Interview

Okkervil River

Okkervil River

Wednesday 15th June, 2011 10:19AM

Texan purveyors of literary alt-country, Okkervil River, have just released their sixth studio album, I Am Very Far. Lilting and dark, this album represents a significant departure from their previous two releases, the double concept albums The Stage Names and The Stand Ins. UTR caught up with bassist Patrick Pestorius to discuss how they approached the new album, what it's all about, and when they'll be coming back to New Zealand.

Where are you guys at the moment?

We literally JUST got out of a radio thing, we did Letterman last night…

So you’re on a promotional roller coaster?

Yeah, we’re on a promotional distraction tour.

How’s it all going?

It’s good, it’s stuff that has to be done, and we’ll do a full day of it tomorrow and then we’ll jump on a flight and go to London so we can start a tour.

Is it exciting to be playing the new album, I Am Very Far, live?

We’re still ironing out the kinks but it’s nice to have a new record and songs to play for sure.

Tell me about the writing and recording process for I Am Very Far.

Well, we did a bunch of different recording sessions. We broke the record down into four or five different sessions and recorded at four different studios. It was a way to focus on two, three or four songs and knock those out and then take a break. We kept our perspective on making the record kind of light and healthy rather than thinking ‘we’ve gotta get this thing done in two weeks or we’re fucked’.

And this was a new way of recording for you guys?

Yeah for sure, we’ve always been battling the clock and trying to do a three week session in two weeks, so it’s been a nice way to do it for a change.

How did you maintain consistency across the record when the recording of it was so sporadic?

I think that was the tricky part, we had people doing co-production and they’re in a completely different place and I guess that’s the risk that you run that it could sound very very different, but I think we’ve achieved continuity through the record. At the same time it’s not a concept record in any way – like the last records were - so I think we were able to move around without worrying too much about minor subtleties and the style.

Tell me about how the writing and recording process of an Okkervil River song goes down?

Will [Sheff] writes the lyrics and a basic arrangement for the song and sends it to us. It’s generally pretty stripped down. Sometimes he’ll put some other things on there like drums or keys or something like that, and we listen to them and if there’s some songs that don’t resonate with people we just go down the list and pick out the ones we like and then we just bash on them as a band. Everybody throws out ideas and we try to work over what makes sense and what makes this sound good.

For the recording process you guys recruit a whole bunch of session musicians right? Is it hard to allow people to come into the fold?

Not really because we know those people really well, it’s not like you’re just meeting somebody for the first time or anything. Everybody was trying hard to do the right thing, it’s not like anybody came in with an attitude being like ‘Oh I’m going to make your record sound good’ or anything. Everybody was accommodating and willing to work as a team. It was challenging though, because everything was live and you don’t want to be the person who screws that up, but it was great. They’re all friends of ours so it wasn’t strange in any way.

Will Sheff’s lyrics are such a big part of Okkervil River. Tell me about marrying this side to the musicality of the band.

They’re kind of separate things. Sometimes we have to try to cut lyrics out of a song but it’s like pulling teeth with Will. Bryan [Cassidy] would always go head to head with Will, and it was a really painful process but I think he [Sheff] got better at taking this advice like, ‘you know, this song is just too wordy, it needs to be streamlined’. They figured it out anyway. But that’s a separate thing, the whole word-smithing thing, that’s really just Will’s gig.

I Am Very Far sounds quite brooding and dark as a whole. Was this purposeful?

People say that but I don’t think that. There are some songs that are pretty easy going but then I guess there’s a lot of brutal imagery. I guess it’s got a little bit of both. Maybe it all balances out?

The Stage Names and The Stand Ins were concept albums, whereas I Am Very Far isn’t. How did you approach the writing of this album differently?

I don’t think I can answer that. Trade secret…nah it’s not a trade secret I just can’t answer it because I just don’t know what the answer is.

Do you know when you start preparing for an album whether it’s going to be conceptual or not?

Well, with I Am Very Far, there were some things that were put into place to prepare us for this. There were song lists that went out of very non-traditional, non-Western music. I think Will went on a specific diet and had this specific way of living. He had long had these ethnographic records that had come from somewhere, and part of our discussions involved different ways of approaching music and different ways of approaching songwriting and you know at least one of these playlists went out and it was like ‘this is what’s going on in my head, try to check this stuff out’ and think about how to approach arrangement and sound differently. That was really the only pre-game going into it other than listening to demos.

So if you were to describe the musical orientation of the album what would you say about it?

Oh, shit, ah you know I could tell you when I went into it I wanted to write big structural bass parts for the rhythm section, so that’s where I was going in my head. And the album is heavily nuanced and that was my approach going into it; to do something that wasn’t all about melody, rather having these big shapes, big architectural shapes for the rest of the music to work around and adhere to.

From the sounds of things it sounds like you approached it differently to the last few albums. How have you progressed musically from The Stand Ins or The Stage Names?

By allowing more space in the arrangements, and really working at getting interplay between musicians. Like that’s pretty critical in a lot of these songs and in the writing process; there’s a lot of hands off and interplay and I think that was a major difference between this record and the last records.

Okkervil River has been a band for a long time. Has how you approach the industry as a whole changed over the years?

Oh, well I mean it’s an industry that’s totally in flux, but the fact that anybody can get your record for free at any time has certainly changed the game. I mean I guess it forces a band to tour and be away from home and go out and show face rather than hoping to get buy with selling records.

Is the live performance a really important part of the Okkervil River?

Oh yeah, I can’t wait to get back to it. We’ve been on break for a year and a half and when you’ve been away from it for that long you jones for it. It’s really fun you know, you have a good show and everything’s going off. I’m looking forward to make a living playing music rather than having to do a bunch of other stuff.

Do you find the tour experience exhausting or insightful?

It’s more exhausting than insightful but you do get to see the world and you know go to a lot of places. a lot of it when you’re touring is going to and from venues and soundcheck and the days kind of roll by. You get some pretty amazing experiences though. Like the last time we were in New Zealand we went to the end of the South Island so you could look across the straight to the North Island and that was an amazing day trip to go out to this foreboding but beautiful beach; we were standing on the edge of the world, I couldn’t have hoped for something better than that.

Do you have any plans to return to New Zealand?

We’ll probably be back in January during your summertime, we’ll escape the North American winter and do Australia and New Zealand.

You took a relatively large amount of time off between albums, is it hard coming back into the fold and trying to get creative with the band again?

No because then we made that Roky Erickson record so we were still working together as a band, we just weren’t playing Okkervil songs. I think in a way that was really helpful - we were working and practicing as a band but for something completely different.

Courtney Sanders




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