THE BELIEVER: You’ve said before how much you’re inspired by soul music, and that really rings true with what you’re saying now. Because soul music has that kind of stumbling around, saying stupid lines about things you really mean, and hoping to fall into something true.
WILL SHEFF: Look at a song like “Please, Please, Please,” the first James Brown single from 1956, where the lyrics are like: “Please please please please please please please don’t go yah no I love you so I just want to say I I I I I…” It doesn’t need to be some dumb Shakespeare sonnet set to music: it’s an outpouring of emotion. Songwriting is an emotional medium, and rock and roll is an emotional medium. When you listen to something like Otis Redding or even Sam Cooke, in a sense, you know in that Live at the Harlem Square Club recording…
BLVR: Yeah, I love that album.
WS: Sam Cooke and Otis Redding are people that brought this tremendous amount of intelligence and used it to shape this tremendous amount of emotion that they had. And the result is this sculpture, with an insane, wild, passionate emotion that has been very carefully sculpted by a really ordered, controlled thought process.
I don’t pretend to be one twentieth as good as Sam Cooke on his worst night, but that’s a real inspiration for me.
BLVR: You talk a lot about the Incredible String Band.
WS: I think that’s another example of pretentiousness: they’re so pretentious, but it works for me because they believe it. Robin Williamson sings like he is going to part the seas and calm the waters and bring the rain from the skies. He believes it. And it’s such a stupid idea—but believing makes it so, and I think that’s the thing about pop music. It’s a touchingly idiotic, thorough, complete dedication to the dumbest ideas that there are. As people we’re dumb, stumbling idiots—and rock and roll is one of the only art forms that fully cops to that and revels in it.
BLVR: I like what you’re saying about pop music and dumb ideas—turning dumb ideas sort of over in your heart, and then seeing what happens… What dumb ideas do you sing about with your band?
WS: I’ve always just been really impressed by a song that can take a simple sentiment and transform it. Like “Please Please Please,” that James Brown song. It’s almost a meditation on the word please,and his idea of begging someone, and yet he turns it into such a towering thing. Or with the Velvet Underground: they took it a step further and made it adult. So I guess that’s sort of what we’re trying to do, to make pop music that’s adult. Which is not to rule out teenagers, but a kind of music that has a sense of people being compromised and people betraying themselves and selling themselves out, selling themselves short. The weight of guilt and baggage that grown people have—bringing that to bear on this emotional medium.
BLVR: There’s also the adult idea of moral grayness—whereas as a kid it’s all good or bad. “This isn’t fair.”
WS: I always think it’s far more admirable to confuse people than it is to reassure them. Here’s a good example. That song “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols. It’s one of my favorite songs. And one of the reasons it’s one of my favorite songs is that it makes me tremble with pro-life sentiment. When I hear that song it makes me feel so pro-life. And I’m not pro-life. I’m very emphatically pro-choice. But that song fucks with me. Because it is filled with horror and moral outrage and this very sly attitude—and it just makes me feel like a conservative fucking anti-abortion moralistic teenager kind of thing. It’s an amazing song.
BLVR: Your song “For Real” kind of makes me pro-murder.
WS: [Laughs] I could really go for that! I think people misinterpret “For Real” because it’s not supposed to be about murder at all. It’s a lot more about sexuality than it is about violence. But nobody seems to have cottoned to that. Which is not surprising. Hopefully it’s not just about sexuality; there’s a level of—wanting to smash your head into the wall to make sure it’s real? You know what I mean?
God, a couple months ago I tripped and I smashed my face up and I really fucked up my glasses and I haven’t been able to close them since. And I caught my eye and smashed my lip up and I got this deep-tissue bruise. And it was the first time I felt a very severe degree of pain out of nowhere, really suddenly—this is long after I wrote “For Real”… But there was really no mistaking it. That was a very real sensation. You have these moments where you’re like—Do I like this girl? Do I love this girl? Or do I just like her? Do I want a ham sandwich or do I want a turkey sandwich? Are my political beliefs just somebody else’s beliefs that I’ve simply adopted or are they what I really think? But when your head is smashing into the concrete you don’t have that kind of question about whether it’s a real sensation. And ultimately, that’s what’s going to unmake us all—smashing up against the physical reality of death and decay, and being unmade.
And I think that we want it, on some level. Or some people want it, maybe. Or we don’t want it but we wonder about it and we wonder about who we’ll be in that situation and what it will do to us. And then there’s a certain sexualization to that which is very mysterious. To me, “For Real” has a lot more to do with that than it does as some dumb “murder song.” “Westfall” is a murder ballad, straight up.
BLVR: Or “Kathy Keller.”
WS: Or “Kathy Keller,” yeah. But it was sort of frustrating for people to say that “For Real” is a chilling murder ballad. Because to me “For Real” is more—I think of “For Real,” believe it or not, as a kind of tender, happy song. I know that sounds weird. But I do.