Okkervil River don’t think the route to artistic truth runs through their navels.
OKKERVIL RIVER with CROOKED FINGERS at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), Sunday (October 12), 6:30 pm. $15.50. 416-870-8000.
By his estimate, Will Sheff, leader of Austin indie folk rock darlings Okkervil River, has been up for just over a minute when he takes my call in Tucson, Arizona. He's tired, although still as lucid and revealing as you might expect from the guy who's written some of the most thoughtful albums popular music has seen in recent years. But "tired" is a relative term for Sheff, who, with band in tow, has just started another tour in support of The Stand Ins (Jagjaguwar), their fifth album in six years.
One thing Sheff is not tired of is songwriting. His band's five albums run the gamut from minimal folk to fully orchestrated opuses, and that's not counting another five EPs, including an appendix to 05's Black Sheep Boy, the lauded album that first won the band widespread attention.
Their latest is actually the second part of The Stage Names, born out of the fact that Sheff wrote twice as many songs as required for one album. The band felt strongly enough about the surplus material that it took on a life of its own. Although he just keeps cranking out the jams, Sheff wasn't interested in pumping out some bloated double album.
"It has to do with keeping some kind of perspective on what's appropriate to give an audience. I feel like there's something about double albums that's like being hit over the head, much as I love a lot of them."
Okkervil River often get lumped in with bands like the Decemberists under the umbrella term "literary-pop" because their lyrics have more narrative complexity than most popular rock. When I ask Sheff, who does critical writing and fiction outside the band, whether this is a conscious move, he sounds reluctant to buy into the hype.
"I try to write in a way where the narrative is pointed, where you can follow what I'm saying from the beginning to the end. I love literature, but I really think a song's a song. If it doesn't succeed as a song, it has failed completely."
Sheff's lyrics can be personal, almost nakedly honest, but he's adamant that those reading them for autobiographical hints won't find any.
"My biography is not significantly different from other people's. I don't really see the value in talking excessively about your own personal life. A whole bunch of bands these days think that's the way to artistic truth, through picking your navel until it starts to bleed, and I'm not one of those people.
"Even in an Okkervil song that seems autobiographical, a lot of times it might be a fictionalized version of myself. I've tried to use Will Sheff as a character, but writing some diary entry about my trials and tribulations is just not something I really do."
Talks about writing the new album:
On leaving his lyrics open to interpretation:
On Savanah, the porn star he wrote a song about: