For Will Sheff, singer, songwriter and centerpiece of the Austin- and Brooklyn-based indie-rock band Okkervil River, it’s all about moving forward.
Okkervil River took contrasting studio approaches, for instance, for its 2011 album, I Am Very Far, and its subsequent, free-of-charge digital EP, Golden Opportunities 2. The band recorded I Am Very Far at various locations, using as many as 15 musicians at the sessions.
“I wanted it to feel like it was a treat to be in the studio,” Sheff said from Brooklyn. “That meant shorter sessions in different studios. Every time you were knocked a little off your game and thrown into a different world.”
Okkervil River recorded Golden Opportunities 2, on the other hand, in just one studio, straight to two-track tape, no overdubs.
“Nothing wasn’t performed right at that moment,” Sheff said. “It’s just us playing in a room and singing songs. It’s a whole different kind of vibe.”
But recording with a smaller group with no overdubs doesn’t mean the music can’t sound big. For Golden Opportunities 2, the band employed an old-style reverb chamber.
“It’s a giant cement room beneath the studio where they feed the signal and record the reverberations,” Sheff explained. “And I’m a big fan of tape delay. There’s a ton of that. I like the idea of something that’s live but also stylized. So it’s a kind of alternate but real reality.”
The other members of Okkervil River support Sheff’s wandering artistic spirit.
“I started I Am Very Far by saying, ‘I want you to play differently than you’re used to playing.’ Everybody took that in their own way. We were all on board with that idea.”
Sheff’s musical ambitions can be gleaned in part from I Am Very Far’s title.
“It makes me think of a lost explorer,” he said. “Somebody who’s in the Antarctica and his radio communication is cutting out. Or somebody in outer space. Or the Mars Rover. Places that are impossibly remote. You’re never going to get to them. It’s crazy how far away the Mars Rover is.”
Sheff’s work as producer for 2010’s True Love Cast Out All Evil, the first studio album from 1960s psychedelic-rocker and 13th Floor Elevators member Roky Erickson in 14 years, influenced all of the music he’s made since.
He spent about 18 months in Austin doing the Erickson project.
“Roky is a wonderful guy, really sweet,” Sheff said. “He trusted where I wanted to go. He gave his energy and love and care and great performances to the record. It was wonderful to be around him.”
Sheff intentionally produced an Erickson record that the singer-guitarist’s followers didn’t necessarily want.
“All of Roky’s ’80s records have that wild, crazy, woolly rocker guy thing going on. There’s an amazing body of work, but the stuff that he was doing at the end of the 13th Floor Elevators had this cosmic, sweeping beauty. That’s what I wanted to show people, Roky as the spiritual mystic.”
Although working with Erickson was the most intense artistic experience of Sheff’s life, he was determined to succeed.
“Almost like you’re marching off to war,” he said. “I felt that I couldn’t fail. I had to give everything I had. I had to make a great record. It was a really powerful thing. And being around Roky changed the way I look at the world and my own writing.
“I want to be open to that wild, anything goes energy. Roky will take a song to a place that he didn’t know existed. He’ll open up a whole new area in your mind, take a crazy left turn.
“It feels unsafe and alive and not entirely accessible sometimes. I want to do my own organic, inward-originating version of that.”