Q&A: Will Sheff Finds Emotional Truth, Gets Nostalgic about Childhood on Okkervil River’s Silver Gymnasium

okkervil river 2013
For Okkervil River singer-songwriter Will Sheff, the band’s seventh album The Silver Gymnasium comes as a revelation, not just as a songwriter but also of his own beginnings. Growing up the 1980s in the small 500-person town of Meriden, New Hampshire, he saw the world through limited but still rather unique perspective. On the album he draws from his childhood experiences with honesty, exposing the wonders and trials of growing up, and ultimately discovered an “emotional truth” and underlying meaning of his childhood that others could relate to. Sheff worked with producer John Agnello, noted for many highly praised albums from the ’80s, to emerge the listener in paying homage that time period in Sheff’s life, referring artists like Bruce Springsteen in sound and throwing in cultural references like Atari video games.

Review: Okkervil River, The Silver Gymnasium

He could have stopped there with the album. But he’s been a man on a mission to create a fully vivid experience, including a map of Meriden draw from a child’s point of view, visits to his schools including the high school gymnasium for which he titled the album, and an online adventure game in partnership with Eyes And Ears’ Benjamin Miles that pays homage to early video games and features chiptune versions of songs from the album. Prior to the album’s release, I talked with Sheff to find out more about the album’s creation.

You recently returned to your hometown to visit your schools including playing your high school’s gymnasium. What was that like and playing music directly influenced by that place and town?

They’re now heavily renovating the Silver Gymnasium so it’s not going to be the same as it was. That’s the last time it’s going to look like that pretty much ever.

It’s fun for this record to have a feeling of actuality in the music. A feeling of this is really related…and I’m talking about the places I’m actually in here. So that was a real blast. It’s fun to stand in the Silver Gymnasium and sing a song off Silver Gymnasium. It’s fun to stand with a mic in front of a lot of the people I’m talking about and sing about my childhood. I don’t do these things to gratify myself. In fact, they’re not that gratifying in the process of doing them, as I become concerned with whether or not I’m doing a good job and it takes me out of the moment. In some way I like to believe that the honesty and directness and personal connection of doing something like that is meaningful to the listener even if they don’t understand the full context behind something.

On the album, were you concerned about getting too personal?

I’m not the kind of person that loves and revels in exposing my private thought. In fact I very much don’t like that in my own personal life. And yet as an artist I really feel compelled to be direct and honest with people and to put something at stake, kind of put your cards on the table and show people where you’re coming from. So it’s important to be direct with people in spite of it’s not something I’m always comfortable with.

What was the catalysis that started this project?

I don’t really know. I found that I was, in my mind, obsessing about memories. I was not happy, haunted by remembering things kind of morbidly and obsessively. And because of those emotions I felt like the most honest thing to do to meet that head on was share those feelings with other people. And by devoting extensive attention to this I could work through it somewhat.

Do you think at this point in your career that you’re able to give it proper justice or a more mature approach?

A lot more distance on memory now and a lot of distance on my personal memory. I’ve had a chance to write about a wide variety of things and a wide variety of experiences and this is something in my life forever but I never wrote about it because I didn’t have the balance in my emotional life to do that. I think right now there’s a little bit more emotional stability for me to look at the subject matter and write about it with care and hopefully in an artful way.

Looking at the lyric sheet for the album I noticed how detailed the lyrics are, which fits on a storytelling album like this. Could you talk a little about your songwriting process?

As far as detailing in songwriting, there’s a really beautiful simplicity that I do respond to very much in songwriting. Like in Hank Williams or something as an example – there’s a very perfect, rugged generalism that’s really nice. I personally maybe have more of a taste for an elaborate stream of consciousness kind of outbursts. I think that makes sense as I grew up on very florid writing. When I was younger and becoming influenced as a writer I read Dylan Thomas and William Faulkner and James Joyce. Then Henry Miller, who was different from them but similarly emotionally expansive. I think I developed a taste for something that was an extravagant stream of consciousness style. I really like the idea of wedding this extravagant stream of consciousness with a sturdy rock song. It’s something you’d hear a lot in the songs of the late 70s, early 80s, whether you’re talking about Steely Dan or Nick Lowe and Thin Lizzy. There’s something really nice about that emotional outpouring on top of a really basic rock song. Bob Seger does it really well too. I wanted to be able to work within that framework.

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