Okkervil River Biography
I wrote our last record, Black Sheep Boy, in the middle of the winter in rural Indiana. While writing, I tried to dig into myself to pull out something squirming, unsettling, grotesque. When we recorded it, the band barely learned the songs before we went in to track because we wanted to keep aspects of our performance raw, even ugly.
For The Stage Names, I moved to Brooklyn and lived there for most of 2006. While working on these new songs, I realized I'd be skirting self-parody if I attempted to repeat my process for the last record. Plus, it didn't seem as fun. I've always been excited by reaching for things I risk failure in attempting, and I've always loved making slight, even arbitrary changes in my approach to each record in order to break habits. For the new record, the greater challenge seemed to be to reach outside of myself, to create something musically generous - playful even - with lyrics that leaven all the seriousness with jokes and bullshit and stuff I threw in just for fun. Fun was the watchword this time. Fun for everybody.
At the end of the year, I moved back to Texas to make the album. We rehearsed the songs every day for a month straight, coming at them several different ways and fine-tuning arrangements. Then we went into Austin's Wire Recording to cut basic tracks live. I played acoustic guitar, Brian Cassidy played electric guitar, Jonathan Meiburg played piano, Patrick Pestorius played bass, Travis Nelsen played drums and Scott Brackett played coronet and some other keyboards. We recorded overdubs at Brian Beattie's Wonder Chamber studio, and mixing - along with more overdubs - was done with Brian and Jim Eno of Spoon at Spoon's Public Hi-Fi studio. Where Black Sheep Boy had an archaic vibe, we wanted The Stage Names to feel briskly contemporary. Where Black Sheep Boy had been serious, this time there was a general frivolity to the proceedings. We wanted to scoop out all the weight of the songs so that they could float. And we wanted them, above all, to feel like a gift.
I grew up in a tiny town in New Hampshire, population 500 - one street, one store, two television channels. My parents taught at a boarding school there; the school put my family up in one of the dorms, and every night we'd eat dinner in the cafeteria. There wasn't really a lot to do. I started playing music with my friends Zach Thomas and Seth Warren because we didn't play sports and we couldn't go out nights because there was nowhere to go. For fun, we'd start bands that lasted about two months, then lost one member, gained another, and changed names. We'd set up four-tracks in basements and upstairs bedrooms and make a whole terrible album in one night.
I went away to college in Minnesota and was puttering along towards an English and Creative Writing degree, trying to figure out how to apply any of what I was doing to a career, and wondering why I wasn't having any fun. Then I made a momentous decision - I was going to forget all about trying to have a professional career, I was going to start a rock and roll band and work crappy day jobs and I was going to be a failure on purpose! So I called Seth up and convinced him to move to Austin with me to play music. Austin seemed as good a place as any, and Zach already lived there. I drove down in the summer of 1998 and we all lived in one house together, rehearsing every night while we worked by day at video stores and bookstores.
We didn't really have many connections in Austin and it took a long time to get a show, but after a couple years things started to get rolling enough so that we could play out around town fairly regularly. Shortly after we'd added Jonathan as a fourth member (I'd met him when we'd played with his band on the roof of a burger joint), we got accepted into the South by Southwest music festival. There we met local producer Brian Beattie, who offered to record a proper record for us in exchange for redesigning his web site.
Jagjaguwar released Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See a year later and we started cobbling together tours in the United States, sleeping on floors, lunching on cold cuts, playing for gas money. The record sold well enough that we could afford to record our next album - Down the River of Golden Dreams - over a month at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio.
Down the River of Golden Dreams gave us more touring opportunities, and it was hard to turn down getting paid, no matter how little, to play music. I quit my job, put all my stuff in storage and spent most of the next two years on tour. At about this time, both original members left the band. There were no hard feelings; they were just tired. They wanted to have homes and families and real jobs, to stay in one place for awhile. But the more unstable my situation became, the more I threw myself into it. I tried to put some sense of that instability into Black Sheep Boy.
Over two years of touring around the world for Black Sheep Boy, we eventually settled on a new lineup. My friend Travis had been playing drums in bar bands since he was 15; he offered to fill in and ended up becoming permanent. Patrick, a friend of his, joined on his recommendation. We picked up Scott in a small Northern California town where his friend had booked us a coffee shop gig; Brian was a guitar teacher who just sent us an e-mail. These people have become my best friends. The Stage Names represents the first Okkervil River album made solely by this core lineup - a lineup that has grown close through intensive touring, playing in a room together, trying to hit every note (or not hit every note) like it's the first and last thing they ever wanted to say.
This is my favorite album we've done. I think of it as a message to myself, from myself, to keep going. And I also think of it as an expression of love and alliance with people who kept going even when they knew it was all over.