Will Sheff thinks a lot about being famous.
And not being famous. And having fame and losing fame. About being drawn in by it and being eaten alive by it.
It's a theme that the songwriter and lead singer of Okkervil River has explored throughout his career with the pointed vision of a college essayist with a solid thesis and a semester's worth of pages to fill.
From the band's earliest efforts, Stars Too Small to Use and Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, to its 2005 breakthrough album, Black Sheep Boy, which takes a detailed look at the life and character of folk singer Tim Hardin (who wrote "If I Were a Carpenter"), fame has become an almost singular obsession for Sheff, and never more so than on Okkervil River's brand-new release, The Stand Ins.
The Austin, Texas, band is at the peak of its fame, having spent the past couple of years in support of The Stage Names, the critically lauded companion to Black Sheep Boy. Building on tours alongside the New Pornographers and the Decemberists as well as a reputation for stellar, sometimes sprawling live sets, the band has appeared on late-night TV and performed in New York with Lou Reed, who hand-picked Okkervil for that gig.
The Stand Ins will only expand on the band's recent success. Indie luminaries such as New Pornographer A.C. Newman have helped promote the album by covering tracks in a series of online videos, and the results — especially in Bon Iver's cover of "Blue Tulip" — have been stunning.
Easily Okkervil's catchiest and most accessible effort, The Stand Ins is the kind of album that gets better the more you hear it, with Sheff's lyrical prowess set against the larger, fuller sounds of the increasingly accomplished six-piece. There's depth, complexity and cleverness. At times, the album is out-and-out heartbreaking.
It's doubly unfortunate, then, that Will Sheff's phone kinda sucks.
Speaking with him from Brooklyn as the band prepares to take off on tour, the most prominent sound on the line is a wind-tunnel whoosh.
"We haven't played in Lawrence for a while hsssssssshh ... and the last show was atrocious. The night before hsssssshhhhhh ... drummer hsssshhhhh ... broken hand ... personal conflicts, technical problems, you name it."
It sounds like the last show in Lawrence was a bomb, though the drummer soldiered on with that broken hand.
"Yeah, it was pretty bad, and we weren't very happy about it," he says. "We're definitely looking forward to returning and bringing back our honor."
A few questions into our interview, reception improves enough for us to dissect some highlights of the latest album.
Perhaps the most fascinating track on The Stand Ins is "Bruce Wayne Campbell Interviewed on the Roof of the Chelsea Hotel, 1979." In 1973 and '74, Campbell, under the stage name Jobriath, was heralded by Elektra Records execs as a bigger, brighter master of glam rock than David Bowie.
His face was plastered all over billboards in Times Square, and the label showered him in glittery hype, but Campbell ended up a full-force flop who spent a big chunk of his life as the quintessential rock-and-roll hot mess. He reportedly lived in the pyramid apartment atop the Chelsea Hotel.
"It's like the biopic we're used to seeing," Sheff says. "You watch a biopic about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash, and it's gonna be the story of this meteoric rise from humble roots to smashing success, and we're taught to want and apreciate it. You never really see the story of an artist who never made it, who failed miserably, who is destined to be remembered as a footnote. Yet these are stories that almost all artists experience. So I wanted talk about the relationship between artists and their art more accurately on this album."
On tracks such as the rollicking, searing hipster indictment "Singer Songwriter" and the artificially sweetened Top 40 takeoff "Pop Lie," Sheff maintains focus on the reality of rock and celebrity, through the eyes of a guy who has been a critic himself.
You've got taste, you've got taste/What a waste that that's all that you have, he sings to a media-saturated rich girl while sneering at overly simplistic rock hits that are all sweetly sung and succinctly stated ... words and music you calculated to make you sing along.
"These stories are a lot about hype," Sheff says. "You think about a band like a band like Vampire Weekend, a band that I confess I don't know much about and I've only heard one song from. At first, everyone praised them before hearing them. Now everyone slams them without hearing them. It's like you deserve what's coming to you if you have that much hype and expectation built up. Hype is still very much a factor in critical reception with most artists."
The Stand Ins track most likely to get some hype of its own is "Lost Coastlines." It focuses on the travails of being in a band and staying together when your direction isn't entirely clear. Sheff sings on the track with Jonathan Meiburg, who left the band to focus on his own path, the bird-and-sea-focused act Shearwater. Starting out folky and melodic and venturing into fist-pumping territory, will the single be as close as Okkervil River gets to a pop smash?
If Sheff is right, probably not.
"What's that industry saying? There's been no hit single with horns in the last 30 years."
But before you believe the hype (or lack of it), see for yourself Friday, when Okkervil River plays the Bottleneck.
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