SHEARWATER: FREE AS A BIRD

Shearwater’s Jonathan
Meiburg ponders life after his group’s Great Leap forward.

By JOHN SCHACHT

 

In 2006 Shearwater, once a low-key side project for Okkervil River members Jonathan Meiburg and Will
Sheff, finally made its Great Leap Forward with the release of the critically
acclaimed Palo Santo. The band then re-recorded
the album, with Matador reissuing it last year as an expanded double-disc
edition, ultimately moving the moonlighting gig into the limelight and forever altering
Shearwater’s profile. Sheff subsequently bowed out to concentrate on Okkervil,
and while Meiburg remains a member of that band, Shearwater is his full-time
focus – and lucky for us.

 

Further refining Palo
Santo
’s haunting drama, Meiburg has added strings, reeds and brass to the
brand new Rook to create a more
organic Shearwater sound. The fresh arrangements result in another wistful and
slightly sinister set, rich in naturalistic imagery (Meiburg is an
ornithologist) that portends the coming showdown between man and nature. Rook’s songs can be as explosive as
volcanic eruptions or as ephemeral as vanishing species, but whichever
direction they take Meiburg’s soaring soprano is up to their challenges.

 

BLURT chatted with Meiburg via phone at his Austin home,
covering a host of topics ranging from Rook’s
cover art and the books of Peter Matthiessen to the record’s arrangements,
Austin’s flocks of Great-tailed Grackles, and Meiburg’s “un-rock” voice.

 

***

 

Let’s start with Rook’s affecting cover art; this is one
of those album covers that stop you in your tracks. How did you hook up with the
design team of Kahn & Selesnick?

JONATHAN MEIBURG: I saw an illustration that they’d done for
their Eisbergfreistadt exhibition in
the back of a Harpers about six or
seven months ago, it was a little tiny sliver of a thing; they had a polar bear
sitting on a kayak on an iceberg. There was something both so fanciful and
imaginative, and so sad, but definitely funny, about it that I thought: “Who
did this? Maybe these guys would be fun to work with.” So I got in touch with
them and it turns out they’d never done a record cover before. It turned out
later we had friends in common, which I didn’t know. But they loved our music,
and I loved their artwork the more of it I saw. I would say it’s been the
easiest and most enjoyable artistic relationship I’ve ever had with anyone.
You’ll suggest something and they’ll do it and it’ll be way better than you
ever thought.

 

They create these sort of themed exhibitions. The idea
behind Eisbergfreistadt is this
little state that’s created somewhere in Eastern Europe on the Baltic Sea in the ‘20s when this iceberg crashes into the
mainland and people create a little state on it and it has a currency and
everything, and of course it melts away. They made a deck of playing cards, and
the suits are brambles, icebergs, some sort of industrial chimneys, and birds.
And the king of each one of these suits is really strange looking, and they
wanted to do a large scale version of all of the kings at some point, they’d
been tossing around the idea, and when we were discussing the album — I’d sent
them the demos — they said, “Why don’t we do a king of birds image?” So they
did and that’s what the cover is. I trusted them so completely, and when they
came up with that I was 100 percent delighted.

 

How did they do it?

All I’ll say is that it’s a photograph, and that it took a
lot of time. It’s one of those things that if I told you exactly how they did
it it’d take some of the fun out of it.

 

Yeah, I guess it’s
like a magic trick; you’re better off not knowing. But it certainly fits with
the record’s visceral feel – how much does having a naturalist background help
with the imagery in the lyrics?

It helps me in my life in general. But I don’t go out
looking at birds and start immediately thinking of birds in my songs or
anything. Certainly, when I’m trying to write songs you have to get your head
into a certain place, and often thinking about the natural world is a really
good place to start. I tried to throw a few more birds and animals and
landscapes into this record than I’d done before, because I really care about
it. So as I sort of carved chunks away from the thing and started to see what
the record actually was about and what the songs were going to be, I could see
these themes emerging.

 

I’ve been lucky enough in the course of the research I’ve
done to have visited some places that really are as close to the ancient world,
or the world before there were human beings, as you can get. And the contrast
between that world and the one that we live in most of the time now is
extremely striking and very haunting – because it’s still here, but only just
barely. There are little fragments of it that are easy to miss in your everyday
life. You don’t want to over-romanticize it or get too nostalgic about it
because the world has done nothing but change since it cooled, but at the same
time there’s this thing of absolutely immeasurable value and meaning that’s
just disappearing from the world.

 

Is that why you
choose the rook, a bird that’s often considered in folklore a harbinger of bad
times?

In that song in particular, you have some species of birds
dropping out of the sky and dying while others are feasting on their bodies,
and that’s a thing that you see all the time in the natural world: whenever
there’s a vacuum, something else will arrive to fill it, often in ways that you
couldn’t anticipate or that are really alarming. Like here in Austin
we have Great-tailed Grackles which are self-introduced from Central
America, thousands upon thousands of them, and they’re really
fascinating birds: They’re very intelligent, they’re very funny, and they have
figured out how to deal with us. They know that we’re the best food source
there is. If you go out and mow your lawn, there’ll be a group of them
following you around eating the bugs out of your lawn as you mow it. And
they’ll eat the food out of your dog’s bowl if you leave it outside. They’re
very attractive and interesting animals, but there’s something kind of
monolithic about them – because when there’s a lot Grackles about, there’s
almost no other species of birds around, anywhere. If I go out to a more
undeveloped area I’ll see 60 or 70 different species of birds; but if I go
downtown I’ll see about three. People feel a little uneasy about them. There’s
a little Hitchcock-ian feeling about big clouds of Grackles downtown. People
always get very uneasy when animals behave in some other fashion from the way
we think they’re supposed to, especially when they start interacting with us in
a way that benefits them, and not us. And most of all, even on a subconscious
level, they remind us ourselves, because that’s what humans do, too; we take
over everything. Never has there been such a successful primate – ever.

 

I don’t know if you saw that story, but from genetic
evidence they think that human population might’ve gone down to 2,000 people at
one point. I have a running argument with friends about this — isn’t there some
part of you that wants to tip the balance all the way over and have us just
wink out at that point? Things would be so different – there’s a part of me
that certainly feels like it would be better without us here.

 

It does seem like the
herd’s going to get culled in some fashion, given the over-population and global
warming, etcetera…

Yeah, that’s the frustrating thing about that – we could do
this the easy way or the hard way; which would you prefer? Because it’s really
not a choice. But then you start feeling terrified all the time, and that
doesn’t do anyone any particular good either.

 

Were these some of
the themes you were exploring here?

Yeah, absolutely. In a way, it’s just the oldest story there
is; the old world is gone, and it’s not coming back, and the new world is one
that you might not recognize or be able to cope with. A lot of the reason why
we have religions is to cope with that. To try and sort of hang onto the old
world and make sense of the new one – even though that may be an impossible
thing to do. I don’t mean for the album to be one long lament, exactly, even
though parts of it are that way. It was also just my attempt to make peace with
that a little bit.

 

I take it that’s why
a song like “Snow Leopard” sort of speaks for itself?

There was some spectacular footage of them in that “Planet
Earth” series, it took them like three years to get it – people almost never
see this animal. It lives in the Himalayas and in places like Northern
Pakistan. But also I was thinking of the book (The Snow Leopard) by Peter Matthiessen,
about the trip that he took into Northern Nepal
in the early ‘70s. I read almost everything he’s ever written last year; just
after I read The Snow Leopard I got
completely fixated on his writing. I even tried to get him to do the bio or the
liner notes for the record. I did get in touch in with him, but I think he was
perplexed – “Who is this? What do you
want? Leave me alone.”

 

But that song in particular is partly about the feeling that
on the one hand the only way to escape feeling trapped in your own situation,
in your own species, in your own moment, in your own consciousness, is to do it
with your mind somehow, but on the other hand the impossibility of doing that,
too. You can’t become inhuman, you just are what you are. In that song I wanted
this climbing feel to it, this sort of unresolved feeling, it keeps going back
to the same thing over and over again – that figure, they’re sixth figures
(plays piano) – I like that because it feels like it never quite resolves, it
never comes to the end, it just keeps going up and up and up, like those Escher
drawings with the Monks going round.

 

“I Was A Cloud” seems
to have a similar construction, especially on the piano outro; did you come up
with that?

Howard [Draper] played that figure, and it’s really one of
my favorite things on the record. I like it a lot. It’s a beautiful little line.
 I have the songs, mostly the structures
and chords and things, pretty well mapped out when we start working on them as
a group.

 

Let’s talk about that
with regard to Rook. You opted for
woods and strings on this record, but the ensemble feel doesn’t overwhelm the
listener; you don’t feel like you’re listening to chamber pop…

Yeah, I feel like there are so many records now where it’s
lots of people playing lots of instruments all the time, it just gives me a
headache. So even though there are lots of people on Rook, it doesn’t feel real thick or crowded – I really wanted to
avoid that, and I felt like we did succeed at that. So the strings are just
little gusts that come in and then wander away; they just reinforce things but
don’t make grand statements for the most part.

 

We once talked about
Brian Beattie’s production for Okkervil
River — how it was like “going
to arrangement school,” as you put it. Has that factored into Rook?

You make enough records, hopefully you start to learn at
least what the really bad ideas are. Brian and I have some sayings: “sometimes
the wrong thing is the right thing”; “it doesn’t have to be good to be good”; “sometimes
being good is bad”; “sometimes it’s bad to be good.” We’ve all sort of learned
that stuff over time. The thing that’s wonderful about writing for the strings
and woodwinds is that there are a lot of rules in place of orchestration and
stuff, just because people have been doing that for a while, and they’ve
noticed that, “hey, if you pair an oboe with this instrument, that instrument
disappears.” Or, “don’t put this with this, however, this with this is a
wonderful combination.” You’d like to just throw all the rules out the window
and go, “no, I’m going to do it all new,” but really, there’s something very
nice about adhering to some rules of counterpoint — or arrangements or pairing
of instruments — that are really very satisfying. The song “Home Life,” we
worked and worked and worked on that arrangement and I was really happy with
how it came out in the end – it has sort of an old-fashioned feel to it.

 

There’s a wonderful
image of someone tracing their finger over a spinning globe; how’d that come
about?

I used to do that when I was a kid, because we had this
globe at my parent’s house that had raised surfaces for the mountains, so you
could run your fingers over the Himalayas and
go, “Wow, that’s really big. Something’s really going on over there.” But then
I could spin the globe back and see Baltimore, Maryland, where we were, just crammed up into Chesapeake Bay, this tiny little thing. But I just
couldn’t get enough of that, the idea that all this stuff actually existed. And
there I was in relation to the rest of it.

 

You mentioned earlier
about the remote places you’d been, and I read about your research trip to the
Galapagos – I take it that that’s part of the idea of “Home Life,” the contrast
of where we are now and where we used to be in our natural state?

Yeah, you can think of it in a lot of those ways. I think of
home life as the most precious thing there is. That’s what people want more
than any other thing, and it’s so elusive, and often slippery in its
definition, but yet you know it when you find it. The great terror is that you
might go on living after your home is gone – like after there’s no way to get
back to it or make a new one. It’s more frightening than the idea that the
world will end.

 

You could equate it
to a death versus the death of a relationship, where the loved one just goes on
without you…

Yeah, that’s the worst! I’m sorry to be so heavy on a
Thursday morning, but a lot of that’s in there in that song – but that’s really
as far as I want to go with that.

 

Okay, let’s switch topics
– do you suffer stage fright, as I read somewhere?

Yeah, every time. But luckily there’s no stopping it, so you
have no choice. I always think of that scene in Apocalypse Now, in the beach landing section, there’s a helicopter
landing on the beach and there’s a soldier in the doorway yelling “I’m not going!
I’m not going” and then somebody yanks him out of the helicopter. It’s kind of
like that; you’re going, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not. It’s
part of why I prefer doing music as opposed to writing; with writing it’s a
little too easy to escape sometimes.

 

How so?

Well, it’s just you. With music you’ve got your band and
your label and your publicist and all these people to answer to, and you can’t
let them down even if you don’t feel up to it.

 

Much is written about
your voice; did you have any classical voice training?

I sang in the church choir. We went to these Episcopal
churches, and so I was trained early on in that in terms of vocal technique.
Although I learned a lot from other things, or had to unlearn, I should say.
Because I learned to sing very straight-toned and that choir boy sound that you
think of – which is very nice if you’re trying to blend your voice with lots of
other people, but not so good at conveying those subtle shades of emotion — you
sort of sing like this lonely robot, so I’ve had to really work on that. But
it’s funny, even in the last two weeks I feel like I’ve learned things about
singing in practicing with the band. They always tell me, “Lift your palate,”
and I always thought, “What does that mean?” And the other day it clicked —
“that’s what that means” — and suddenly I got two or three more notes in the
higher part of my voice.

 

It’s interesting you
say you’re still learning about singing, because one of my favorite lines is
that Silver Jews’ one…

“All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” He’s right, of
course. You don’t have to be able to sing in this classical way to be able to
be expressive. And there’s more to it than that. I thought it would be fun to
try with my own voice – because I can’t go back and unlearn all this stuff
completely – to deal with what I’ve got, because I have a very “un-rock” voice.
To try and figure out how to make music that makes that work, rather than being
a liability.

 

So it’s helped
determine the sounds of the songs themselves?

Absolutely. No question. I’ve been getting better about
writing songs I can actually sing, too. It’s easy to write songs that are too
much for your voice. Like Palo Santo,
it’s really hard to sing that whole album, it completely wears me out doing it.
Rook is actually much easier.

 

Why was Palo Santo harder?

There’s a lot more of the shouting and screaming kind of
stuff right at the top edge of that particular part of my range. I’ve only got
so many of those notes in me. Not the real high ones, but the ones that are
sort of in the middle when you’re singing full-voice – those are the ones that
are killers.

 

Speaking of Palo Santo, what led to the re-release
of that record so quickly?

We re-recorded Palo
Santo
partly because we felt our own performances weren’t what they could
have been – it had been bugging us, like having a rock in your shoe. We’d
played those songs a bunch of times after the record came out and felt there’s
really something in here that we failed to capture in our performances. It was
weird, like going back in time and trying to fix something you’d done in the
past, which made for a little bit of an uncomfortable feeling. But everybody
was pleased with the result. You don’t usually get to go back. I think of the
re-release as definitely the definitive version of it. We re-recorded about
half the record from scratch, then the other half we took from the other
version and re-mastered that.

 

Your first tour for Rook is upcoming, and you’re doing a
couple dates with a string quartet and winds and reeds, but that’s not going to
be case most of the time is it?

No, but it’ll be five or six people. It sounds really good;
we’ve just been practicing with that lineup the last couple weeks. Actually, I
wouldn’t want to have all those players all the time because then you’re stuck
doing things a very certain way. It’s like driving a train as opposed to a
bicycle; there’s no way to make corrections or do things differently, it’s all
got to happen exactly the same way. The fewer people you have the more nimble
you can be.

 

Are you using keys to
recreate some of the chamber sounds?

No, I don’t like to use anything that sounds phony. So,
we’re just doing different arrangements. I’ve seen people try to address that
in different ways, I’ve seen bands even have the sound guys trigger samples
while they’re playing. It’s always so distracting and dumb-seeming, it just
turns it into karaoke. I think that recorded music and live music are very
different in the way that you experience them, and the immediacy of the live
show can make up for a lot of things that are present on the recording, and
vice versa. Sometimes you get to do special things on the recording that you
wouldn’t have to do if you were just playing it live for people to keep it
interesting. Because with recording, the sounds are just going to be coming out
of these two little boxes, but live you’re right there. And just the fact of being
there, which I think counts for a whole lot.

 

If you’ve ever been to a show and think “God, that was
great,” and then you hear a recording of it later and you’re like, “Oh, that
wasn’t that good” – it’s not that your first reaction was wrong.  It was just that there was a lot more going
on than just the sounds coming from the stage.

 

Shearwater’s Rook was released by Matador on June 3.

 

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