For Okkervil River, a Pop Slant on Thorny Issues Okkervil River's The Stage Names is a critically lauded album that touches on themes of a short story. But lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff says the goal is pure listening pleasure.
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For Okkervil River, a Pop Slant on Thorny Issues

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For Okkervil River, a Pop Slant on Thorny Issues

For Okkervil River, a Pop Slant on Thorny Issues

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When an Indie rock band names itself after a short story by Leo Tolstoy's great-grand-niece, you know you're dealing with a different kind of band.

Okkervil River songwriter Will Sheff writes lyrics that read like short stories replete with dialogue and parenthetical phrases. Okkervil River's latest CD is called "The Stage Names."

(Soundbite of song, "Plus Ones")

Mr. WILL SHEFF (Songwriter; Lead Vocalist, Okkervil): (Singing) No one wants to hear about your 97th tear. So dry your eyes or let it go uncried, my dear. I am all out of love to mouth and to your ear. And not above letting a love song disappear before it's written.

ELLIOTT: The CD has a running theme. The songs are about how art is created and how it's received. But the styles of music you hear run the gamut from gutbucket rockers to gentle ballads to Motown soul.

Mr. SHEFF: We wanted to have the record exist in a kind of a soup of preferentiality. You know, like this whole idea of the heritage of crappy disposable rock music that was so transcendent that it became kind of eternal, and how that can inform anybody who's trying to make a living in rock and roll.

ELLIOTT: Songwriter Will Sheff is also the lead singer for Okkervil River. He says the band's odd, often mispronounced, name comes from the Tatyana Tolstaya short story of the same name. And the lessons of that tale informed his writing for this new CD.

Mr. SHEFF: The plot of the story centers on this middle-aged bachelor living in a kind of a cruddy apartment in St. Petersburg. And his hobby is - he collects these 78s by this singer that is very obscure, that nobody's really heard of. He kind of had these fantasies about her and what she must have been like. And then he finds out from a record dealer that she's still alive, and that she lives by Okkervil River. And so he pictures the Okkervil River, which he's never been to, as this very romantic, beautiful, kind of Victorian river. And he finds out where it is and he goes to visit her. And it turns out she's become a kind of an unpleasant old woman.

In the end, he realizes that she's not so special. Afterwards, he's listening to her record and the voice, her voice, her old voice from the past, on this record, soars sort of high above. There's this great image of her voice soaring high above the muddy, ugly, real Okkervil River that he passes by on his way to her apartment.

Tolstaya is trying to say, isn't it a shame that all of these great music that seems so powerful in a way that's almost alien. You know, you almost can't believe that the stuff came from imperfect, vaguely disgustingly described human beings? And that was a little bit of what I wanted to get out on this record.

(Soundbite of song "Unless It's Kicks")

Mr. SHEFF: (Singing) And on a seven-day high. That heavenly song punches right through my mind and pumps through my blood. And, oh, it's just a lie but I still give my love. And my heart's alive for your hands to pluck off.

ELLIOTT: This music, in general, the music itself, has a bit of a joyful feel. But when you get past that first listen and start to dig in to the lyrics, you do get dark.

Mr. SHEFF: I think that there is a sense of like we're going to deal with some really serious topics or, you know, there's this hole in the middle of the floor but we're not going to fall into it. We're going to kind of do a little dance around it. You know, that was kind of the philosophy of how I was trying to write this song.

ELLIOTT: Well, that worked for me on the song "Savannah Smiles." When I first heard that, I thought, well, this has this kind of almost lullaby feel about it and then I decided the song was about a father who was guilt-ridden over reading his daughter's open diary. It turns out that's not exactly what it's about. Let's listen to a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song "Savannah Smiles")

Mr. SHEFF: (Singing) Midnight, late last week. My daughter's diary. Didn't know what it might be 'til it was open. I only read one page. And then put it away. Talk about your big mistakes. Hey, Shan, nice going.

ELLIOTT: And then I'm reading and I realized this is really a song about a porn star?

Mr. SHEFF: Yeah. Well, you know, I had a concept when I was working on the record that there were going to be biographies of real entertainers. And I kind of didn't want to make too clear that that was what they were about. I mean, in a lot of ways, it's just a song about wondering at what point you lose your kids and at what point, like time - what time does to people's relationships?

(Soundbite of song "Savannah Smiles")

Mr. SHEFF: (Singing) Photos on the wall. She's my baby. She's my baby doll. Is she someone I don't know at all? Is she someone I betrayed?

ELLIOTT: And I guess we should note here that she ended up killing herself after she had a car accident and was hurt so badly. She didn't think she could continue her career as a porn star.

Mr. SHEFF: Yeah. On these biography songs, there's this idea of what do you do when you can't do what you love. You know, like, I've had moments, on tour for example, touring, not to strike a melodramatic note, but you know, there was a time where we toured in Europe for like - I don't know. It' was like 25 days or something like that in a row without a day off. And when I got back to America, we just had - the next day, we had to go out on the American tour. And I lost my voice one day in. And I had a kind of a real self-pitying moment where I was like, man, you know, I don't have a place to live because I can't afford to, because I go on tour all the time. How many relationships has this claimed? And here I am out here and I can't even do the thing that I gave up everything else to do.

And it's really deeply frustrating experience. You know, in the tiny little moments where I felt that a little tiny bit, my sympathy goes out a hundred percent to anybody who felt like their life was over.

ELLIOTT: I'm talking with Will Sheff of the band Okkervil River. Your new CD ends with the song "John Allyn Smith Sails." And it's another biography. It's about the poet John Berryman, who threw himself off a bridge in 1972. What is your connection with John Berryman?

Mr. SHEFF: Oh, you know, nothing more than a fan. And when I was going to write "The Stage Names," I drove on a long road trip. I stopped in Minneapolis just so that I can go stand on the Washington Avenue Bridge. And it was a bitterly cold day, which it was on January 1972, which is when Berryman jumped off there. And I kind of had this moment just standing there for quite a while. I wanted that character - it's my kind of imaginative recreation of John Berryman to the best of my ability - have the chance to explain his actions and, you know, write a song about that that's not only not condemning but that looks at death as something that's special, which is not necessarily how I feel but I just wanted do that. You know, it felt frightening to me. And so for that reason, I guess I was drawn to it.

(Soundbite of song "John Allyn Smith Sails")

Mr. SHEFF: (Singing) And I knew that my last lines were gone while stupidly I lingered on. Oh, but wise men know when it's time to go, and so I should, too. And so I fly into the brightest winter sun of this frozen town, I'm stripped down to move on. My friends, I'm gone.

ELLIOTT: There's a lyric in the song, and I knew that my last lines were gone while stupidly I lingered on. You write about that again in the song "Title Track."

(Reading) All of the stage names evaporate. And it's just a blood flushed and heart-rushing race. Either to kick off too soon or stick around too late.

You know, you could say that's a variation on Neal Young's line, it's better to burn out than to fade away.

Mr. SHEFF: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: I mean, is that the way you think about a career in music?

Mr. SHEFF: Well, I think that when I was a kid, the arts - you know, music and painting and movies and, you know, all that stuff - it just was like the most important thing to me. It made my life feel like it was glowing, you know? Like when everything else was drab and horrible and I couldn't believe it was real, that looked like this beautiful window in the ceiling that I could climb through, you know. And I wanted so badly to climb through it. And things like health and stability and security, they often do stand in the way of that. There's a choice you have to make to get out and be a normal happy person or to stay in and follow the life in that window.

ELLIOTT: Will Sheff is the songwriter for the band Okkervil River. Their new CD is called "The Stage Names." He joined us from NPR's New York bureau.

Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.

Mr. SHEFF: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

ELLIOTT: To see the band's first video from the CD, visit our Web site,

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