Read State: Will Sheff of Okkervil River
Welcome to “Read State,” a recurring TM Daily Post feature in which we ask noteworthy Texans—from writers and singers to athletes and politicians—what they’re reading. Today we bring you the reading habits of Will Sheff, longtime Austinite (and current Brooklynite) and lead singer and songwriter of the indie rock band Okkervil River, whose latest album, The Silver Gymnasium, was released in September.
Because of the way my schedule tends to work, I don’t really have “average days.” When I’m at home in Brooklyn I read on the subway on the way to my writing/recording space, to kind of get my mind ready to work. Usually I’m reading something intended to help with the project I’m working on at the moment, and it’s most likely to be fiction or poetry. When I’m traveling with the band I read in stolen moments, most often at soundcheck while I’m waiting around. Usually I read more page-turner style books because it’s easy to stay focused on them (detective fiction is a favorite tour read for me, and I also love biographies). When I’m traveling by myself I’m unlikely to read at all because I’m usually either driving or working or sleeping. If I have spare time while traveling by myself it’s usually while I’m eating, and then I might read something on Instapaper, like some more long-form journalistic stuff.
I resisted reading from a screen for a long time before giving in. I still feel a little weird about reading from a screen, but the reality is that when I’m trying to travel light—like on tour—it’s a lot easier to read on my tablet or my phone because I don’t have to pack seven books in my luggage, which is what I used to do. Books are heavy, and lugging around a bag full of books is a drag. I miss passing books around with other band members on tour, but I don’t miss always having a bent-up crumpled book underfoot in the van along with all the water bottles and travel pillows and apples and bananas and tambourines that are always rattling around. When I’m at home I’m more likely to read a physical book. Physical books feel so glamorous to me now.
I like reading before bed because it’s easier to fall asleep that way, but only it if it’s a real book; staring at a glowing screen at 3AM is way more likely to keep you awake than help you nod off. Sometimes I glance at my phone right when I wake up but that’s a bad habit I’m trying to break. The best thing to do first thing in the morning is to work for 45 minutes to an hour. I find I’m very clear-headed at that time and I’ve just been in the dream-world and so I’m thinking a little more creatively maybe. So I try to spend that time working.
I wish I had more time to read, period. The reality is that most of my waking hours are spent trying to stay on deadline for whatever projects I have coming up. I feel guilty when I read because I know I’m endangering a project. I think fiction is the most valuable thing to read. Nonfiction is fun but it’s only an illusion that you learn more about life from nonfiction. I think fiction teaches you so much more about human psychology and enriches and strengthens your imagination and your inner world.
Some of the fiction writers I think I always kind of keep in my mind when I’m working are Borges, Raymond Chandler, Isaac Babel, Chaucer, Faulkner, Barthelme, Mikhail Bulgakov, Henry Miller, Nabokov. These are some of the guys I guess I always kind of confer with in my head. With journalists, there are film, music and TV critics where I kind of enjoy their point of view or their style, but not many that I read obsessively. It seems to me that music and film criticism aren’t what they once were. I think Lester Bangs hit a high-water mark for music criticism but he’s one of the those writers that maybe did more harm than good in that he gave several generations of male bozos the clearance to make everything they write all about themselves. I like when a critic either has an entertaining prose style or something meaningful to say, and both of those things seem kind of rare. There are definitely lots of columnists I read semi-regularly though, because I love TV and movies and I love reading peoples’ opinions and getting worked up about them. I avoid a lot of music criticism because I feel like everybody’s afraid of looking like a snob so they devote all this ridiculous serious analysis to these cheesy popmeisters now and I can only read so many thinkpieces about Miley Cyrus before I get indigestion.
Like anyone, I get sucked in by stupid sensationalistic web news. It’s embarrassing. I’ll look at my phone to answer an email and before I know it I’m reading some crap about some celebrity or something and getting all caught up in it and then I realize I don’t even know who the hell this person is. There’s a trend with web news now where if something terrible happens—there’s some awful video of someone being decapitated or some actress having a public meltdown or someone’s leaked picture from their phone or something – basically every site feels like they have to link to it even if it’s morally icky because they so desperately need the pageviews. I try not to give them those pageviews, even if I feel the same morbid curiosity as everyone else. If there’s some footage or article or whatever that seems to be objectively bad for the overall moral dignity of the human race or whatever I’ll avoid it because I don’t want to be part of the problem.
This past month I have barely read anything at all. Our tour began a month or so ago and I have spent almost every free moment working on the live show and the Silver Gymnasium video game and this film project. In spare hours I’ve pecked a way at a book my assistant director on this film recommended called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. He basically recommended it because he felt Cline and I share a brain in terms of the shared reference points between Cline’s book and all my Silver Gymnasium projects. I haven’t finished the book yet but he’s right – it’s weird and uncanny, like one of of us was cribbing off the other. Fun book though. I haven’t met any adults that have heard of it but all the kids on the film project knew all about this book. They’d all read it. So weird that all these kids who weren’t alive in the 80s are being coerced into fetishizing that time now. Besides that, most of what I’ve been reading has been setlists, business emails, and interview questions.
Top image via Flickr | NS Newsflash