Okkervil River is unquestionably one of the most musically adventurous bands making music today thanks to the creative curiosity and tireless songwriting ethic of frontman Will Sheff. As the band gets ready to head out on tour to support their brand new album In the Rainbow Room (out now on ATO Records), we chatted with Sheff about the eclectic sonic shift between this album and the acoustic vibe of the band’s last album Away, the stunning visuals in the “Pulled Up the Ribbon” music video, which new songs he’s really looking forward to playing on the band’s upcoming tour, and much more!
NoiseTrade: Your new album In the Rainbow Rain has been described as being “music intended to be hopeful, healing, and uplifting.” What initially sparked this direction for your new collection of songs and do you feel you were successful in achieving that goal?
Will Sheff: As time has passed and I’ve made a handful of records, a lot of what seemed like my initial reasons for making music – which weren’t necessarily good or healthy reasons – have fallen a bit by the wayside. I’ve looked at my life and started to ask myself more seriously what my job is, as a musician. I think my job is essentially to make beautiful things and to make the world nicer, for both myself and other people. By “beautiful things” I don’t mean that art has to only be aesthetically nice, because I think that decay and asymmetry and discord and aggression are also beautiful and important to represent in art. But I guess these days when I’m working on music, I just try to make something that feels – in either a small or a big way – beautiful to me and like it might be useful and ultimately result in happiness or at least understanding via whatever path seems intuitively right while I’m working.
As far as whether or not I feel like I was successful on this album, I don’t know how to answer that question. I guess it’s my job to try to make something beautiful but maybe somebody else’s job afterwards to argue about whether or not I succeeded.
NT: In contrast to the reserved acoustic vibe of your last album Away, the sonic palette for In the Rainbow Rain feels a bit more bombastic and celebratory in its use of electric guitar and synth work. Was this an intentional choice from the beginning or just a natural result of your headspace while writing the new songs?
Sheff: Even though Away was a largely acoustic record, I thought of it as groove-based and it featured a lot of electric piano and even a fair amount of synthesizer. But acoustic instruments are harder to get to sound good onstage in a rock club and we found ourselves gravitating more towards electric textures as touring for Away progressed, which was more out of expediency than anything else. So we sort of wound up with this hybrid sound – the expansive quality of Away but with an electric feel. It felt really exciting and I knew I wanted to get in the studio quickly to record again.
I also think happiness played into it. Playfulness as well. If you’re sad and you’re walking down the street, you’ll kind of stumble with your head and shoulders low. If you’re happy and you’re walking down the street, you’ll stand up tall and have a little spring in your step. It’s the same thing with playing music, or anything.
NT: Looking ahead to the summer tour you’ll be on through May and June, which new songs are you most excited to play live and which ones do you hope audiences will engage with the most? Any new cover songs or surprises for the audience that you can hint at?
Sheff: We’re hoping to do more covers than we have in the past because covers are so fun to play. It’s tough though because there are so many old Okkervil River records and we want to make people happy by uncorking some vintage songs they haven’t heard in awhile. But I think covers will play in. As for the new stuff, it was written to be played live. That was part of the idea behind the record, because I’d based the sessions so much on our live sound. So all the new stuff feels easy and fun onstage.
We’re moving around and playing each other’s instruments a lot more and that’s really fun. Sarah plays bass on “Pulled Up the Ribbon” and I play keys on “Shelter Song,” which is probably the absolute most fun one to play onstage. It always feels really good.
NT: Your NoiseTrade sampler features new tracks “Don’t Move Back to LA” and “Pulled Up The Ribbon.” What can you tell us about the writing and recording of each of these new songs?
Sheff: “Pulled Up the Ribbon” was a song I’d been working on for a long time. It started out as a kind of goth-y downtempo waltz with this slight Celtic feel, but I could never quite make it work. The lyrics were totally dark, kind of about oblivion. Slowly I kind of injected the lyrics with images of light to kind of balance out the dark. I think that balance is essentially what the song is “about.” When we hit on that uptempo 4/4 arrangement and Will Graefe added that lead guitar lick I knew we’d finally tackled this thing to the ground and could bring it to the folks back home.
“Don’t Move Back to LA” was a very easy song to write. Some friends were moving to LA and I didn’t want them to and I wrote a song about it and we recorded it in literally one take with a live vocal and moved on.
NT: Finally, speaking of “Pulled Up The Ribbon,” I’ve become fairly obsessed with the enchanting music video you shot for it. Where were those arresting outdoor visuals shot and whose idea was that beautifully absurdist 4-person guitar work?
Sheff: Christopher Good is the mastermind behind that video as well as our video for “The Industry” from Away. He’s also done a bunch of other amazing videos – you should google them, he’s done so many good ones. Christopher and I developed a nice working relationship during the video for “The Industry,” which went through like five drafts of a script before we were seeing eye to eye. Then something clicked and now he’s got my number. He comes up with the exact imagery I wanted to see but didn’t know I wanted to see.
With “Pulled Up the Ribbon” I knew I wanted something that reminded me of The Song Remains the Same. Something with that same mix of grandiose and a little silly. But I didn’t give Chris any direction. He just sent that script and I said “YES!” and we made the video. The guitar was all his idea. My main contribution for that video was suggesting he use those gauzy soft porn-y Harrison filters on the camera and Chris’s incredible DP Jeremy Osbern happened to have a vintage set of them lying around.
Okkervil River Tour Dates:
May 20 – Washington, DC @ The Black Cat
May 21 – Carboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
May 22 – Atlanta, GA @ Aisle 5
May 24 – Dallas, TX @ The Kessler Theater
May 25 – Houston, TX @ The Heights Theater
May 26 – Austin, TX @ Mohawk (Hot Luck Festival)
May 29 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom
May 31 – Los Angeles, CA @ Teregram Ballroom
June 1 – Santa Ana, CA @ Constellation Room
June 2 – San Francisco, CA @ Bimbo’s 365 Club
June 4 – Seattle, WA @ Neumos
June 5 – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
June 7 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
June 8 – Denver, CO @ Bluebird Theater
June 9 – Omaha, NE @ The Waiting Room
June 11 – St. Paul, MN @ Turf Club
June 12 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
June 13 – Detroit, MI @ El Club
June 14 – Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
June 15 – Woodstock, NY @ Colony
June 16 – Boston, MA @ Royale