For a band that’s spent so much time exploring the dark performing songs about drug addiction, pedophilia, and suicide, all through a fractured pop culture lens Okkervil River’s latest album, the CoS Top Star-rated The Silver Gymnasium, sounds absolutely uplifting. A tour through frontman Will Sheff’s hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire circa 1986 reveals songs that are still packed with references, only they tend to focus on real-life people and places most likely unknown to the audience. But that’s not to say that the record doesn’t have a sense of melancholia built into its DNA (this is, after all, Okkervil River). We talked to Sheff about the dichotomy that is growing up in a small town, the healthiest way to consume pop culture, and his silver screen debut in last year’s incorrectly titled The Comedy.
How’s it going?
Great, Dan. Dan is actually the name of my brother.
For real? Does he go by Dan, or Daniel, or Danny?
He goes by Dan. And you know, you’re always going to have a lot of affection, sight unseen, for people who have the names of your siblings or yourself. My greatest affection is for people named Will. I think, “Wow, Will. That guy’s got to be pretty cool.” [Laughs.]
Naturally. I unfortunately don’t have any family members named Will.
I do have a lot of friends named Will.
It’s a quality name. But Dan is not exactly chopped liver, either. It’s a fine name.
So, how are you doing today? Everything going well?
Yeah. Feeling good. Down in Austin working with the band, getting the songs together. Been working on a lot of other projects. I’ve been kind of working constantly, but it’s all very fun stuff. And that’s kind of my ideal state of being.
I didn’t know I was in it until I watched it. [Laughs.] They shot so much for that movie, and I was really apprehensive about how much I was going to be in it. That movie could’ve been like five different movies. They definitely shot five times more than I ended up seeing. There was one scene in particular where I was really being kind of despicable with some of the things I was saying. I was really starting to bite my nails that that was actually going to get put in the movie. When I saw the movie, and saw that I was cut down to the Eddie Vedder in Singles, I was actually kind of relieved.
There are so many despicable characters in the movie that, in a way, you come off as maybe the one who’s the nice guy. You don’t know for sure because he doesn’t say a whole lot.
[Laughs.] That’s good. I’m glad. Because being on those shoots was a lot like the way that the scenes come across. That was the vibe. You’re in that room, and you’re trying to be the guy who’s like, “Yeah, I’m a fucking prick, just like all these other dudes.” And you’d go home and be like, “Ugh, I feel sick”.
I’m a big Tim and Eric fan, and they do have this sort of alienating relationship with their audience, especially live.
Would you say that’s how they were on set?
Eric is a really wonderful, sweet guy. And Tim is too. But Tim was very much in the zone. He gave a really incredible performance in that film, and it was really clear during the filming that he was processing a lot of what was happening with his character, and kind of like staying in that world. I think they’re both really, really cool guys. Eric had a lot less responsibility. So, I didn’t necessarily want to get all up in Tim’s face. “So, tell me about your motivation behind Tim and Eric.” It was pretty cool watching him work. I think they’re brilliant, and I’m a big fan, but, like many people, I didn’t have a context for Tim as a serious actor. And it was impressive how seriously he was taking that role. But they were both really great guys.
You were just in your hometown of Meriden, right?
Yeah, I’ve been there a lot recently, because I’m working on a bunch of different projects there that all kind of tie into The Silver Gymnasium.
I was looking at William Schaff’s map of Meriden on the band’s website, plus the video for the instrumental version of “Lido Pier Suicide Car”, both of which seem to be these sort of fantastical versions of your hometown. Would you say that’s what the album was trying to do? How much of it was based in reality?
It is kind of, in a sense, a heightened or fantastical version, but in a pretty organic sense. Because I think your childhood memories are heightened or fantastical versions of life anyway. When you look back on stuff that happened to you when you were a kid, it takes on kind of a, “Did that really happen?”, or a mythological aspect, or an enchanted aspect. For me, a lot of dreams from that time are blended in with my actual memories. It’s a very storybook kind of thing that I have in my head. So, I wanted to do that. Maybe if I was making a different record, I would have made The Sweet Hereafter, or something that was a really realistic depiction of a small town that was more about the townspeople and stuff. But that wasn’t what I was trying to do. I was trying to do a very, very subjective, in-his-own-head, kind of kid’s view of that town.
The record takes place in ’86, when you were about 10 years old, right?
Yeah, about 10.
Did you go over specific details with Schaff about what you wanted included on the map, such as the giant lizard that’s also a mountain range? Or did he pull those all directly from the lyrics?
The lizard…It’s actually an amphibian called the red eft. It’s a kind of amphibian that lives in the deciduous forests of New Hampshire. It spends the first part of its life in the water, comes out on land, moves around for a little while, goes back to the water, turns green, and becomes different looking. That was something I wanted to be in there. I said, “I really, really, really want this red eft to be in there.” And the red eft has kind of become the spirit animal of the whole record.
On “Down Down The Deep River”, you talk about a “great gold spirit in the summer sky.” Is that a reference to the red eft?
Well, I think that when you see that image in the map, it’s coming from the same philosophical place something guarding over you and keeping you safe. But I relate to the red eft on a couple of different levels, kind of as a childhood totem, kind of as a New England totem. There’s also something very pretty about them. You’re walking through the woods, and there will be this dark brown, dead-leaf path, and you’ll see this really bright, orange, little salamander sitting in the middle of it, with these kind of stoned-looking, half-closed eyes. And I just think they’re really cool looking.
But yeah, that was something I told Will [Schaff] to put in there. I actually sent Will a bunch of my own hand-drawn maps that were very much in the tone of what he ends up doing. It was very emotionally vulnerable stuff, actually, and that’s one of the things I love about Will. Will and I have such a close relationship that he sees and hears a lot of the sort of secret, really inner-working thematic stuff of Okkervil River. It’s all kind of safeguarded in Will’s brain. So, I would send him these really sort of specific maps, and what he did was synthesis of the maps I sent him, the stories I had told him, his own interpretation, and stuff he’d looked up.
A lot of musicians, or artists in general, grew up wanting to get out of their hometown, or maybe they have not so fond memories of it. Are you the opposite? Do you have a nostalgic relationship with your hometown, or is it more complicated than that?
It’s complicated in the sense that I wasn’t always very happy there. I was pretty relentlessly picked on all throughout school for a variety of reasons. If you’ve ever read the book Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, it’s a lot like how I felt. I was really considered weird in such a small town. I was sort of the spazzy kid with thick glasses, and real bad asthma, and bad teeth, and didn’t play sports. So, I was a little bit of an odd man out.
But a lot of this stuff is an expression of me giving shout-outs to people and places that I remember from that time. And the fact that they’re so unknown, and obscure, and not on the internet makes it more sweet to me. I wanted to give all these people just a big boost, because they were such a part of like…I don’t know. Because it’s some kind of…I can’t even really explain it. The fact that nobody has any mental image for New Hampshire outside of New Hampshire was part of what made it appealing, to charge to the New Hampshire mountaintop and plant a flag there, and have everybody be like “What even is that flag?” [Laughs.]
It’s funny you say that, because I was trying to find information on Meriden before this interview, and even the Wikipedia entry is only a paragraph or so. There really is nothing about it online. So, the album could really be an introduction to this place for a lot of people.
Yeah, and I feel a certain amount of trepidation about even putting it out there. Because it’s off the interstate, and it’s sort of a bubble, and sort of sealed in its own world. There’s a certain amount of not wanting to expose something like that to the light. But I hope it all goes well. It’s all just a love. Even when I was there, even when I was a kid, I knew that it was a special place. And, you know, it’s the place that you wake up to the world. I think that that kind of current is something you often see in artists’ work. Yeah, there are people like Lou Reed, who’s like ,”Don’t look back. It’s fucking New York.” Well, I guess in “Coney Island Baby” you hear it.
But when you hear stuff like “Helpless” by Neil Young, and The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, or Bob Seger, who was a big influence, the way that Bob Seger uses nostalgia in rock music was a big influence on the record. I wanted to do something like that. That really sweet kind of tender and friendly thing.
Coming off of I Am Very Far, The Silver Gymnasium does have kind of a sweetness to it. It sounds happier than some of the other stuff you guys have done.
I guess after I Am Very Far, which was a record that was sort of steeped in dread, and was trying to push people away, and was like dark and squirmy, you get three years out, and you’re ready to try something new because you’ve moved on, and have worked your way through some kind of feeling. It felt really bold to drop all the pretense, and drop a certain level of guard, and have a certain level of lowering your weapons, you know? Plus, I was at a point where I started to feel like that wasn’t a helpful thing to give people and to give our fans. You get to a certain point in your life, early or late or whatever, when you look around and you see that your friends are bummed out and lost and sad and shaken up and going through difficult stuff. There’s a certain point where you want to be like, “Here, take this.” [Laughs.] “Take this thing and it’ll help you on your journey.” And it’s a thing not offered because I know what thing to give you. It’s like the only thing I have that I hope will be helpful.
It’s also a 180 from The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins. Here, you’re talking about virtually unknown people and places, but both of those albums dealt with well-known figures and tropes from pop culture. You’ve talked a lot about how we put all this stock into pop culture, into high art and low art, which sometimes becomes just meaningless symbols. But at the same time, you seem like a guy who knows a lot about pop culture, who reads a lot, and watches a lot of movies, and listens to a lot of music. Do you think there’s a healthy way to digest pop culture? Or is it something you just have to be wary about, and make sure you’re not getting too obsessed?
I think that there’s a certain kind of obsession and a certain kind of investment that’s built in to who we are as people. There’s something really basic about our programming inside. The most intelligent, nuanced, thoughtful person in the world can get completely sucked into a terrible reality show. Even as terrible and hacky as those shows can be, there’s a way that they play on your very base emotions. I think a little bit of that is fascinating, actually.
Now, I love the crappiest, pulpy pop culture. And I also love high art stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of high art stuff that I think is boring and terrible. And there’s a lot of pulpy pop culture that I think is soul-destroying. So, it’s all across the map. But the rule of thumb that I always use is that if it ignites your imagination in some way, instead of deadening it, then it’s okay. If it’s the most terrible garbage in the world, but it’s pushing you into a creative place, or into a place of feeling, or a place of being switched on emotionally or creatively, then, by all means, devour it, and roll around in it, and absorb it, and radiate it. But if it’s something you’re using to deaden yourself, or to like hide from emotions, or hide from feeling, and conflict, and all that, then you should watch out.