To paraphrase The Stranger (could there be a more perfect, perhaps Texan, vaguely allegorical someone to begin this week’s trip down Okkervil River?): “Sometimes there’s a band… sometimes there’s a band, well, they’re the band for their time and place.”
Okkervil River formed (loosely) in the late ’90s but didn’t lay down an LP until after that fateful night when we huddled around our monitors waiting to die in the great fires of Y2K, then celebrated life extra-hard in the hoaxy afterglow.
In the decade that followed, the band released five full-length albums and a shitload of other assorted treasures, building a career the old-fashioned way and pulling off a slow-n-steady right in front of everyone’s double-zeroed eyes. This week, while sharing only the shiniest gems of Okkervil arcana (say that five times fast), my main goal is fun, and maybe education. Educational fun!
Hi, I’m Sara. My credentials for contributing to Hendrik's fine project here at One Week // One Band are questionable at best—I have a tumblog, I’ve written some things that were published, there’s a J-school degree with my name on it that could be used as toilet paper (after freeing it from the frame above my mother’s fireplace)—but if the qualifications include a pockmarked history of being a tremendous/tragic/pathetic fan, well, damn, say “hey” to your gal.
The experiences I’ve had so far reading One Week // One Band have all been positive—with a blog devoted to devotees, perhaps this is a given?—and much of that joy has come from seeing the varied ways everyone presents their posts. In an attempt to mirror my lifestyle
as of late, I’m going willy-nilly. However, if you promise to peep and listen, I swear to keep tight reins on my em dash usage (I make no promises regarding exclamation points). Now, let’s hoist up the John B sail and pray she’s seaworthy…
Young Will Sheff, from the Wayback Machine archive of Okkervil River’s old, wonderful jound.com website.
Before Okkervil River waltzed into my life, I thought my capacity for geeking out over a band had long since been reached. My college years—mostly spent traveling across the southeastern U.S. “following” a band called Jump, Little Children—are a blur of asphalt-split yellow lines, gas-station meals, and more squealing than an adult should ever indulge in outside of the bedroom.
Upon graduation and subsequent entrance into the working world, that quote about childish things reverberated through me like a warning bell. After a decade of freely giving in to a natural instinct to worship anything beloved as fully as possible, some combination of maturity and embarrassment led to me keeping music at a safe, sane distance.
But! After yet another day spent listening to “No Key, No Plan” for hours on end while reading through the Jound archives (more on these to come) and combing the Jagjaguwar site for Okkervil info, I decided to take a leap of faith and watch the linked “For Real” video (directed by Zak Margolis) before I’d heard the song.
"I think people misinterpret “For Real” because it’s not supposed to be about murder at all. It’s a lot more about sexuality than it is about violence. But nobody seems to have cottoned to that. Which is not surprising. Hopefully it’s not just about sexuality; there’s a level of—wanting to smash your head into the wall to make sure it’s real? You know what I mean?" —Will Sheff, in The Believer
As the animated images scrolled by—a lonely radio, a beast in the woods, the band playing on as the forest burns—and the song built to what could only be an explosive crescendo (“YOU CAN’T HIIIIIII-IIIIDE!”), I felt my face flush and my chest tighten; the first pangs of a familiar ache. The question became: Could I fight this, or would it devour me?
A hilariously tipsy Will Sheff does a live making-of/commentary on “For Real” at the Austin City Limits festival. This is a must-watch for any Okkervil fan whose favorite album is Black Sheep Boy (and/or Black Sheep Boy Appendix), or for anyone who doubts the brainiac charm of Okkervil River’s frontman.
"The heart thing? That’s a little emo; that wasn’t my idea."
On his blog, Tropical Toxic, Tomer Hanuka gave New Yorker readers/Okkervil River fans a breakdown of the process behind his illustration for the band’s shows at the Bowery Ballroom in October 2006.
To the casual observer (or someone not completely familiar with the band), it may seem like so far I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Will Sheff, as opposed to Okkervil River as a whole. That’s because from 1999-2011, Sheff has been the one constant presence on both Okkervil albums and Okkervil tours.
This series of pictures covers each lineup from the band’s inception to today: An anti-rogues’ gallery of some of Austin’s most talented musicians. To see a full list of the players and when they were in the game, check out the incredibly comprehensive "Facts" page at the Okkervil River fan site, Down the Oubliette.
While the Okkervil River website of today is a closed, cold affair—which makes some sense, as the band’s newest album will be released next Tuesday, May 10—in the past, Okkervil’s site was a treasury of engaging information. I’ve mentioned Jound a few times already, but, unfortunately, the only way to peer into the inner workings of the mid-2000’s burgeoning band is to hop in the Wayback Machine.
Up until February of 2009, one could read Sheff’s story of the founding and beginnings of Okkervil River on the band’s “Bio” page: a strikingly well-written, funny, and trenchant take on throwing oneself into the unstable life of a touring musician. This bio is the source of Sheff’s legendary “professional failure” line, which has dogged him since. (See: Comes with a Smile, Drowned in Sound, Gothamist, etc.)
“Each of my nervous breakdowns fell away when I made the most important decision of my life: to be a total failure. A professional failure.”
In one of the better interviews that poses the “professional failure” question, in 2005, La Blogotheque’s Lilou broached the subject of the band’s rotating lineup:
The line-up of Okkervil River today is different, and seems to be quite variable. What makes Okkervil River? Is Okkervil River Will Sheff?
"Okkervil River is more like a family. It’s not like people are quitting. They are coming and going when they could do things and when they couldn’t. Okkervil River is more like a feeling, an approach to music. That sort of failure thing, going out and knowing that you might suck and fall flat on your face and that for you it is a matter of blood and flesh and not a matter of money or acclaim. That you are playing for keeps and that you mean it. And that you’d rather be doing this then anything else.”
And simply, that’s what it takes to be a part of Okkervil River: Unwavering devotion.