Okkervil River are heading to Japan next month as part of the Hostess Weekender festival – an event which always has a great mix of established acts and emerging talent. Japanese festival goers may be tempted to put Okkervil River in the latter bracket, as this is their first visit to Japan; but the truth is anything but. Hailing from Austin, Texas, the band have actually been going since 1998, getting their first break playing the SXSW music festival in their hometown. Since then they have released 7 albums, seen a number of band members come and go and have enjoyed great success in both America and Europe; supporting the likes of The Decembrists, The National and Lou Reed in the process. Ahead of their Japan debut we spoke to founding member, singer and songwriter Will Sheff about their upcoming appearance and their newest album, Silver Gymnasium.
You are coming to Japan as part of the Hostess weekender, how are you feeling about it?
I’m incredibly excited! I’ve never been to Japan before and have been wanting to for my entire career. I’m honored we’re playing with so many wonderful bands and can’t wait for the trip.
What do you expect Japan to be like? Will there be culture shocks do you think?
I’ve never been to Japan before, so I have no experiences other than impressions that have been formed strictly by TV, movies, books, or other peoples’ stories. Every band I’ve spoken with has said it’s been a great experience, so I’m really excited.
The line up has changed over the years, how does this affect the band?
The lineup has changed a fair amount as members have had children or searched for more stability in their lives. The touring lifestyle is not for everybody. When change has occurred I’ve always tried to welcome it, because I think it’s a waste of energy to try to fight when things change. So each member has added something different to our sound and taken us in a different direction that I couldn’t have anticipated, and I think that’s great. I think when the sound of a band is 100% due to the aesthetics of a lead member then things get kind of boring.
Silver Gymnasium is your seventh album, what is different about this record to your previous material?
I think the new record is a bit more compassionate and friendly and fun in spirit. We wanted it to be a good driving record and a fun rock and roll experience. Our last record was a lot more dark and threatening in tone. I like to try to try to do something different with every album and not repeat the same thing over and over again. I think this is the most warm and open and freewheeling Okkervil River record.
The record is about your childhood experiences, growing up. What is your favourite childhood memory?
The record is about looking back on childhood. I used my own childhood experiences because I felt that this was the most reliable way to make something truly meaningful and with real feeling in it, not because I wanted to tell the whole world about my specific childhood. In fact, I’m slightly uncomfortable with talking excessively about my own childhood if it isn’t done for artistic reasons. And I guess I put a lot of good and bad memories into the album anyway!
As part of the album you have included an interactive map of your hometown. Would you say the new album is an “interactive” experience?
I hope the album is meaningful to people, and that’s a form of interaction. And I like making work that tries to fit into peoples’ own imaginative lives.
You have also created a video game for the album as well. Why did you decide to do this?
I hope the videogame broadens the world of the record somewhat, and I hope the same thing from the map. What I like the best in art these days is trying to create a large, enveloping world that connects with peoples’ dreams in some way.
I read that you admire Gene Simmons in his approach to marketing a band. In what ways do you admire him?
I’m not necessarily a KISS fan and I don’t admire Gene Simmons as a person; really what I think is interesting about KISS as a phenomenon is that they made all these crass cheap promotional tie-ins – comic books, action figures, belt buckles, movies, toys – and in so doing they kind of encouraged fans (especially little kid fans) to construct an imaginary world around them that was kind of a collaboration between KISS and between each little kid that bought this cheap crap they put out. I like the “Star Wars” universe for the same reason, and there’s a lot of this kind of stuff in Japan too, toys and comics and movies all being linked together. It’s an interesting phenomenon because it creates a larger universe beyond the original artwork, and a universe that is in a sense personalized by default.
Finally, for those who are coming to the Hostess Weekender, but may not know Okkervil River, please sum up in a sentence why they should come and catch your band’s performance.
We love playing live music and we can never predict what’s going to happen at our shows; we try to make it real.
Okkervil River will perform as part of the Hostess Cub Weekender festival in Tokyo on November 30th. For more information and advance tickets please visit the Hostess Club Weekender website.
Words: Mark Birtles
Translation: Noemi Minami
November 7, 2013