EXCLUSIVE: New Okkervil River, Track-By-Track
The Austin band's new opus, I Am Very Far, isn't out until May, but frontman Will Sheff takes us behind the scenes.
Austin, Texas, folk rock outfit Okkervil River won’t release their much-anticipated sixth album, I Am Very Far, until May 10, but they’re slowly revealing the inner workings of the record, first with a live performance last month on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and continuing here with frontman Will Sheff’s track-by-track preview, a SPIN exclusive.
Recorded in a series of sessions — in the band’s hometown of Austin, at a studio in Connecticut, and in Brooklyn, where Sheff, who also produced the album, now resides — I Am Very Far finds Okkervil River veering away from the more polished pop of their last two albums, The Stage Names and its companion piece, The Stand Ins, for a more chaotic, impulsive, and, ultimately, more personal album.
“I found myself wanting to not be accessible and not be crowd pleasing and basically be self-pleasing and follow what I thought was really interesting,” Sheff tells SPIN.
That shift was partially influenced by his collaboration with Roky Erickson, the Austinite troubadour and 13th Floor Elevators founder who enlisted Sheff to produce his big 2010 comeback album, True Love Cast Out All Evil, and Okkervil to be his backing band. “There’s a kind of chaotic, powerful energy that swirls around Roky that I started to feel infecting my own writing and my own sonic ideas and desires,” Sheff explains.
Sheff won’t get into details about the stories behind his vivid lyrics, though. “I feel like all my old records seem like a pile of guts on a table to me, or like an autopsy under fluorescent lights,” he admits. “It makes me feel sad, so I’m gonna try to hold out on talking about that too much.”
Instead, his track-by-track breakdown of I Am Very Far, penned by Sheff, offers an intimate look at the making of the record, from writing music on his grandparents’ piano to innovative recording tricks to a song recorded with 45 nylon-string guitars. Read Sheff’s tidbits on each track, then tell us what you think in the comments section.
Track One: “The Valley”
Opening salvo is a shotgun wedding of parade march rhythms and edgy keyboards.
Will Sheff: I was lying in a hotel bed one night and I had that thing happen where you very slowly surface from a dream and you gradually become aware that you’re dreaming and that you’re now waking up.I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but I remember that near the end of it I started shaping these lines in my head: Watch the sun switching in the sky, off and on, while our friend stands bleeding on the late summer lawn, a slicked-back bloody black gunshot to the head, he has fallen in the valley of the rock and roll dead.
Those lines, and other lines with that singsong rhythm, were just repeating over and over in my mind like a nursery rhyme, and they kept repeating as I slowly woke up.I thought, “That’s hilarious!” and wrote them down really quickly and fell back asleep.About a week later, when I returned to Brooklyn, I remembered that I’d written the lines, and I grabbed a guitar and literally set them to the first guitar part that came to my head, this little pentatonic power-chord riff. This was one of the very first songs we ended up recording for I Am Very Far and I remember thinking, “Hey, this sounds like a decent first track!”
Track Two: “Piratess”
A slinky, nocturnal groove, perhaps the sexiest Okkervil cut ever written.
Will Sheff: This song was very deliberately sculpted in the studio, starting with just the bass groove and the drums. A lot of people work that way, but this is the first time we ever did. There are some production moments on “Piratess” that were really fun to do; in the middle of the song there’s a solo that I created by fast-forwarding and rewinding a cassette back and forth in a big cheap boombox.
It took awhile to figure out how to “play” the boombox to the point where it felt vaguely melodious. Once I was done, I had Brian Cassidy — our ex-guitarist who still works with us pretty regularly — sit down and chart out the cassette “solo” on sheet music — as if it was this carefully written piece — and then exactly double it on electric guitar. It was hard for him to do, because there are all these pitch-bends that come from the irregularity of a boombox, and he had to match them by bending his guitar strings exactly in time with the cassette.
Another thing that was fun with this song was the percussion, which I didn’t want to be created from actual percussion instruments. So Cully Symington, our drummer, decided to tear pieces of paper for a kind of güira sound, but once we had that sound we felt like it should have an “answering” sound. We asked ourselves what would “answer” ripping paper and we decided it would be tape. So I had Phil Palazzolo, the sound engineer, rhythmically tear these long lengths off a roll of duct tape.
Track Three: “Rider”
An urgent romp with lush orchestration in the chorus, almost Springsteen-esque.
Will Sheff: Instead of holing up in one single studio for a long-haul recording session, I thought it would be the most exciting to record I Am Very Far over a bunch of short and completely distinct sessions. On each of these sessions, our approach was really different.For “Rider,” I assembled a giant band that consisted of two simultaneous drummers, two electric basses, two pianos, and seven guitarists, all playing in unison in the same room. It kind of felt like leading an orchestra that was just made up of normal rock band instruments, only it was just a ton of them all playing the same thing at the same time.
It was incredibly difficult to get the songs on these sessions right, because we were all in the same room and pretty much everybody had to all be giving their very best performances simultaneously if even one player was just slightly out of the pocket, the entire take was ruined. We found things sounded best when people tried to completely drain their playing of individuality and just become part of this gigantic, faceless musical machine. Going into the live room, we’d tell the musicians, “Check your personality at the door.” It took us about 12 hours per day to record a single song during these sessions.
Track Four: “Lay of the Last Survivor”
A pretty, midtempo shuffle best enjoyed at dusk.
Will Sheff: This is a song we cut right after the huge-band sessions. Everyone was really tired and worn out, and we let all the extra players go and just stripped the band down to its smaller lineup and bashed up a small and kind of humble arrangement for this one. This song started out as a long, somewhat blustery narrative in waltz time, really slow and meandering. Just for fun I started cutting parts out of it and I found I still liked the song as much as before, so I started hacking it down pretty unsentimentally after I figured that out. I also decided to change the time signature of the song and put it into 4/4, to give it more of a groove.
This was one of the songs where we put a woodwind section, which gives it a sort of pastoral feel. Woodwinds have always reminded me of those really morbidly sentimental 80’s kids’ cartoons with songs by America or Art Garfunkel — Watership Down, stuff like that. This sort of otherwordly, maudlin mixture of innocence and doom.
Track Five: “White Shadow Waltz”
A sparse, jangly, Arcade Fire-like rocker — with a neato recording trick.
Will Sheff: This was a weird song to write; I was feeling wired and agitated and melodramatically decided I was going to lock myself in my room and close all the blinds and sit in the dark and wouldn’t allow myself to leave until I had written a song. And the song took me all day to write — it was night outside when I was done.
“White Shadow Waltz” doesn’t seem to me to have a tone like most of my other songs. There’s a really mean, cold quality to it that freaks me out. And the lead character is very strange, not a human character. Recording the song was fun though. File cabinets were thrown across the room, there was screaming, things breaking.
We stereo mic-ed a room for the chorus vocals, and I kind of casually strolled around the room as I sang them. The idea was that if you had headphones on it would feel like someone was pacing back and forth inside your skull.
Track Six: “We Need a Myth”
A pulsating rhythm section builds to an anthemic crescendo.
Will Sheff: This is another song from the sessions with the giant band. There are actually 45 nylon-string guitars at the top of the song.Cully and Stephen Belans — the second drummer — are both fantastic here. There are these weird percussion sticks Stephen is playing during the bridge and several times people who’ve heard the song have asked “Who did the programming there?” because they sound so electronic or mechanical. Stephen’s a weird specialist in that — acoustic percussion that sounds electronic. I really like the two simultaneous basses on here too, which are played by our current bassist Patrick Pestorius as well as Zachary Thomas, Okkervil’s original bassist from when the band first formed back in 1998.
Track Seven: “Hanging From a Hit”
Semi-Baroque, candlelit, sparse musing tempered with giddy toy piano.
Will Sheff: For another of the I Am Very Far sessions, I went back to Brian Beattie, who co-produced most of our past records, and I told him I wanted to do some very simple live recordings, all cut on an old 8-track tape machine. We were going to deliberately avoid worrying about audio fidelity and concentrate instead on getting some nice performances, a band playing in a room.
This song is pretty much just that, a real sparse late-night feel, friends playing together. Justin Sherburn plays Brian’s charmingly out-of-tune little “midget” piano, and our guitarist Lauren Gurgiolo and I play some picked guitar lines back and forth. This is probably the only song on the record that’s very strictly narrated from the point of view of one character, which I did a lot on past records and wanted to mostly ditch for this one.
Track Eight: “Show Yourself”
Smoky, barroom shuffle, written on bar band guitar.
Will Sheff: Last year I ordered an electric guitar online from this guy in a bar band in Jersey. It arrived in the mail one afternoon and I pulled it out of the packaging, tuned it up, and within a minute or two the basic riff and melody for “Show Yourself” came out, almost like the song came packed with the guitar.
We cut the album version of the song in the same Brian Beattie sessions as “Hanging From a Hit,” and, again, what you’re mostly hearing on the recording is just the band playing live, jamming our way through the song all in one room. The finished track ended up being eight minutes long, which didn’t seem necessary, so in editing I sliced the song apart, re-arranged it, and re-wrote all the lyrics to fit the new form. As a recording it’s kind of a weird mix of a live document and a total studio creation.
Track Nine: “Your Past Life as a Blast”
A playful lo-fi groove, with Sheff’s favorite lyrics on the album.
Will Sheff: A song where you’re just trying to stack line after line and then just one more line all on top of each other, trying to get the song right to the point where it might topple over but doesn’t. These are some of my favorite lyrics on the album, and I actually think of this as the most “songwriterly” song or whatever.
It took us a long time to get this one right. We cut a whole version of it with the entire band and somehow it didn’t seem nearly as fun as the bullshit demo I’d recorded, so we threw away the previous version and started over, just using the demo and slowly replacing some things. We used real congas and decided they didn’t sound as fun as Cully just slapping an acoustic guitar in time.
A lot of the songs on this record are less about spazz-out rock and more about burying that energy inside a groove that kind of burrows deeper and deeper into itself, and this is one of those.
Track Ten: “Wake and Be Fine”
Thick instrumentation amps up a quintessentially Okkervil jam.
Will Sheff: Another song recorded with the giant band. This arrangement has a lot of twists and turns and sudden stops in it; I remember that during the 12-hour recording session for this one I started having this vision of myself as a rat running down a maze, having to turn right, then left, then right, then hit a button with my nose, everything at the exact right moment or I would ruin the whole song for everybody.The last two songs on the record probably have the broadest instrumental palette of any previous Okkervil River songs, with full string, horn, and woodwind sections as well as choral voices and tympani.
Track Eleven: “The Rise”
Thick instrumentation amps up a quintessentially Okkervil jam.
Will Sheff: I wrote this song on my grandparents piano, during some time I spent living with them in New Hampshire for the I Am Very Far writing sessions. They were out visiting some friends, so I went into the living room of their huge empty old house and sat down at the piano they’ve had for ages and which is probably the first musical instrument I ever played, way back when I was a little kid.
Being back in rural New Hampshire stirred up a lot of strange childhood memories for me, and many of the songs on I Am Very Far are strongly colored by these memories, like a color that only I can see, invisible to everyone else.I made a quick demo of the song on GarageBand, me singing the song on piano and humming all the little orchestral lines I was hearing in my head.
Later during my New Hampshire visit, I decided to drop in on my hometown, but I didn’t tell anyone I was coming. I just loitered around on the edge of things like a weird stranger. Far into the woods near where I lived there’s an old abandoned ski hill, with a gutted A-frame, rusted-out old cars, broken down chairlift machinery. I went for a walk there and put on the demo I’d recorded for “The Rise” and I felt like I was lying in a huge lake of body-temperature water, where everything outside of me perfectly matched everything inside of me, like what I’d written suited what I was seeing or the way the air felt on my skin in that second.It was probably the proudest I felt throughout the long process of making the record.