Okkervil River

By
Photography Steven Pan

Published April 19, 2011

Several of the songs on I Am Very Far (Jagjaguwar), the new album by punk-folk indie-rock band Okkervil River, were recorded live, with two drummers, two pianists, two bassists, and seven guitarists, all playing in one room for as many as twelve hours at a time. The result: a pounding wall of sound that frames—and occasionally threatens to drown out—some of the most vivid lyrics in recent memory. The band’s name itself has literary roots—it comes from the title of a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya—and the new songs describe a lurid closeness of death to everyday life with a cold, Truman Capote–like detached thrill. In fact, many songs on the album, such as the opening ballad, “The Valley,” don’t have a verse-chorus-bridge song structure, but are more like short stories. In “Lay of the Last Survivor,” a lilt- ing mid-tempo folk piece, a woman finds her father lying face down on the ground. “The Valley” includes an image of a man with a shotgun wound to the head. In “Rider,” front man Will Sheff sings about a “blood river” and having a hole in his throat. For 34-year-old Sheff, the unsettling lyrics and sonic assault are part of the appeal. “I love the way art fucks with people,” he says. “I don’t love entertainment that tells you that what you believe already is true. The message of the Eagles is, ‘Take it easy.’ Our message is, ‘Don’t take it easy.’” The Brooklyn-based Sheff grew up in New Hampshire and returned there to live with his grandparents while writing lyrics for I Am Very Far. “I was sick a lot as a kid,” he says, “so most of my earliest memories are of being repeatedly hospitalized.” While Sheff’s health has stabilized since, his outlook remains amusingly saturnine. “The human race is going to die,” he says. “We’re going to experience massive devastation and many people are going to die. We don’t really see death every day because we don’t want to. It’s not necessarily depressing—it helps you to remember to give a shit about your life.”

Photo: Will Sheff in New York, March 2011. Blazer: Dior Homme. T-shirt and Glasses: Artist’s Own. Styling: Vanessa Chow/Creative Exchange Agency. Grooming: Adam Markarian/Starworks. Makeup: Kristin Hilton/Starworks. Special Thanks: Fast Ashleys.