Track-by-Track: Shearwater on “Fellow Travelers” - The Complete Interview
Jonathan Meiburg on the Band's Ninth Album
Nov 27, 2013 Web Exclusive
For our Track-by-Track feature, we go in-depth with an artist about each song on their new album. This week we are featuring of Shearwater's Fellow Travelers, and for the next three days we'll post commentary by frontman Jonathan Meiburg on each of the album's songs.
In 2012, Shearwater lost a member of its touring party to the ravages of the road. The casualty we're referring to is the band's van. During a phone call from New York, Jonathan Meiburg offers a eulogy for Shearwater's longtime fellow traveler.
"The van nearly killed us on the Dinosaur Jr. tour," says Meiburg. "We had to retire it. We did something like 60,000 miles on the ground. The rear differential burst on the Dinosaur Jr. tour and all the oil drained out of it. We kept filling it up with oil. Whenever we'd stop, we'd try to plug up the leak to make it to the next town. We knew that if it seized up, the axle would seize up and maybe kill us all. We were desperately trying to arrange a replacement, but we couldn't stop because if we lost even a day on that tour, we'd never have caught Dinosaur Jr. again because they were traveling on a bus. We had to drive all through the night from Omaha to Minneapolis to get it into a repair shop so they could repair it during that day so that we could leave the following morning. We managed to make it, but the water pump exploded while we were trying to make it up there that night. When we landed the van at the repair shop, they just looked at us in horror and said, 'We can't understand how you even got this here.'"
Meiburg pauses for a moment and then reflects, "That's the kind of thing people don't see most of the time because bands just reliably show up. We go to pretty extraordinary lengths to make things happen."
Shearwater's new studio album is directly inspired by the band's travails and travels. Fellow Travelers, the band's ninth record, consists of cover versions of songs by bands and artists that Shearwater has toured with over the years, including St. Vincent, Coldplay, Wye Oak, and Clinic.
There's an added twist to the concept behind Fellow Travelers.
"I wanted to get as many of the people whose songs we're covering on the record as we could," explains Meiburg. "But I didn't want them to play on their own song. In part, because I didn't want them to feel they'd have to redo something they'd already done, and in part, because I didn't want them to feel they had to endorse our version of their song. So, I suggested that they play on someone else's song. That had some wonderful and surprising results in many cases."
Case in point: Meiburg and Jesca Hoop transform St. Vincent's "Cheerleader" into what sounds like a drunk confession backed by a plaid-shirted bar band. Clinic's "Tomorrow" melds R.E.M.-like jangle guitars with a spirited vocal cameo by Chris Flemmons from The Baptist Generals. "Natural One," originally by Folk Implosion, starts with a dust up between a rambunctious kick drum and an attention-seeking bass. The musical mellee escalates when wave upon of wave of pealing chimes wash through the chorus, which also features backing vocals from Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner. It would sound awesome on IMAX speakers.
The album's sole new composition, a delicate duet between Meiburg and Sharon Van Etten titled "A Wake for the Minotaur," explores the bubble that touring musicians find themselves in. Before Van Etten found success as a solo artist in her own right, she was Shearwater's tour manager. Fellow Travelers includes one other reunion: Meiburg got a helping hand on one song from original Shearwater members Kimberly Burke on bass and Swans drummer Thor Harris.
At this point, Meiburg is the sole constant member of Shearwater. He's hard at work recording the band's next album, due in fall of 2014, featuring the lineup who helped create Fellow Travelers and Animal Joy (2011). Meiburg teases that the next studio album will "sound very different from the way records sound now. It'll be atmospheric, but in a high-fidelity way that people expect from movies but not from pop albums nowadays. You can get away with a lot stranger textures and recording techniques in film scores."
Before then, Shearwater will be on the road early next year to promote Fellow Travelers. Hopefully with a new van.
"The reason we're doing this is not for the money," says Meiburg. "It feels like there's almost something cosmically important about it. But somehow it feels like you're keeping the world spinning—at least for yourself."
Last week we posted this interview in two parts, but now here is the complete interview, in which Meiburg discusses all 10 songs on the album. Fellow Travelers came out this week via Sub Pop.
1) "Our Only Sun" (original by Jesca Hoop)
Jesca is a criminally underappreciated singer that we toured with in Europe and I think we're going to tour with again next year. She's very distinctive. Extremely gifted as a songwriter and gifted technically with her instrument—her instrument being her voice. For bonus points, she also has a really distinctive, weird, muted guitar style. I was struck every night by how individual her songs were. She's done some funny gigs in her life. She was backup singer for Peter Gabriel at one point. She opened for Mark Knopfler at some point. I think she was also Tom Waits' nanny—an association she's been tagged with over time. Her music is certainly nothing like his.
I wanted to make a record where songs speak to each other. A recent example I like is the first Cat Power covers record. She would rip the choruses. She would really change the songs. She would find something she could work with and throw away the rest of the song. I tried that approach with these songs.
For the first song, I took the chorus out of one of Jesca's songs. That song is actually called "Deeper Devastation," but there was no way I was going to start a record with a song called "Deeper Devastation," so she very kindly allowed me to change the title of her song for our record. We stuck to the chorus of that song, which seems like a good introduction to the whole album in general because the album feels like it's about broken characters. Almost every one of the narrators of the songs is facing some kind of crisis point or dealing with a crack in themselves or a defect. So the first line, "There's a kink in the pattern, did you do the right thing?" puts you right in the world of the album.
2) "I Luv the Valley, OH!" (original by Xiu Xiu)
We toured with them six years ago and I was utterly blown away by what a force they are live. They are sonically confrontational to the point where they can be really difficult to listen to, which, I think, actually delights Jamie Stewart. He does all the recording himself. I was so fascinated by him right away, which is why I recorded the Blue Water, White Death record with Jamie a couple of years ago. We made and mixed that record in a week. I'm very proud of that record. To me, it doesn't sound like anything else. It's very unusual. We made it on a very tiny budget and in a tiny amount of time so that we could have as much freedom as you could pack into a week—which is to say, the freedom not to care what anyone thought of it at all. Our poor, long-suffering label Graveface was kind enough to put up the money for that and then put it out in a handsome packaging. It was nicely mastered, but it was commercially suicidal. We talked about [recording a follow-up] but I don't know when. There's a possibility that Jamie might tour as part of a Shearwater lineup at some point. That almost happened for this next year, but maybe the next one.
Jamie has a really profound faith in what he is doing and in his views. It's as strong as I've seen it in anyone. He really trusts in what his creative instincts are telling him to do at any one moment, even though he is a very analytical person and very patient in the way he makes music, too. He really trusts his instinct and it leads him to a lot of really bizarre places some of the time.
This song is probably their most well-known song. I always felt it wanted to be this big rock anthem and so we decided we'd go all out with it and really blow it out and go as big with it as we could. It's like a hit, except that it's an incredibly dark song.
For the Xiu Xiu song, there's a guest appearance by David Thomas Broughton, although you'd hardly know it, because he made a field recording for me of some Sparrows and Bulbuls and construction workers in North Korea, where he's been living for quite some time. So there are actual North Korean song birds recorded for us by David in the little break before the harp comes out, and also at the end.
3) "Hurts Like Heaven" (original by Coldplay)
We toured with Coldplay for just a handful of shows on the West Coast. It was a singular experience in my performing life. We would pull up in our van with just us and all our gear in it to these venues where Coldplay would have a small fleet of semi-trucks and six buses. That didn't even count the transportation of the band, which had SUVs with black-tinted windows. And they'd fly from show to show. It was such a contrast to the world we were living in. But, that said, they were wonderful to us. They were very kind and all took time to interact with us and fed us from their catering and paid us well. They were very considerate. They didn't have to be-they could have paid us nothing and we'd still have done it.
It was like opening for Cirque du Soleil. Watching them do these shows to 20,000 people, there was a completely other world of production. They were working really hard to do. They were wanting to make the best version of that that they could. They didn't have to, but they were challenging themselves to do it and that in itself was pretty inspiring.
I did have trouble finding a song of theirs that I felt I could add to, or bring something to. I didn't see them perform that song—it was on their more recent record. It was encrusted with an awful lot of overdubs and different sections and I thought there was another kind of song buried inside of it. That was what I tried to bring out in our version. It's extremely different from their song, in a lot of ways, some of which are subtle and some of which are extremely overt. I tried to pull a completely different meaning and feeling out of that song. Their song seems to be about a joyful band of street artists or something, but I imagined it was about someone commuting to London from some horrible suburb. I imagined they were driving the M25 ring road, just stuck in the terrible way that the M25 just seizes up sometimes. I imagined the song as a slow zoom out from the eyes of that person to a sort of Google Earth type view of the planet.
Thor [Harris] is playing on the song. He was playing the sort of metallic pulse that you can hear in the background. It was a strange little slot drum that he had made and put these contact mics on. It looks like a flat, really heavy piece of black metal that he was playing on with a rubber mallet. I remember that while he was doing that track, he was tweeting at the same time. He was playing on the track with one hand and typing on his phone with the other!
4) "Natural One" (original by The Folk Implosion)
That song is the most straight-up of any of them on the record. It's just an update of the original song, to the point that it's at almost at the same tempo and in the same key. I think of that song as almost a lost hit. It was actually a hit very briefly around the time it came out. It was on the soundtrack to the movie Kids. I remember hearing it on the radio when I was in high school and thinking that there was something really menacing and appealing about it. That song is so beautifully and tightly constructed as a pop song that it serves up hook after hook after hook.
Thor played gong and a couple of other weird percussive instruments. Jenn [Wasner] from Wye Oak does a backing vocal on that one.
5) "Ambiguity" (original by David Thomas Broughton)
David Thomas Broughton is an old friend. I've just heard his new record, which he was recording in North Korea. He loves to illustrate so many dimensions of human frailty. Thor said that David's performances remind him of one guy who just wants to sing pretty songs and then one guy who is trying to stop that guy at all costs from doing it. They're both on display at the same time in him. On "Ambiguity," I wanted to strip away some of the strangeness and just serve it up as the really beautiful song that it is.
I loved the guitar line that he wrote for it and I thought it would be really neat to have it played on a harp. Our old friend Elaine Barber played the harp on that song and I sang along with that and added some textures underneath it. After that amazing last line, "I really shouldn't say it, but I just love what the water does," you hear gradual creeping in of water sounds. It's a gully in the Falklands on an island called Steeple Jason that I went to last August. I sat down with a little audio recorder for 30 minutes one day and did a long recording of the waves washing into this gully. You can hear some little Tussac-birds—animals that I'm sure have never made it on to a pop record before.
6) "Cheerleader" (original by St. Vincent)
I admire that song, but her approach to it—at least on the tour we did with her—was very mechanical. Everything was very sequenced and there were a lot of triggered elements in the set. It was amazingly consistent night after night. The way that she moves on stage is almost programmed. The feeling you have with her music—and I think it's intentional—is a robot that is on the verge of malfunctioning, which works really beautifully with what she's doing. I thought it would be fun to go completely the opposite direction with that song and imagine it was recorded by Neil Young during the Tonight's the Night era. So it would be a completely sloppy rock version of that song.
I did the track with me and Cully [Symington], the drummer, and that's our first take. We did guitar and drums and did a few overdubs. We tried not to overthink things. We rehearsed the song and Cully did a couple of fills during the song. I said, "Play the dumbest fill you can possibly think of." There are some hilariously dumb fills in that song.
Jesca Hoop did the backing vocals at the end. I tried to re-imagine the song as the point of view of the perennial opening band, which is something that Jesca and I both know something about. Being an opening band is an experience that most touring bands have. There are things about it that can be great. Opening for a big band, there's a huge audience there and the backstage can be pretty nice. But, on the other hand, the audience doesn't really want to see you. It really sucks the energy out of you night after night after night. It makes you feel sort of crazy, that feeling, "I don't want to be a cheerleader anymore. I want to play."
7) "Tomorrow" (original by Clinic)
Clinic were heroes of mine long before I knew them. We toured with them for Rook. I've stayed in touch with them ever since. They're such great guys. That's the only band they've ever been in. They're childhood friends from Liverpool. That song is from their Do It! record, which is an overlooked record. That was a song we used to play live a couple of tours back, so that was fun to get back out. We actually watched a video of ourselves playing live to remember how we did it. That's Thor playing drums on that one and Kimberly [Burke], so that's the original Shearwater lineup on that track.
Chris Flemmons from The Baptist Generals does the second vocal. He had a very odd voice and when he first comes in you think, "Wait, what happened to Jonathan?" Then it becomes clear that the two of us are singing together. It just seemed to me like a song that Chris could write. The Baptist Generals have put out two records in seven years, both of them on Sub Pop. The first one, No Silver/No Gold, is a very lo-fi, stirring, inspiring, kind-of-scary record. There's nothing like it.
Chris' characters are always struggling with desperation for various reasons. He's a big Clinic fan, too, so he was delighted to work on the song. The song seems to be either about somebody deciding they're going to commit suicide or perhaps to give up some part of their life that's meant a lot to them. Or possibly they're struggling with addiction. All of that comes through in Chris's vocal and in the hyped-up, sort of enervated way that we played it.
8) "A Wake for the Minotaur" (original by Shearwater and Sharon Van Etten)
Sharon's voice has this immediate authority to it. I knew that no matter what lyric I gave her to sing, she would do it as if she'd known it forever and she did, even though she was almost reading the lyric off the page when she was doing the track. I'd written that song for us to sing a while ago and it just took us a while to get into the studio and do it. I've been working on her new record over the past few weeks.
I wasn't quite sure what the song was about when I was writing it, but it became clearer to me. It's about the disorientation of being on tour for a really long time. The way it can tear you away from the rest of the world and make you feel as if yourself and your traveling companions are the only three-dimensional beings that there are, because everything else keeps falling away from you.
Sharon was our tour manager at one point. She did a great job, I must say. No one ever wanted to disappoint Sharon. She whipped a bunch of dudes into shape just by wiggling her finger.
9) "Mary is Mary" (original by Wye Oak)
That has the distinction of being half as long as their original song. I don't think anyone has ever recorded a slower song than their original recorded version. I really liked the key they did that song in, so I kept that key and then I sang it an octave down, which is the lowest vocal I've ever recorded. It brought out some things in my voice that I hadn't heard before.
It's one of those songs where the meaning of it is a little bit elusive but the feeling of it is very clear. I tried to imagine it as if it had been a lost track from the Van Morrison record Veedon Fleece. The song is about the readjustment of religious faith, which is something many of us go through.
10.) "Fucked Up Life" (original by The Baptist Generals)
That song is from an EP that they did that that has the hardest to remember or pronounce title ever. It's called Void Touching Faster Victuals. I remember seeing them performing that song in Austin back in 2002 or 2003 and it was such a stunning and moving song. Chris sings it with so much tenderness and hurt. There's a compassionate vein to that song because it's acknowledging the other person's pain. It's from the perspective of someone who's a little bit older and wiser. When you see someone you love going through something, you just know there's nothing for them but to go through it. You can't save them. All you can do is try to remind them that you exist and that you'll be there, whatever happens.
I recorded that straight up and then I sent it to Clinic. The version I sent them was very bare bones—it was just acoustic guitar, a scratch vocal and some drums. They sent it back with all the other stuff on there, all the trademark Clinic sounds. The little distorted combo organ, the radio waves sound effects, the drum machine and the bass pulse. I love it because it's not like Clinic played the tambourine, or something—the band Clinic suddenly appears on the second verse of that song through to the very end. It is the most collaborative of all the songs on the record. It's an uplifting, but realistic, ending to this record which has really dealt with a lot of difficulty and suffering.
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