Interview With Will Sheff From Okkervil River

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Will Sheff holds very little back, either in his albums with Okkervil River or in his conversation. The child of two teachers who grew up in the dormitory of a New England boarding school, he has an elaborate, obsessive, and sometimes hysterical way of looking at the world that has resulted in six revelatory albums that show some of the odder aspects of human nature. Their latest, I Am Very Far, fits easily into their uneasy canon, but instead of taking on fame, film, and the immutability of death, Sheff confronts the fragility of love and relationships in a more shambolic way than previously, insisting that he likes things a little frayed, a little less thought out than on his earlier albums. As a result he shines a fainter yet no less revelatory light in I Am Very Far. But certainly not as far as he thinks. Sheff talks about his fears, his phobias, and the dangers of touring.

With this record it seems you have consciously tried to distance yourself from your earlier records Could you have done this album without doing the early records?

Probably not. I think that back when I did Black Sheep Boy I had to be ballsy about doing some things that I felt trepidation about, that seemed sort of ridiculous to me. I was afraid when I did Black Sheep Boy that it was going to be too dark and excessive for people and we were going to look silly. And when we didn't look silly I realized how much tolerance people will have for all kinds of over-the-top style.

What wouldn't you like people to see when they think about you?

I really don't want to look like a dick. Maybe I secretly fear that I'm a dick or something like that, or maybe it's just that I've known a lot of artists who are dicks. But my big fear a lot of the time is that I'm going to come across like an asshole.

Why, are you secretly one?

I think on some level in my writing I occasionally enjoy seeming like a dick. I occasionally enjoy inhabiting that character of somebody who is going to say the very most hurtful thing, or something like that. I feel like I can be the ultimate insensitive jerk, which is something that I don't give myself permission to do as much in real life.

Prior to the release of your album were you afraid that your best work might be behind you?

No, it's actually the feeling that that you should die for a song or a record and I'm kind of scared about the fact that I think that. I'm out here kind of putting myself in a stressful situation and a not very healthy situation and at times a dangerous situation, for most of every year, because I believe in what I'm doing. And I'm well aware of the fact that it's scary. So I think that maybe it comes more out of that than the fear of running out of words.

What's the most dangerous part of being in Okkervil River?

It's the driving everywhere. I mean we've had lots of frightening close calls on roads in America and Europe. And it's the physical toll that it takes. I've had total physical collapse on tour many times, where I just don't have anything more to give, and we have to cancel shows and I have go to the clinic in whatever town that I'm in and try to get back on the road. And it's not just the physical danger but it's what it does to your brain in terms of stress. I've had moments where I'll just suddenly start breaking out in hives from stress. It's financially very frightening. And I only say this not to complain, but to say that the reason I'm doing this is I love what I do, I really believe in it. And I feel like it's almost a test of your belief in it. But at a certain point you see the scary end of that and it's a little frightening.

Are famous or artistic people different from the rest of us?

Yeah, they are, but usually worse.

You've said you were interested in the idea of trauma being a rapturous thing, and that you move towards the things you fear.

I think that a lot of the times, my best ideas that I treasure the most are the ones that seem really horrible to me at first. I'm very interested in rapture and ecstasy in writing. It's that famous Rilke quote that we're afraid of beauty because it secretly wants to annihilate us, and every angel is the beginning of terror we're just slightly able to bear. I've always felt like that said so much about how I experience the most powerful things in my life.

You come from a long line of teachers. Is that what you do when you're onstage? Teach your audience something?

I don't know. I feel that it seems sanctimonious for me to say something like that. I just think that my job is to sensitize people in some way... I just want to kind of stir up their feelings.

One thing you'd change about yourself...

I wish I could be more extroverted, because I'm not. When I get onstage I can be very outgoing but when I'm not onstage I can be kind of shy and introverted, and I think sometimes it makes people think that I'm weird or something like that.

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Jaan Uhelszki was one of the founding editors at Detroit’s legendary Creem magazine. Since that time, her work has appeared in USA Today, Uncut, Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Relix, and Guitar World. She is the only journalist to have ever performed in full makeup with Kiss. Luckily she only had to put…

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