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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with Will Sheff of Okkervil River: the creation of new album The Silver Gymnasium

Okkervil lead singer and lyricist Will Sheff describes the making of new album The Silver Gymnasium. I was especially intrigued by the stunning album artwork, created by old friend William Schaff.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Okkervil River The Silver Gymnasium album cover
When I listen to music it’s not generally the lyrics I hear first, and in fact you could often ask me about the lyrics of a favourite album many years down the line and I wouldn’t remember them. With me, it’s always the melody, and the artwork, that will stick in my mind – perhaps because I usually listen to music whilst I am working or driving or cooking, and I’m concentrating on something else at the same time. So, it’s a general feeling that grabs me first and foremost: am I unusual, I wonder, or do others feel the same? Anyway, as evidenced by Okkervil River‘s front man Will Sheff‘s answers to my questions, I should perhaps pay more attention to lyrics before putting together a Q&A. His new album The Silver Gymnasium came out last month, and features the usual full Okkervil River sound and grand melodies, but this time with a personal touch brought to the lyrical narrative. The album artwork, (including an interactive map) was created by long time friend William Schaff and is absolutely stunning. I was eager to find out more about their relationship and I finally managed to catch up with Will Sheff late last week…

Okkervil River by Neil Leonard
Okkervil River by Neil Leonard. This was inspired by the lyrics on the new record and the 80′s time period the songs are set in.

I last interviewed you many years ago for the print version of Amelia’s Magazine – how has the band evolved since then?
How many years are we talking? I can’t tell you how the band has evolved without knowing the vintage Okkervil you’re talking about. I always try to allow things to change. It feels like the most natural and least forced way to do things. Things should change, and it’s nice when a new member comes in and without especially meaning to the band kind of drifts into a different stylistic direction. I try to encourage and invite that.

What defines your sound?
I guess one thing all our records have in common, from Stars Too Small to Use to The Silver Gymnasium, is that I enjoy mixing electric and electronic textures with acoustic ones, I favour a strong songwriting perspective, and I want people to feel it.

William Schaff Map of Meriden for Okkervil River
Take a full tour of this map at this link.

I absolutely love the artwork for the new album – what was the process of producing this?
I work with William Schaff as often as time and scale permit, and he and I have now grown up together aesthetically as well as personally and we really get each other. Will also grew up in New England in the 1980s, so we have many of the same reference points, which I think made our collaboration on this record even more personal than usual.

What does the gigantic lizard signify?
That’s an amphibian called a Red Eft. They’re common in New Hampshire. When orange, as it appears on our album art, it’s in the so-called “terrestrial juvenile” stage, where it lives on land, mostly on the forest floor in deciduous woods. Later in life it turns green, gets a little larger, and gets some webbing between its limbs. After that it spends the rest of its life in the water. 

YouTube Preview Image
The album is inspired by your childhood – what were the best and worst memories of your pre-adolescence?
I feel like most of what I wanted to say about my childhood is there in the album. Furthermore, I’m not sure I made this record because I wanted to say anything about my childhood so much as I made it because I wanted to talk about nostalgia and about childhood in general, and it felt more productive to use my own childhood as the model. The idea that I’m trying to make everyone in the world pay attention to my own personal childhood is an idea that makes me uncomfortable. My childhood was the same as anyone else’s, give or take. 

Why did you decide to write an autobiographical album this time around?
Because I wanted to put something of personal value on the table in order to raise the stakes for my own writing. 

Okkervil River by Valeria Avantario
Okkervil River by Valeria Avantario. When I decided to create an illustration for the band Okkervil River, I was really intrigued because I hadn’t heard them before. I was curious to discover the melody behind that peculiar, almost fairy-like name. My intention was to simply let the music guide me. I immersed myself into the river, the flow of memories, fragments of life, old things. When I re-emerged, I run to the blank paper without hesitation and tried to translate my own impressions into an image which I hope will do justice to Okkervil River‘s softly melancholic music.

Are all the photos featured in the artwork video from your family album? What three words best define your childhood?
Again, this is a difficult question to answer. I’m not sure you could answer it, for instance. Could you? And if you could, how meaningful is it to reduce your childhood to three words? And again, if all that came from this record would be this vague idea that “Will wants to talk about his childhood,” I would feel like I failed somehow. 

What would you recommend to a visitor in your home town of Meriden, NH? For us UK based fans, what was it like as a place to grow up? It looks beautiful (and your van is great too)
Growing up in a small town is great. I would recommend that, for sure. But if, for example, anyone wanted to move to Meriden because of The Silver Gymnasium I would probably kill myself. I want it to stay exactly the way it is.

Okkervil River by Colin Mayhew
Okkervil River by Colin Mayhew. When I draw an illustration that is inspired by music I tend to draw images that pop into my head whilst listening to the band. Whilst listening to Okkervil River I felt that some of the music was quite nostalgic and other tracks optimistic I wanted my image to have a sense of both. All the greenery and colourful trees gives you a sense of optimism but the isolation of the buildings hints at the nostalgia in the music.

What is the Solid Ghost?
That comes from a line in Down Down the Deep River where I talk about running away from home.

Why the Lake of the Strangled Crane?
That comes from a line in Walking Without Frankie where I’m describing a lake. William Schaff turned that lake into a beaver pond that was in the middle of the town I grew up in.

The Silver Gymnasium by Okkervil River is out now on Cooperative/ATO Records. Read an indepth interview with illustrator William Schaff here.

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