A Story of Okkervil River
(As described on jound.com)
Seth went to my school in our town of 500 people in New Hampshire. My first encounter with him was sitting next to him on a school bus. He was eating Handi-Snacks and had clear braces, so the artificial cheese was all caught up in there with the crumby crackers. He and Alex Arcone and Chris Kimball transformed our tiny school into a theater of the surreal. They would crawl across the classroom floor mid-lecture to touch the social studies teacher lightly on the wingtip. “Loose pause!” one of them would say, and the group would collapse limp. “I’d like to tell the other teachers what you’re doing, but I don’t know what it is you’re doing,” said one teacher to Seth as he pushed him against the wall in fury.
Post-graduation, kids could either go on to the private high school in town or the public school one town over. My parents taught at the private school, so I went there. All my friends from Junior High went to the public school. Together, my friends and I used to taunt and torment the other kids in our eigth grade class. Wendy Cushman threw a desk at Jeff Slayton in blind rage at his constant taunts. I was just as bad, or worse. The things I did to other kids should never be forgiven. When I was about to make that teary-eyed leap from Mike Licks’s house to end it all, I decided not to and to instead escape. It was into Seth’s group at the new high school that I escaped.
Everything changed. I was failing out of school, as usual, but I was elated. We irritated our peers and alienated our teachers. Reality, for maybe the one and only time, tore open and took awhile to close. Anything was possible. Anything was probable. The world I saw wrinkled up on each side of the gash that was reality was distorted hilariously. Teachers bobbed their bald heads and gobbled on about “responsibility,” while joy was so joyful I thought I would burst and pain was so painful I thought I would drown. I met Zach during Soccer practice. He admitted to Dan MacEacharn that he had never kissed a girl. Born in Texas, he had come from living in Saudi Arabia and carried tapes of the Fine Young Cannibals in funny foreign cases. On long bus rides back and forth from practices and class trips, Zach revealed to us an immense power for storytelling. Friends called him “fashion cut” because of his lackluster clothing, but the most popular concubine of the school athletes loved him with a deep and sincere heart, and once invited him to spend the long weekend in her parentless house. “I was afraid that once I was there all the hockey players would come out of the woodwork and shave my balls,” he says. Instead he spent the long weekend chopping wood and made twenty dollars.
I sat in the woods for hours. I listened to nothing but the Incredible String Band for a whole year. I became convinced the world would end in 1995. I became unconvinced of that. Seth said one day the world would shake us all like dog water. He later got arrested for drawing a stick figure picture of a bankrobbery in Mascoma Savings, but was released because he promised to take lessons with the police sketch artist. It felt like nobody had ever been alive before. Friends around us sank into delirium. My father asked that the school not expel me as a personal favor. Meanwhile we were making masks and holding secret ceremonies and trying to chase God out from beind the houseplants, beautiful and just as pretentious as we. And we played music under a thousand different band names. The first song I wrote was called “Gazpacho” and was laughed at by all my friends behind my back. Inspired by my efforts, Zach picked up a guitar and became better than me in a five minutes. Our first band was “The False Dmitri” and never had a gig. Later, I formed a punk band called “Nine Men’s Morris.” We played 3 gigs. By then I had already become a tremendously arrogant person. Seth went to college and India, over and over again. Zach went back to Texas and, at the University, followed an academic strategy that he described as “Don’t go to class. If you do go to class, have forgotten that there was going to be a test that day.” I went to Minneapolis and attended classes like “The Sociology of Food,” “The Mind In Sleep,” and “The History of God,” while writing songs and having nervous breakdowns that went entirely unnoticed by my girlfriend. Zach and Seth and I reunited in New Hampshire for a few days in the summer and formed a band called “My Wet,” that existed for less than twenty-four hours and played one glorious gig at an open mic night.
College droned on. Each of my nervous breakdowns fell away when I made the most important decision of my life: to be a total failure. A professional failure. I relocated to Austin, as did Seth, and Okkervil River was born. The name comes from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and it’s a real river outside of St. Petersburg. At our first gig, they misspelled our name as “Okkerut River.” Later, Electric Lounge advertised us as”Occerville River.” The failure had begun. We were elated.
Okkervil River: NPR Music
Gigless ciphers, we nonetheless retired to our friend Jeff Hoskins’ downtown Austin studio to set to tape our First Major Statement to the world. We emerged a few days later and presented the product of our labors, entitled Stars Too Small to Use, in the hands that stretched out beneath our tearstained eyes. The record struck the earth with such force and precision that it resounded against the surrounding sky like a clapper in a gigantic bell, and we gained one new fan. We promptly added him to the band.
A geography/ornithology student fresh-faced from a Southern Episcopal college and a summer job as an intern for videos on The Nashville Network, Jonathan impressed us by having the clear, strong voice of a choirboy and a working command of many different instruments, as well as musical chops made keen by hours and hours of laboriously practicing David Gilmour solos. He later recounted to me the epiphanic moment when he’d first seen Okkervil River live: “it was the worst thing I’d ever heard, but I could tell you were doing it on purpose!” His dubious compliments, contagious enthusiasm, ornithological koans, and Prince-Myshkin-meets-Pete-Townsend onstage persona infused our crew with a new levity and bravado, and we were heartened.
We set about recording our second album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, that following summer, working with production mastermind Brian Beattie. It was during this time that Seth took leave of Okkervil River’s immediate orbit, to live a simple life in Berkeley California with his girlfriend and his tablas right by. Undaunted, we added excellent postermaker and friend Mark Pedini and later sticktwirling Swearing at Motorists cohort, Cheap Trick archivist, and all-around stellar fellow Travis Nelsen to the band, tentatively as our touring drummer. Travis would later become Okkervil’s full-time drummer.
In February of 2003 we went to visit Seth on the sunny West Coast and record Okkervil album number three – Down the River of Golden Dreams – at Tiny Telephone studio. The whole process took us about three and a half weeks of long days and short nights that tried my sanity, made me enemies, compromised my vocal chords, made me a wanted man several times over on the mean streets of Liberty City, and caused me to become rather intimately acquainted with the back of our tourvan. It was worth it, though, as I had the matchless achievement of – with the assistance of Jonathan and three pots of coffee – writing four string parts in two hours. Tried by fire, Jonathan and I drove home through denuded hills, swirling windfarms, and perhaps the most glorious sunshower West Texas has ever proffered visiting eyes.
And then came endless touring. I moved out of my house, we added the phenomenal Mr. Nelsen to the band permanently, and Okkervil left home. Forever. I became more and more of a stranger to the town I had loved. Visits to Austin shrunk down into a show, maybe a burger at Casino beforehand or a breakfast at Polvo’s the next day if I was lucky, and a trip to my storage space to pay my always-delinquent rent in a handful of ones and inhale the odor of my possessions wafting out of the dark boxes. At some point along the seemingly endless routing we decided to add multinstrumental prodigy, alumnus of the great and recently-deceased Denton band Little Grizzly, and professed street racing enthusiast Howard “Archie” / “Hodre” / “Bro Diddley” Draper to the band because Zach needed to stay home in expectancy of his first child (who turned out to be a boy named Graham Thomas) and we needed someone to advise us on the intimate biography of Hans Nordelius, the relative merits of the various widely-available toilet paper grades, and the finer points of cooking on van manifolds. Howard fit all of these requirements, so we dragged him in.
Since then it’s been touring, recording on the sly, trips to local aviaries when possible, days of laughter, nights of overindulgence, mornings of regret, miles and miles of inexhaustibly breathtaking America whipping past our windows so fast we can’t process it, great and terrible meals in such quantity and confusing variety we can’t remember them, evenings spent in the beds of pricelined hotels or on floors of cat-litter-strewn linoleum, driving, driving, playing, driving, o blow, ye winds, hi ho.