Fun Fun Fun Fest Preview

Okkervil River's Will Sheff on the writing of The Stage Names

Fun Fun Fun Fest Preview
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

Okkervil River

5:25pm, Stage 1

In writing The Stage Names, Okkervil River's fourth release for Jagjaguwar, Will Sheff sought seclusion amid the maddening din. In a tiny New York City fourth-floor walk-up apartment, the album emerged as Sheff sat by his open window, staring beyond the fire escape into the human dramas unfolding below.

"It has to do with a kind of background texture that I want," says Sheff outside of Spider House. "Black Sheep Boy is more rural, a more natural and organic feeling album. The Stage Names is a little bit more gritty and urban feeling in my mind. I picture crumpled up trash in the corners of these songs. It's not sanitary, not tranquil."

Okkervil River is rarely tranquil. Sheff's songwriting has continually mined the dark recesses of both a cultural and personal subconscious, exploring twisted, often violent ambitions through characters treated with novelistic sophistication. The Stage Names is no different, exposing a postmodern disillusion that weaves allusions to the tortured lives and suicides of porn star Shannon Wilsey and poet John Berryman among the album's numerous narratives.

"I feel like, within the space of the song, I'm trying to give [the characters] an opportunity to explain themselves," explains Sheff. "Maybe that's enough rope to hang themselves, but I'm not going to be the one doing the hanging. I'm not even going to be the one tying the noose. I'm just letting them say their piece. I think the world's a much more complicated place than people think."

Despite the familiarly unsettling portraits, The Stage Names remains Okkervil's most polished album, more melodic and pop-driven, with Sheff's unbridled howl largely subdued. The vocal shift is partly the product of the frontman's wounded voice, which interrupted recording in February, the singer ordered by doctors not to speak for almost a month.

"I was so terrified by that experience that when I got my voice back, I was so excited that there was a real amount of joy and love and enthusiasm that went into the vocal performance," says Sheff. "But my voice is just going to change as I sing more. I embrace that. I think it's like an old house that has more charm as it weathers. I fully intend to have a more fucked-up voice when I'm older. I just hope that it's pleasantly fucked up."

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Okkervil River, Will Sheff

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