Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Want to know which well known indie rock star dreams of hanging out in overcrowded frat bars and enjoys the Austin strip club scene?

Me, too (!)

Okkervil River lead-singer/songwriter/guitar-player Will Sheff knows! But, fortunately for the person in question, Will can really keep a secret. Besides skillfully crafting judicious songs that both seduce and haunt, Will is a man of gallantry, fortitude and moxie.

And you all are my witness, he swears he will never make out with Winona Ryder!

What is your favorite kind of coffee drink?

It doesn’t really matter what kind… I like really black strong coffee. When I get home, I’ll buy the organic, community farmer indigenous cooperative coffee. But that is if you are going to the fancy food store or the health food store. If that isn’t available, then I will get Café Macello (?) which is like a mexican espresso. It is pretty strong and I like strong coffee.

I usually drink coffee every day. On tour it is hard because you have to drink a lot of gas station coffee. I’ll mix the 7-11 cappuccino machine coffee with the weak coffee and come up with something so fake that it isn’t really coffee. It is kind of like the general foods style coffee.

I had some pumpkin coffee that was really good tasting, but I realize it was entirely artificial and composed of nothing but chemicals. But it was good tasting, nonetheless.

So you’ve been on tour for your latest record, “Down the River of Golden Dreams” for months now and you’ve covered Europe and the US… how many different spellings of your band name did you encounter?
I wish that I did not share the name Okkervil River with the band. For the record, I fought against its nomination!

We had this big blackboard where we were marking up names… there was all kinds of really weird stuff… but we were coming up with names and I threw out “Okkervil River” because there was this short story that I had read recently. Everyone was just like “That’s IT” and then I was like “No No no no no no! that is like the Shawshank Redemption of band names! No one is going to remember that name… no one is going to spell it right!”

I tried to come up with names at the last minute and they all fought it… and then I ended up unwillingly having to take the name. It is so hard to remember. Sometimes it gets spelled Overkill River.

You recorded “Down the River of Golden Dreams” at Tiny Telephone with John Vanderslice. The credits list him as playing bells on the album. Was that premeditated, or did he decide to add that in during the recording process?
John is a good friend of ours and part of the reason that we wanted to use that studio was because of him. He didn’t really play a creative roll in the making of the record… he’d be the first to say. But, he kept saying that nagging us like “I want to be on your record,” “I get people to be on my records but I never get to be on anyone else’s record,” “What am I going to do? I want to be on your record” and so we got him to play bells on this one song. And “play bells” is sort of misleading because you could have tied bells to the tail of a dog and it would have worked just as well. I mean no offense on John who did a fine job. It was just these weird bells, I don’t even know where they were from… they were just these bells and he just sort of ran his fingers through them. He basically said, “I want to be on the record” and we thought it would be cool to have that little tinkling of bells as that would be our little psychedelic touch to that song.

That must be an honor to have John Vanderslice saying “I want to be on your record!”
Yea, that was really awesome. It was great to have him hanging around the studio while we were working on the record. I mean, I love his records and he is a really awesome guy.

And Daniel Johnston. When you duetted with him on your first full length {““Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See“}, was that something where he was a fan ahead of time and stalked you until you had him on a record?
Daniel is not even really a fan of anything that came out after 1978. I am a massive massive massive massive Daniel Johnston fan. And the guy who recorded our second record, he was working on it and he said, “We should try to get Daniel Johnston on this song!” He recorded Daniel’s record, “Rejected Unknown” His name is Brian Beattie. He also recorded a new Daniel record that is not out yet.. it is coming out early next year {2004} that is AMAZING. I think it may be the best Daniel Johnston record ever. I mean, it is really really great.

Anyway, he has been friends with Daniel for a really long time and he thought it would be cool to have Daniel on this song. So I was really excited, really thrilled… I mean, I love Daniel so much. So we drove out and picked him up and… took him to the studio. It was really nice and it took no time at all. And then we went and bought comic books and hamburgers.

I feel so lucky that Daniel duet’d with me on that track. But, it was like, in a sense I feel very puny and inferior that he is singing my song and not the other way around.

Have you come across any unusual admirers?
The thing that I find coolest is when a band that I love knows who we are and likes us. I would love to know specifically the names of famous folks who listen to us… like even like… like Mark Harmon… I’d love to hear that Mark Harmon was an Okkervil fan.

That actually leads me to my next question… if given the opportunity, would you ever make out with Winona Ryder?
Never, never… not her just because that is the obligatory person. I think that once you become “The Next Big Thing,” you get one free date with Winona Ryder… that is part of the whole “Next Big Thing” contract.

Yeah… get into a fight with Courtney Love, and you get to make out with Winona Ryder.
Yep, one free date with Winona Ryder… for me, no… not Winona. I was never much for Winona anyway.

You know, I bet that is what Conor Oberst said too! And all of a sudden… there he is in a couple magazines, making out with Winona Ryder!
Well, I have more fortitude than that… I am holding out for Scarlett Johansson.

I read your biography on that your goal is to be a failure. I’ve spent hours daydreaming about that. It is so beautiful. How did you come up with that?
There is a Bob Dylan line, “She knows there’s no success like failure / And that failure’s no success at all.” {from the song “Love Minus Zero / No Limit” on “Bringin’ It All Back Home“}

I always really liked that line.

Really, the whole thing about being a failure, it was just giving myself permission to do something that was very scary to me and embracing the very worst consequences of it with total ignominy. You know… throwing one’s life away, playing in bars and ending up with no 401K, no wife, no kids, no nothing. And it is a very scary thing.

When I was in college, I was very concerned with what I was going to do with my life and where I was going to go with my career path once I got out of college. I was faced with all these options and they all did really nothing for me and left me cold. I decided that I was too afraid of failure and that I should just embrace that. I think, as an artist, that is an important thing to do. Don’t worry about what people are going to think about what you are doing or where your friends fit in. It is better to fail spectacularly – to just fail in an epic, hilarious, glorious way than to sort of go over ok.

And so what we try to do is, we try to shoot for that. We try to shoot for putting everything that we have into it. If that means falling flat on our faces and making asses of ourselves and being object of public ridicule, then that is better than just passing muster.

So for me, this whole thing of being a failure was this idea of wanting to just embrace what I had chosen. And embrace the very worst scenario of what could happen.

And so was being a musician and going on tour and not having a fancy computer and all that stuff… is that what you were most frightened of?

I am actually, scared of doing all this shit! I have had relationships that have come to messy ends because of being a musician. I’ve had to justify myself to a great many people. I’ve had to work really shit jobs so that I can tour. I don’t have money, I don’t have insurance. Health problems are sort of scary. Security is pretty scary.

And I guess my number one fear is to do all that stuff and have it all come to nothing and wind up being a 44 year old burnout working at McDonalds. Something like that. But you know what? If it is important enough for me to do this, then that is ok with me and that is what I will do.

I just think the most important thing is to believe 100% in what you are doing and be wiling to make those kinds of sacrifices.

That is beautiful.
Haha. Thank you.

It makes me want to quit my dayjob and sell all my stuff!
DO it.

Can you ask me some more questions? I usually don’t spend sizable portions of the interview talking about making out and stuff like that.

Well, I guess I just wanted to make sure that you aren’t going to end up making out with Winona Ryder.
Oh I won’t… this is my pledge to you. Even if she comes knocking at my door, I STILL won’t make out with her.

Good. That is comforting. I will feel sooo disappointed if I find out that you’ve made out with Winona Ryder. You know… rockstars disappoint me all the time.
Me too!

I was very lucky to get the chance to meet a prominent indie rock personality, and I will not say who it was…

What are his or her initials?!
No, I am not saying…

Middle name?!
I am not saying…

I am not saying…

Where is he or she from?!
Not saying…

Hair color?!

HOWEVER, he is VERY big and I like his music a WHOLE LOT. His music is very sensitive and sweet and sort of affected and heartfelt and I was so happy to meet him.

During our conversation he reviled that he had a very intimate knowledge of all of the strip clubs in Austin and then we were walking down the street and we walked passed one of those really bad frat sorority bar where there was this line of fraternity and sorority kids waiting to get in and he goes, “I wish I was there right now. I’ve wasted my life!”

I was thinking, “Really, you would have traded all those great songs you wrote for a chance to hang out in that sorority bar?” And that was an example of being disappointed by a person that I thought was quite… a sensitive kinda guy. I was like… MAN!

Yea, it is odd when you met an indie icon and you find out something off the wall, not what you would expect…
I read an interview with Damien Jurado where he said that no song has ever made him cry.

He writes the songs that make you cry!
How could no song have ever of made you cry? And how can you love music enough to do it and yet have never have had a song make you cry. That is very strange to me. To each their own… but that is very strange.

What was the first song, album or artist that ever made you cry?
I don’t know… really… that is in the foggy regions of my memory. But I can remember a song that I really went nuts for.

All kids really like pop a lot because it is really catchy and it has really simple emotions that all kids can relate to… I remember, God do I remember, being very very very… uh… moved by that bad pop song that goes like “Being without you, takes a lot of getting used to”

Oh yea, that is Peter Cetera… or Chicago did that? (yes, I have that kind of useless VH1 knowledge at the ready… I can’t explain it)
Boy… I remember sitting in my chair, doing my homework and thinking about that song and imagining scenarios. To me, because I was a kid, it didn’t even have a romantic context, it was just like somebody had died…

Or you were lost in the store and you couldn’t find your Mom.
Yea, it was just like… I did not cry… but it filled me with this really deep melancholic sadness I remember really well. But I don’t remember the first song that made me cry

I also remember when my parents bought me Sgt. Pepper on tape much later. I was in 5th or 6th grade? And listening to “With a Little Help from My Friends” and then actually, I did cry. I was so moved by that song. I don’t know why. It just really killed me.

That is probably not the first song I cried to, but that is one of the first songs I remember crying to in an adult way.