Will Sheff starts Away, the latest record from his band Okkervil River, with an elegy to the band itself. “Okkervil River R.I.P.”, an extended reflection on anxiety about death, might serve as a culmination to the three years that have passed since Okkervil River’s 2013 LP The Silver Gymnasium (the band’s seventh full-length). That record, an upbeat effort so mired in nostalgia that Sheff named it after the gym as his boarding school. After that album, Sheff’s personal and professional lives were shaken up; his grandfather died, and several members of Okkervil River left the band. As he started work on new music, which “wasn’t really intended originally, necessarily, to be anything,’ he says, Sheff found himself experiencing a rebirth of sorts.
“Eventually, I realized I was kind of writing a death story for a part of my life that had, buried inside of it, a path I could follow that might let me go somewhere new,” he said in a press release for the album.
That new path is one of new musical adventurousness, an embrace of lush orchestral instrumentation and ornate songwriting — and, even the acceptance of the inevitability of the death he seemed so anxious about in “Okkervil River R.I.P.”
“You can only spend so much time, brother, as the world’s guest,” he sings on the album’s closing track, “Days Spent Floating (In the Halfbetween).” But if the creative renewal of Away is any indication, Okkervil River has plenty of life left.
Weld: Away is a pretty stark departure from the rock-oriented sound of your previous albums. What led to that change in direction?
Will Sheff: I started out not knowing it was going to be an Okkervil River record… It wasn’t like I was trying concertedly to make a departure. It was more just like, I was doing exactly what I wanted… It’s really easy to get away from doing exactly what you want at times, I think. You worry about other people.
I guess I just tried to write in a way that was more intuitive and less mapped out. There was more of a sense of discovery in the moment and less of a plan. Just kind of leaping into the darkness or something. That was more of my style of writing.
Weld: Okkervil River’s last album, The Silver Gymnasium, focused its lyrics prominently on nostalgia. Away, meanwhile, seems to be more about looking forward. What led to that shift in focus?
Sheff: I was very tormented by nostalgia when I was making [The Silver Gymnasium] — I think in a way that maybe a lot of other people are, in that they think nostalgia’s fun, and then they chase after it get obsessed with bits of that pop culture phenomenon or whatever, and think that’s fun. But what it really is, actually, is kind of sad, because I think that the root of nostalgia is just this desperate wish that you could return to a safer time, where you were more protected. What lies beneath it is something very frightening, because we’re living in a very frightening world.
I think that when I was working on The Silver Gymnasium, I was trying to encompass all of that. Maybe I didn’t accomplish that [for everybody] on that front, but I definitely fixed the problem for myself. I feel much more rooted in the present.
Weld: This album has a much more orchestral sound than anything you’ve done before. You even worked with chamber orchestra group yMusic on a large part of the album. Was it a challenge to push your sound in that direction?
Sheff: You can’t really talk about the orchestral arrangements on the record and mention yMusic without starting out with the composer, who was a fellow named Nathan Thatcher, who got involved very early on. I knew from the very beginning of this process that I wanted there to be orchestration. In the past, I had not been very smart about how orchestration should work in a pop music structure. It’s something that I’d heard a lot of other people do, which was just pile a bunch of strings on top, you know, ‘There it is, there are the strings.’
But really, the way that orchestration works is, you’re talking about five additional musicians to 12 additional musicians, maybe 24 additional musicians, on top of a five- or six-piece rock band. It’s just a mess if you don’t make room for it. So we tried to leave a lot of space between the notes so there would be room for orchestration.
I started from the standpoint of wanting the arrangements to feel beautiful in their own right… And I wanted them to not ever try to sell the emotion. I didn’t want to be singing a sad line and have like, a high string part kick in, saying like, ‘Okay, time to feel something.’ I wanted it to be beautiful music on its own and not try to sell anybody.
Getting yMusic [involved] at the end, it was really just the finishing touch. They’re the best musicians at what they’re doing. They’re some of the best players in the world, really. When you have some violins, a viola, an English horn, an oboe and all this stuff going simultaneously, every player has to be really really good so that they sound together and don’t sound phasey and pitchy and a little bit like the beauty and texture isn’t there. We recorded the strings on a beautiful console in a studio in midtown Manhattan… It was really cool. It was such an exciting day of recording.
Weld: The record also features contributions from Jonathan Meiburg, with whom you used to collaborate on Okkervil River and [Meiburg’s band] Shearwater before you split into those separate projects. Whenever you two reunite to work together, do you learn something new from each others’ separate experiences?
I’d say that’s accurate, but I think more importantly, we formed our musical bond together at an impressionable age. It’s like that thing when the baby bonds with the first thing that it sees. [Laughs]
Jonathan and I have obviously had a long history of making music with other people, but that was [mostly] high school [bands] or local shows. But Jonathan and I were right there next to each other next to each other for all of our first tours, all of our first real recording. It was a real pressure-cooker where you had to really articulate what you were trying to do musically and really learn to be as good as you could and go through some difficult situations, stressful situations, exciting situations, all for the first time.
So I think that, even though Jonathan has a very different aesthetic than me in many ways, he is the best appreciator of what it is that I do. He’s got his favorite stuff that I do, and stuff that I do that he doesn’t like as much — and it’s the same for me, you know. But whenever we rough mixes to each other, we always get it. We’re always able to weigh it against our pasts together.
It used to be that there were a lot more pointers given, like I would say, ‘That seems like a hook! You should play it more.’ Or he would say, ‘I think this song’s too long. You should trim it down.’ Or whatever. These days, it’s more like we just play each other our stuff and pat each other on the back a lot. And that’s good, too.
Okkervil River will perform at Saturn on Thursday, September 22. Landlady will open. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance and $18 at the door. For more information visit saturnbirmingham.com.