Will Sheff, After Okkervil
Will Sheff is not going to read this profile.
He assures me it’s nothing personal, but as with alcohol and pills, the erstwhile Okkervil River frontman has learned that press is a mind-altering substance that he cannot take in moderation. “Around the time of [2005’s] Black Sheep Boy, when I was reading all my press, I’d think…’God, this guy they’re talking about sounds insufferable.'” Even the most glowing reviews inflated his ego and self-loathing in equal amounts, as he was either “the magisterial wizard of all music” or “this very serious poet man, maybe potentially suicidally depressed.” Sheff knows that he’s at his most neurotic before he releases a new album, but even with the first one bearing his own name on the way, his manager couldn’t help slipping him a mickey: a text message bearing kind words from the New York Times on “Holy Man,” the centerpiece of Sheff’s solo debut and what he believes to be the best song he’s ever written. “I had this warm glow inside, like…I’m the master,” he says with mock awe, realizing one clipping was enough to threaten a backslide into the abyss. “And then I had this weird feeling…he tricked me!”
The album itself is named like a grounding mantra against relapse: Nothing Special. This title serves numerous purposes for Sheff, a guy who really does have to make a concerted effort to not overanalyze his own music. He suggests conducting our meeting at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, an LA landmark that’s essential in the creation of Nothing Special; Sheff would spend hours at a time walking the grounds and listening to demos, imagining new verses, editing old ones and creating stories based on the gravesites throughout. Not so much with the musical celebrities buried here, such as Chris Cornell, Mark Lanegan, and Dee Dee Ramone, whose bust is currently surrounded with empty beer cans as tribute. There’s a massive swath in the center of Hollywood Forever taken up by what appears to be mostly Russian Jews born in the early 20th century; these are Sheff’s favorite people to consider, and he comes up with personas based solely on the pictures plastered to the headstones — among them are Leonard Cohen’s drinking buddy, the mob guy who specializes in breaking fingers, and so forth. By the time our afternoon has ended, he’s spoken for the better part of three hours.
Since the commercial and critical breakthrough of Black Sheep Boy, all Okkervil River albums had been in dialogue with the ones that came before. In the same manner that The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins commented on Okkervil River’s rise up the indie rock ranks, 2011’s prickly I Am Very Far was designed to preempt the backlash Sheff saw as inevitable: “Now that I’ve pleased you and groveled for your attention, now I’m gonna throw a water balloon full of urine.” Just as often, Okkervil River was in dialogue with itself. Sheff described it as a “mid-level band” in his most-quoted lyric, one taken from a withering concept record that both celebrated and demystified Get In The Van mythology. There’s a sequel of sorts in the gorgeous six-minute exhale of “In The Thick Of It,” as Sheff laments dedicating the past two decades to his “perfectly middlebrow blues.”
Nothing Special is also a tribute of sorts to the Midwestern humor and humility of Cheap Trick, the Replacements, and Guided By Voices — bands that influenced Travis Nelsen, a longtime friend of Sheff who played drums for Okkervil River and also functioned as the de facto accountant, booking agent, and tour manager. “We fed off each other with this self-deprecation thing,” he explains. “I gave him the sort of hoity-toity seal of approval I think he craved, he gave me ‘sweat of the brow.'” Nelsen left the band prior to 2016’s Away, which Sheff intended as a solo record; combined with Sheff’s move from Austin to New York City, Nelsen’s absence had left Okkervil River as a “weird half-measure of a band.” Yet even with nearly a decade of distance from Okkervil River’s peak cachet, Sheff’s team stressed that the brand was still the most valuable thing he had going for him. Hence, the half-measure taken for a half-measure of a band: releasing Away as an Okkervil River album and leading it off with “R.I.P. Okkervil River.”
Sheff admits that he had become estranged from Nelsen before he passed away in 2020, which led him to reconsider the bittersweet path of their relationship. The title track, which Sheff co-wrote with Christian Lee Hutson, does exactly that; on an album that often feels like it’s nothing but centerpieces, “Nothing Special” nonetheless stands out as a song of unusual emotional potency. It pulls the archetypal Sheff trick of puffing up the artistic process, all the better to let it deflate with a twist of the knife. He and Nelsen are portrayed as conquerors and pirates at the outset, a bunch of high school kids draped in satin and drunk on white wine, a costume that renders them as clowns with age. On the last verse, Sheff addresses Nelsen’s death in stark, devastating terms, properly assessing the human cost of rock ‘n roll solipsism – “My friend, he failed and fought/ In a pattern he was caught/ And his family they could not break through/ And his lover stood aside/ From the other room she cried/ She was shivering inside her swimsuit/ Was she nothing special?”
Though “In The Thick Of It” and the title track speak of Okkervil River more definitively in the past tense than even “R.I.P. Okkervil River,” Nothing Special is not a Stage Names-style meta-narrative. Sheff is more invested in interrogating why Okkervil River was able to thrive, not in spite of its occasionally vengeful and violent music, but because of it. Specifically, whether they helped reinforce what Sheff describes as “the Harry Potter narrative,” in which we’re all misunderstood wizards stuffed in the Cupboard Under the Stairs, waiting for our magical capacities to be discovered. There certainly was a revenge-of-the-nerds element to mid-aughts indie culture, from TV to film to Black Sheep Boy itself, which generated comparisons to contemporaries like Bright Eyes, the Decemberists, the National and Arcade Fire — feverishly literary groups armed with seriously uncool instruments that cloaked their darker undertones with an invigorating, us-against-the-world mentality. Sheff worries about “the men out there who feel like the world stiffed them, that they’re owed something,” extrapolating this mindset to a kind of “fascism of superhero movies.” “I started to see my preoccupation with jealousy and what I felt my work deserved.”
For many, many justified reasons, this era and its aesthetics have been subject to a newfound sense of scrutiny. Yet, Black Sheep Boy remains Sheff’s most beloved album, one that inspired a 10-year anniversary reissue and tour. In his view, these shows felt more honest than trying to sprinkle “Black” and “For Real” into setlists while supporting 2018’s In the Rainbow Rain, an album that he saw as an earnest, if not entirely successful, attempt to be a “ray of light” in a profoundly disillusioning time. “Okkervil River started to become this weird costume, trying to be all things to all people,” Sheff laments. But as far as pure Black Sheep Boy nostalgia, “OK, I’ll do it as long as it’s not my only thing. I want to pay tribute to why people like that stuff.”
This, of course, warrants a consideration of exactly why listeners are drawn to his most electrifying and emotionally immature album. And how to honor people who did find solace and healing in Black Sheep Boy. I offer my experience to Sheff; in 2006, I was a few drinks deep at LAX, having just flown across the country to interview for a job that I desperately wanted and felt sure I had in the bag. I was about halfway through the opening title track of Black Sheep Boy when I received the call that I had been passed over, and all of a sudden, the future I had imagined for myself in California ceased to exist. The lyrics, taken from a 1967 Tim Hardin folk song, shook me with their serendipity: “Here I am back home again/ I’m here to rest/ All they ask is where I’ve been/ Knowing I’ve been West.” I don’t think I’d cried cried while listening to an album since middle school, and it was unyielding waterworks for the next 45 minutes. It was embarrassing and profoundly cathartic. The other music I was listening to at that time – say, Hot Chip or Beach House – wouldn’t have given me what I needed.
“I don’t think it’s problematic to make a record about a young man’s anger and resentment,” he clarifies. He recalls a conversation he had with Matt LeMay, a fellow musician and music journalist, about this very topic. “He told me, ‘Here’s the thing you have to remember about all the pain and brokenness that feels like it’ll never be fixed: It doesn’t make you special,'” For all of the introspection that Sheff had engaged in over the years, no one had even explained this very simple concept to him until four years ago, around the same time he moved to Los Angeles and gave up drugs and alcohol. “It’s something that happens, it shouldn’t have, it’s a shame, and you can’t take it out on the world.” He points to formative bands like Nine Inch Nails and Slayer that continue to serve him as a crucial outlet, a safe space to process anger rather than projecting into your everyday life. “They’ll lighten the load for me. I want to take the angry teenage boy and give him some exercise.”
Yet, for an album meant to create space between Will Sheff and his previous band, Nothing Special has a way of reminding you of Okkervil River at their best. “Spiral Season” and “Like The Last Time” are returns to mid-00s form, full of rousing choruses, serrated guitar solos and drawn-out codas of pianos and horns trying their best not to topple over. “In The Thick Of It” and “Nothing Special” recall the mordant wit of The Stage Names and The Stand-Ins, while “Holy Man” and “Marathon Girl” build on the exploratory, surrealist post-rock/folk of Away. It’s worth asking whether Nothing Special would’ve been considered a “comeback” album for Okkervil River, or whether going solo was a necessary, narrative jolt for an artist who’d largely been taken for granted over the past decade.
Sheff himself is trying not to take Nothing Special for granted, or any of the difficulties that are sure to come with essentially starting over. “Back in the day when I was at the height of…whatever the fuck,” he says while waving his arms in exasperation, “it was the Will Sheff Show playing in my brain constantly. I’d get done with the whole tour and realize I don’t know the names of anyone in the opening band.” These days, tours are more like the one he just completed with fellow sober troubadour Damien Jurado – “a lot of chill conversations about god and checking into the hotel early.”
In the weeks after we meet, both Santigold and Metronomy announce the cancellation of their upcoming tours, speaking in very candid terms about the emotional, physical and financial burdens that have arisen trying to make it in the oversaturated “back to normal” marketplace. None of this is news to Sheff, as he estimates that he’ll end his East and West coast tours approximately $5-7,000 in the red. He expects to lose double that going to Europe. “These tours feel like you have to charge in with the bayonets and cannons,” he shrugs. “You already know from the manager telling you and every other band telling you, ‘It’s a tough climate, there’s no money – go out and fail!'”
The closing track of Nothing Special speaks to this, as the music drops out on “Evidence” to put the following lyric in italics – “If you do it all for free, it doesn’t feel like work.” I wonder if it’s meant as The Stage Names-style sarcasm, a riff on how artists at all levels still have to commit their time and energy for little more than exposure. “That line fills me with so much joy, it’s articulating something utopian,” Sheff states, as we walk by Dick Dale’s burial plot. “Being asked to do something for free is dystopian, but doing it [by choice] is utopian. If I’m doing this for no money, I might as well do it on my own terms, otherwise what the fuck am I doing?”
Sheff acknowledges that a career in indie rock isn’t as sustainable at it might have been in 2005, let alone now that he’s 46 and seeing himself as an elder statesman of sorts; working with artists like Cassandra Jenkins and Hutson has allowed him to realize that, for all of the massive shifts in trends that marginalized Okkervil River, a type of literate, ornate singer-songwriter music not all to far removed from its own has returned to the center of discussion. Nothing Special is less an attempt to reintegrate himself in that world than to reconcile the little corner he’s carved out for himself over the past 20 years. “When I’m called before the God of Art and they’re like, ‘Is anything you did worth anything?’ I can go – this record, I feel like I got there a couple of times,” Sheff jokes. “And I’d hope the God of Art would say, ‘Yeah, you got me on a couple parts of that.'”
Nothing Special is out 10/7 on ATO.