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Okkervil River’s Will Sheff On How To Market Yourself As An Indie Rock Band In 2013

Games, immersive web-based maps, and videos that turn the singer's childhood into an interactive experience are not the first things you'd expect from a folky indie rock band—and that's why Okkervil River is doing them.

Of all the musicians to express admiration for the Gene Simmons approach to marketing, Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff—whose band released its seventh album of sincere, literary-tinged folk-rock on September 3rd—is probably among the least likely. While Simmons has built his band into a marketing empire that will live on long after his body is in the ground (presumably in a Kiss casket), the indie rock world from which Okkervil River emerged tends to shun merchandising that goes beyond limited-edition colored vinyl, hand-screened posters, and the occasional T-shirt. Your own line of condoms? You’d have to be Daft Punk to pull that off.

But when Sheff talks about the various ways that he and his band have taken to promoting the new album, The Silver Gymnasium, Simmons is one of the first names he drops. Also on his list? George Lucas and Andy Warhol, two titans of 20th-century pop culture who were never shy about mixing more than a little commerce with their art—and Sheff is following in those footsteps with the Silver Gymnasium campaign, which includes a video game, an interactive map of his hometown, and a mind-bending video that blends gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations from Plainfield, New Hampshire, with photos from his own childhood in that town of 2,300. Like bold marketing, the cult of personality is an important part of building a Warhol- or Simmons-style career. So how do you balance your Gene Simmons ambitions with your more sincere aesthetic? Here’s what Sheff learned from the experience.

Know why you’re doing it

A crappy reason to make a video game to promote your new folk-rock album? Because you can. A good reason? Because your album is about nostalgia, and you’ve got the ability to make a game that captures the mid '80s style eight-bit games that you grew up on, like Maniac Mansion. And, creating a game is a good way to make the immersive world of the album something that your fans can relate to.

"I grew up on video games, like any kid of the 1980s, and I always felt like sort of an omnivore about culture and art," Sheff says. "I always felt like there was something really fascinating about the way that video games kind of scraped up against your dream-space. There’s something really potentially creative, and potentially dream-like about them, and I wanted to exploit that. I wanted to exploit the ability they have to enter into a dream logic, and touch upon us a sort of surrealism."

This is how Sheff talks about art, generally—with big ideas and weighty concepts that attempt to erase whatever divide may exist between pop culture and folk culture, or art and advertising. He seems comfortable with it. "There certainly is an element of me making the video game, and the map, and the film, that is promoting this record," he’s clear to say. "But I think that anybody who has experienced any of those things—I think that they’ll say that it’s really clear that my heart is in it."

Don’t worry about whether or not it’s "on-brand" for your band

Sheff bristles when I suggest that a band that takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya, and built its fanbase on sad, pretty songs about complicated people, is an unlikely candidate to promote its new record with a video game. When I suggest that it’s something I’d be more inclined to expect from someone like Daft Punk, he’s quick to point a few things out. "I don’t really see a division between a guy who plays an acoustic guitar and a guy who plays video games," he says. "That seems like kind of a rather silly idea to me—but people have these associations in their heads." And, when it comes to Okkervil River versus Daft Punk, specifically, he finds the distinctions even more artificial. "You listen to this new Daft Punk record, most of what you’re hearing is real instruments played by real players. There’s any number of folky bands where, when you listen to them, you’re listening more to ProTools than to some great player."

Sheff is interested in finding ways to agitate against musical-cultural assumptions—you won’t find him putting on a porkpie hat and a vest to play at hobo-chic, anyway. "People, when they think of folk culture, have images in their head of purity or authenticity, or something like that. I don’t really think about that," he says. "I think that folk culture is an older version of pop culture. People get caught up in the trappings of acoustic instruments—well, electric instruments didn’t exist during a period of the great fluorescence of folk art. If they had, we would be going back and listening to electronic dance music from 1927, instead of delta blues."

When you look at it through that lens, making video games instead of sitting in boxcars strumming banjos is actually more authentic than the trappings that some contemporary musicians (Sheff didn’t specifically name Mumford and Sons, but feel free to consider them as you read this next quote) use to signify their authenticity.

"The reason that we like Dock Boggs is not because of the clothes that he wore and it’s not actually really because of the instrument that he played," Sheff says. "It’s because of an essentially brilliant thing about him as a musician, and that thing is not bound up in a cultural trapping. Trying to be like Dock Boggs—if they even know who he is, which I doubt—by putting on their hats and their clothes is a complete dead-end to my mind. The idea should be to respond to the spirit that you hear in them. I hear a lot of pop in that music."

When you start marketing, start marketing like an artist

"I'm really fascinated in marketing being artistic," Sheff says. "I think that there's something inherently sinister about the idea of marketing being artistic, but at the same time the sinister quality of it is part of what excites me about it." Sheff cites Simmons, Warhol, and Star Wars—all touchstones of a 1980s childhood, which ties the marketing influences to the theme of the record. In the circles Sheff runs in, marketing might carry sinister connotations, but creativity trumps all.

"If you look at Star Wars, fans were able to buy into a whole set of imagery—toys and belt buckles and tie-in movies and tie-in comic books. On one level, they’re really cheap and disposable and crass," Sheff says, "But on another level, when you’re marketing that stuff to kids, it fires their imaginations in a really specific way, to where it doesn’t really matter if it’s crass. It doesn’t really matter if it’s cynical, but they don’t engage with it crassly or cynically, and it becomes a part of this big, rich, enveloping world. You see this in Japan a lot, too—a lot of the time, toys that have cartoons and comic books and all of these tie-ins. I’ve always been really fascinated by that."

In a way, Sheff has turned the marketing of The Silver Gymnasium into an experience that matches the tone of the album—no mean feat, but that’s what makes the campaign work. "Part of the nature of this record is about nostalgia, and somewhat about the way that kids’ brains interact with pop culture," Sheff explains. "This record felt like a good record to completely go whole-hog on that."

The trick, in other words, is to know when your marketing ideas dovetail with your artistic ideals. That’s what separates an artist from a pitchman.

"I’ve been wanting to make a video game to promote the band before we even learned how to pop a record out," he admits. "I’ve always been really fascinated by when an experience is just completely curated. Look at the legendary tour that David Bowie did when he put out Station to Station—that’s a really legendary moment in Bowie lore, and everything about that tour, from the way the tour programs looked, to the way that the lighting was done, to the way that Bowie dressed, to the way that the sets were sequenced, to the volume that they were playing at. It was all beautifully, artfully put together. Bowie’s a real high-water mark for that. But to me, in the world that we live in now, there’s an opportunity to do things like that. There’s an opportunity to create this whole enveloping universe."

[Image: Flickr user _FXR]

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