out of here.” and called the police. WS expressed their desire to stay, claiming responsibility for the injury, but the host was having none of it and yelled, “You’re the one with the knife?!
What kind of sick fuck brings a knife to a party? What the fuck is wrong with you? Get out of here!” Even though WS insisted it wasn’t their knife, the host still ordered them to leave. Once the cops showed up, WS decided it was best not to stick around and left.
The individual who brandished the weapon has now been officially accused of a crime. Fortunately, the person I stabbed was not seriously hurt.
My most recent altercation included a large hunting knife on New Year’s Eve.
Q: Going forward, all your songs will be grounded in that concept.
In Austin, people have been speculating about me, and it’s become a thing. It’s like the rumor is that I took a knife to some party and got too fresh with a girl in the bathroom, and she fought back, and I stabbed her in the leg. So I have been labeled as a kind of knife-carrying maniac.
In my mind, I often contemplate all the actions I would not be able to get away with.
Q: It was amusing to read the press about the group or the description for tonight’s show. Journalists kept stressing the band’s erudite nature, labeling you as a “learned, literary” act.
However, I see the band as full of destructive emotion–forceful words and powerful music. Fervently directed, grand physical movements.
A: It’s plain to see that a live performance and a recording are different beasts. You want to ensure your recordings have a lot of depth and nuance, but there’s something special about being in the audience when everyone shares the same experience.
We’ve been watching a DVD of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show in the van, and it’s shifted my perspective on live music. It’s one of the best concert films I’ve seen, and I’m sure it will be a classic one day.
Did you mean Dr. Hook, the musical group featured on the Muppet Show?
A: Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. A classic rock band that achieved fame with “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” They were performing in the Netherlands for a live TV show and were very much inebriated.
The electric guitarist had a grudge against the other members of the band, which was apparent. He’d put a red bandanna over the microphone whenever he was singing, making it apparent he didn’t want to share with anyone else.
The songs were falling apart, and apologies were being made mid-song. The guitarist ended with a chaotic solo, with the other band members cowering away from him. It’s a classic story of rock and roll excess, but what made this Dr. Hook show special was that the musicians laughed and had a good time.
This concert reminded me that music, in general, is a joyous communal celebration of the good and bad of life. This is what we try to capture in our live shows – to make people remember that they’re witnessing something unique that won’t happen again.
I find the notion of a “bookish and literate” tag applied to pop music somewhat demeaning. It implies that pop music must be elevated through literary aspirations to achieve greatness.
Yet the Shangri-Las were fantastic, and they were not bookish. I wish not to come across as a half-hearted poet. The difference with us is that our music is more of a festive, Dionysian style, unlike the Apollonian scene.
I’m pleased that the New York Times wrote a piece and referred to us as “literary,” but I believe it’s all superficial. My preferred groups, such as the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, do not have any “literary” elements. It is the same as saying that comic books must have the traits of art to be good.
Ultimately, it is an act of elitism, and all these bands attempting to make themselves seem more educated are likewise elitist.
Dan Bejar from Destroyer is one of the most talented authors in the present times.
Q: He is an incredible person.
WS believes that he has been the most influential and inspiring among modern songwriters. They consider him quite pretentious but in a manner that makes it all a form of amusement.
Q is pleased with the situation.
A: Precisely. It’s not haughty in conclusion, as he is confessing it right off the bat. He transforms pretension into a high-school dress-up gathering where everybody is welcomed, and we all get to act like we are grand.
He also has an unmistakable aspiration to this silly rock and roll legacy, realizing that it’s intended to be ridiculous, and there is something absurd about it.
The song “So Come Back, I Am Waiting” has many big words, but I don’t want people to think that’s what makes it good. I attempt to be pretentious in a humorous way. My goal is to do things that I wouldn’t normally be allowed to get away with but do well.
I believe that’s what brings the excitement. When it comes to rock music, the best songs usually manage to get away with something that shouldn’t be possible.
When it feels like your head is smashing into the concrete, it can be a difficult experience. However, some steps can be taken to make the situation better.
Q: Your affinity for soul music is evident in your statements because that genre of music tends to express heartfelt sentiments in clumsy yet earnest ways.
Observing a song such as James Brown’s 1956 single “Please, Please, Please,” one can see the direct representation of feelings in the lyrics: “Please please please please please please please don’t go yah no I love you, so I just want to say I I I I I….”
Songwriting and rock and roll music are both emotional outlets. Listening to Otis Redding or Sam Cooke, Live at the Harlem Square Club recording, for example, displays raw emotion.
I’m fond of that particular album, BLVR.
A: Sam Cooke and Otis Redding had a great capacity for emotion, which they employed in conjunction with a meticulous, controlled thought process to create a sculpture that expresses a wild, intense passion.
Although I’m nowhere near as talented as Sam Cooke on his worst night, he is an excellent source of inspiration.
Q: You frequently mention the Incredible String Band.
A: That’s a case of being pretentious that I tolerate; Robin Williamson sings like he has the power to part the sea, bring rain, and so on. He has faith in it, and this silly notion makes pop music so unique.
It’s a form of art that embraces our foolishness, recognizing that we are all bumbling and clumsy. Rock and roll are one of the few ways to celebrate this.
Q: You have me intrigued by your thoughts on pop music and foolish notions–contemplating these silly ideas and seeing what comes of it… What types of foolishness does your band cover in their music?
I have permanently been deeply moved by how a song can transform a simple emotion. For instance, James Brown’s song, “Please Please Please,” is a reflection on the concept of pleading, and yet he creates something so monumental.
The Velvet Underground went even further and made it more suitable for adults. That is what we are attempting to do; to make popular music that is more suitable for adults.
We are not trying to exclude teenagers but rather music that conveys the fallout of difficult situations and the burden of guilt and emotional baggage that adults carry with them.
A: As adults, we often have to grapple with moral ambiguity, whereas children tend to have a simpler view of things as being correct or wrong. “This isn’t just.”
WS: I always find it more admirable to cause confusion rather than assurance. Take the Sex Pistols’ song “Bodies” as an illustration. I genuinely love it, and it makes me feel a pro-life sentiment that I am not.
It is filled with horror, outrage, and a sly attitude that makes me feel like a conservative, anti-abortion and moralistic teen. It’s an astonishing piece of music.
Q: “For Real” really makes me think positively about murder.
A: [Laughs] That sounds great! People often misunderstand what “For Real” is about. It’s not about killing, and it’s more about sensuality than violence. But it’s understandable that no one has grasped that.
Hopefully, it’s not just about intimacy; it’s about the urge to make sure that it’s happening. Do you get what I mean?
A few months ago, I experienced a very intense pain suddenly and unexpectedly, much later than when I wrote the song “For Real.” I was left with no doubt that it was a natural sensation.
Differently from the questions I ask myself in life, like whether I like someone or which sandwich I want, there is no uncertainty when your head hits the ground. Ultimately, what will do us is the undeniable physical reality of death and decay.
On some level, I believe a lot of us want it or at least contemplate it. There is a specific erotic element to the thought that is a great enigma.
To me, “For Real” is a much deeper representation of this idea than just a regular “murder song.” As opposed to that, “Westfall” is a classic murder ballad.
Q: What about “Kathy Keller”?
A: People found it vexing when they said “For Real” was a chill-inducing murder ballad. That song was tender and cheerful to me, though, which may sound strange. That’s my perception of it.
Q: Did your mom and dad make music?
No one in my family is a musician except for my grandfather, who was a trumpet player. He played in a swing band and could pay for college by performing with an eighty-year-old man at a club in New Hampshire.
This is where the locals who were open about their sexuality, as well as others, would come to hear the six-hour-long swing sets. He was eventually asked to tour with Les Brown, who was the swing fixture of the day.
While my mother has a great singing voice, she is not a musician. She enjoys listening to music, especially artists like Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, while my dad is not as interested. She also has an affinity for the Shangri-La.
Q asked what triggered the decision to commit.
A: Going down the path of music was much simpler than any other choice. It all started when I was in high school and college. I was determined to be a filmmaker, but it was too costly, so I figured music would be more amusing.
There may have been a bit of a “fuck you” attitude to my college girlfriend, who was trying to talk me out of it. Somehow, I was always drawn to the silly pop songs out there.
Q: Crying in the vehicle while listening to Fleetwood Mac music.
A: I have a great appreciation for Fleetwood Mac, especially after Travis took me on the last tour. He was adamant that I listen to Tusk, and while I was initially somewhat hesitant, I eventually found it to be one of my favorite albums ever. Regarding what music I listen to, I just take Travis’ word for it.
Recently, Q did some recordings that they declared they would never make available to the public, according to the statements from their label.
We decided to take our recording equipment and move it out of my house and just do something for fun without the intention of releasing it.
This kind of pressure to release something with a big PR campaign is so common in indie and major-label scenes, but it’s easy to forget that the goal of art isn’t necessarily to achieve something with a huge impact.
I often find myself envying people who make chairs or film editors, and other artisans who are more focused on the process of creating than any kind of result. So this was our way of creating something just for ourselves, without any thought of who else might see it.
Q: To what degree was the outcome different?
A: Would you like me to play a tune from that album?
The musicians are having a conversation about the use of timpani on the downbeats as they play.
A: I aim for a production style similar to Phil Spector’s.
I’m preserving this to make it available to the public on the web.
A warned that if one were to take a certain action, they would be subject to a stabbing in the leg.
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