Need a myth? Okkervil River's Sheff probably has one
"There's an aspect to religion and stuff like that," says songwriter and vocalist Will Sheff, "that simply is just really beautiful stories that tell some kind of truth that's so deep and cloudy that you couldn't tell it in any other way."
"You couldn't lay it out as rules," says Sheff, who fronts Austin-based indie band Okkervil River, performing soon in Charlottesville. "As humans, we never lose the need for that."
While Okkervil River moved from lo-fi alt-country to an increasingly rock-based sound, Sheff has never lost sight of the value of storytelling. From early play with religious imagery to the modern folk tale embodied in the critically-acclaimed 2005 album Black Sheep Boy to the examination of pop culture on more recent works, the group has maintained that connection. Even last year's I Am Very Far, loaded with abstract language, contained the track “We Need a Myth”– which suggests that Sheff hasn't completely abandoned this line of thought.
“A lot of people are denigrating religion right now," says Sheff. "They're people who are fed up with the excesses of religion. Then you look at where we are.
"We're having a major climate crisis, the economy is falling apart, there's violence and horror that we can't hide from anymore," says Sheff. "And you see what we're doing: we're watching these superhero movies in droves– we're obsessing about Harry Potter or Twilight. It's like a comic book version of that same urge to find a larger-than-life story that feels intangibly meaningful."
"There was a time," he continues, "when stories like that governed our lives. We keep forgetting that we need that, but if you look at where the human race is, you see that desperate hunger for a big, beautiful story.”
Sheff explains why his solipsistic days may be over.
“It felt fun to be that sort of self-aware and self-referential on The Stage Names and The Stand Ins, but I felt like I saw that everywhere. Self-awareness was swapped out for actual insight or emotion. I wanted to get into stuff that was more mysterious, more emotional, but not announcing exactly what emotion it was, [containing] combinations of emotions. I wanted to get into stuff that couldn't be easily described. There's something ineffable about a myth.”
Abstract visual art, particularly Mark Rothko's paintings, have played a role in his thinking.
“I feel from the most beautiful works of art this sort of wholeness and mystery and irreducible quality," Sheff explains. "I wanted to throw everything I had into trying to create songs that felt like they had that kind of vibration to them.”
Another influence was a musician who's a bit mythic himself, Roky Erickson. Sheff learned to give up some control in his artistic process from working on Erickson's True Love Cast Out All Evil.
“He's connected to this world of mystery and of craziness and of spirituality,” says Sheff. “It's not in his head. It's a powerful place. Once you've been around him, you want to live closer to that place; it feels like where art comes from.”
Despite the more challenging lyrics and that almost gnostic sentiment, Okkervil River hasn't gotten inaccessible, just indefinable, and that's adding to their own mythology.
“There's something about art when at its cheapest and most fun state, you get a little burst of happiness and excitement," says Sheff. "But at its very best, art feels like it can be something that shapes how we think about who we are, where we've been and where we're going, and why we're here, and what the right way to treat people is."
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