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Okkervil River sitting in their rec room

Down by Okkervil River

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: Feb. 27, 2002

March 5
Okkervil River w/ Watch the Stereo
The Junction,
15th & Farnam
8 p.m.

There are three reasons why people decide to write about music.

The first is for the free CDs -- that's the easy one. The second is the rather haughty and self-congratulatory reason of turning people onto music they would never have known about without you. It's a ridiculous reason, especially when you realize there aren't that many readers out there.

What's the third reason?

I never heard of the Austin, Texas, band Okkervil River before they got booked for their March 5 show at The Junction. I saw their name on a schedule of upcoming shows and hadn't paid it a thought, other than "What a weird name for a band." Out of the blue I received a copy of Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See in the mail from Okkervil River's record label, Jagjaguwar, and set it aside, meaning to get around to playing it. Then one Sunday morning (the most appropriate time to listen to this band) I gave the CD a spin. Then listened to it again. Then played it for a friend of mine, saying, "I never would have heard of these guys if it wasn't for this job. This is the reason why I write about music." That's the third reason, actually.

Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See is an amazingly beautiful CD. The band's one-sheet mentions Tindersticks, Arab Strap and Bright Eyes. I'm reminded of Simon Joyner, Counting Crows and, dare I say it, Will Oldham.

"We get compared to him a lot," said Okkervil River's primary songwriter and guitarist Will Robinson Sheff about the legendary mope-folky who headed Palace and now performs as Bonny Prince Billie. "When our first record came out, we were compared to Will Oldham savagely. That actually hurt my feelings. I'm not trying to do a Will Oldham impression."

The Will Oldham comparison isn't fair, really. Okkervil River is better than that, catchier than Oldham on his best day.




Their music is rural and slightly southern, more backwater than wheat field, with a nod toward slow bluegrass and dustbowl folk. Sheff, who says he doesn't like the term "alt-country" or the bands that play it, confesses a love for old-time Appalachian music. "I love old folk," he said about his influences, but then quickly added, "I love first-generation singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. I love Neutral Milk Hotel -- Jeff Mangum is one of today's best living musicians."

And yeah, he likes Will Oldham, who was one of the first modern indie-style folk singers he'd heard after leaving for college. "When I first heard him, it sounded like he was singing right to me. It blew me away." Sheff said.

When he met mandolin, electric/string bass player Zach Thomas and drummer/percussionist Seth Warren in high school at tiny Meredith, New Hampshire, Sheff said the three shared a love for old American folk. "Roscoe Holcomb, Skip James, Leadbelly, the Carter Family, Doc Watson, The Stanley Brothers. I love that music. It's always really spoken to me because I grew up in a small town where nature was a real controlling presence."

After going their separate ways after high school -- each attending a different college -- the three wound up back together in Austin in 1998 when they formed Okkervil River. A year later they recorded and self-released their first CD as a trio -- a stripped-down, rather dark effort called Stars Too Small to Live.

After touring, the band spent a year in the studio with producer Brian Beattie, who has worked with Dead Milkmen, Glass Eye and had just come off producing Austin legend Daniel Johnston's last album. Sounds like an expensive endeavor for a band whose lead singer makes a living writing for web outfit Audio Galaxy, while the other members work in a book store and write computer code. "Brian doesn't charge you by the hour," Sheff said. "You pay him a certain amount up front and he becomes a new member of the band. He's a family man, which means he doesn't bend around the band's schedule, you bend around his."

Sheff told Beattie he was after something completely different than the band's austere debut.

"I didn't want it to be stark," he said. "I told Brian I wanted the new CD to sound like soul, like an Al Green record. I really liked the very orchestrated, atmospheric bands like Tindersticks, but for our first record, there was only the three of us. We expanded our sound this time by adding whatever instruments we knew how to play and by pulling in people we liked from around Austin."

Thirteen additional players, including the multi-instrumentalist Beattie, contributed horns, strings, pedal steel and banjo. In addition, Jonathan Meiburg became the band's fourth permanent member, adding Wurlitzer and accordion to the mix.



"When our first record came out, we were compared to Will Oldham savagely. That actually hurt my feelings."


Okkervil River on stage

"I remember my co-workers looking at him and looking at him for the evil on his face. You wanted to see the evil, but it wasn't there."


Lyrically, Sheff also had something different in mind. "The last album dwelt on sadness," he said. "I wanted this one to be about love."

Unlike so many of today's indie artists whose lyrics are almost purposely vague, Sheff's lyrics are like documentary-style poetry, telling perfect little stories that deal with longing and loss, fear and coping, hope and regret, even mourning the loss of a family dog. The details are vivid, too vivid to be made up.

"The songs are all connected to things happening in my life," Sheff said, "but they're not biographical. I like to mess with the perspective. The more personal the song, the more likely I'll fictionalize it. I listened to a lot of Elvis Costello and like a well-shaped and composed song. I try to exercise control over it. I'm obsessed with this idea of being just poetic enough. I don't listen to rock to hear great poetry. I want the lyrics to seem real to me."

The album opens with the warm, Tindersticks-like "Red," a song about a lonely dancer separated from her child, with the line, "I know I don't deserve / Supervised sight of her / But each day becomes a blur / Without my daughter."

The haunting mandolin-driven murder story "Westfall" is as brutal as a Johnny Cash song with melody by way of Harvest-era Neil Young. Sheff said he wrote it around the lyric, "They're looking for evil / Thinking they can trace it / But evil don't look like anything."

"There were these murder cases in Austin where these two girls were working in a yogart shop and these three college guys went to rob the place and killed and mutilated them," Sheff said. "I worked for the state at the time and heard the details they didn't report -- how they cut them open and filled them with frozen yogart. They caught one of the kids that did it, and there he was, on TV, and I remember my co-workers looking at him and looking at him for the evil on his face. You wanted to see the evil, but it wasn't there."

"Dead Dog Song" is the most autobiographic track on the album. It's about Sheff scattering his dog's ashes among the skein of trees where the hound used to run, and opens with scattering trap brushes and a mandolin that sounds like a dog bounding through a forest, in and out of the light and shadow, jumping around the trees. It has the feel of a bluegrass holler, with the whooped-up line "Oh, It's all over / He's never coming back / There's no more roaming / He was only here / Fourteen years / And now the branches scratch my face / And I can't hold back the tears."

Throughout the CD's nine tracks, touches of horns, accordion, cello and violin blend seamlessly with the band's simple acoustic accompaniment, pulling everything together like kudzu covering a deep forest. Sheff and company will have their work cut out for them reproducing the sound with their four core members, including new drummer Mark Pedini.

Though the CD just came out Jan. 22, Sheff says the band is ready to record the next one this August. "We've been living with the songs on Don't Fall in Love… for a year and a half," he said. "We'll be playing some of the new stuff on the tour."

After this mini-tour that takes the band through the Midwest, Okkervil River will head out for three weeks of dates along the Northwest, then spend two weeks touring the West Coast, before they return to Austin and their day jobs.

"I don't want to get famous," Sheff said. "It would be really nice to have enough money that I didn't have to work at anything but music, enough money to buy organic groceries. Right now I can record, I have a label to put out my music and a guy booking our tour. What more do you need to be able to play your music?"

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Published in The Omaha Weekly Feb. 27, 2002. Copyright 2002 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.