Austin indie rockers Okkervill River’s new album The Silver Gymnasium, their seventh, just might herald the return of the storytelling singer-songwriter.
Singer-songwriter Will Sheff is fond of concept albums and introspective, intelligent lyrics. The Silver Gymnasium is about his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire. There is a canon of songs by artists aching to get out of their little burgs and native cities (“One Story Town” by Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run” come to mind) and move on to something better. But this is an album from a mature songwriter looking back on his life and remembering his hometown fondly. In fact, Sheff began to write about Meriden not long after leaving it.
Meriden is a tiny rural village that had a population of less than 500 in the 1980s, a little blip on state highway NH Route 120, and slightly over two hours from Boston. I was unable to find anyone from New Hampshire who had have ever heard of it. It’s home to an expensive (nearly $50,000 a year) private co-ed boarding school, Kimball Union Academy, where Sheff’s parents taught and Sheff and his early bandmates were students.
Pitchfork describes Sheff as “one of indie rock’s most ambitious thinkers: a romantic anti-romantic weighing highly literate lyrics against an endlessly bleak worldview.” He sings about leaving hometown friends behind to go away to college, adolescent longing, local landscape, and artifacts of ‘80s pop culture: Atari video games, cassettes, VCR’s, and Roald Dahl books. Influences like Jackson Browne, Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Tom Petty are woven throughout the songs. “On a Balcony” could have come from an early Springsteen album.
Veteran producer John Agnello has worked with artists such as Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, Andrew WK, Patti Smith, and Son Volt. He also mixed the ‘80s FM hit “Your Love” by The Outfield. “Your Love” is seldom played now, but that song saturated the airwaves during the summer of 1985. Sheff wanted a similar sound for The Silver Gymnasium. The guitar on “Where the Spirit Left Us,” “Stay Young,” and “All the Time Every Day” is extremely reminiscent of The Outfield.
Agnello told me recently:
In reality, not many people can tell a story these days like Will. His lyrics are top notch and he has the ability of telling a story while adding a twist at the end. His lyrics on “Friend” are a perfect example. He sings about someone who he’s not friends with but by the end of the lyric the whole emotion has turned completely around. Super poignant. But there are other examples. “Down, Down The Deep River” is an epic journey through his childhood with the great recurring line, “But it’s not alright. It’s not even close to being alright” which leads into each chorus. Simple, yet devastating.
These songs also really stand up on their own. From, “It’s My Season” right through, “All The Time, Every Day” there is a cohesion that doesn’t suffer from separation anxiety from the rest of the record.
Artist William Schaff’s drawing of a map of Meriden, NH circa 1986, used as the gatefold sleeve for ‘The Silver Gymnasium.’ There is an interactive version here:
Will Sheff answered a few questions about his small town experiences and musical education via e-mail this week.
Kimberly Bright: Did you feel that you fit in pretty well in Meriden as a teenager or were you eager to leave the place when you went off to college in Austin?
Will Sheff: My childhood was kind of a weird and specific case. I grew up in a kind of rural paradise that was completely isolated. The woods were my playground and everything felt safe and crime-free. There were two TV channels in the whole town and our dog would sleep all day in the middle of Main Street because no cars ever came down the road. At the same time, I was a very sickly kid and when I was very young a couple of my physical ailments had almost killed me; I grew up feeling very fragile and very much immersed in my own inner world. When I started going to school, this became a liability before too long. I was this weird spazzy kid with coke-bottle glasses and completely messed-up teeth and severe asthma, and I had never been hunting and wasn’t into sports and didn’t know how to relate to other kids and kind of had no social skills to speak of. I got picked on constantly, got into a lot of fights, was called “faggot” fairly regularly, was spit on. I fucking dreaded to go to school. Around junior high I made the conscious decision to remake my identity and join the bullies - and I somehow made it work! - but becoming a bully myself made me feel even worse than being bullied had. I relished the chance to meet new people when my graduating class split off two go to two different local high schools.
In high school I was picked on just as bad or worse, but I fell into a group of like-minded artsy kids like me: theater nerds and kids of who were obsessed with music and kids who weren’t all there mentally and kids who wanted to be writers. And I even had a small handful of teachers who took my ambitions seriously. One of them, Simon Harrold, who has long since passed away, used to have me swing by to grab anything I wanted from his bookshelf; he’d advise me on what to read next and had me reading Joyce, Faulkner, Proust, Dylan Thomas and Laurence Sterne. I barely understood what I was reading but I loved it and I loved that he respected me enough to give it to me. I’d bring him writing I’d be working on and we would sit in his living room and drink home-brewed beer he made and he would chain-smoke and give me very honest and no-bullshit adult advice about my writing. So even though I was still getting a pretty hard time from everyone at my school I think I developed a “fuck you” attitude rather than the beat-down one I’d felt when I was younger. I left Meriden really angry and really ready to do art for a living somehow. At the same time, I always knew I loved the town and that it was a special place, and I was already writing about it even then.
Kimberly Bright: Did you keep in touch with anyone in Meriden after you moved to Austin?
Will Sheff: I didn’t keep track of a lot of the people in Meriden. The person I stayed in touch with the longest was actually one of the kids who had done a lot of bullying in my junior high school, who in his very early 20s began writing poetry and then became a practicing Buddhist. But eventually I fell out of touch with even him. My parents had moved to Massachusetts - my father had gotten a new job at a Catholic university—and when I went back to visit them it was to a strange town where I didn’t know anyone. Meriden was so far out of the way and not near anything, and it became kind of exclusively locked in my memory. The longer I went without going back and the longer I lived in more prosaic or depressing urban and suburban places the more I started to question whether Meriden had ever even really been the way I remembered it. During the making of I Am Very Far I drove up very briefly and didn’t tell anyone I was coming or say hi to anyone. I just kind of lingered around the town like a weird creep. The town has changed a bit - more rich people have moved in, and there are a couple of depressing prefab neighborhoods here and there now. A little tiny bit of the local flavor has bled out ever so slightly, but in many respects it is very much the same, kind of locked in time. It was amazing to see the town again and apprehend that it was actually a real place and looked the way I remembered it. It really opened the emotional and creative floodgates for me. I kind of got wrenched away from the world of the I Am Very Far material and into this very deep and primal place, and every day I felt like I was falling deeper in. I think I made The Silver Gymnasium (and The Lovestreams record) as a way to exorcise some of the painful, almost morbid nostalgia I was feeling, because I felt like I was going to drown in it.
Kimberly Bright: I was wondering what media you had access to out there. How did you learn about new music in such an isolated town? What magazines did you read? What radio stations did you listen to?
Will Sheff: As I said, in Meriden we got two reliable TV stations—the local PSB and NBC affiliates. We kind of got a fuzzy version of ABC on days that the weather was good. To this day I don’t know what people are talking about when they make reference to 80s shows that aired on CBS. There were two main radio stations I listened to; one was a nearby college station whose programming was too eclectic for me to stay with the channel for long, although I do remember that that’s the first place I heard Squeeze’s “Pulling Mussels From a Shell” and the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun,” and that the college station would run the wonderful New Age program “Music From the Hearts of Space” in the evening, which I still have tremendous affection for. The main station I listened to, though, was Q106, which was the standard-issue station that played all the hits and had the cheery jingle where a bunch of ladies sing the call letters and end up on a high sustained note. That’s where I heard all top 40 from Joe Jackson to Deniece Williams. Every Sunday my dad would drive us forty minutes to church and I would study Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown. And then there was my parents’ record collection - Dylan and Motown and a ton of soft rock like Loggins and Messina, Hall and Oates, and Dan Fogelberg. Hall and Oates was my favorite band in the world in the fifth grade. I wasn’t one of those kids who had a cool older brother, so I didn’t know about punk rock except images of guys with safety pins through their noses in Mad magazine, which miraculously got delivered to my village general store. I definitely knew about metal from unsupervised evenings at the trailers of my more hesh friends, but not punk really. In high school, I got really into whatever random stuff fell in my lap that resonated with me. I really desperately loved old Irish ballads and started buying CDs by bands like De Dannan. My friends used to tease me about that mercilessly, but I couldn’t stop. At around the same time I fell madly in love with the Incredible String Band, and that was fun because in a pre-Internet age you had to track down whatever records you could get on a long protracted treasure hunt to see a guy who taught pottery in Keene or to rendezvous with some friend’s stoned uncle. A very very cool burnout-y guitar player who transferred in from another school turned me on to the Velvet Underground. I thought he was the coolest dude I ever met. Somehow I learned about Big Star and bought Sister Lovers. I can’t remember how that happened.
Kimberly Bright: Do you identify as a New England songwriter in the way that listeners associate Springsteen and Bon Jovi with New Jersey, Dave Alvin with California, Mellencamp with Indiana, etc., or do you now consider yourself a Texan songwriter?
Will Sheff: I have never, ever considered myself a Texan songwriter. This is not to say I don’t like Texas, because there’s a lot to love, but my move to Austin was pretty arbitrary. I was trying to convince my high school friends to reunite our old band and the bass player lived in Austin, so we all moved there. I’ve never really been able to shake the “alt-country twangy singer songwriter” title ever since, and it drives me nuts. I’m a Yankee. Not necessarily cool to say, but take it or leave it. I love New Hampshire in a way I can’t fully articulate. I know it’s an imperfect place (many people don’t even really have associations with it or associate it with Vermont, which is an insult!), but it’s my place where I grew up and where almost all of the joy and suffering I experienced up until the age of eighteen took place, and it’s beautiful and genuine and even though I went away for a long time every single time I come back to NH I feel like it remembers me and is glad to have me back. I wouldn’t say a New England songwriter - I would say a New Hampshire songwriter.
Will Sheff and childhood friend Aaron Johnson performing Sheff’s new material at small town New Hampshire open mic nights this summer, below
“It Was My Season,” filmed at the historic Plainfield Town Hall, in New Hampshire, below: