After three years away Okkervil River have just returned with album of the year contender I Am Very Far. It is an album of towering ambition, one which, if all things were fair in this universe, would propel them into the higher echelons of indie rock. Why it hasn’t happened already is a mystery. Their back catalogue stands up to anything that has been produced in the last 15 years. From debut Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, through to breakthrough Black Sheep Boy, and on to The Stage Names and its companion piece The Stand Ins, the band have set such a high benchmark that it’s hard to fathom why they haven’t gained greater acclaim. With I Am Very Far hopefully their moment has arrived. On the eve of a UK tour, The 405 caught up with Will Sheff to discuss what inspired the album, how he’s been keeping busy since the release of The Stand Ins and the violent schism in the band between people who like Steely Dan and people who don’t. Just as elegantly literate and intriguing as he is on record and excited for the future of the band, he explains how he wants ‘to keep being able to work until I’m dead’. It’s been three years since The Stand Ins. What’s been happening? I did about a year of touring on The Stand Ins, produced a new record by Roky Erickson and another record by the band Bird Of Youth, wrote a history of the Norwegian Black Metal scene retold in the form of a Norse Saga for McSweeney’s, and collaborated with the New Pornographers and Norah Jones. I think some people might have the perception that I had time “off,” but in fact I’ve been working all this time, pretty nonstop. What’s different about the new album? After The Stage Names and The Stand Ins do you see this album as distinct from the previous albums or is there some kind of continuation? I think of I Am Very Far as completely different from anything having to do with The Stage Names or The Stand Ins. There are no common themes between the two and my approach from a writing and production standpoint was completely different. As I do often, I tried to throw away any ideas I had from the previous records and start everything all over from the very beginning. What does the title I Am Very Far mean? Unlike titles like The Stage Names or The Stand Ins – or even Black Sheep BoyI Am Very Far isn’t an “umbrella” title. It doesn’t really wrap anything up and it doesn’t really represent anything that’s overarching. Maybe you’d consider it more of a cocktail umbrella? It’s a frilly detail on top of the piece, not essential to it but more like a strange left turn at the end of it. I think of it as a disconnected piece of dialogue one of the characters in the song might say or might have been thinking. How does it work thematically? There are very strong thematic elements woven through the entire record, both lyrically and musically, but they were conceived more intuitively than cerebrally this time – in fact, I tried not to think of what anything was “about.” I think this approach paradoxically made the album actually feel like it’s “about” more than any of the previous records – at least to me. When I listen to the record, it feels like it sums up a lot of things I’ve been trying to say my whole life but didn’t have logical words for. How would you describe the sound of the album? I wanted it to be lavish in a certain way, but broken-apart and disconnected in a kind of opposite way. Lyrically and musically I thought a lot about the idea of removing “connective tissue.” I like to think of it as trying to be intentionally epic but also sort of intentionally fragmented – an ancient statue with the head and arms eroded away. I thought a lot about antiquities when I was making the record for some reason – cave paintings and Easter Island and especially the Colossus of Rhodes. That might sound weird, but that’s the kind of stuff I kept picturing. A shattered-apart monument to something everybody’s forgotten about. Why did you go into isolation to write the record? To a certain extent I’ve always done that – or, rather, I’ve always changed my environment when writing. I feel like with every record it’s important to throw away every previous idea or approach or image and to start again. You’re basically beginning a whole new chapter in your life when you start a new record, and ideally you’ll be a different person by the time you’re done making the record. Changing your environment helps make that process happen faster and in a more dramatic way. Do you take a long time working out, perhaps over-analysing, your lyrics or is it a stream of consciousness thing where they come immediately? It’s a little bit of both. There is a whole lot of stream of consciousness, especially on this record. On this record – and I think this was somewhat inspired by working so closely with Roky for a year – I tried to not criticize or even question where ideas or impulses came from. I tried to just accept them and even sort of indulge them. I was trying on some level to pull up images that I didn’t know were there. There were moments by the time I was writing The Stand Ins where I felt like lyrics were too worked-out, too over-analyzed, too clever or pat, and it was a nauseating feeling. I wanted the writing on this record to have more a natural clashy, artless, even clumsy quality. Ironically, that sometimes did involve heavy revision, looking at something again and again and going “What’s unnecessary here? What needs to go?” You said there was a lot of pressure during the recording process – do you think that helps inspire the best in you and the band? I don’t recall saying there was a lot of pressure. I think in some ways there was and in some ways there wasn’t. I didn’t feel a lot of internal pressure, but there did come a point during the making of the record where time pressures and financial pressures – and even physical pressures, because my throat started giving out as it sometimes does during recording – started cropping up. But I didn’t feel aesthetically beholden to anyone really, and that’s where I guess the worst kind of pressures would have come from. How do you measure progress in your albums? Or is it not about that? I guess I just don’t want to feel like I’m bullshitting myself. It’s incredibly easy to fall into a pattern where, on some deep-down level, you realise you’re bullshitting yourself but you don’t know how to put the brakes on. I feel like I’ve seen it happen with a lot of friends and artists I admire and I’m ashamed to say I’ve even had moments where I felt like it was happening to me because certain aspects of my job were slipping out of my control. I don’t know if it’s about “progress” so much as it is about feeling like I didn’t just make bullshit art that I don’t believe in. Do you think you have you progressed as songwriters/musicians? I do. That’s my personal opinion obviously. I’m sure there’s someone out there who thinks it was all downhill after Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See in 2000 (I think that was in 2000?) and I think that’s a hilarious opinion but maybe they’d be completely right and I’ve just been fumbling in the gathering dark for 10 years. For me personally I can say that I feel a hundred times happier with my ability to articulate what I’m trying to say than I did back then, and I’m far happier with my ability to sing and to play. And I think the band we have right now is just phenomenally great. They are so much better than me and so much better musicians than I thought I’d even be associated with. Which is not to insult the original Okkervil musicians because they were incredible – it’s just that we were all just kids then. Are there any musicians that the whole band bonds over? That’s a good question. I’m trying to think of a band that’s universally beloved by every member of Okkervil River. Probably the Stones would be the most unanimously popular. Or Bowie. The Beatles too, but saying you like the Beatles is like saying you enjoy drinking water. Lauren and I love Dylan a lot but some members don’t seem to care as much. Pat and I are really into soul but I think we’re maybe the biggest fans. Right now there’s a kind of violent schism in Okkervil between people who like Steely Dan and people who don’t, with Cully perhaps the most combative anti-Dan holdout. I think he’s coming around though. An interview I read recently said that you don’t really listen to new music but are there any groups out there who you feel you have an affinity with? A while back I sort of took a break from listening to new music in favor of music that was recorded before I was born. I just felt like I needed to catch up, and I didn’t want to feel like I was chasing a trend. But I think that the irony is that if you’re obsessing over some 70s John Cale record and some other contemporary of yours is obsessing about the same record it’s almost like imitating each other anyway. I mean, I hear a band like Destroyer and I feel like I have an affinity with them in that Dan’s trying to be smart and “artistic” but there’s a sense of play and fun. Or I listen to Spoon and I hear the same kind of studying the classic rock canon. Or I listen to something like St. Vincent and I feel like we both have a strong sense of ambition in terms of what the term “pop” can mean. What have you learnt from the collaborations that you have been involved with over the last couple of years? Norah was fun because it’s just so different from what I usually do that it was a really challenging stretch. Roky was really inspirational - felt like I was helping him to make a record he probably couldn’t have made otherwise, but he was teaching me how to be a new kind of person and a new kind of artist. I really think he changed my life. How did the collaboration with Roky Erickson come about? Someone thought it would be cool if we did a show together, and we both really liked the show and thought, “Yeah, it would be cool to do a whole record.” Did you enjoy it? Oh yeah, Roky is incredible. He really got inside my head and tinkered with what I want out of music. Without really trying to or meaning to. Did it inform/inspire the new album in any way? I think in a lot of little ways working with Roky did inform the record, but it’s funny because I don’t think it sounds much like Roky. But then again I feel like I hear completely different qualities in Roky than a lot of other people seem to hear sometimes. I get a vibe out of him that might be something no one else gets. If there was anyone the album didn’t resonate with, maybe that’s why, and I guess that’s okay. You were nominated for a Grammy for the liner notes – how did that feel? It was funny. The liner notes to that record were really an afterthought. The label was like, “Hey, you should write some liner notes” and I was like, “How about this?” and they were like, “sure!” I gave a year of blood, sweat, and tears to that record and it was quite humorous that after all that it was nominated for liner notes. I think Roky himself is the real miracle story of 2010 and my liner notes were just a silly side thing. But going to the Grammys was fun. Do you prefer the recording process or touring? Recording. I do really and truly love performing, and I love learning about the world and about people through traveling, but I don’t love how sometimes the promotional process literally stops the writing process dead. It feels like some kind of fucking sick joke that in order to promote your writing – so you can do more writing – you basically have to stop writing. Plus the fact that my body keeps giving out. I’m sitting here writing this on day four of “vocal rest” – no talk at all, because I have a blister on my left vocal chord from overexertion. If I push it too hard, I’ll have to get surgery that might alter my voice. I guess I have a taxing way of performing, but I don’t know another way to do it. I love doing it, but it takes a lot out of me physically and it’s a funny thing when it actually prevents me from doing something new. You say you can’t listen to any of the previous Okkervil River records as they’ve been over-analysed. Why do you think mystery is so important in music? I think mystery is important in everything, not just music and not just art. I want to feel like there’s something to life that’s vibrating and strange, something hidden behind a curtain you can never brush out of the way. That’s how life felt when I was a little kid and that’s how life still feels when I’m in my best state of mind. Analysis feels like this weird macho beside-the-point thing, like discussing sports stats or enjoying a meal so you go break in down molecule-by-molecule in a lab somewhere. It doesn’t really hold much appeal to me, I guess. When we were working on this record, someone in Okkervil would ask me what a song was “about” and I’d have to laugh and admit I had no fucking idea. It was a nice feeling, because in the past there have been songs I knew too much about, and I started to get bored. The Deluxe Edition of the album seems pretty special. How important do you think it is that music remains available in physical formats? I’m torn about this, because it’s all such a damn waste of natural resources but it’s also so incredible and humbling to get to put all your energy into making this beautiful, beautiful thing – the most beautiful thing you can possibly figure out how to make, calling on absolutely everything you know about beautiful-thing-making – and then have someone actually want to spend money they earned at their job on it. It really makes me the proudest I can be. I think that’s what art is supposed to be, a strange beautiful meaningless meaningful thing – with no real use, but useful. What are your plans for the future? For yourself and the band? I just want to keep being able to work until I’m dead. The band are set to play Heaven tonight in London, so go see them.