Listen to Austin 360 Radio

After Roky project, Okkervil River back to own music

Hear a preview of the band's May release at South by Southwest shows

Peter Mongillo

In February, Will Sheff, who at times looks more like a college professor than the lead singer/songwriter of the mostly Austin-based band Okkervil River, flew to Los Angeles to attend the Grammys. Sheff had been nominated in the best liner notes category, an honor he downplayed.

"Winning a Grammy for writing is like winning an Oscar for cooking," he wrote in an account of the awards for Billboard.com (he didn't end up winning).

Amid the flashing lights and fanfare of a major awards show, Sheff went relatively unrecognized next to the Biebers, Gagas and Antebellums, an experience similar to another group of indie rockers, Arcade Fire, who took home the award for best album amid a chorus of tweets screaming "who the heck are the Arcade Fire?"

Sheff never intended to please the Bieber fans, though, and he's done just fine without them. Since 2005, Okkervil River has released three critically acclaimed albums, which have earned the band a loyal fanbase and spots on late-night television. In 2010, they teamed with Austin psych-rock pioneer Roky Erickson on the celebrated "True Love Cast Out All Evil," Erickson's first release in 15 years. In May, Okkervil River will release "I Am Very Far," their sixth full-length album and first collection of original material since 2008's "The Stand Ins." They'll introduce the new album in a live setting in a slew of sets next week at South by Southwest.

Although "True Love" was almost universally well-received and allowed Sheff, who produced the album, to reach a larger audience, his heart is in writing his own material, something he wasn't able to do while working with Erickson.

"I'd been waiting and waiting and waiting for the chance to do my own music," Sheff said. "Not that doing the Roky record wasn't an incredible experience that changed my life, because it was absolutely wonderful, but I got into doing music so I could write songs. I had got to the point where my schedule was preventing me from doing that, and it was driving me nuts."

Sheff's creative efforts are stronger than ever. In February, the band released a single, "Mermaid," which doesn't appear on "I Am Very Far" but serves as a dark forward to the new material.

"The last islands are all left behind as we silently sail. Until late some dark night, a wild wind starts to wail," sings Sheff, who has never shied from somber, uncomfortable subject matter. "And our maps blow away. And our compasses fail." With the creeping chantey, the band achieved a new level of emotional force. Evoking "Long Black Veil," the song, in a way, frees Okkervil River from the constraints of "The Stage Names" and "The Stand Ins," which were more focused on Sheff's reflections on the music business.

Working with Erickson helped Sheff write in a more open way. "There is a lot of lip service to artists being intuitive and sort of having faith that things are going to work and jumping into the void where you might actually come up with something ridiculous or disastrous and really fully embracing it to the point where it somehow works," he said. "Roky is not remotely afraid — he courts disaster and entropy constantly and it always somehow turns out all right. When you are playing with him you experience it, so it kind of taught me to have faith in the power of music to encompass different things."

From the beginning, "I Am Very Far" certainly feels like Sheff has embraced a more chaotic attitude in terms of production. Drums and other sound effects crash in from the distance. Some of the tracks, including the mildly frenetic "Wake and Be Fine," were recorded with a giant version of the band, including seven guitars, two drummers, two pianists and two bassists playing one room. Other songs evolved out of improvisational sessions.

Lyrically, Sheff also avoids packaging his songs in an obvious way. Unlike "The Stage Names" and "The Stand Ins," which, taken together, function as a sort of loose set of concept albums, "I Am Very Far" doesn't offer up many overt themes. Nor does it find Sheff playing games with pop music as he did on songs such as "The Plus Ones" or "John Allyn Smith Sails" (which concludes "The Stage Names" with a interpretation of the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B").

Sheff intended it that way. "I love a song like 'Street Hassle,' the Lou Reed song. There is a real sense of mystery to what's going on and who the narrator is and what actually happens in the song, and I just think that's a beautiful thing," he said. "I didn't want to feel like these songs had been picked and dissected into little pieces — that was probably the most important thing when I was writing this record, was that they had a sense of being self-contained."

As for the people asking "who the heck is Okkervil River," Sheff says he's not worried.

"This is going to sound incredibly corny, but I always have felt that there was some sort of god, or gods of art, and those are the people that I am trying to make happy. Or some kind of ideal audience that exists only in my mind. Those are the people that I am trying to please — hopefully other people show up to the party and help pay for the keg, but I am just trying to please these abstract entities that are only in mind."

pmongillo@statesman.com

Okkervil at SXSW