Stability is a trademark of most successful bands. It's hard get, much less sustain, any momentum with band members departing at nearly predictable intervals. With turnover there's also the danger of the group evolving or devolving into a frontman and a collection of backing musicians. Those are issues that Okkervil River had to face.
Will Sheff has remained the only constant since the Austin band formed in '98. The group has seen more than its share of musicians roll through. The list includes, Jonathan Meiburg ('99-'08) accordion/keyboards, Howard Draper ('04 -'07) keyboards/lap-steel and Brian Cassidy ('05-'08) guitar/keyboards. Finding a long- term drummer also proved challenging when founding member Seth Warren left after two years (in 2000). He was initially replaced by Mark Pedni ('00-'03) before Travis Nelson (since '03-present) arrived. The situation on bass was a bit better. Another founding member, Zach Thomas stayed seven years ('98-'05) before splitting, leaving the door open for Pat Pestorius.
Okkervil River took their name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. That in itself suggests this is a literate bunch. The group started as a collection of New Hampshire natives attending college in Austin and their songs (principally the work of Sheff) were known for their intellectual turns.
The group recorded an EP, "Bedroom" in '99 and that led to their garage recorded, self-released full-length debut, "Stars Too Small To Use." One of the advantages of being in Austin and having an album that has created a bit of a buzz is being invited to perform at the annual South By Southwest showcase. That led to hooking up with the indie Jagjaguwar imprint.
Another fortuitous result of the SXSW appearance was making the acquaintance of engineer and producer Brian Beattie. They began working with him on 00's "Don't Fall in Love with Everyone You See." Three years later the group issued "Down The River Of Golden Dreams." Though Beattie wasn't at the console for that album, he was for the next one, '05's Black Sheep Boy." This was the group's first album with Draper, Brackett, Cassidy and Pestorius.
Signed by Virgin/EMI for European distribution Okkervil River re-released "Black Sheep Boy" and its follow-up "Black Sheep Boy Appendix" as a double disc in '06. Jagjaguwar mirrored that effort in North American by issuing "Definitive Edition" with extra songs and videos.
With Beattie again at the helm and the group benefiting from a relatively stable line-up, Okkervil River unfurled '07's "The Stage Names." Then the group hit another glitch. While Okkervil River was touring New Zealand in early '08 Cassidy announced he was leaving which sent the band searching for another guitarist - initially one who would help fulfill tour dates. That person was Charles Bissell.
Before the release of '08's "The Stands Ins," a sequel to "The Stage Names," Okkervil River distributed, via their website, "Golden Opportunities Mixtape" which was exactly what the title implied. It was the first set to feature contributions from touring keyboardist, Justin Sherburn, who signed on in November '07.
One song on "Golden Opportunities Mixtape," originally recorded by The Eagles drummer Don Henley, caused a raucous.
"'Golden Opportunities' is a cover series my band Okkervil River has been doing for several years now," explained Sheff. "Henley's lawyers made me remove the song (which had been posted) I'd planned as the big final capping moment - a cover of "The End Of The Innocence" - when Henley took umbrage."
In '08, guitarist Brian Cassidy stepped down as a full-time touring member and was replaced by Charles Bissell, who, in turn stepped aside for Lauren Gurgiolo.
Okkervil River's sixth album, "I Am Very Far," an '11 release, was followed, two years later, by "The Silver Gymnasium."
"Away" dropped in '16. The set was recorded in three days at a Long Island studio. Sheff said he "recorded them (the songs) quickly with a brand new group of musicians."
2002 Don't Fall In Love With Everyone You See
2003 Down The River Of Golden Dreams
2005 Black Sheep Boy
2007 The Stage Names
2008 The Stand Ins
2011 I Am Very Far
2013 The Silver Gymnasium
1999 Stars Too Small to Use
2004 Sleep And Wake-Up Songs
2005 Black Sheep Boy Appendix
2006 Overboard & Down
Okkervil River has a rootsy sound, anchored by a rhythm guitar and piano or other keyboards. Uptempo songs also have a sharp snare drum doing 4/4 time. When they are rolling, Sheff's vocals and the instrumentation have a cascading, natural effect. When things slow down, it gets problematic.