Winging It Across the World
Like the migratory seabirds they’re named after, the band Shearwater will spend much of the year traversing the globe. The band, led by singer/songwriter Jonathan Meiburg, has just finished the first of three European tours scheduled in 2012 and is on the second leg of an American tour as the support act for St. Vincent.
Meiburg’s willingness to undertake such an exhausting global trek underscores his belief in the Shearwater’s recently released Animal Joy. The band’s seventh record offers a wholly fresh iteration of Shearwater’s sound and its songs are the hookiest Meiburg has written to date. Whereas Shearwater’s three previous albums—Palo Santo (2006), Rook (2008), and The Golden Archipelago (2010)—largely eschewed traditional song structures in favor of more orchestral compositions, the melodies on Animal Joy are mostly built around verses and choruses. The band, which consists of multi-instrumentalist Meiburg, drummer Thor Harris, and bassist Kimberly Burke, also ditched the garnishes of instruments such as banjos, trumpets, glockenspiels, and hammered dulcimers of the earlier albums (though there is still some harp). Instead, the admitted influence of Gorillaz’s Demon Days is apparent on Burke’s high-tensile basslines and Harris’ locomotive drum rhythms. Throughout Animal Joy, propulsive guitar and robust piano put the rock back into art rock.
The album may be a breakthrough opportunity for a band that Meiburg, formerly a keyboard player in Okkervil River, formed 12 years ago with that group’s leader Will Sheff. In 2005, Meiburg assumed full control of Shearwater after Sheff departed, transforming it from a twee folk band into a musically ambitious rock band with a widescreen sound.
Under the Radar talked to Meiburg by phone about subjects such as Shearwater’s new direction, Sharon Van Etten’s influence on the record, Robert Plant’s shout out to the band, and the singer’s own personal migration to New York City. (An article based on this interview appeared in the digital/iPad version of our recent Winter 2012 Issue, but this is the full Q&A.)
Stephen Humphries (Under the Radar): Why did you move from Austin to New York City?
Jonathan Meiburg: I’ve lived in Austin for 12 years, which is kind of a long time. I love Austin but I came up here when we were mastering the record and stayed here a week at a friend’s apartment. A couple of people said to me, “You know, you could just move here if you wanted to.” I thought, “I can’t do that!” And then I started thinking about it a little more and I thought, “I can do that.” I was in the middle of a transitional period in Austin and I figured I’d do somewhere but I wasn’t sure where. Suddenly, this opened up as a possibility, so I jumped for it.
In New York City, everyone walks faster.
Everybody’s in a hurry to get somewhere. Will Sheff said to me the other day, “I feel that even if I’m not doing work, other people are doing work for me.”
I didn’t realize Will Sheff lived in New York City.
He’s been here for a long time. In fact, he’s probably about 200 paces from me down below the building I’m looking at.
You have a few Okkervil River musicians on Animal Joy.
Cully Symington plays some drums on the record along with Thor. He’s Okkervil’s current drummer. He’s really, really good. Also, Scott Brackett, who I played with in Okkervil for a long time came in for a day or two and did some overdubs.
You offered some backing vocals to the last Okkervil River album, too. Were you surprised how well that album did?
I like the record and I thought Will made the record that he described to me that he wanted to make. I’m glad to see them doing well. I’m always glad when I get to see them on TV or go to a show. But I don’t feel very connected to it aesthetically at all. When I met in Will in 1999, we really had nothing going on for either of us. For us to both be able to start bands that are still alive 12 years later is really gratifying.
You said to me recently that Shearwater has been more respected than championed by the music press. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
That’s because they haven’t heard the new record yet. In some ways, I feel that’s true. When you look at the cover of the last record, you have a lifeless figure staring off into the distance at an object far away. Although I’m proud of that album and I love it, it sounds like that to me. It sounds to me like the kind of thing you’d be more likely to admire and appreciate than love. With [Animal Joy] I wanted to make a record you could love, that felt more human. It’s reflected in the cover of the new record in that you have [a picture of] this creature charging out at you rather than a still island in the distance. When I saw that image, I immediately wanted it because it so clearly represented to me what the album felt like.
Animal Joy does feel like a reaction to The Golden Archipelago.
At the end of that record, I felt as if a certain approach to the songwriting and production had been exhausted for me. I didn’t know where else to go from there, but wherever it would be, would be different. I don’t want to repudiate that record. When we did a show in Austin where we played the last three records as one piece was a wonderful experience. But I also felt as if it drew a line under that time. Someone asked me the question, “Did I feel I had processed my travels thoroughly with those records?” At first it seemed silly to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt I had arrived at a place where I wasn’t contemplating something that had happened. I felt I had arrived right where I was, right in my body right then. That’s what I wanted this record to be. I wanted it to be personal and physical. I wanted it to have a body and not just a frame.
You’ve come to see the past three records as a thematic and sonic trilogy. How did you go about forging a new sound?
I made a set of demos fairly on. I went into a really crummy little rehearsal studio with Cully while Thor was out on tour with Swans. In two days, we did backing tracks for all of them, just recording into my laptop microphone. I went in with Danny [Reisch] who ended up engineering our record and I overdubbed some vocals on top of them. We had a lot of fun trying to make the tone of the vocals match the incredibly crappy quality of the backing tracks I had made. We ended up with demos that had a wonderfully fresh, raw quality to them that really tickled me a lot. They sounded different from anything we’d done before. I felt like I’d been handed a thread and the steps to follow it. I talked to Danny a lot about what I wanted from the record. I made a rule for myself to try things that I wouldn’t have ordinarily done. If there was a lyrical subject I had shied away from, I would try and approach it. I didn’t like writing about myself. I decided to write about myself. I wanted to have a couple of out and out rock songs that were more overt than anything I had done before. Not shy away from doing the obvious thing sometimes. It was liberating!
For me, the highlight of the record is “Insolence,” which has elements of the old Shearwater sound but also the bold approach of the band’s new direction.
In the song “Insolence,” there’s the bit at the end where I just start picking up. That was very late at night at Danny’s house. Danny was actually falling asleep at the console. I felt like something needed to happen in there. I’d been listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie and I just started singing, abstracting something from the chorus of one of her songs at the end there. I had that feeling of when something is singing through you at that moment. What we have on the record is that take, just one take. For me, it was one of the highlights of the record. Listening back to it, it sounded like it was someone who wasn’t me.
Which Buffy Sainte-Marie song inspired that?
It’s part of the chorus of the Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Cod’ine.” On the one hand, it’s a song about the evils of codeine action, but the chorus—“it’s real, it’s real/ one more time”—has such an attraction, you know? But I wanted our song to be like breaking down a door. It’s a song about being emotionally frozen and breaking that open. On the one hand, it’s a wild, ecstatic feeling, but on the other it’s also very painful. The way the drums interact on that song thrill me. Because there were two completely different drum performances by Thor and by Cully. We were trying to identify which one would work better. We ended on putting them both on at the same time and we couldn’t believe it but, because of the way they were recorded, they sort of dropped into one another like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Completely unintentional. It’s very strangely assembled, that song, but it sounds like an organic whole.
“Insolence” is also one of the songs on Animal Joy that has a harp on it, which about the sole “exotic” instrument on the album. On previous albums you’ve included trumpets, banjos, glockenspiels, dulcimer and strings. But this album is largely a guitar, bass, drums, piano album. Did the harp violate your “no strings” rule for his album?
I heard that texture a few times on the album. At first we made a “no orchestral instruments rule.” Then we changed it to a “no bowed strings” rule. As long as we didn’t violate that, I felt ok putting a harp on there. On the last record, there were more people in the band making the record. There were five of us, and this time there were really only three, and sometimes it was just Danny and me working on it. So I took on a lot of the overdub duties that I had handed off to other people on the last few records. It was a lot of fun for me. When I made that record, Blue Water, White Death with Jamie Stewart [of Xiu Xiu], I remembered how much I enjoyed playing different instruments and laying down lots of tracks. I’d forgotten about that.
In the past, Shearwater hasn’t written a lot of verse-chorus-verse songs, the pieces have been more compositional. What inspired that change?
I wanted not to be afraid of doing the obvious thing sometimes. If something seemed like it would be satisfying, then it’s important to just do it. Then you can take away what might seem cloying about that by tweaking it by changing the rhythm slightly. When I was working on the new songs with Cully for the first time, he said, “Where are all the strange rhythms, where are all the bars in 7?” When I first wrote them, they weren’t there. But when we listen through and they start to get boring, one of the things we do is throw a couple of beats out of the measure and, often, that will make it seem alive again.
What are the lyrics of “You As You Were” about? It seems to be looking back, a very reflective song.
Yeah, but it reaches the present by the end of the song. I took a hiking trip before that Matador Records 21st Birthday festival, because I hate Las Vegas like cancer. Utah was right there, so I just booked my ticket a week early and went hiking. I hiked 75 miles in that week and you can see in the pictures from that festival that my arms are really big! I looked like I’d been in a desert for a week, which I had. I was walking down a river canyon in a river and, at one point, my nose started to bleed. I was trying to wash my face off in the river, which was really green and clear and shallow. Of course, it was the dumbest thing you could do when you have a nose bleed and I started bleeding all over the place. I could see these streaks of my own blood going into the river. I was laughing because I looked like I’d come from an abattoir. But there was something wonderful about it, too, because I felt very connected to that moment—to see your life disappearing into the stream. I was talking to Sharon Van Etten about that and she said, “You should put that into a song.” I made that moment the start of that song and the through line that it follows metaphorically.
You know Sharon Van Etten going way back, then?
Sharon was actually our tour manager last year . Sharon’s awesome. Sharon has an immediacy to her voice. She was playing me demos in the van of songs she was working on. It’s so raw and real and I thought, “This is a quality I’ve been refining out of my music and I want to get it back.”
One of the best songs is “Open Your Houses.” Killer chorus!
That was a very difficult song, for some reason. There was a little while when I was staying at a friend’s house. He wasn’t there, so I had my amp up and I made these little loops on the amp. I made a loop of the grooves on that song and recorded a bunch of other lines on top of it. It stuck with me. The songs that won’t leave you alone are ones to pay attention to, and that was one of them. That song is another variation on theme of opening yourself up emotionally.
Along those lines, the song “Dread Sovereign” begins with the lyric, “Maybe I was lost/ Maybe I’m Not Ready/ Maybe I was Not Properly Socialized.”
That was the first song I wrote for the record. That was the first lyric I had for the record.
All these songs speak of a rebirth of some sort.
In my own life, I had some things happen that were really dramatic and difficult. I wrote a lot of it in the middle of all that. I felt like I was able to harness that and make something out of it, even though it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. I think I had lost my way a bit and I needed to find it again, which came to me at pretty great emotional cost to me and some other people. I am present in this record as a character in a way that I have never been in a record.
The new sound, the new record label and the move to New York all fit into that sense of rebirth, don’t they?
Yes. I feel a great excitement about the touring. We’re touring with a different lineup this time. Kim and Thor aren’t touring with me this time. That’s not to say they’re not in the band, it’s just they’re not doing the tour this time. But Danny, who recorded the record, is going to be playing drums this time. Then there are some friends I know through Danny, a couple of whom I’ve known for a long time, a couple I’ve never worked with before.
With one exception, they’re all younger than me by almost about 10 years. I haven’t been the old man in a band before. But there’s energy you get from some new players. This isn’t something they’ve been doing for 10 years. This might be the biggest tour they’ve ever done. That’s an energy you only get once.
Also new is the album artwork, featuring a close-up of a stuffed animal’s claws, and even the font of Shearwater’s name has changed from the past three albums.
We’re working with the same people, but we decided to take a completely different approach. The last two covers were meticulously created, real and digital images, whereas this one was a photo Nicholas Khan snapped with his iPhone.
Where was that diorama—a natural history museum?
This may make it seem mundane: It’s a bar on the Hudson river. It’s a stuffed bear.
Now that you’ve been signed to Sub Pop, what are you hoping for from the relationship?
Well, Sub Pop has been interested for quite some time. They were interested when we signed to Matador but it wasn’t quite the right time. I was flattered and stunned they still wanted to work with us years later. We’re in the honeymoon period with them. I have nothing but positive experiences with them so far. They seem like a very concerted and sane team, I really like them. They brought Kim and I out and we sat around a table in their offices with pretty much everyone in the entire company. They talked about how they wanted to market this record and asked for our input. It was fascinating to be the sales object in a sales meeting!
Well, this album seems very accessible while retaining the essence of Shearwater. It may sell well.
I’ve done everything I can with this record to make it happen without being untrue to what the band has always been about. It doesn’t seem false to me, it just seems different. And working with Peter Katis on the mix really helped the record out a lot, too. He’s records by The National, Frightened Rabbit, Interpol the Jónsi record. He has a very sort of pop sensibility. He was a hero of Danny, the engineer. So we all came up to Peter’s place in Connecticut and we all worked on it together. And that lifted it again, I thought, to a realm where it was as accessible as it could be. Thor said to me at one point while mixing the record, “Are you trying to get a radio hit?” I said, “Well, no, we won’t get a radio hit, but [we will get] our idea of what that might be like. Sure. Why not?” We loved that Gorillaz album, Demon Days. That was a big one for us while we were making this. We loved the way the rhythm section sounded and we listened to it incessantly.
What else were you listening to during that time?
I listened to intermediate period Scott Walker. Between Scott 4 and Tilt, I listened to that a bunch.
In a 2010 television interview, Robert Plant mentioned that he listens to Shearwater.
I remember when Okkervil River got a shout out from Lou Reed on the MTV Music Awards a few years ago. It’s just stunning to see something like that happen, to hear your band’s name come out of the mouth of someone whose work you’ve been listening to all your life. That’s certainly the case with Robert Plant. Oh my god, he just said my band’s name!
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