conversation with Jonathan Meiburg, who confesses to a Buddist-inspired
approach, a Grizzly bear fetish, and stealth-previewing his music in Austin coffee shops.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
On the opening track to the new Shearwater LP, Jonathan
Meiburg’s choir-cured voice bounds over a heart-hammering pulse like a wild
animal uncaged – by the end of the track, “Animal Life,” it’s clear the singer
is after the same sense of liberation: “I shed the dulling armor plates/That
once collected radiance/And, surging at the blood’s perimeter:/The
half-remembered wild interior/Of an animal life.”
Perhaps not a surprising sentiment for a collection bearing
the title Animal Joy and adorned with
a photo of no-nonsense Grizzly claws on its cover. But, what does leave an
impression is the whole-hog commitment to the concept
– to cultivate his more instinctual side – which Meiburg expresses throughout
the 11 songs.
To get there, a slew of Shearwater changes followed 2010’s The Golden Archipelago, the third in
what’s been dubbed The Island Arc trilogy after ‘06’s Palo Santo and ‘08’s Rook.
Seeking to beef up what he felt was the band’s ethereal sound, Meiburg added new
recording sidemen, switched producers, employs a new touring band, jumped to a
new record label (Sub Pop) and, above all, sought to give voice to a new
The 34-year-old doesn’t cite a specific emotional gantlet he
had to run, or a cathartic rite-of-passage moment that led him to redefine what
Shearwater would be. Instead, he says it was the gradual awakening that he’d
simply become somebody different. Balancing the vision of himself with the
Meiburgian reality and returning harmony to his existence was a painful one, he
says, and that is what the record tried to recapture.
“(The songs) describe being emotionally, and even physically
to some degree, broken open and re-made,” he says. “I had a feeling of being in
my body, of re-inhabiting my body, in a way that I hadn’t in a while. And I
wanted the record to reflect that, by having a body, not just a brain.”
That’s translated musically into more “earthy”
sounds aimed at our instincts as much as our higher consciousness. Put more
simply, Animal Joy purges much of the
gossamer touches from recent Shearwater records in favor of a more instinctual
approach. BLURT spoke with Meiburg in January on the first day of publicity for
the new record, when, he joked, he didn’t have all his “prepackaged answers”
on another beautiful record – I noticed that [Matador’s] Gerard Cosloy wrote
the one-sheet. That doesn’t happen too often, does it – one label boss writing
positive publicity for his old band’s new label?
JONATHAN MEIBURG: Yeah, he did. It was really very cool of
him given that we’d left his record label! But it was an amicable parting – they
were great to work with, I’ve got nothing bad to say about them at all. But
Gerard actually lived across the street from me in Austin, and we went around the corner to get
a coffee and I asked him if he’d like to do the bio for this. He kind of looked
up for minute, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
He wrote about this sonic change – and the music does sound more
stripped back and therefore maybe more urgent; was that a decision going in or
as you went along?
Absolutely. I felt
with the last three records we’d reached the end of a certain kind of approach.
I wanted to make it far less ethereal and much more earthy. The cover of the
last record has you kind of looking off into the distance at that strange
island that’s far away from you, and in some ways I feel like the record kind
of sounds like that. Which isn’t bad, but it’s like trying to love a statue or
something. And on this record I wanted it to have not just a brain but a body.
More visceral, it sounds like….
Yeah. I wanted the
rhythm section to feel like it was very up close and with you, rather than
being in a gigantic room 60 feet away from you.
I should ask about the rather striking cover photo of this one, then… those
are Grizzly paws I take it?
It is a bear, you
have correctly identified it! Most people can’t tell what that is. I saw that
image, it’s Nicholas Kahn, who did our last couple of covers, took that image,
just snapped it with his iPhone, I think. As soon as I saw it I immediately
thought that was the cover.
You went in with producer John Congleton last time; who’d you go in
with this time and why the change?
This time I worked
with Danny Reisch, who’s in Austin, and we mixed
the record with Peter Katis in Connecticut.
He’s done records with the National, Interpol, he did the Swell Season record –
various groups, but all with more of a pop sensibility than anything we’d had
Is it safe then to call this one ‘the rock record,’ then?
I guess so, although
on the one hand it feels like a logical extension of who we are as a band, but aesthetically
it’s a very different approach that we’ve taken. I think of it more as like
earth, earth as an element as opposed to air, fire or water.
The last three are often referred to as a triptych;
does that make this one the fourth panel?
The last three I kind
of feel are one big unit. We played a show last January, which is the last time
we performed live, actually, where we played all three records as one piece,
like they belong together. It was a three-hour concert! (Laughs) We have live
recordings on our Bandcamp page.
Was it a eulogy for that era in a way?
I would say so. It’s
not like I’ll never play those songs again, but it definitely felt, when we
reached the last note of the last song, that we’d arrived at the end of
something, and that whatever we did after that was going to have to be
Was that before recording began?
Yes. I’d done some
demos back in November, but that was before major recording began. But I kind
of knew what was coming. And that was a wonderful way to say goodbye to that
part – there were a lot of people that we’d worked with through the years at
that show, in the Central Presbyterian church in Austin which is a great big beautiful room,
and it was sold out. I put a little 10-minute intermission between each record,
and I was terrified that people would just leave. We’d given them three chances
to leave! But everybody stayed. It was pretty incredible.
I’m envious! At least I got to see you on The Golden Archipelago tour in Chapel Hill
with Wye Oak – speaking of whom, I notice Andy Stack on board for this record.
Yeah, you get to know
people on tour and sometimes you wind up working together later. I’ve worked
with Andy at the thing at the Whitney
Museum, where we did
those songs for Charles Burchfield, the watercolor artist. And I’d had such fun
working with him, he didn’t play any drums for that stuff, he just manipulated
the sounds of various different insects and creatures that appear in
Burchfield, but I just felt a kindred musical spirit with him. So he came down
for about a week and worked on the record with us over the summer. It was a
great time, Andy’s really special. I was trying to get him on this tour, but I
think they played something like 225 dates last year to support Civilian, so they’re a little tired. At
that point, when you get back you end up having to reinvent yourself and your
home; you’re not the same, and home isn’t the same.
I read something about your records – that you
deal in “indivisible albums.” Is that still the case?
With this one, it’s
really important to me that the album works as a whole, but I also wanted to
make it easier to find some inroads to individual songs. I’m never going to
write the kind of standard radio pop single, but at the same time I also
thought that this record had some songs that could work sort of in that
capacity. I think the heart of the record is those two songs, “You As You Were”
and “Insolence,” that are back to back on the record, because they describe
being emotionally, and even physically to some degree, broken open and re-made.
I think that happens to a lot of people; you go along in your life for a while
and think that you ought to be one thing, or that you are one thing, and
suddenly it’s revealed to you that you are something else. And then you face
the question, how can you be true to that?
Is it always a typically emotional or
cathartic event that brings change on?
It varies from person
to person. It’s just sort of a growing realization that suddenly you feel out
of tune with where you are, or even who you are, and efforts to get back – in a
sort of hippie, dippy way – in harmony with the universe, or at least with
yourself is sometimes a really painful process. That’s what this record is
How does it relate then the animal metaphors
and imagery in the album? Even the LP title itself? I have my theories, but I
thought I’d let the guy who wrote it…
Yours might be more
accurate than mine; after a while you don’t really know exactly why you made
the decisions that you made. Like I said earlier, I had a feeling of being in
my body, and re-inhabiting my body in a way that I hadn’t in a while. And I
wanted the record to have a body, not just a brain.
How does that relate then to the natural world-imagery you use in your
lyrics? There are two sides to that coin, it seems – thinking about those
things abstractly, and then more viscerally…
Sure. For example,
animals, for the most part, even just a dog or a cat, you know this, they exist
in the moment that they’re in. They’re completely full up with being, right
where they are. And our outsized brain, one of the features of them is that they
create alternative worlds to live in. A lot of them are in the future, or in
the past. Sometimes they bear little resemble to the one that we’re in. And
when I think about animal joy, I think about the fierceness, the urgency of
animal’s lives. Even to the extent of, ‘I’m going to go sleep RIGHT NOW.’ We
are animals, yet we’ve decided to fool ourselves into thinking that we aren’t,
but we most certainly are. And the moments when you feel you’re experiencing life
at its fullest are sometimes few and far between, but they can feel like the
truest moments of your life.
It sounds very Taoist – or not very Western, at any rate….
I guess not, although
when people think of that they think of a remove from the world somehow, and I
think it’s more of a question of fully inhabiting it.
Yeah, exactly. Like
when Buddhists talk about ridding ourselves of attachments, it’s not like
you’re floating off the ground, it’s like you become the ground. You become
more grounded – the attachments are the things that are basically phantoms,
they’re not real. You made them up. I felt like the last record had sort of a
meditative, floating quality, and this record I wanted it to not have that. I
wanted it to have a rooted-ness, a grounded-ness. I wanted you to feel it in
your body more, and less appreciate with your head.
I took the
test pressing down to the local coffee shop the other day and played it on
their turntable, and I really had fun just watching people who were in there,
who weren’t listening to it actively at all, but I could see people sort of
dancing around a little bit, I saw some toes tapping, and you could just see it
worming its way into the subconscious. And that was tremendously exciting. It
was the first time that it had been out in the world. I don’t know that that’s
how more people will respond to it, but that’s my hope.
[Photo Credit: Shawn