The Silver Gymnasium, small and modest, is made of brick, and pushed back a few dozen feet off Main Street in Meriden on the Kimball Union Academy campus. A few days ago it was dark inside, in the midst of a minor renovation. A new washing machine sat in the entryway. The indoor pool was empty. Chipped white paint left the brick walls of the basketball court exposed. This is where Will Sheff has cast a universe, and that gym is at its center.
The Silver Gymnasium is the title of the seventh full-length album by Sheff’s band, Okkervil River, stars of sorts in the world of modern indie music. It’s inspired by his time growing up in Meriden, by the streets and landmarks of the Upper Valley, by his years attending Plainfield Elementary and KUA in the 1980s and 1990s. The album will be released Sept. 3 on ATO Records.
It’s autobiographical and personal on a level that Sheff, lead singer and songwriter for the Austin, Texas-based Okkervil River, hasn’t quite attempted before.
“Now he’s back, rediscovering his roots,” said Kit Creeger, KUA’s associate director of communications, who, when he was the school’s music director, taught Sheff. “To me, he’s doing it in a very big way, a very thorough way. Completely delving into it.”
However, to most who listen to The Silver Gymnasium, that actual building in Meriden, the Charles Lewis Silver Memorial Gym, will be just a concept, not a real place. Those who identify with Sheff’s lyrics will insert them into the architecture of their own childhoods.
Sitting recently on a play bridge made of tires at Plainfield Elementary, Sheff, 37, considered the album’s connection to himself, Meriden and the thousands of listeners who have never heard of the village. Around him, more than a dozen kids, actors for a day, ate lunch and played on the playground, there to work on a movie that will accompany the album.
“I want people to feel something listening to it,” Sheff said. “I don’t mind if they bring something to it that I didn’t necessarily put into it. Because I don’t even always 100 percent know what I’m putting into something.”
Sheff was in the area a few weeks ago as a future emissary of the Granite State, directing a half-hour (or so) film that will serve as a spiritual companion to the album. He said he came up with the concept for the film while avoiding doing homework in seventh grade.
It will provide a visual representation of New Hampshire that the album can’t.
He called it an “exploded video,” a version of the exploded-view diagrams that serve as instruction manuals for furniture, cars or model airplanes. It’s based on the album cut “Down Down the Deep River,” but it won’t play the song straight through. Instead, the track will appear in different variations throughout the movie. The song’s synthesizer lick could appear at another point as an orchestral theme, Sheff said as an example.
In broad strokes, the film follows two kids in grade school in the late 1980s who become friends, then drift apart. The lead actor does not play Sheff, but still looks a lot like the musician might have 26 years ago. During a break in filming, the two of them climbed to the top of one of Plainfield Elementary’s tire pyramids together.
Earlier, in a classroom, Sheff leaned on the desk of that actor, Dustin Cournoyer, 11, of Londonderry, N.H. Fourteen other kids, all around 10 years old, squirmed in their seats.
“So you’re just sitting here, and you’re just bored,” Sheff told Dustin, before telling him how to react to the pen and piece of paper that would soon be dropped on his desk by another actor. Dustin was to examine the pen and paper for a beat, before realizing he must wrap the paper around the pen to reveal a secret message.
The scene began. Dustin sat, his hand supporting his head, as an actress/teacher improvised a lesson with the class. Griffin Gamache, 9, of West Lebanon, stood up, walked to the back of the room, dropped the pen on Dustin’s desk and lingered by the camera in the back of the room, out of frame.
Off to the side, Sheff moved his hand down his beard, from chin to Adam’s apple. He watched the action on a monitor.
Griffin headed back to his own desk, passing his classmates, made up in rainbow suspenders, giant bows and ponytails. Sheff called cut, and the crew stepped in to make adjustments.
It took a couple of minutes. The kids, most of whom live in the Upper Valley, got restless. They began firing questions at Sheff.
Are we getting paid for this? (Talk to his manager, he answered.)
Will this movie be in theaters? (Some, yes. They’re hoping to screen the film at the South by Southwest festival next March, producer Amy Good said.)
Are you, like, really famous? (“I’m really famous.”)
From a purely commercial perspective, Okkervil River was at its most successful in mid-2011, when its album I Am Very Far peaked at No. 32 on the Billboard 200. The band’s previous efforts, in 2008 and 2007, peaked at Nos. 42 and 62, respectively.
Okkervil River has had a sort of upward mobility for years now, both commercially and critically, though Sheff remembers laboring away in total obscurity for several years at the start. Okkervil River released its first full-length album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, in 2002, a more acoustic affair than what would follow.
The Silver Gymnasium is different from Sheff’s recent output in mostly subtle ways. The instruments and how they’re used are the same, still a mix of guitars and drums and keyboards contributing to driving indie rock. But on some songs, synthesizers find their way into the mix, such as during the sparkling main lick of “Down Down the Deep River” and the synthetic “ahh”s twisting around the rhythm on a verse of “Pink-Slips.”
The time period in which the album takes place is reflected. Synthesizer pads and arpeggios run alongside acoustic guitars and pianos. The album is rural New Hampshire with a 1980s pop radio accent.
In the Plainfield Elementary classroom, Sheff took books off a shelf, flipping through them and reading their jackets. The crew began to set up a dolly in the room; Sheff flicked through a copy of The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree. Earlier, he had found Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins and A Wrinkle in Time.
Sheff, assistant film director Avram Dodson and the camera crew went through several iterations of the scene, making adjustments after each. It was the last day of school. The final bell had just rung, and the kids excitedly left the classroom, jostling a languid Dustin on their way. The camera slid along the dolly, following him. Sheff watched the monitor until Dustin joined Griffin near a door, and the two walked out together. He shared a satisfied look with the camera operator, Johnny North.
“That was great,” said North.
“That was awesome,” said Sheff.
They headed outside, where they set up a new scene at the entrance of the school.
Sheff spent the first 17 years of his life in the Upper Valley, one of three children of Paul and Jamie Sheff. They both taught at KUA, she in foreign language and he in film, writing and philosophy. They’ve since moved to Massachusetts.
“She was a very outgoing and exuberant personality,” said David Weidman, who was the head of KUA’s arts and theatre program when Sheff attended, of Sheff’s mother. “I think Will, in many ways, is more like his dad, very thoughtful and cerebral in many ways. He’s kind of an interesting mix of creative and cerebral. … He combines those, which is maybe why he’s found a lot of success.”
He grew up a KUA faculty brat, living in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria and playing in open buildings during the summer. He was thoughtful, sensitive and deeply involved in music and writing from an early age. Paul Sheff called his son an “incredibly gifted writer.” ( Spin magazine once called Sheff “Dylan for the Facebook generation.”) “Will was always about getting at the truth of things, if I had to put it in a phrase,” said Paul Sheff. “He wanted to get down to what was true about an experience, or about an object, or about relationships.”
Creeger, the former music director, remembered Sheff as a smart student who was “entrenched” in the music department, who finished high school just before KUA got its first digital recording studio in the mid-1990s.
So Sheff would record music on four-track recorders. Some of that material, Creeger said, might make it into the “Down Down the Deep River” film.
“We saw him trending in the direction of reevaluating his growing up in New Hampshire,” Paul Sheff said. “But that it would mature into a whole album, that was a surprise to us.”
Under Sheff’s direction, The Silver Gymnasium is as much of an album as it is a jumping-off point for his multi-faceted tribute to Meriden. There’s the music itself, but there are also the liner notes, which showcase a colorful map of Meriden drawn by Sheff’s frequent visual art collaborator, William Schaff.
The map names landmarks like the bird sanctuary, Plainfield Elementary and Bonner Road. It also turns distant mountains into a pair of enormous salamanders, and features a Jedi starfighter-like ship hovering in the night sky.
The promotional lead-up to the album has been rife with other Upper Valley-focused bits and pieces, ever since Sheff released a video on YouTube for “It Was My Season,” the album’s opening song, in mid-June. The lyrics in the video are projected onto the stage of the Maxfield Parrish stage set at the Plainfield Town Hall.
Another YouTube video followed a couple of weeks later. A camera pans around Schaff’s Meriden map, ’80s-era home photos are shown, and an instrumental version of the meditative “Lido Pier Suicide Car” from the album plays. And in July, Sheff released another video, of him and a friend, Aaron Johnson, playing “Down Down the Deep River” at various Upper Valley open mic nights.
On Wednesday, he released, on http://www.thesilvergymnasium.com, a free, ’80s-looking video game in which the player controls a Sheff-like avatar walking around a 1986 version of Meriden. The game uses songs from The Silver Gymasium, adapted to sound like game music from that era.
Like the map, it’s full of ultra-local references. At one point, a shopkeeper at the Meriden Deli Mart tells the character: “Remember to take home some Taylor Brothers Maple Syrup and Garfield’s Smoked Cheese for your family!”
The videos and multimedia experiences are the thrust of The Silver Gymnasium, at least until the album releases. It will be months before the “Down Down the Deep River” movie comes out — more filming will take place in the fall and winter.
“It gives you an opportunity to attach the music to several different images instead of just one image,” Sheff said. “You can make the universe a little bit bigger for people when you approach it in a lot of different ways.”
When it comes to Okkervil River, Paul Sheff fashions himself a critic first and a dad second. He said he’s told his son when he doesn’t like his music, or when he thinks it might not find an audience.
He’s listened to The Silver Gymnasium, and figures the response will be akin to that for 2005’s Black Sheep Boy and 2007’s The Stage Names, the two albums that moved Okkervil River into the upper tiers of the indie music world.
He likes this one, in part, for its subtlety.
“At first listen, it doesn’t reveal itself immediately,” he said. “But then as you listen to it, by the 10th time, (you’re) hearing things you didn’t hear before, and you’re hearing words put together in ways that surprise you.”
Lyrical prowess has never been an issue for Will Sheff — it’s considered his strength. But the subtlety extends to his compositions. They’re not spare, by any means, but they’re as measured as any song he’s written before. The loudest, most intense portions of the band’s work, sporadic as they are, have been turned down a notch.
Those moments, where strings and brass and drums swirl around a shouting Sheff, weren’t uncommon in earlier Okkervil River albums. The emotional apex of the 2005 album Black Sheep Boy, the song “So Come Back, I Am Waiting,” is a passionate release of energy. Two years earlier, “The War Criminal Rises And Speaks” served as a vehicle for Sheff to let loose.
They were nakedly emotional, and hit with blunt force. For a few years now, Sheff hasn’t shouted on a recording. The Silver Gymnasium follows that trend.
“I wanted to be free of feeling like I had to be falsely emphatic,” he said.
The inherent drama of Sheff’s music remains, though it has been cast more subtly. On The Silver Gymnasium, some verses, most choruses and nearly every buildup to a song’s end contain some gathering of intensity, but they play out as stomps and singalongs more than as raw declarations. Sheff doesn’t need to tell you when to feel while you listen to his newest album. It comes naturally.
One of the videos Sheff has released in support of the album is of him, by himself, playing an acoustic version of “Lido Pier Suicide Car” in the empty Silver Gymnasium. The video was filmed before the recent renovation, and the gym walls are still outfitted with orange wall pads. The song, for most of its running time the quietest on the album, is even sparer when reduced to a single guitar.
Sheff said there were two components to this project: time and place. The time, of course, is the 1980s, but it’s an album told from the point of view of an adult looking back, and there is Sheff in the video, back in the village where he grew up, playing a new song in the place that functions both in the present and in his memory.
And The Silver Gymnasium, the album, exists in both periods too. In another video, Sheff and Johnson play several new songs in “my old high school cafeteria, or what remains of it.” The title of the album, in fact, may come less from the past than from the present, after objects of old become distant and take on a metaphorical significance.
“I’m not so much talking about the exact Silver Gymnasium,” Sheff said, sitting on the Plainfield Elementary tire bridge, built while he was a student. “When you think about a silver gymnasium, there’s a lot of associations that come up with that. Armor, and protection, and play, a concrete space that’s bounded. There’s the outside and the inside. There’s a dreamlike, childlike quality to that image. And all those things are things I wanted to take advantage of.”