Published Sep 07, 2016It was a bold move to kick off the next step in Okkervil River's journey with the phrase "Okkervil River R.I.P." With the premiere of that ominously titled track came an important and fitting revelation: the band as we knew it was over. The Austin, TX-based rockers had teetered between lush, poetic folk and Springsteen-ish anthems over seven albums; frontman Will Sheff was all but ready to put it to rest.
According to Sheff, the project lost its lustre. During live performances, he tells Exclaim!, "at a certain point, I was just looking at my watch.
"God, I hate to say that! I really feel bad admitting that, and that certainly wasn't my goal, but it was sort of all that time permitted."
After the release of The Silver Gymnasium in 2013, Sheff retreated from Okkervil River in the wake of departing bandmates and the declining health of his grandfather and hero, T. Holmes "Bud" Moore. Following Moore's death, Sheff retreated to a cabin in the Catskill Mountains where he wrote the songs that would become Away, the band's eighth album, and first with its new lineup, out September 9 on ATO.
Recorded over three days with a cabal of new collaborators, Away is a collection about the many facets of death and mortality, steeped in orchestral arrangements courtesy of composer Nathan Thatcher.
But despite — or perhaps because of — the subject matter, the record is awash in hope and blissful positivity, which Sheff attributes to the grieving process. "There was sadness for sure, knowing that a person is not on this Earth any more, that's really, really difficult. One of the hardest things for people [is] when there's a fact that you just can't change, it's really hard to let your mind just let go of it. But at the same time, there was a lot of joy, because he was very old and he had lived this epic, incredible life in the 20th century, and he was such an inspirational person to so many.
"In a lot of ways, there's a lot of joy because it's this final, capping celebration of who you were. I think that death is super scary to people and so when they hear the word 'death,' they immediately attach to it in their mind concepts of sadness and terror and things like that, but there's also a lot about death that has a lot to do with beauty and the way the world is always changing, and has a lot to do with freedom and release. So to me, there was a lot of sadness but also a lot of thinking about him and turning over and over in my head who he was and what he meant and who I wanted to be now that he was gone."
Finding liberation and freedom in death factors prominently on the record, and titling the opening track and lead single "Okkervil River R.I.P." — at once a eulogy for Moore and the old band, and a sweeping statement of intent for the band's new incarnation — serves as a fitting beginning to the band's new journey. "I think that it's nice to have death be the first thing that happens," Sheff offers, "because so much of the rest of the record is a journey from death into whatever is after that, so it just felt like that was the best explorer."
Behind the scenes, Sheff also found freedom in the recording process. With drummer Cully Symington as the only other returning face, Sheff assembled a crack team of musicians with non-rock backgrounds — primarily jazz and avant-garde players — and assembled a record for himself. "I feel like this is my favourite record made by me, because I was making a record and I didn't feel like I had to bring it around to the guys in Okkervil and be like 'Hey, so this is what I'm thinking, can you do this please? What do you think?' I was just alone doing a recording project for fun, and playing for it myself. It was a hobby instead of a job."
While in the past, the thrill of touring subsided as reality set in, Sheff's excited for the band's upcoming fall tour, which will take the new lineup across North America and Europe. "The last time that I remember feeling this excited about going out on tour was 2003, when we had just put out Down the River of Golden Dreams and were going to Europe for the first time. I just remember I couldn't believe that we were really gonna go to Europe. I was thinking, 'I'm in a van in Europe with my best friends playing music every night! If this is the best my life ever gets, I will not be angry at the world.'"
Following the tour, Sheff will turn his focus to filmmaking as he finishes Down Down the Deep River, a 45-minute "experimental music film" that shares its name with an Okkervil River song. "For me, I always feel like work is the most exciting thing. I get really antsy when I don't get to be creative all the time, and I like to be able to think that I can do something creative every day, so just whatever I can do that keeps me working."
Check out the video for "Okkervil River R.I.P." below.