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Waking the Dead

The Will & Will Show: Okkervil River's Will Sheff and Centro-Matic's Will Johnson

By Melanie Haupt, Fri., Sept. 12, 2003

Within a Budding Grove: Will Sheff (l) and Will Johnson
Within a Budding Grove: Will Sheff (l) and Will Johnson
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

It's not so hot that you notice, really, but the ants in Oakwood Cemetery are unbearable. It's almost as if they're protecting the dead, enacting an unrelenting and painful punishment on any who'd dare linger on consecrated ground.

Nonetheless, tarry is what these two men do, perched as respectfully as possible on an ancient monument, surrounded by other gargantuan gravestones bearing the poignant legends "Mother," "Father," "Our Baby Daughter." Together, Okkervil River's Will Sheff and Centro-matic's Will Johnson hold court amid the dead in a museum dedicated to absence.

"Not many people have shown up to a show of mine with a copy of Proust under his arm," says Johnson of Sheff, recounting their mutual love of things literary.

Sheff's infectious laugh burbles loudly.

"I was making a quixotic attempt to read Remembrance of Things Past," explains Sheff, "which I read the first 2 1/2 books of. But it was getting like, 'All right, I've read about how the light fell on the banister for the past 35 pages now, I'm ready to move on to the next second in time.'

"That was a funny show, though, because you were playing in a fake bedroom that was part of a set at the Hyde Park Theatre."

"It was a teenager's bedroom," recalls Johnson, "and I can't remember what poster was on the wall --"

"Bob Marley," interjects Sheff.

"-- and there was a midpriced Dillard's comforter on the bed in a very teenaged pattern with a lot of squares that reminded me of what I slept under as a teenager," explains Johnson.

Sheff giggles as Johnson continues reminiscing in a sleepy voice still weighed down by a short tour of Europe, from which he's returned only the day prior.

"I was kind of inspired by it," admits Johnson. "I should've run with the 'home' theme."

"You should've started the show with the lights down," cries Sheff, eager to take the ball and run with it. "They come up, and you're lying in bed, then you get up, lift some barbells, and be like, 'I just got a good idea for a song!'"

"I think we're onto something," chuckles Johnson.

"I was thinking it would be a good idea to do a camping show," continues Sheff. "You could get out of your tent, pick up the instruments, play the show, then get back in the tent."

"Maybe our next show together we could work the whole camping theme," Johnson grins.

As their easygoing banter suggests, both musicians are friendly and affable. It's convenient, really, because it's here in the bone yard that both Wills have met to talk about their bands and the dozens of convergences, not unlike today's, that their careers continue to make.

The latest overlap is the shared Sept. 2 release date of Okkervil River's third album, Down the River of Golden Dreams (Jagjaguwar), and Centro-matic's seventh, Love You Just the Same (from local imprint Misra). To commemorate this happy coincidence, the two groups are holding a joint CD-release party at the Mercury this Saturday, with Western Keys filling out the roster of local talent.

Okkervil's latest platter is already widely regarded as their strongest to date. With the band's rootsy Nick Cave aesthetic, the disc is dark and spare, the lyrics often violent. The Austin quartet explores the pained space that separates two people, whether between estranged lovers or a dying parent and grieving child. Sheff, a Chronicle Screens contributor, possesses cinematic sensibilities, manifested here in a barren, blue- and gray-hued landscape; the poetry is beautifully accompanied by his gently intuitive bandmates.

Johnson and Centro-matic, while dabbling in similar subject matter -- that of absence and lack, a yearning for something not quite nameable -- work with a broader palette of colors on Love You Just the Same. Those same spaces are filled with melodic bouquets of sound and buxom drum lines, all punctuated by Johnson's sexy, scratchy voice. "If we found the time, if we found the merriment, if we found the words," sings Johnson, "we'd scratch them in new cement. But those days are gone, and we've got only pictures now."

It's clear from "Flashes and Cables" that while the delivery is a bit different, the message coming from both acts is essentially the same. The two frontmen are inclined to agree.

"I think it's real natural," says Johnson. "I think these bands fit quite well together."

"It seems to me that Will and I have a lot of stuff in common," says Sheff in between ant bites and sips of wine. "I love Will's writing, and it's certainly been an influence on me."

Johnson nods.

"I get the feeling, and shut me down if I'm being totally wrong here," he says to Sheff, "but speaking personally, I'm just as influenced by writers as I am by songwriters. We chat about books every now and again, and just get into the wonder of place and setting and character-building and Faulkner and his wizardry up in his crystal palace."

Sheff laughs his agreement.

"Most of my favorite art, as dark as it is or as sad or scary or fearful or whatever the case may be -- it could be a character in a story or a character in a song or whatever -- I think has a sense of humor to it as well," expands Johnson, shaking off his jet-lag haze a bit more. "It takes itself with a bucket of salt in a serious moment.

"And I think when you combine the two, it can make for really great moments. Really ugly stories or really grotesque stories with pretty music set to them has always been wonderful to me; that you can filter it through that light and still have a sense of humor about the grand scheme of things, is quite important, I think. And valuable.

"You have to have a sense of humor in this day and age with this culture, because if you don't, it's going to be a really ulcer-laden trip."

Sheff is more to the point.

"I'm a really political person, and I try to address that in an intelligent way where it's not like the Indigo Girls hitting you over the head with a political message," he says. "I guess like making fiction out of things that are real."

"I think that voices are starting to be heard now," offers Johnson. "I think independent art is starting to flourish in a way that resembles, to me as a fan, musically, what I witnessed back in the early Eighties. Lots of independent bands were finding ways to get their stuff out there and survive and be happy, and to them, that was success. That's success to me, if you can make that happen somehow, keep your overhead low enough to eke out some means of a living."

On the strength of the two Wills' respective new albums, they make up part of that group of interesting new voices geared not necessarily toward slipping Madonna the tongue in front of millions, but toward making honest, passionate music that more and more people want to hear. Which brings us to the other reason why we're here this afternoon in a giant old cemetery: to talk about the future.

"I plan to be a corpse sometime in the next 60 years," jokes Sheff. "I think Will and I are similar in that we continue to work on shit far in advance. I spent all last month working on the new Shearwater record [Sheff's side project], so there's a certain level where I don't care about the Okkervil record because I'm worried about the Shearwater record.

"That's my favorite way to work right now, just try to be working on the next thing when the last thing comes out so that I don't find myself with a lot of downtime to get self-conscious about the next stuff. I find that to be really barking up the wrong tree, thinking self-consciously."

"I think that's a very fortunate situation to have, working on the next record while one's coming out," Johnson muses. "Our band for its entire existence has played catch-up. For the first time in a long time, I'm really excited about the fact that I don't really know what Centro-matic is going to do next.

"I'm very much excited about recording a record with our band that's a little bit more spontaneous. I think half the wonder of music is uncertainty, and I always embrace that because it's an absolute challenge."

Perhaps that's the secret to success: embracing uncertainty in the face of death, life's one absolute certainty next to the wrath of the Texas fire ant. end story


Okkervil River and Centro-matic celebrate the release of their new albums at the Mercury, Saturday, Sept. 13. Camping will most likely not be the theme.
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