For Will Sheff, the singer and songwriter for the decade-plus-old band Okkervil River, the culture wars are personal. Sheff is a hyper-articulate zeitgeist observer who's waged pop-culture battles with the Austin, Texas-based band's fans for daring to paint a (somewhat) humanizing portrait of Republicans ("The President's Dead" from 2006). He's also written about the Grammys for Billboard and Norwegian death metal for McSweeney's. And he typically gives interviews that read like Marshall McLuhan essays.
"People tend to talk about culture or the good aspects of an artwork like it's 'eat your vegetables, it's good for you,'" says the voluble Texas-by-way-of-New Hampshire expat who currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y. "I've felt like that was always a real fallacy, a real high-culture, elitist, academic saying — 'pop culture is junk food and art is broccoli.' I never felt like that. I always felt art was the Twix bar or whatever. If I like something, the amount of pleasure that I got from it was so amazing. Thinking about art as roughage is a real problem."
Roughage or not, Sheff relishes the public sphere engagement. But he's also aware of its pitfalls for an artist in today's "everything's a press release" Internet world, and he's brought the same astute eye to Okkervil's music. The band's songs are as rich with cultural allusions and metaphors as they are with orchestral-rock instrumentation, careening crescendos and moments of transcendent melodic beauty.
Okkervil River, which makes its first Charlotte appearance Aug. 27 at the Visulite Theatre, took its name from the short story by Tatyana Tolstaya that concerns an obsessed fan's search for a reclusive Russian singing star, who turns out to be a caricature of her former self. Recent Okkervil albums — The Stage Names, released in 2007, and The Stand-Ins, released in 2008 — similarly dealt with pedestal life as seen, with empathy, through the eyes of velvet-rope rock stars, poet John Berryman, porn starlet Shannon Wilsey (aka Savannah Smiles) and even Sheff (as both idol and idolizer). Berryman and Wilsey were suicides, which only illustrates Sheff's point that celebrity has little to do with reality.
"People who make art do stuff and they don't even know what it means sometimes," Sheff told The Gothamist in 2007. "It's actually a real bummer to know that, because you kind of wish you could go sit at the feet of some great artist and they could just tell you the way that it is. But the pathetic truth of it is that they're just a dumb person like you."
Yet Okkervil River, which began its life lumped (unfairly) with the alt-country set, has risen modestly above the fray. The band built a career through hard touring and live shows that thrill for how often they threaten to derail. (Sheff loses his voice fairly often.) And like all of those who are worthy of being called artists, creative restlessness informs Okkervil's records.
"You start out with something that is haunting you or intriguing you or bothering you or obsessing you, and you just fully give yourself over to it," Sheff says. "But by the time that you're done, you've probably wrung everything out of it, probably more out of it than should've been wrung in the first place. So you want to try something totally different, usually something that feels like the opposite of what you did before."
The core Okkervil sextet is still touring behind last year's well-received I Am Very Far (a 79 at Metacritic), which represented another reinvention of the band and its recording process. With Sheff producing for the first time, and recording taking place in six different studios with as many as 13 musicians playing live in the same room, I Am Very Far's songs are by turns comforting and terrifying, cathartic and paranoid, tender and violent. Even when the LP turns to more familiar Okkervil terrain with a heart-rending ballad, premonitions of evil lurk and violence erupts (throats in two different songs get slit, and more seem on the verge).
Sheff's lyrics on Very Far tilt surreal and less linear compared to the previous two LPs' nesting doll narratives. But the cultural observations (see "We Need a Myth") and wordplay still arrest, marking Sheff as a versatile songwriter in multiple styles. He shows that on the sinister opener "The Valley," whose anvil-pounding beat bears more in common with Tom Waits' junkyard inferno than previous Okkervil records:
Watch the sun switching in the sky, off and on,
Where 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.
But Sheff is aware that the band's popularity may have topped off, despite Okkervil's slow-but-steady ascension, the Grammy nomination he received for his liner notes to Roky Erickson's comeback LP (True Love Cast Out All Evil released in 2010), and recent collaborations with the likes of Norah Jones. The problem, Sheff says, is that it's only in hip-hop and R&B where crucial life-or-death songwriting is going on. The current songwriting in indie rock — a meaningless phrase today, he adds — suffers instead from "curious weightlessness."
Today's rock songwriters are less concerned with actual innovation than they are with "getting a commercial or getting a really great festival slot," Sheff says. "There's kind of a creeping careerism that's got into indie rock — it's almost become like the bush league or college team where everybody's glancing around anxiously hoping that there are scouts in the audience tonight."
Sheff concedes the Catch-22 that in today's synth-pop digital world such criticism can get you labeled an Andy Rooney-like wet blanket lamenting the good old days of newsprint, 8-tracks and easy-to-open packaging. But he also holds elements of the recent indie rock generations accountable. He says that watching faux Will Oldhams and Bill Callahan wannabes strum two chords for 45 minutes while singing "vaguely meaningful" lyrics to cardigan-clad disciples was so un-fun that kids were bound to turn too hard in the other direction.
Still, he concedes his type of songwriting isn't exactly in demand right now. But as an astute observer of cultural trends, he also knows that just because it's now doesn't mean it's tomorrow.
"We have these big, big, big moments, and they evaporate in like three weeks, and then we're on to the next one," he says. "And we're really hungry for that — we really wish we could have a big Beatlemania thing. I just don't know if it's going to happen. But assuming humans have time left on earth, which I'm skeptical about, any number of things could happen: We could have a band that makes the Beatles look like the Backstreet Boys. It could totally happen. But you've got to be optimistic, if for no other reason than pessimism doesn't really lead you anywhere."
Okkervil River with The Mynabirds. $14. Aug. 27. Visulite Theatre. www.visulite.com.
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