Okkervil River on Autobiographical Song 'Famous Tracheotomies': 'There's Certainly a Gratitude for Being Alive'

On April 27, Okkervil River will release their ninth studio album, In the Rainbow Rain. We caught up with the long-running band’s frontman and sole constant member, Will Sheff, to discuss the album’s opening track, “Famous Tracheotomies,” and how it subconsciously connects to other tracks on the bright, effervescent pop album.

While the group’s previous album, Away, was an autumnal, transitional affair, mostly nodding toward mystical atmospheres and stark arrangements, In the Rainbow Rain positively bubbles forth with a goofy, pervasive sense of fun. It was the first album Sheff recorded as a collective with his current backing band, featuring Will Graefe, Sarah K. Pedinotti, Benjamin Lazar Davis and Cully Symington, and every song features the close-knit band -- which Sheff describes as a “family” -- simply having a ball.

This even applies to “Famous Tracheotomies,” which touches on the autobiographical account of a very young Sheff as he underwent the titular procedure. Over a zippy backing that recalls Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night more than the glum subject matter, Sheff’s mind wanders to Mary Wells, Dylan Thomas and Ray Davies’ experiences with their own tracheotomies, before a little synth motif sends the song off on the melody to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

We caught up with Sheff over the phone to discuss the writing of “Famous Tracheotomies” and the real-life brush with mortality that inspired it.

“Famous Tracheotomies” is kind of a weird song to pick apart because it’s so self-explanatory. But to me, it kind of faces a traumatic experience head-on that you’d only alluded to in the past. Some of your past songs have references to slit throats and invasive procedures. What inspired you to talk about the nitty-gritty details of that experience rather than just being symbolic about it?

I think that it became increasingly clear to me as I went through life that this experience of coming into a family that had tried to have children and had had really emotionally difficult experiences with miscarriages and stuff like that. And then coming into this, having a difficult birth, and then while I was still very, very young, being taken to a hospital for a prolonged, several-month period of time and being this kind of brand-new, naked, exposed baby during that time when your brain is wiring itself in a hospital, which is a very scary place, and having this happen to me.

And then not being mobile -- I forgot how to walk because I was laid up on my back for so long, right when you’re learning how to walk, I had to be retaught. On some very fundamental level at an early age, my way of being in the world was miswired. I was sort of held back from the world by my health. And the operation, they told my parents that I was going to have to have this tube in my throat until I was 12 years old. My parents had to clean it out all the time. I had to sleep sitting up so that I wouldn’t suffocate.

So I think that the experience of knowing my parents were so scared for me, and that they had already come through quite a bit of pain and now there was this tremendous amount of uncertainty. I had this thing hovering over my childhood, which was this sort of awareness of the emotional fragility of my parents as related to me. I had a child-sense that I was not supposed to be alive. Or maybe not that I wasn’t supposed to -- maybe I was supposed to. But there was a very, very real sense that I was alive by grave odds.

In fact, I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, and when I look at my old drawings, I would draw myself with hair on my head, two eyes, a nose, a mouth and a tracheotomy scar. It was very much how I defined myself. And when I was younger, it was a fresher scar, so you couldn’t help but look at it.

Over time, as I did more work on my happiness that you start to do, if you’re lucky enough to become reflective, I started to realize that this thing had set me off on a particular foot in my life that had determined a lot about how I’d been later on.

I was doing a Reddit AMA several years back, and somebody asked me a question about why I’m always talking about bad things happening to people’s necks and throats. I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” and then people were pointing out lyrics. I realized it was totally a motif that was running through my work forever. I think it’s so connected with my memories of my childhood and my sense of my own existence, because at the core of my consciousness is this awareness of how close I was to not being alive, to not making it through this.

This was something that I had in my brain and knew I wanted to write about. I’m sort of conflating some other things, because I was very sick often when I was a kid and had a lot of near-death and severe things and was hospitalized a lot. When I’d go to the hospital when I was a kid, the doctors would pull up my hospital file and it’d be the size of a phone book. We would all laugh about it.

I kind of tried to write a little bit about this in a bonus track to The Silver Gymnasium, but I knew I wanted to write about it differently. Then a friend of mine said, “Hey, I want you to write a song about body parts.” I was really busy, and I was like, “Well, the only thing I can do really quick is to write about throats and my tracheotomy.”

Then I was kind of remembering different people -- every now and again, you hear about somebody or other and their tracheotomy, or whatever, and I was curious about hearing who else experienced this. I researched it, and I think the ones that I chose, though not consciously, are all people who I had some sort of connection with in some way. Mary Wells was my mother’s favorite singer. Gary Coleman was a fixture of my ‘80s TV-watching diet. Ray Davies and Dylan Thomas were both really big influences on me in different ways, Thomas being since I was in high school. That’s why I think they ended up in there.

In the Rainbow Rain is kind of a primeval album, in a way. The songs are often dealing in big, crashing references to God's creation and the awe of being alive. In a sense, would that make “Tracheotomies” a song of thanks for your own survival? Because you’re not brooding about what happened; it’s a really happy song.

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point and a good description. The song is kind of very sad because tracheotomies are usually performed in a moment of attempt to save someone’s life, so it’s a 50/50 coin-toss kind of thing -- 50% very sad and 50% very happy. But yeah, I think the elemental thing was very much on my mind, but it wasn’t really mine. It was sort of at the bottom of my mind when I was writing In the Rainbow Rain. I think that song is, to a certain extent, about when bad things happen, and it’s also kind of about what good can come out of them sometimes.

There’s certainly a gratitude for being alive. That’s an emotion I feel almost every day these days that I didn’t used to feel. I used to take things much more for granted than I do now.

You were spending a lot of time in therapy as well as attending Quaker meetings while writing these songs. Would the two be conducive to the headspace required for that kind of song? Were you more inclined to touch on your own origin story?

Certainly. I mentioned that in my statement, and I wasn’t trying very hard to spin anything. I was just trying to very directly talk about my life and where this was coming from. Sometimes, as a result, things get as direct as you get and then get skewed in some way because you end up talking about them again and again. It seems like you’re weighting them harder than you need to, or something.

I would say that the combination of microdosing psychedelic mushrooms and going to therapy twice a week and going to Quaker meetings, which was part of a broader thing of trying to spiritually connect to something. I’d say that all of those things were kind of working hand-in-hand. I’m not sure of the right language to talk about microdosing in, because I’m worried that it sounds [glib]. But it’d be dishonest for me to say that it wasn’t a big part of what was going on. To some extent, I think that was keeping me raw and open while I was writing.

During the time, it was very, very bruising. And I don’t mean personally, I mean nationally -- and it’s not like it’s over, either. But there was something about feeling like I was getting a better handle on myself at the same time as I was watching this very striking thing unroll itself on a national stage, and also being very open and emotional at that time.

In the Rainbow Rain would seem to be the absolute opposite of the big, broiling, hot, rageful atmosphere we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Even the title implies refreshment. It would seem to have a sort of brotherly, loving message as a path out of it.

Exactly. That’s exactly right. I think the title has a little bit of both in there, hopefully. But that was exactly what I wanted to do. Like you say, I wanted to make a way out of it. I wanted to make something that could be a sanctuary, in a certain sense, from all of that, and could help people who are feeling overwhelmed by that kind of energy. Specifically, that kind of anger and accusatory, petty sort of thing. It’s not necessarily restrictive, I hope, or political in that sort of polarized way, but something that has that kindness and sweetness and a rootedness that I hope can be genuinely helpful in the way that certain records have perennially been helpful for me in tough times.

“Shelter Song” seems to tap into that too. At a listening party, you described that song as being about treating yourself as you would a small animal, since it’s so easy to be nice to a dog but less easy to be nice to yourself.

That song is a funny one, because it’s right on the edge. When you’re writing a song about a dog, you’re right on the edge of the most corny thing you can do. But I’m always kind of attracted to trying to pull off the thing you’re not supposed to do. I felt like maybe I had something to say about a dog that still felt pretty artistically legitimate.

Oh, yeah. The liftoff point there is the line “You finally have a home.” I’m like, “Oh man! He did it! He pulled it off!”

Yeah! And you know, part of the reason I felt I had the right to write about that was because my girlfriend was working at a shelter at the time, so I was very much witnessing that and sort of learning about that and getting really invested in certain dogs. Again and again, she’d come home and be like, “Someone almost adopted Erin today.” And you would know about these dogs -- or, you wouldn’t know about them. A lot of really bad shit clearly happened to this dog, but I don’t know what. Only the dog knows. It’s amazing how much these animals can bounce back, but it’s also kind of discouraging when they can’t. So there’s a lot that relates to people, you know?

Back to “Famous Tracheotomies.” You mentioned you’d had connections to folks like Gary Coleman, Mary Wells and Ray Davies, but that you also wrote verses about people like Stan Getz, Liz Taylor and Louis Armstrong. Why did some of those hit the cutting-room floor and some didn’t?

I didn’t necessarily want it to be limited to talking about artists or talking about people who I ideologically liked. In a way -- and not to get too off-topic -- but “Human Being Song” is talking about somebody who I might really strongly disagree with and who might even hate me, and trying to think of what I would say to them. Someone who is very angry and hostile toward me.

The real answer is that I was looking at an eight-minute-long song. I think all the vignettes that ended up in there, in some way, all tell different aspects of what the song is about. I feel like what Liz Taylor and Stan Getz were talking about and what I got out of them that was so cool to me was maybe not as needed as some of the other verses.

The Stan Getz story is kind of interesting, because he was trying to feed his habit and he robbed a pharmacy. And he OD’d and, to attempt to save his life, they gave me a tracheotomy because he wasn’t breathing. Then, he was hauled in front of a judge and all that, and there were these remarks that he made that were so pitiful. “I’m sorry for the crazy thing I did. I come from a good family. I didn’t start out like this.” And the judge responded, “You’re a poor excuse for a man. It’s time that you grew up.”

Finally, I wanted to talk about the sound of "Tracheotomies," which is so indicative of how the rest of In the Rainbow Rain will be -- lush and multilayered, but with each member having a distinct voice. That isn’t necessarily unique when you compare it to past Okkervil River records, but on this one, especially, everybody’s really “in it.” Any tidbits as to how it came together in the studio?

Well, gosh, I’m so glad you described it that way, because that really describes what I was going for and what I was experiencing as I was making it. I’m so proud of Away and it really set me up for this one, but on that album, those were people I’d just met and I’d asked to play on an album. And on In the Rainbow Rain, it was the same people, more or less, but they were now invested in the family. We had spent all this time together on the road and growing together, and it was co-written together, so it was less of an “I” thing and more of a “we” thing. I’m still in the center of it, but there was more of a sense of everybody having a place. I really wanted people to feel that.

With this message and this feeling that I was trying to get across of feeling safe and protected within this record and of it being something healing, I just felt that would go hand-in-hand with hearing beautiful sounds -- not solemn, but playful. There’s a time and a place for solemnity, but there’s also something really beautiful and sacred-feeling about joy and playfulness. That was something I wanted to have in there too.

You know, the record was done very, very similarly to Away. It sounds very different because the instrumentation is different. The instrumentation is more based on what we’d bring on tour with us -- electric guitars, synthesizers and electric bass rather than the more acoustic instrumentation of Away. I think the [other] difference you hear is that there was so much more of a sense of joy and play and goofing off going on.

If you’re happy and cooking an omelette, you’re going to cook an omelette in a happy way. If you’re taking a walk, you’ll take a walk in a different way. So if you’re making a record, you’ll make a record in a happy way. That’s a big part of it.

You know, not ruining anything is my biggest goal as a producer. Keeping things feeling like a bunch of people got together and had fun, and not fix mistakes or bury everything under too much stuff. I hope I didn’t do that because I just want to have a lot of ear candy [or anything]. But, we just sat in the room and played the songs. A lot of the time, I just sang the vocal right then and there and that’s what we kept, which is somewhat rare these days on records.

Once we finished the take, the spirit of the finished version you hear on the record was there already. And then it’s almost like a person who’s just standing there naked, and then you’re kind of like, “Okay, I just have to put clothes on there with the right fit and the right color.” You know what I mean? The person was already there. My goal is just to not ruin things with too much studio fussing.

It was a great time. We were just laughing and joking around and having fun and a lot of ideas were flowing. When we would finish a take, we would listen back, coming off the board, and it just sounded like itself. It sounded a lot like what ended up on the record.