Play’s the thing for Okkervil River
Friday, June 17, 2011
If you go
What: Okkervil River, in concert.
When: 9 p.m. June 17.
Where: McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W. Burnside St., Portland.
Cost: $18 through Cascade Tickets, 800-514-3849 or cascadetickets.com.
Information: 503-225-0047 or mcmenamins.com.
One gets the feeling that when Will Sheff walks through a museum he doesn’t look at a painting as a work of art.
“Work” just doesn’t belong in the realm of creativity, as Sheff sees it.
“I’ve always felt like art should be like play,” he said. “My experience of writing is not that it feels like work. It feels like play.”
Sheff certainly did his share of playing around as he and his bandmates wrote and recorded Okkervil River’s new album, “I Am Very Far.” For the project, Sheff toyed with everything from his songwriting methods to how the group recorded its songs.
In making “I Am Very Far,” Sheff said he took a cue from legendary rocker Roky Erickson. Erickson famously was diagnosed in the late 1960s as a paranoid schizophrenic and went through years of mental treatment (including electroconvulsive therapy) before recovering in recent years to the point where he frequently plays live shows. In 2010, he released “True Love Cast Out All Evil,” which featured Okkervil River and was produced by Sheff.
Sheff was struck by Erikson’s intuitive approach to music and liked the idea of being less cerebral in his writing approach.
“I was really influenced by Roky’s vibe, this chaotic mysterious vibe that swirls around him. It really kind of starts to get to you and starts to get inside of your head when you’re around him all the time,” Sheff said. “He has this sort of an openness to new ideas and different approaches and to any feeling that is kind of flickering across his brain at that moment.
“I think that sort of approach is something that’s very freeing for anybody,” Sheff said.
What also allowed Sheff to feel more free with his songwriting was the gradual confidence he’s gained since starting Okkervil River in Austin, Texas, in 1998. As the band has progressed, putting out six albums — including the acclaimed recent records “The Stage Names” (2007) and “The Stand Ins” (2008) — Sheff has seen his perspective on his music evolve.
“When I was starting out as a songwriter, I had a lot of anxiety about who people thought I was, what they thought I was trying to do, whether I was good enough at this, whether I was good enough at that, whether or not this thing I was doing was cool enough or uncool or whatever,” Sheff said. “Then as I started to do it more and more and more, I started to realize rules like that are just boring, and they’re the reason why art becomes boring, and that I should have the faith to go into a project not really knowing what I was doing. And I should also concern myself less with what people are going to think.”
For “I Am Very Far,” Sheff took Okkervil River’s music to a different place. The folk-tinged pop flavor of recent albums remains, but “I Am Very Far” is more musically diverse and idiosyncratic.
For instance, “Rider” is a driving number that blends frisky folk and chiming pop. “Lay of the Last Survivor,” by contrast is a lush, pure pop song played at a relaxed tempo. “Piratess” mixes an ornate pop quality with edgy shards of acoustic guitar and odd sounds. “Show Yourself” is a hypnotic ballad whose swells of instrumentation and noise add a psychedelic edge to the tune.
Because Sheff was also open to adding all sorts of instruments to the mix and other sonic touches (“White Shadow Waltz” includes crowd noise and the sound of objects, including a file cabinet, being thrown around a room), translating songs from “I Am Very Far” for live performance has been a bit challenging. But he likes how things have progressed as the group has added the new songs to its live repertoire.
“Every song is kind of a completely different little Rubik’s Cube that we have to solve,” he said.
“My hunch, after playing a lot of these songs in rehearsal, is that it’s going to be really, really fun on stage,” Sheff said. “As much as the record gets experimental here and there, I actually think it’s very suited to a live performance.”