The New Sincerity
Despite Renaissance physician William Harvey's medical revelation in the early 1600s that, contrary to centuries of assumption, the purpose of the human heart is not to produce blood but to pump and circulate it throughout the body, the queasy craft of bloodletting -- of purging poisons by opening veins and draining quantities of said life liquid -- continued until the 19th century. Nice. Well, it's the 21st century, and while medical innovations have, at least for the time being, won out, it's not too difficult to comprehend people's fascination with the grisly therapy. What beats a good bloodletting (at least metaphorically) for getting to the heart of matters physical and emotional? Austin acoustic indie-rock folk trio Okkervil River is certainly not unfamiliar with the concept of purging.
In their short life as our town's new standard bearers for the folk-rock implosion, they've managed to skate that elusive thin line between utter joy and unbearable pain and turn it into manifesto. Their lyrics abound with scenarios of murder, suffering, and just plain creepiness. Songs such as "Kathy Keller," coy with details, while at the same time loaded with them, let just enough crimson flow to evoke ideas, images, and further thought.
-- I have no appetite to do the things I did then, and won't do again. On my own, I'm all alone -- I try to make my affections known, but the evil's passed from one hand to another. Cynthia Keller in the cellar, don't tell me you didn't get my letters. --
The rivulet that would become Okkervil River formed when Will Sheff first met Seth Warren in grade school, and the two later hooked up with transplanted Texan Zachary Thomas via high school in the small town of Meriden, New Hampshire. The three shared weirdo status throughout their school years, so they did what any respectable group of high school outsiders does at times of social isolation: They formed a band. Sheff took up guitar, Thomas picked up the guitar even more quickly, and Warren took hold of the beat.
Then life happened, and like many at those crossroads, the three found themselves spread across the planet, with Sheff in Minneapolis, Thomas back in Texas attending school at UT, and Warren traveling between college and India. They reunited one summer in New Hampshire, at which point Sheff and Warren decided to relocate to Austin.
"I was going to be a failure and move to Austin," says Sheff, " -- and get fired from jobs and play in bands."
So the river moved south. Truth be told, there never was such a river in the New England state in the first place, nor is there such a river in these United States, despite its Americana-evoking name. The name comes from a Russian river in a Tatyana Tolstaya story. This little twist is about as close as the Okkervil boys come to irony.
"We really don't want to be ironic," insists Sheff. "Personally, we suffer from a toxic amount of [irony]. There are opportunities to make ironic decisions about our music, and we often have to hold each other back. But there's nothing in our music in 'quotes.'
"Sincerity -- " he says, pausing, "is more important than being glib."
Did someone say "New Sincerity"?
"I moved here for school in 1993," says Thomas, the band's tousle-haired bass and mandolin player. "I loved the Reivers and got to see Kim Longacre with Violet Crown."
Okkervil's bluegrass-churned morbidity may seem far afield from the jangle-pop of their forebear's combo, one of Austin's fabled "New Sincerity" bands, but the two groups do share that lyrical sense of evoking rather than telling.
"Our songs are not necessarily from experience," Sheff adds. "I've never murdered [anyone]. Our songs are dark but our personalities aren't like that."
"We all have our sides," mumbles Warren with a grin.
"We see beauty in ugliness," says Thomas, "That's something we all share in common, and that's why our personalities at first glance don't seem like the sorts that like to play murder ballads."
"[Our songs] are true in the way dreams are true," explains Sheff. "Instead of using as a model some sort of photo essay or documentary, you can use the realness of a dream. A dream is not intentional and censored. It can't be anything but itself. So it can't be anything but true and sincere."
"Oh, Precious," whether culled from dreams or not, certainly bears that mark. The song rollicks along like a 3é4 chantey penned by Harry Nilsson and John Lennon were they shut in a Palace on a Magnetic Field for a while with Lee Hazlewood. Talk about your dreamers. Close your eyes and you might see "plasticine Phaedras with looking-glass ties."
I fill in the holes in my vision with Dexedrine. The landscape spins sideways, the movies and magazines whisper as they hide on soft silky surfaces. Surely my neighbors and friends have their purposes here. --
"Sincerity and realism get confused," says Sheff, referring both to the general concept and the specific school of Realism. "There's this tendency [that says if] something's true, it must mirror real life."
He gets easily frustrated with what he calls "strident political activist folkies who make music." When pressed for examples, Sheff holds back and then cites John Gorka and Ani DiFranco as examples.
"[Realism] makes for boring art," he says. "It's too obvious and restrictive. I have no problem with these artists' messages. I just think that the way they approach serious issues deadens them. It's brash, obnoxious, self-satisfied. They're using their big Realist bulldozer and wiping out out all the subtleties. Art shouldn't tell people what to know."
Clearly, the band takes care not to "tell people what to know." In songs "He Passes Number Thirty-Three" and "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion," Sheff seems to channel the brutal honesty and whispered wallowing of a young Alex Chilton circa Big Star's "Kanga Roo" or "Holocaust."
"There's something about going deep down into that part of yourself and rummaging around and facing it," theorizes Sheff. "Even though it's kind of weird or painful, it can be satisfying. It's like cleaning the house; it need to be done every now and then. If you don't, things get backed up, stagnant, calcified. There's the danger of stasis. It needs to be done in order for things to flow freely again."
The lyric that rings "truest" for Sheff was inspired by a moment in time at work.
"The people at work were watching the suspects of the yogurt shop murders on TV, and they were just straining to see the evil in their faces. But evil doesn't look like anything. And that's the lyric right there. That's repeated over and over in 'Westfall,' about a rich, privileged kid who murders this girl."
Evil don't look like anything. Evil don't look like anything. Evil don't look like anything.
Thomas laments, "People [try] to avoid unpleasantness. Like Will's parents always ask, 'Couldn't [your songs] be a little more pleasant?' And mine actually. My parents ask that, too."
It's calm and quiet at the otherwise pleasant Gaby & Mo's Saturday night, where Ten Speed has just finished its set. The crowd has thinned out a bit as Okkervil River messes with the small PA and decides to forgo any sort of soundcheck and just sort of wing it. With eyes closed, Will Sheff twists his lanky frame around the mike. His vocals have this sort of reedy Thom Yorke deadpan to them, but like the Radiohead lead man, Sheff can break into exorcising yowls when the occasion calls for it.
Meanwhile, Seth Warren sings his rhythm, his face contorting with each beat, and Zach Thomas grins sweetly, not maniacally. His boyish beach boy cut wags whenever he yelps a background vocal. The band plays their guts out despite the size of the turnout, ripping through most of the songs on their Stars Too Small to Use CD recorded in Austin last year. When Sheff finally opens his eyes, he's gazing at stars not his shoes and staring down whatever evil's out there or in his head.
They're excited to be playing what Warren and I have dubbed the "white trash" lineup on South by Southwest's Saturday night at Opal Divine's Freehouse. So far, the drummer has no idea what to expect.
"I have no horror stories about SXSW to relate," he says, cautiously. "So right now, I'm just happily naive."
Perhaps, by this time next year, the horror stories will be in need of a good letting. After all, what beats a good bloodletting?
Okkervil River battles evil at the Opal Divine's Freehouse on SXSW Saturday night, March 18, 9pm.