Rock Lit is where Hive talks to musicians about the role of literature in shaping the music we hear.
Anyone who’s listened to the complex roller-coaster that is an Okkervil River lyric can figure out that frontman Will Sheff’s clearly influenced by the written word. But for Sheff, a song is not an opportunity to craft a short story or a poem; it’s a unique form where literary references are merely an option (one he often takes). Sheff discusses the thread of those references from the origin of Okkervil’s name back in the late ‘90s, weaving literature into Shearwater songs (of which he was a member until recently) to the band’s sixth album, I Am Very Far, which is out this week in many different configurations: One of which is an actual hard-bound book.
It seems like a good place to start is with your band name. Where does Okkervil River come from?
I was taking a 20th century Russian literature class in college and we were just reading a lot of Russian writers from the 20th century—as the name implies. I really liked Tatyana Tolstaya, she’s the great-grand niece of Aleksei Tolstoi. I really love the very brilliant detail in all these stories and there was this really wonderful sense of tenderness. She would go off on reveries on the details of things and that would bleed into a fantasy scenario or a dream-like feeling. There’s a lot of writing in the second person, a lot of jumping around in terms of what she was talking about, and it just felt very intuitive to me. A lot how those experiences might feel to me, where you’re waking up from a dream and you’re jostled around. I was just really impressed by her writing.
So I went down to Austin, TX and I formed this band with my friends and we were trying to come up with a name for the band…it’s really really hard to come up with a band name. If you’ve never done it before you might not know what I mean, but if you’re doing it you feel like such an idiot. Every name you throw out just sounds terrible. You throw it and then all your friends just laugh at you and you feel like they’ve seem some inner, gawky, little boy side of you. I had just read that story and I threw out that name as an idea and they really liked it. They didn’t really like any of my other ideas and I must not have liked any of theirs, I don’t remember. I immediately thought, “That’s a terrible band name, nobody’s going to remember it, everyone’s going to misspell it, nobody’s going to know how to pronounce it.” But they overruled me.
So the band name is the title of Tolstaya’s story?
It’s the title of the short story … Although Okkervil River, as it turns out and is clear from the story, is not very impressive. It’s sort of a muddy little stream that runs through an industrial park in St. Petersburg. At least that’s what I understand.
But that’s the nature of story too.
Apart from the band name, have you taken a piece of literature and directly embedded into a song?
The two nerdiest things I’ve done in that field is that I tried to write this one song that was a sonnet in the exact Shakespearean mold. That’s the song called “You’re the Coliseum” from a Shearwater record called Thieves. I was so surprised that nobody caught that that’s what I was trying to do. In fact, this is how overly complicated I make everything—there’s that song “You’re the Top,” some ridiculous old Broadway song that Ethel Merman would sing, she’s like, “You’re the top/ you’re the coliseum/ you’re a Shakespeare sonnet/ you’re a melody and a symphony by Strauss.” That was my attempt to do that.
I’ve done little things like that with some of the songs on the new record too. A song like “Your Past Life as a Blast” or “Weave Room Blues” tries to take what I think is an aspect of a poem form like a ghazal or a pantoum where there’s repeated lines that come up with the same thing, there’s this fragile repetition of lines. That’s something I was definitely trying to do with “Weave Room Blues,” in the form a ghazal. Things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other that are completely juxtaposed. I think there’s a kind of mystery that arises from putting things like that which are completely different next to each other.
But I think the most obvious example of this that I ever did was there’s a song on our album Stage Names called “John Allyn Smith Sails” that’s about John Berryman, the poet– which by the way I wrote not at all knowing it was also a Hold Steady song! (eds note: the Hold Steady song is “Stuck Between Stations”) It’s him recounting his life and the situations in his life that led him up to his suicide and one of things I took a lot of care to do was put a lot of direct quotes from his writing into it. I actually chose the specific three poems that they read at his funeral.
When you put direct lines in a song like that do you expect the listener to know the reference?
I don’t know if it matters. I’ve thought about this a little bit. For example, the fact that the John Berryman references are in that song are specifically to the poems that were read at his funeral, I didn’t expect anybody to get that. But I think that in a way it’s not about them getting it. It’s about me keeping the faith with John Berryman and the story of John Berryman. If nobody gets it it doesn’t matter. The song is supposed to satisfy a higher objective than just be something that people would blog about the Internet. It’s supposed to be an offering, in a way.
Do you prefer poetry to prose then?
I prefer reading prose, I guess. But I was reading a lot of poetry when I wrote the songs on I Am Very Far. It’s kind of funny thing because people talk about my writing a lot in terms of it being like a short story. I hear that a lot. People say that an Okkervil song is like a little short story. But I can honestly say that never once in my entire life has that been my goal. It’s just not what I think about. I like short stories and I like fiction but poetry is slightly more of an influence. But at the same time I think of “song” as its own form. I sometimes chaff a little bit at the idea of complimenting a song by comparing it to a short story or a poem or a novel. I feel that’s a backhanded compliment.
What inspired you to put the lyrics from I Am Very Far into book form when releasing this album?
Well, these lyrics are my favorite lyrics I’ve ever written and a lot of care and love and thought went into them. In a way I think of the music and the lyrics on this record as parallel tracks. I think sometimes the music might be telling a story that the lyrics are contradicting or the lyrics might be saying something that the music is undercutting. So I wanted to let the lyrics exist on their own. It’s a weird thing to do because lyrics are meant to be sung and they always look a little flat and dead on a page no matter what. I put a lot of effort into my lyrics looking good on a page, but at the same time I think there’s a certain amount of failure that’s always going to be inherent in trying to do that.
Why a book rather than a set of liner notes in the album?
I wanted them to live in that format and let people be able to read through them all by themselves if they wanted to. It’s a hardbound book with a gold foil stamp on the front and the embossed title on the back. You’re going to be able to buy it at bookstores and places like that but if you buy the special edition [of the album] you can get it with that too. I’m actually holding a copy of it right now.
Can lyrics feel complete without music?
There’s a little bit of an issue with the lyrics not looking as good on the page without the melody. It’s the life force underneath them. So when you’re looking at lyrics on a page it’s like going to an open casket funeral where you’re like “That looks like my uncle but it also looks like a dummy.” So there’s a little bit of an aspect [here] where it’s the dummy. But there’s little tricks you can do and I think one trick is to let it have its own life on the page.
I Am Very Far is out now on Jagjaguwar.