takes its name from a body of water in Saint Petersburg, but more explicitly from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. "It's about a guy who's an aging fan of an old singer," said the group's front man,
. "He meets her and she's nothing like he imagined her. It's a total disillusionment kind of thing."
The theme of illusion (or delusion) versus reality runs deep through "The Stage Name," the newest of five discs put out by this New Hampshire-spawned, now Austin, Texas-based indie band - and one of the most compelling rock releases I've encountered all year.
In its edgy, insightful lyrics and lofty musical ambitions, with Sheff's tremulous vocals commanding attention up front, the project seems in synch with a lot of the music that's been coming out of Omaha, Neb., and Montreal.
But Okkervil River has been around longer than the likes of Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire. So maybe the "sounds like" comparisons should go in the other direction?
Okkervil River is playing at Johnny Brenda's on Monday night. While the show is sold out, this fan was still anxious to get Sheff on the line to walk us through some of the album's themes and motivations, extracting backstage insights even showgoers won't get to enjoy.
Q: So I sense a lot of "outsider looking in" perspective on songs like "Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe." Are you talking about the confusion of reality and fiction imposed by pop-culture that seems to grip a lot of people in modern society?
A: What you're saying, that people imitate movies, is obviously very real. Look at the relationship of rap mythology to movies like "Scarface" and "The Godfather" - how much of this stuff does come from movies. We have it in rock, too. My whole image of what rock should be came from the Rolling Stones documentary "C***sucker Blues" and [the bio-pic about Sid Vicious] "Sid and Nancy." I was a real sheltered kid from a small town, so that's how I learned about punk rock.
I think everybody on some level wished their love life would perform the way a romantic comedy does. I know I wouldn't complain. You're taught to expect and want these things, but it's better when you realize these things are dreams. They're there for a good reason, though, so we can fantasize about being in that position.
Q: And what are we to make of "Plus One," your playful song which name-drops but "one ups" songs from the past, from "51 Ways to Leave Your Lover" to "TVC16"?
A: I'm asking if culture is tapped out. How can we make something new when everything's been done? I like the idea of being really full, satisfied and yet you still think, "Oh, what's the harm in just one more tiny wafer?" But of course, the guy who does that in "Monty Python's Meaning of Life" explodes.
The other thing about "TVC15," that [David Bowie] song deals with our whole life being mediated by television. . . . That was during the "Station to Station" sessions, when he was locked up in a mansion in Hollywood, freaking out, writing on the walls, wrecking the joint.
Q: You demeaningly refer to yourself as a "mid-level band" in "Unless It's Kicks" and also talk in less than glamorous tones about the lifestyle in "You Can't Hold the Hand of a Rock and Roll Band." Is that all part of the same big picture?
A: I like any artwork, novel, music or movie which gives you insights into how things tick. Like that new Jay-Z song ["Blue Magic"] where he's talking about the production of crack. I don't know or really care how it's chemically made. But there's something about the cold authority in his voice and narrative that really turns me on. It's like this weird view of the world. For our part, the truth of the matter is we're these eight dirty dudes traveling in the van. I like portraying the nitty-gritty reality: the glamorous, the horrible, the sleazy, the triumph. I've gotten a little taste of all of that.
Q: "Savannah Smiles," about reading the diary of a child and learning some dark secrets, offers another kind of discovery. Do you have a kid at home?
A: No, on that one I really wanted to jump outside my brain. The tune has a sweetness, a musical box nostalgia to it, and also a real ache you can't medicate.
Q: And I'm really taken with the album closer, "John Allyn Smith Sails," which talks about a guy contemplating his own demise and then segues melodically into the tune from "Sloop John B," which has that chipper tone about it but is a really bleak story, when you come to think about it. Any personal thoughts of suicide?
A: Not really. I remember when I was younger and a kid in school killed himself. We had a teacher who interrupted class, who went into an emotionally unstable monologue, saying, "He couldn't have killed himself because he seemed so happy." Any after-school special will tell you how you can feel joy and release at the contemplation of ending it all. I wanted to capture a little joy in that frightening thing. What happens after you die? What's it like to be in that position? To me, a big part of songwriting is imaginatively going somewhere you're not allowed to go, and putting yourself in that world anyway. Then you can wake up in three minutes and 30 seconds and take it off and you're back in the real world. *