Monday, October 5, 2015

What's in a Band Name?

A lot of bands put no thought whatsoever into their names. I know this because I used to be in a band called 1964 Llama Invasion, and another called Johnny Inmate; both of those names were completely meaningless and had absolutely nothing to do with the music either group made (punk and funk, respectively). More recently, I've performed under the name Shiny Tiger, which was the answer I blurted out about seven years ago when a friend asked what I'd name my pub if I had one. I eventually decided that 'Shiny Tiger' would be a rubbish name for a pub, and made it my stage name instead.

For some acts, however, the name is far more meaningful, with repercussions that last for years - even decades - after the initial act of choosing it. One of my favourite bands from this category? Hyperliterate indie favourites Okkervil River.

Okkervil River are named after a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya, and while Okkervil River itself is reportedly no more than a "muddy little stream that runs through an industrial park in St. Petersburg", this choice of band name did set a theme that Will Sheff and his pals have revisited numerous times since.  For example, their last album (2013's The Silver Gymnasium) featured a song called Down Down the Deep River....

My favourite song of 2013, incidentally.

...which uses rivers as a very potent metaphor for the irreversible flow of time, carrying us all away like so many pooh sticks. This track's title is somewhat reminiscent of Down the River of Golden Dreams, the title of an earlier Okkervil River LP (first words heard on that album: "'Down the River of Golden Dreams!' You can put that together with your river music!"); heck, there's even a track on Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See entitled Okkervil River Song:

But why did the band name themselves 'Okkervil River' in the first place? The following Will Sheff quote, taken from an interview with MTV Hive, offers some clues:
I was taking a 20th century Russian literature class in college and we were just reading a lot of Russian writers from the 20th century - as the name implies. I really liked Tatyana Tolstaya, she’s the great-grand niece of Aleksey Tolstoy. I really love the very brilliant detail in all these stories and there was this really wonderful sense of tenderness. She would go off on reveries on the details of things and that would bleed into a fantasy scenario or a dream-like feeling. There’s a lot of writing in the second person, a lot of jumping around in terms of what she was talking about, and it just felt very intuitive to me. A lot how those experiences might feel to me, where you’re waking up from a dream and you’re jostled around. I was just really impressed by her writing.
The emphasis is my own - those three sentences in bold are as good a description of Okkervil River's songs as of the work of the author who gave them their name. Their entire back catalogue (or the parts I'm familiar with, at least; I'm stilling missing Black Sheep Boy and Don't Fall in Love..., among others) is a river of golden dreams, as it were, with each song blurring the line between reality and reverie, past and present, sleeping and waking. There's a lot of second person stuff, too - here are some excerpts from a few of my favourite OR tracks:

"Your heart's warm and kind, your mind is your own. Our blood-splattered criminal is inscrutable; don't worry, he won't rise up behind your eyes and take wild control."
The War Criminal Rises and Speaks (from Down the River of Golden Dreams)

"Your dad is half-sleeping - but, really, he's gone. Can you hear his VCR weeping?"
It Was My Season (from The Silver Gymnasium)

"No one wants to hear about your 97th tear, so dry your eyes or let it go uncried, my dear. I am all out of love to mouth into your ear, and not above letting a love song disappear before it's written."
Plus Ones (from The Stage Names)

This unusually liberal use of the second person ensures that practically every Okkervil River song draws the listener right into the thick of the action, and the eyes behind which we're seated are almost always those of a participating character rather than a passive observer. One minute you're fleeing your disapproving parents to engage in a forbidden romance with Will Sheff; the next, you're looking across the dinner table at your wife as you ponder the motivations of a man standing trial for monstrous war crimes. It's a great approach to songwriting, and the results are often far more engaging than songs sung exclusively in the first or third person.

But I'm getting off-topic. Having not read them, I've no idea whether Tatyana Tolstaya's stories actually do bear any resemblance to Will Sheff's lyrics, but judging by Sheff's own description, his work has certainly been inspired by Tolstaya's on a much deeper level than mere nomenclature, and that's what sets Okkervil River's band name apart from so many others. Modest Mouse were supposedly named for a line in a Virginia Woolf story ("...even in the minds of modest, mouse-coloured people..."), but they presumably didn't choose this literary name to reflect the music they were making; Okkervil River did, or if they didn't, the name that they chose turned out to be a very serendipitous and appropriate one indeed.

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