I Walked With a Zombie
Will Sheff tackles 'True Love' track by track
As told to Austin Powell, Fri., April 16, 2010
There was something frightening and beautiful about listening to those demos. It was like coming across an old shoebox full of Polaroids that had been damaged by the sun and dripped on by water and stuck together and moldy and covered with spiderwebs, but somehow that's blended into the texture of what they are. I wanted the audience to be lucky enough to experience that feeling.
'Ain't Blues Too Sad'
It's basically the story of Roky's life in three verses. He starts out in the Elevators, going out on an adventure and not knowing where it's going to lead. The second verse is about some of the awful things that happened to him. He actually says, "Electricity hammered me through my head," which is an incredibly raw, powerful, and violent line. I like that it's not a metaphorical horror rock song. He's talking about himself very bluntly, but even by the end of that verse, there's a kind of resurrection: "But he does not die, and no one dies again. And may he live – blow the wind." At the end, there's this kind of resignation and wisdom, and it's that quality that really won me over about all these songs. It felt like putting an outline of the record right at the beginning.
'Goodbye Sweet Dreams'
I remember reading this Iggy Pop quote where he says: "Everyone talks about how influential the Stooges were on punk rock. I don't understand why people don't say that about the 13th Floor Elevators." The Elevators had that sort of primal, proto-punk pounding sound, and that was a big reference point here, along with songs like "Gimme Shelter" and "Gimme Danger." I wanted to fill it with things that Roky likes a lot, and Roky loves the Stones.
'Be and Bring Me Home'
When you write a song in prison, after you've watched your career go up in flames, it's a really different thing from when you're just sitting around at home trying to write your next single. You're really writing a song to keep yourself sane and to have something to hold onto and reassure yourself with. That song came into being because it needed to be, for emotional and spiritual reasons. He's looking back on his life and singing about the painful things that have happened to him and yet looking at them with mercy and forgiveness and love. I find that incredibly moving.
'Bring Back the Past'
Roky has been involved with a lot of styles in his life, from that sort of lo-fi folkie demo stuff to punk rock. Then he has songs like "Starry Eyes" where he takes on this Buddy Holly feel and filters it through this really clean power pop song. For "Bring Back the Past," which used to be called "Moody Tunes," I wanted to do something in that vein, with that same sort of sweetness to it.
There's this yearning quality to his voice in that original version that's just so stark and heartbreaking. I love that song, and I really wanted to do it justice.
That song is very much about getting your anger out, and he always brought this incredible amount of focus and fury to it. There's this other song that we recorded called "The Singing Grandfather" that ties in with "John Lawman." That's something that people don't know about Roky. He writes songs that are secretly responsive to each other or related in some way. It's not something that people are supposed to notice. It's a very private thing, but I know there's a link.
'True Love Cast Out All Evil'
Roky writes these mantra songs where he's chanting the same thing over and over again. In something like "I Walked With a Zombie," you feel like he's telling a story even though he's singing the same line over and over again. "True Love Cast Out All Evil" is an incredible version of that, and he has a spiritual and rough quality to his voice now, like a wise Texas preacher, and that was really suited to that song. I always picture him very calmly walking around a congregation and laying his hands on their heads and casting out spirits.
The process for each song was different. "Forever" probably came easiest. I just said, "Hey Rok, we're going to try and do this like a Roy Orbison tune," and he kind of brightened and immediately said, "All right." He stood up there, with no guitar, and he sang it so well. That was the very first vocal we committed to tape for the final recording, and every aspect of it popped right into place.
'Think of as One'
The original version has this Velvet Underground slinkiness to it, but with a soul quality too, and that's what I really wanted to showcase. We tried to keep that groove intact and add a lot of Curtis Mayfield and William DeVaughn influence with the congas and horns. I love that, because Okkervil could never do it. It's a song of brotherhood so unironic and optimistic. Everybody feels that way, but it's hard to express it without sounding corny. Roky can.
It's not a bells-and-whistles song. There are no dramatic moments in it. It expresses very plainly and humbly a feeling of happiness and contentment, and those types of songs are the hardest kind to pull off. I think "Birds'd Crash" walks that fine line. That's why I wanted it near the end; it sums up where Roky's at right now.
'God Is Everywhere'
The Elevators' Easter Everywhere explored these Gnostic Christian themes – this idea of a personal god that's imminent and in all things, where the resurrection is happening all the time. Roky's perception of Christ seems to be that the devil and Jesus are both equally entertaining and interesting. They both need to be there, good and evil suspended together. Nobody really has his unique spiritual approach, except for his wife, Dana. This is a pretty radical song, but also just really sweet and mysterious. There are birds singing all around him, and you just feel like he's in this idyllic place, frozen in time somewhere, playing this beautiful song. I thought that was a great open-ended conclusion.