Editor's note: This article was originally published by the American-Statesman in March 2010.
It seemed an odd musical coupling at first, when Austin music's mystical past and wide-eyed future hunkered down in a South Austin studio to make a record from tattered little songs that had practically been abandoned. Over here was Will Sheff, the wordy, nerdy, Oscar Wilde of epic pop, and his Austin-based band of critics' darlings Okkervil River. And out there was Roky Erickson, a wild and wooly, 62-year-old throat-singer in the midst of a storybook comeback from decades of mental exile.
Ten years from now, Zach Galifianakis will win an Academy Award playing Erickson. The Sheff cameo will be played by someone who's now on a WB show. That's how different they are.
But on the collaborative LP "True Love Cast Out All Evil," Roky and the River sound right at home. A dusty triumph of hope and patience and spirituality, "True Love" comes out April 20 on Anti Records. Backed by the band, Erickson will sing several of the songs on the album, some dating to the early '70s, in public for the first time during the South by Southwest Music Festival, which opens today.
Sheff had never heard of Erickson until he moved to Austin in 1998 to start Okkervil River. And now he's produced a record that does to Erickson's legacy what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash. The Roky record is psychedelic without being retro or annoying.
"Every day was better than the one before," says Sheff. "I would be so exhausted, but it was the best feeling."
Although Okkervil backed the psychedelic legend at the 2008 Austin Music Awards, Sheff and Erickson didn't really know each other before making the record, Erickson's first in 14 years. It's also his first album since his tale of injustice and neglect and schizophrenia was unflinchingly told in Keven McAlester's documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me."
Since the former 13th Floor Elevators front man's successful return to performing is based on his ability to rock hard on such psychedelic chestnuts as "Cold Night for Alligators," "Two-Headed Dog" and "Slip Inside This House," it was assumed that Erickson's comeback album would be a sonic mirror of screeching vocals and big sonic strokes.
Instead, Sheff's idea was to explore a quieter side of Erickson's mind. "I obsessively listened to about 60 songs that Roky had written, that were either never recorded or minimally released," Sheff says. Although he's a fan of Erickson's "horror rock" material, Sheff found himself drawn more to the songs of simple grace. "Roky was in a prison for two years and he had to come to terms with the thought that his musical career could be over," says Sheff. Such freshly recorded songs as the title track, the delicately moving "Forever," the relentlessly haunting "Goodbye Sweet Dreams" and the album's hinge "Please Judge" were the soundtrack to his years at Rusk State Prison for the Criminally Insane and soon after, when he went from Austin's golden child to its most notorious recluse. These songs were written, Sheff says, "to serve the immediate purpose of keeping him sane. They're so powerful, so charged with emotion, faith and optimism."
It's a moving album, the sound-only, feel-good ending to McAlester's 2006 film, which ends on a positive note yet doesn't foresee the incredible career strides made by a man who once kept multiple TVs and radios on full-blast to drown out the voices in his head.
There were skeptics who thought Sheff might be too arty, too intellectually endowed, to produce an artist whose catalog includes songs about walking with zombies and creatures with atom brains. "I love Will - he's brilliant - but I was wondering if his approach would work with Roky," said Wire Recording owner Stewart Sullivan, who has recorded both Erickson and Okkervil separately. "But after hearing the record I realize Will was the right guy. He really got to the essence of Roky."
For the first few weeks of recording, Sheff said he had doubts of his own. "Roky was very trusting and open, but he was also a little surprised that we were going in the direction of ballads," Sheff says. The earliest work on the record didn't quite have the spiritual scaffolding Sheff was going for.
Then, one day, a frustrated Sheff cleared the studio's live room of all the other musicians and even Erickson's son Jegar. Roky and the band had tried two earlier arrangements - one poppish, one country - of "Please Judge," but Roky wasn't feeling it. So Sheff sat at the piano and played a dirge-like tempo and Erickson adjusted his vocals accordingly. "Please judge, don't send or keep that boy away," Erickson started off and Sheff, a novice pianist, told himself to just not blow it. When the pair went into the control room to see how everyone liked the slowed-down take, some of the band members were wiping away tears.
"That was the turning point," says Sheff. "That's when I knew we were working on something special."
Getting the right texture "of things broken or distressed" was important to the sonically inventive production, Sheff says. "The 13th Floor Elevators were one of the first bands to use feedback. They pushed things too hard, from their amps to their sentiments." "True Love," which balances scratchy "found" sound with symphonic flourishes, has an overall spookiness, with creaky openings, mysterious hums and sprinkles of psychedelic dust. No Roky record has ever had this much piano, this much sweeping reflection, but the Okkervil crew was always respectful of the songs.
And they did get a chance to rock out on "John Lawman," which repeats the lines "I kill people all day long/ I sing my song/ Because I'm John Lawman" over and over.
"Roky's an incredible musician," says Sheff. "He's one of the greatest rock 'n' roll singers of all time and a completely unique guitar player. But I think the way I've most been influenced by working with him is in his lyrics, the way he puts words together in a totally jarring way. He's created his own private vocabulary, which makes his words so personal."
The number "one" is a recurring figure in Erickson's lyrics of loneliness. "One is not love" he sings on "Forever," which is as lovely a song as anyone will hear at SXSW this year.