When It’s Will Sheff

It was 2009 and I had just dropped out of college, moved in with my sister to a large house in Asheville, North Carolina. I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing and I was a high school honors student suddenly ditching school, working at my local Jersey Mike’s sub shop and beginning to form a body of work. I ate roast beef for 8 months and wrote dozens of songs.

That first year or so of being in Asheville, I don’t think about often. I was in a deep depression, cranking out material, wasting days and nights, and giving into the burgeoning mental illness inside of me that was encroaching, making itself known. But I was creating. There was talent there. I could do this, kinda. I could make music. I might be good at it.

Still, I destroyed some moments in time. I lost friends and I lost love. It would happen again and again but I don’t want to talk about that. At age 19 and living on my own in what amounted to my college experience, it was the work that mattered. It survives, anyway.

I’m telling you straight that I was then and am still quite schooled in the history and currents of pop music, rock and roll. As a child, when I was seven, I saw the Beatles Anthology on TV and became addicted. I swear I didn’t listen to anything but the Beatles until I was 11 or 12, and then it was just the rest of the 60s, those singers and bands I learned about through the Beatles and because of them, especially, at the time, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged. And I know it comes off as cliche for anyone to claim the Beatles as their main interest, focus, and influence, but I don’t need to tell you that those 6 years from ‘63 to ‘69 by John Paul George and Ringo cannot be matched and from my own age 7-10, it was all that mattered. The sheer output; the quality outstanding; the contradicting musical forms within a singular work of art…it’s astounding. But this is worn territory. I wouldn’t so much grow out of it all as grow past it.

When I was into my teens, the whole world of contemporary indie music – mostly indie folk as it were – came into my senses. I lived at the library from the moment I could read, but those high school years were crucial. I would get 20 CDs at a time, go home, listen to all of them and discern which ones I liked, which ones I despised, and which ones stuck, and rip them and burn them onto blanks I kept in a binder. Those albums that stuck with me have outstayed their reproduced form in my mind. The idea that a love for music can live on post-physical media is how I sometimes judge an album’s worth…are the only things that matter to me displayed somehow? I like songs, sure, but it’s the arc of With the Beatles that pleased me in my first CD purchase post-cassette collection. What would I continue to remember? Who would I feel like I could emulate and hold stock? It wasn’t the Beatles. But it was a lot of other artists, whose voices weren’t the strongest, their words a bit more lyrical.

But Asheville…I was 19, already a 2-time college drop out, making and eating really delicious sandwiches every day, and coming home to play and write music. I was the right age to dive in head first. I wrote constantly. Songs, poems, longform prose. I showed nobody. Five years later would see me not only grow comfortable with other people listening to me sing my songs, bare my soul as it happens, release my every whim and just guess someone might hear it sometime. But back then I was almost secretive about it. I wasn’t as good as the Beatles yet. Who. could ever be? Still, I fully believed I could at least be a throwback to a past’s modernity, with nostalgia and hubris intertwined to feed the basin of a presumed society’s stomach, its pulse racing, its senses dulled, my pulse racing, but my senses enriched, enthralled. I would at some point realize I could own that concept; when I was 19 in Asheville, I was simply building a body of work. Yet the understanding would gain as much ground as it could against the sleek intoxication of a passion hung right.

It was in this house in Asheville living with my sister and 4-6 others depending on the month, that I would begin to experiment. With words, with music, with substances. Smoking weed was a given in the late-’00 mindset of a college-age dropout: If you have no job and no family to consider, smoking as much pot as possible is just about the next best thing to happiness. Even as I did that to excess, it was psilocybin that caught my attention. 

And this is where my point comes to land. I remember that night I first participated in that sacrament . I remember feeling the universe all around me, inside of me. I was everywhere and nowhere. But I was a lightning rod, I was sure of it. I would one day make music and literature and art like nothing to ever come before it. I was hearing life as a piece of music for the first time. For the first time, all my dreams came around and centered in front of me. I could do this. I am this. I strummed the major E chord until the stars came out.

Now, I don’t know if that night was the very first time I put on The Stage Names, and I don’t think it was, but it was the first time I really heard “Unless It’s Kicks”. That was the song, man. It was like nothing I’d ever heard and everything I’d ever liked. It rocked harder with an acoustic guitar than so many others who have failed to rock at all. It was suddenly and grippingly my anthem, and as I sat there on my chair in my very blue bedroom, listening intently to that whole LP, staring at a poster of a young Eric Clapton playing a Gibson Les Paul coming out of the picture and playing next to me, my entire future spread out before my eyes, and I could see myself with a cult following, at least a couple people dedicated to hearing my truth, and a few hundred songs I could be proud of. Hell, Will Sheff could do it. I could sing like him. Swagger begets a good performance. I understood.

In response to a purely and ethically gauged output of real words set to rock and roll diction, I became positive Well Sheff was the genius of our time. I could work toward his work. I could do a version of what he was doing. It wouldn’t matter if my voice wasn’t perfect. It just mattered that I was writing words and melodies that coincided. Just like everyone always who does it the right way. I don’t know why but even after 10+ years of heavy research, it took Will Sheff to show me what can pass as perfect in an imperfect world. 

That night in those conditions, surrounded in blue, haunted by the imprint of Eric Clapton and an 11 year old me only wanting to play “Layla,” feeling far too tall for the ceiling, Okkervil River became my one and only. Every day for the next 15 years, I have loved this band; Will Sheff, the pied piper of Indie Rock sleaze, the nerdy kid with glasses too big for his face who is secretly an expert in everything cool. Will Sheff the man and his music in turn laughably tossed off and intricately designed. Lyrics that tell one thousand stories per four minutes, an aesthetic both perfectly asymmetrical and highly intelligent. When a song screams that everything is a lie and won’t someone somewhere just fucking believe it with him here singing this song to you, about you, for you, please for christ’s sake just listen, it is almost too much to take in, but you must. Will Sheff and Okkervil River were playing rock and roll like it was meant to be. Quietly brilliant rock and roll. There was a confidence there that seemed almost unearned. A simple understanding. We can just do whatever we want. It’s easy. “Look,” he said. “I did it.”

Will Sheff became my hero. I don’t ever look forward to something more than when it’s something he’s doing. It’s just always so goddamn what I want to hear. He has grown out of rock and roll into a harmony somewhere between Antarctica’s desolation and California’s native sun. Incredible lyrics always. Melodies that rise and fall like the tides.

All this fandom is nothing without mentioning the new record, and I’m listening to it as I type this and it is still exactly what I want to hear, what I want to make. This time when it isn’t so much rock as roll. Words that could mean anything you want. Melodies that hook you. It’s what gives this mess some grace. 

And so as my first spin of Nothing Special, the new one, wraps up, it is only clear that Will Sheff has proven my point. Music exists beyond the lie. And this music? like everything he has ever made, it stands alone atop a binder built by passing generations, influencing a nerd with big glasses to reap the benefits of a local public library, memorizing the liner notes, taking in perfection, and remembering it post-CD collection. Still, I want to own every Will Sheff record. And do you know what? He deserves it.