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Okkervil River: Black Sheep Boy

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: April 6, 2005

Okkervil River
w/Kite Pilot, Fizzle Like a Flood
April 10, 9:30 p.m.
1322 So. Saddle Creek Rd.

Want more Okkervil?
Read the Feb. 2002 Lazy-i interview.

How do you judge success in the world of indie rock?

"Well, we get to stay in hotels more and sleep on floors less," said Okkervil River's Will Sheff via a van headed to Columbia, Missouri. "You have to be happy for what you've got; but in many ways, we're poorer than we've ever been."

This despite the fact that Okkervil River has received critical acclaim from no less than The New York Times, wizened Rolling Stone critic David Fricke, and most recently, the Austin Chronicle, who featured the band in a cover story -- a long-time goal that Sheff called "a really big deal."

"I remember back when no one would write about us, when we were trying to figure out how to even get our CD reviewed in there."




The attention is justified. Since the band's remarkable debut, Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See, released on respected indie label Jagjaguwar Records in 2002, Okkervil River has developed into one of the most thoughtful and emotionally powerful folk-rock bands on the indie circuit (and one of my favorites). A few years after graduating from high school in Meredith, New Hampshire, guitarist/vocalist Sheff, and former classmates mandolin, electric/string bass player Zach Thomas and drummer/percussionist Seth Warren formed Okkervil River in 1998 built around their mutual love for traditional American folk music by the likes of Roscoe Holcomb, Skip James, Leadbelly, the Carter Family, Doc Watson, and The Stanley Brothers.

Those influences and their decidedly rural, acoustic arrangements quickly got them pegged as an "alt-country" band early in their career. Their new CD, Black Sheep Boy, released April 5 on Jagjaguwar, should change all that. The CD's second track, "For Real," starts in the usual Okkervil way, with a quietly strummed guitar and Sheff's yearning, broken voice singing, "Some nights I thirst for real blood / For real knives / For real cries" before exploding into pounding electric guitar chords that feel like a hard boot to the head. The rock continues on tracks like the poppy "Black," and the anthemic "The Latest Toughs." But old school Okkervi fans need not fret. There's plenty of the quieter, twangier moments on the CD as well.

Sheff acknowledged that Black Sheep Boy was a departure of sorts, but quickly added it wasn't by design. "I have a lot less power over that sort of thing than you think," he said. "Playing rock music is something that we only recently learned how to do in a way that's communicable. Our new drummer, Travis Nelsen, and our touring guitarist, Chris Heinrich, are rock players and understand how to do it in a way that I never did."







"Playing rock music is something that we only recently learned how to do in a way that's communicable."







"The fact is, it's hard to spend seven months a year on the road making less money than a 7-11 clerk and still have a satisfying life."



Sheff said line-up changes are one of the realities of being a relatively unknown indie band. "When it started, we were all really good friends from a small town of 500 with nothing to do but make our own music for fun," he said. "The fact is, it's hard to spend seven months a year on the road making less money than a 7-11 clerk and still have a satisfying life. It's hard to keep a steady line-up if you can't pay people what they're worth. We've dealt with musicians who have families or who simply don't want to sit in a van for half the year."

When line-up changes started to become a reality, Sheff said he "freaked out about it," afraid to break up the fellowship. "But I learned that you can't make life the way you want it to be," he said. "The other thing is we've changed in positive ways that are keeping us alive creatively. It's been a real blessing in disguise."

But after five years in a van, can the band get to the next level? "I'm feeling hopeful that something good will happen, maybe," Sheff said. "On one hand, if it keeps going like this, I won't be able to make a living off of it and will have to re-evaluate what I'm doing. On the other hand, I'm really grateful for what has happened. We've made a record that we wanted to make and got it out. You can get famous and not famous. That's the way it goes. I try to focus on how lucky we are to get to this point."

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Published in The Omaha Reader April 6, 2005. Copyright 2005 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.