In contrast to his impassioned wailing at the helm of Austin-based rock band Okkervil River, Will Sheff speaks quietly and gently. He's saving his voice, he says, for the stage. Okkervil are currently in the midst of a U.S. tour with the Decemberists in support of their gripping new album, Black Sheep Boy, out today. Tonight, the band plays Lawrence, Kansas, and their tour ends April 12th, in Norman, Oklahoma.
"I spent much of last year on tour, and when I came back I didn't really know what to do with myself," Sheff says. "Everything is much simpler on the I road: go to this place, play here, sleep there. I know how to be on the road better now than I do when I'm not on the road."
If the band's 2002 surprise, Down the River of Golden Dreams, softened Sheff's throaty melodies and images of death and killing, then Black Sheep Boy returns to the warped folk-rock the band was playing when it first formed -- but with more mature songwriting. Sheff continues to depict a range of unpleasant emotions -- pain, longing, the frustration of unfilled expectations -- but packages them in admittedly obtuse imagery and a sloppy mix of keyboards, guitars and howls. In other words, this is challenging music borne out of huge ambition.
"Without really articulating it to myself, I started getting off on writing nine-minute songs with words that nobody uses in songs," Sheff says, referring to the closing track "So Come Back, I'm Waiting" (actual time: 8:03), in which he tosses off "magisterial," "wisteria" and "abecedarian." "I had this desire to be called pretentious and a pompous blowhard and, for the record, to be very grand."
And it most certainly is, as the band -- pianist Jonathan Meiburg, guitarist Howard Draper, bassist Zachary Thomas, drummer Travis Nelson and multi-instrumentalist Seth Warren -- matches Sheff's brainy approach with swirling playing gets as big as his ideas. The band, and Sheff in particular, seems most comfortable when storming through songs about the most awful aspects of the human experience. On the album's first single, "For Real," Sheff sings over pulsing guitars, "Some nights I thirst for real blood, for real knives, for real cries/And then the flash of steel from real guns in real life really fills my mind."
Sheff first envisioned the album when he came across the Tim Hardin song "Black Sheep Boy," which the band covered for the opening track. He then wrote a flurry of songs around the idea of a family's black sheep -- originally there were four songs called "Black Sheep Boy 1-4," all of which were later renamed. But don't call it a concept album.
"I wanted the songs to refer to each other, both melodically and thematically," says Sheff. "But when things become too perfect, they become boring."
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