‘Black Sheep Boy’ Grows Up But Not Old: A Conversation With Okkervil River’s Will Sheff
"When I was making Black Sheep Boy, I felt like it was good, and I was confident that it was gonna be the best record that I'd made. That said, I didn't expect for it to be successful, necessarily"
photo: Okkervil River @ Bowery Ballroom, 11/22/15 (more by Amanda Hatfield)
Realizing that 2005 was ten years ago is a kind of strange, almost surreal moment. Maybe it's aging that gives time a more abbreviated characteristic or perhaps the fact that more things come into our lives to reduce what were the seemingly endless spaces between moments of significance in our youth. Because of that, timelessness and all that comes with the word in the context of art becomes a rare commodity. One of the more recent examples came just a decade ago by way of the Austin-based Okkervil River's third full-length, Black Sheep Boy. An eleven-song course through the mind of its fictional title character, the album was released to nearly universal acclaim with vocalist/guitarist Will Sheff offering his most unapologetically earnest narrative. In 2015, the band played the album in full on tour in support of a 10th anniverary reissue. That included three nights at Bowery Ballroom.
A story told from the mind of a character based partially in fiction and partially in what at the time was the crippling reality of addiction and heartbreak for the band members, the vulnerability paired alongside Okkervil River's confrontational type of folk rock made Black Sheep Boy one of the genre's most compelling albums since Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an album still considered as one of the 21st century's greatest musical achievements. I recently spoke with Sheff over the phone about the album's significance to him now and what changes and what also stays the same in the course of ten years.
BV: After ten years, do you view Black Sheep Boy in a different light than you did when you first wrote those songs?
Will: Well, it's an interesting question because as simple as it seems I don't know really know the answer. So much has happened since then. When I was making Black Sheep Boy, I felt like it was good, and I was confident that it was gonna be the best record that I'd made. That said, I didn't expect for it to be successful, necessarily. I didn't really know what to expect. It was kind of just a last try in my mind at that point. I thought it was good at the time. I guess if it was some album that I didn't think was good, and then I changed my mind and then thought it was good, then maybe so. You have a really difficult or different relationship with this stuff when it's your own work. I remember writing those songs, and I remember recording them, and I remember all the songs that I didn't record, and I remember all the guitar parts that we didn't use for one solo section of a song, so that album means something slightly different for me than maybe it does to somebody who didn't experience all of that. But I will tell you that going back listening to it, and I usually don't listen to my own records that much, and I don't think that's very uncommon at all, because like I said, if you live through it, and you go through every little bit, it's like listening to work, and you're really familiar with it anyway, and you don't need to refer back to it. But after ten years passes, you do come back to it, and you do that with a new perspective, so in the process of approving masters and re-learning these songs and everything, I did feel kind of happy with my younger self on some levels. Everything I've ever done, there's some part that I probably wouldn't have done like that. I didn't feel a desire to reach back in time to fix it or make some little tweaks.
So would you say your relationship with that album specifically is inherently different than anything else you've done with Okkervil River?
Yeah, I guess so. I guess the way that I view it differently, is that I think I maybe figured something out about making music, and about making a record, and a whole piece of art that I hadn't figured out earlier. To a certain extent that formed everything I did after that point. I figured out that you don't put everything in the world into a work of art. It's more about what you don't put in or what you don't use, the topics you don't talk about, what colors you don't use, all that stuff. You're trying to make it whole, and in order to do that, you throw out most of everything else. That's the thing that I've learned a lot, and it's continued to refine as I've gone to work. I will say that it was a time where I was very creatively stimulated, and there were songs that were very important to me at the time, and I think listening to this I had a lot of pride. As I'm doing new material, I do find myself coming back to a Black Sheep Boy informed approach. There's something about the simplicity and the directness, and the way that we were trying to push an idea clearly in a musical sense. I find that charming and comforting somehow, not in a melodramatic way, but I do kind of think of my time and my life right now as a transition, which it was at that time. So yeah, I guess I do feel like it's personal in a way that some of the others aren't.
You were 29 when the record was released, and on the cusp of your 30s. Now as you're about to enter your 40s, is there more of an autobiographical narrative that's finding its way into your music?
I don't really connect age with autobiographical writing, for whatever reason. I think that at the time I was writing Black Sheep Boy, and I was starting to write songs and make music, there was a sort of emo, confessional style that was heavily autobiographical that I found kind of mockish, and I didn't enjoy it. I think maybe having come up being interested in folk music, that I was hearing songs that were more about narrative and character. Of course, when you're writing a song you're always putting something of yourself into it. Always. Maybe you're putting a lot or a little. It could be a lot of details that are completely fabricated and a lot of emotion that's incredibly real, or maybe you're putting in a lot of detail that's fully autobiographical with a meaning behind it that's not actually real. It's kind of a weird balance. With Silver Gymnasium I wanted to talk about memory, and it seemed like the best technique to do something about memory was to get into something autobiographical. But I think that all of my records are autobiographical in some sense and fictional in some other sense. I guess maybe in different proportions, but I don't think I could tell you what that is and why it's different. It's kind of a mystical thing that I don't even fully understand.
From a lyrical standpoint, is it something that's very much controlled and guided by you, or is it more instinctive?
Well, it's changed a lot. When I started out, it was very, very conscious. It was always kind of cerebral in a way where I wasn't satisfied with the results, but I didn't know how to do it any other way. I thought that songwriting was gathering yourself up to the strongest, most forward-going momentum, and I thought it was trying to work it out in your mind and figure it all out and just try really hard. I think that as I've gotten older, or maybe I think it's probably not an age thing, but I think it's having written more and realizing what did work and what didn't work and becoming more passionate about wanting to make good records. As I've gone through that process, I've learned to make it a lot more intuitive, and I think more than ever what I value is that intuitive aspect. In fact, I think I'm in a revolutionary moment in my writing, because as I was writing Black Sheep Boy, I was able to break through into an intuitive style of writing. As I've become more experienced with writing, I've let go of the more cerebral brain qualities of writing, and I've been able to break through to the more intuitive approach, and it's not easy. It takes a certain amount of mental training. I feel like that it took me a long time to figure out, but it's still really fucking hard. I think that Black Sheep Boy - that was maybe the very earliest kernel of me trying to do that and figuring out how to do it. A song like "In a Radio Song" or "So Come Back, I'm Waiting", which are two of my favorite songs from that record, they represent a kind of letting yourself fall backwards into a musical feeling and a lyrical feeling, and I think that was the beginning. But if anything, I think I've gotten more and more into that, and when I write these days it feels like it's 90% intuitive, whereas in the past I'd say it was more 30% intuitive.
What was the catalyst for that shift? Was it something specific or just a matter of maturing as a musician and even as a person?
I think that's probably true for every single person. If you're a carpenter, you probably learn how to make a chair with fewer nails. The more that you go on in your work, the more you wanna discard artifice and vanity and clearly visible work that was done, and the more you wanna make a song that's like a stone in a river. When you pick up a stone that's in a river, it looks perfect. It looks like somebody made it that way on purpose who was really great at doing what they do, because it's right somehow, and there's no extra part that doesn't need to be there, and it all seems to make sense, and also a stone in a river doesn't mean anything other than itself, and that's good. Because it doesn't mean anything other than itself, it means everything. That kind of writing is the writing I always wanted to do, but I never fully apprehended how to do it. I would just try really hard, and I think I learned on some level that you have to stop trying. You have to be open on some level and not try to rally your forces but rather surrender. Black Sheep Boy I think to a certain extent was the beginning to that sort of process, and I guess it was because my life was moving so quickly that I didn't have time to overwork things.
Since [2015 just ended], I wanted to ask what books or music you found yourself revisiting the most this year?
Jennifer Castle made a record that actually didn't come out [in 2015] but [the year before]. It's called Pink City, and I really liked that a lot. I really liked the new Destroyer record. I saw them at Webster Hall, and it was the best live band I've seen in so long. It really gave me hope for art and music, because his musicians were so good, and there was such a sense of purpose in what they were doing. Because I've been writing it's kind of where I go back and forth in circles, and when I'm writing I'm usually not consuming new stuff, because I'm usually trying to put myself in some kind of trance state where I'm moving my world that I get to make, and that world usually doesn't consist of new stuff. It usually consists of something that hearkens back to some experience or place for me. Once I get done with the cycles, I go: shit, shit, shit, shit, shit - I've gotta catch up with what's going on. [Laughs] But right now I'm a little bit in the head down listening kind of mood. I like Steve Gunn a lot, Jessica Pratt - they're all really great but none of that stuff just came out. There's a lot that's brand new that I am just waiting to listen to later.
Catch Will Sheff tonight (1/5) at Baby's All Right in Brooklyn as part of a big Bernie Sanders benefit show.