sheff.jpgAfter over eight years of relentless touring and quiet musical evolution, Austin-based indie-rockers Okkervil River broke out in 2004 with Black Sheep Boy, a captivating album fueled in no small part by front-man Will Sheff’s lacerating vocals and careening compositions that thrillingly threatened to fall apart at every turn. But on the band’s latest release, The Stage Names, Sheff finds a different source of musical propulsion with a more subdued approach; the lacerations are often eschewed for a gentler sort of lyrical storytelling. This slight change in tack has perhaps alienated some in the fan message board camp, but other newer listeners have found the band more accessible. And more significantly, Sheff has firmly demonstrated his determination to let the band musically meander any way they like. Gothamist recently spoke to Sheff via telephone from California, where Okkervil River is once again on a tour that rolls through Webster Hall on Friday. (Tickets.)

Where are you now? I’m in the Tenderloin in San Francisco right now. I just ate lunch and we’re about to go play an in-store.

You had a gig last night right? That’s correct.

How was it? It was incredible. It was great. This tour has been surreal so far. The shows are going really, really well. I’m kind of shocked. It feels a little bit like it’s not really happening or something.

Why is that? Just because there’s so many people there and people really like the stuff. I’ve been doing this for a really long time and I’m not used to people giving a rat’s ass.

Well you had a big increase of popularity after Black Sheep Boy, right? Yeah, but you know I think to people outside of the band it might have seemed bigger than it did on the inside. It didn’t really feel that much bigger. We’ve been doing this for a long time and it always felt like things were happening very slowly. We would see bands that we knew rocket past us in success and it always felt that we were growing kind of slow. And you know how they’re all obsessed with SoundScan numbers in the music industry; everybody’s talking about SoundScan numbers. And it was like, Black Sheep Boy’s SoundScan numbers were 600 copies sold in the U.S. It was kind of one of those sleeper records. When we were going out [on tour] it didn’t feel like we were on a different order of magnitude. But this tour does actually feel that way. This album feels totally different than that. So this is the first time that things have felt significantly different as far as my experience of them.

Different in terms of the audience reaction. Yeah, and awareness and stuff like that.

Awareness of the material? Yeah.

So how are people receiving the songs from the new album? Really well! As anybody who’s ever been in the audience at a rock show knows, people just want to hear the songs they recognize. That’s a very normal human thing; I’m the same way. But I’m finding more people recognizing these new songs. Usually playing new songs live is kind of awesome because they’re exciting and new to you but a bummer because the audience doesn’t recognize them as much so they don’t care as much. That’s not been my experience on this tour at all. People are really happy to hear the new songs.

How else is the touring experience different for you now? Just in terms of how much stuff the label has scheduled us to do. [Laughs.] We have built-in days off because on the last tour there weren’t enough days off and I lost my voice. But in the end there has ended up being so many things like in-stores and meeting people and doing interviews and stuff that there are no real days off on this tour. It’s all just working every day. So it’s kind of like things have grown so much in terms of what we’re supposed to do but we’re still traveling in a van and trying to make it work.

Really? Oh yeah, there’s no busses here! We’re still traveling in the van, we’re still sleeping two to a bed with each other. But suddenly the sizes of the clubs are bigger and they’re selling out and there’s a lot more that we have to do during the day. But we’re still traveling the way we always have. So it’s kind of a weird growing pain.

This is a long tour! You have a break in October, but then you pick up again and go through December. That’s correct, yeah. We’re going to Europe.

How do you handle that? Your music is really passionate; what do you do to keep it fresh night after night after night on one of these long tours? It’s really hard because I always lose my voice and I kind of give a lot of energy on stage. And so one of the things I’ve learned to do, unfortunately, is that I don’t talk when I’m not onstage singing. Because if you’re sitting in the van talking all day over background music and the sound of the road and all that you’ll lose your voice. So I spend a lot of time curled up into myself not really talking or engaging people just sitting reading a book. And then you get onstage and you give everything you’ve got and you’re so drained. And I always end up falling asleep right after I play! Even then there’s no guarantee I’m not going to lose my voice. It’s all a struggle to kind of conserve my energy all day and to let it loose at the show.

You’ve written that before relocating to Austin you made the most important decision of your life: “To be a professional failure.” Yet now you’re successful. What’s up with that? Well, that’s a good thing, I guess. What I was saying is that it’s so likely that if you try to do art for a living that you’re going to fail and that nothing’s going to come of it. It almost makes more sense to decide straight off the bat that you’re going to fail. And once you do that it’s extremely liberating because suddenly you’re not trying to impress people; you’re trying to satisfy yourself.

And the other thing is that if you decide that you’re going to fail just artistically, it’s also kind of liberating because you let yourself do things that seem like horrible ideas. You’ll say, oh that’s a terrible thing I should never, never do that. But I’m going to try it because I’m going to fail anyway! And that I’ve found has been very empowering for me because it’s given me the freedom to try any stupid shit I want. And you know something, we’re doing well now but you don’t always stick around, there’s always going to be some kind of a lowland. The point is to not focus on some kind of commercial success but focus on doing what you love and try to keep your personality intact and try to stay a decent person.

How have you been doing with staying balanced. I read that for a while you didn’t have a home. I still don’t!

Does that work for you or do you wish you had a home base to come back to? I really wish I had a home base. The fact that I still don’t have a place to live is solely a financial matter. I can’t afford to pay rent on a place and never be there, because I tour all the time. And I can’t afford to buy a place. And that’s extremely frustrating. I fantasize about having a house constantly.

Would it be in Austin? Probably. Although I don’t know how smart it is to buy a house in a place like Texas with the future looking the way it is.

What do you mean? Oh, I just mean Texas is going to be a scorched hell hole in fifty years.

Have you been approached by any companies to license your music for advertising? No, I haven’t.

Is that something you would consider? Maybe. I feel conflicted about it. I go back and forth because I don’t like hearing people’s songs in commercials. It’s kind of annoying or something. But at the same time it’s hard to say. I don’t know. I know people who have struggled and struggled and worked and fought for their art their whole lives and then they did a commercial and it was like the first time they had money. And I’m not talking about loads of money, I’m talking about enough to keep food on the table. So I don’t know. I’d have to decide that if it really happened to me.

Is there a documentary about the band in the works? A friend of ours followed us around Australia, America and Europe and filmed the recording sessions for The Stage Names. And it will probably come out at some point. But it’s not something that’s happening very soon. I think it will probably happen next year.

What’s the concept, a behind-the-scenes expose? I don’t know, all I know is there’s a lot of footage. I think the concept will be determined when it’s actually been watched. I mean, there’s like 400 hours of footage or something like that. He was just everywhere sticking a camera in our faces at all times.

What was the first gig Okkervil River played in New York? Where was it and what do you recall about it? It was at The Village Underground. I remember unloading all our shit onto the street and having the really pained load-in. and I remember the drinks were really expensive and they wouldn’t give us any free drinks. But I remember having these very John Voight in Midnight Cowboy kind of emotions, like, “Wow, here I am in the big city!” Then I went for a walk around the neighborhood with my friend Jeff and I was talking with him about memory or something like that and this mysterious old guy came out of nowhere and started saying to me, “Memory is a really interesting thing. Can you remember every beach you’ve ever been to? Or can you remember every girl who ever turned you down? Or can you remember every time you rode a bus?” And I said, “Well, here I am outside the club! I’ve got to go in and play now.” And he said, “All right, I’ll see you down memory lane.” And I’ve always remembered that moment.

Are there any particular places you insist on going to when you’re in New York? Well, we have a day off before we play New York and I’ve already made reservations for myself and my drummer for Peter Luger. We’ve been kind of saving our money the whole tour. I love getting good food. I actually have been staying in Greenpoint so there are many restaurants around there that I like to go to. I don’t know. I just like to go hang out in Greenpoint and see my friends. I actually kind of live in New York now because that’s sort of where I’ve been staying when I’m not on tour. So I’m actually looking forward to being there for the show; it feels more like coming home than anything else on this tour because there’s no Austin date on this tour.

Does the rest of the band still reside in Austin? Yeah, they all live in Austin. I tend to travel around a whole lot. The rest of the band is more grounded than I am. They have more stability set up in their lives.

What’s the strangest interaction you’ve ever had with a fan? Oh gosh, I don’t know because that stuff happens all the time. It was only last year that people started harassing us in a kind of crazy way, where people would come up to me after a show and… This happened after a show at Bowery Ballroom. There are weird moments where people give you a lovely drawn picture they did of your face or some kind of artwork focused on the band. But then sometimes people will come up to you and start telling you their life stories and giving you really personal details about themselves and they’ll want you to tell them what to do with their lives and give them advice. And that’s a little bit weird because you’re talking to this person and they have an idea of who you are that doesn’t have anything to do with who you actually are.

So you’re not tempted to wield that power and tell them what to do? Like buy more merch? I always feel really gross when I’m being put in the role of somebody who knows something. I don’t feel I’m qualified to give anybody any advice. I don’t like the idea that someone is smarter or their opinion is more valuable just because they have some kind of public notoriety. And I don’t really have that much public notoriety but I don’t want to be put in the position where I’m telling someone what to do or where it’s at.

Did you see that documentary about John Lennon and Yoko Ono where they find some deranged fan living on their property and this guy’s convinced Lennon knows the meaning of life. So they invite him inside and John is pleading with him to accept the fact that he’s just a musician, not a prophet, and the lyrics aren’t some sort of coded spiritual transmission. Yeah, exactly. It’s weird, though. People will do that and I’ve done that. If you get really passionate about something somebody’s done you don’t have to be crazy to start believing they’ve got some sort of secret message they could enlighten you with and you’re whole life would be easier. And the sad truth is that that’s not the way it is. People who make art do stuff and they don’t even know what it means sometimes. And it’s actually a real bummer to know that because you kind of wish you could go sit at the feet of some great artist and they could just tell you the way that it is. But the pathetic truth of it is that they’re just a dumb person like you.