Will Sheff, foreground, with his band Okkervil River (Photo: Alexandra Valenti)
Much to his surprise, Will Sheff of the independent rock band Okkervil River was nominated for a Grammy for his liner notes to the Roky Erickson album "True Love Cast Out All Evil" (which he also arranged and produced). His first trip to the popular awards ceremony, as captured in his Grammy diary below, could best be summed up in five words: "Who the hell is that?"
By Will Sheff, Los Angeles
Last year, I was asked to arrange and produce an album by cult legend Roky Erickson. The project was a massive undertaking, the often-troubled singer's first album in 14 years. It was my first experience producing, and it took me about a year of my life to complete. Once the recording was finished, I thought, "What the hell, I guess I'll write the liner notes too."
One morning, months later, I was awoken up by a chorus of text messages. Everyone was writing to tell me I'd been nominated for a Grammy…for liner notes.
To friends, I played the whole thing off, saying, "Winning a Grammy for writing is like winning an Oscar for cooking," but I'm secretly a big fan of glitz, pageantry, and general excess, and I eventually decided it would be fun to check out the ceremony.
The label flew me to L.A., got me great Staples Center seats, and arranged for me to walk down the red carpet, where a volunteer who looked about 13 paraded me around to various news outlets who all whispered, "Who the hell is that?" before declining to waste their batteries on my photo. At the end of the carpet, I was brought before a small panel of tweens paid to do their best Beatles-in-'64 scream for all of the carpet people regardless of who they were, and then they quickly ushered me out.
"Who the hell is that?" seemed to be one of the Grammys' big themes this year, up there with excessive choreography, flames shooting from the floor, and country trios inexplicably named in tribute to the pre-abolition South. When jazz musician Esperanza Spalding was handed the "Best New Artist" award, a nearly audible "Who the hell is that?" swept through the stadium and a hilarious TV cutaway shot revealed Justin Bieber's face, momentarily awash in shock and disbelief before his swagger coaching kicked back in. When the Arcade Fire capped the night off with an energetic performance of "Month of May," a member of the metal band seated behind me remarked, "What are they called? The Suburbs? Not exactly my bag!"
I think the Grammy voters made a great call. By morning, though, someone had already assembled a Tumblr site dedicated to collecting all the irate reactions about the Arcade Fire's Album of the Year win and some people's perception that they "stole" the award from Eminem (who was fantastic in his Grammy appearance).
On my flight home this afternoon, I scrolled through the site. I read pages and pages of people shouting in all caps "I'VE NEVER HEARD OF THEM!" as if that's a valid musical critique, as if that's anything but a braying declaration of proud ignorance. As if somehow the prefab pop royalty whose handlers dropped the most money on promotion are promised a Grammy as a kind of birthright, the way that Will Smith's kids are guaranteed hit singles and blockbusters if they want them; the way that Gwyneth Paltrow is apparently allowed to show up anywhere at any time and sing, whether or not we want to hear her. I've never heard Esperaza Spalding either, but now I'm excited to. It was fun to watch the losers win for a change.
Will Sheff is Okkervil River's frontman. His band's new album "I Am Very Far" comes out May 10th on Jagjaguwar. For what it's worth, he did not win a Grammy, but Robert Gordon did for liner notes to the Big Star box set "Keep an Eye on the Sky."