Shearwater recently released the highly praised Animal Joy (QRO review), their eighth album to date and first on new label Sub Pop. After opening for Sharon Van Etten (QRO album review) on a few U.S. dates, the band (that now feature a new lineup) has just embarked on an extended European tour. QRO sat down with lead singer and songwriter Jonathan Meiburg, before they play a brilliant show at Scala, in London, U.K.
QRO: Your new album marks a departure from the ‘Island Arc’ trilogy. It’s more direct, more visceral both musically and lyrically. Let’s talk about the music first. There is an additional use of feedback, the drumming is more prominent…
Jonathan Meiburg: Yes, we wanted to make the drums sound like they weren’t at the end of the room but they were up right there with you, sort of like in the same way on the cover of The Golden Archipelago you’re looking at the subject in a distance whereas on the cover of Animal Joy the subject is right there charging at you. We wanted that kind of immediacy and impact.
QRO: I also noticed the lack of strings and glockenspiel, but I still hear a xylophone in "You as you were", right?
JM: Yes, there is still also harp in a couple of places but mostly we didn’t want to use any orchestral instruments, we just wanted to go back to the sound of a rock band playing. And I did a lot of the overdubs myself, which I shunned away from on the last couple of records just because somehow I had to give a lot of people stuff to do, but this time it was mostly just three musicians and Danny (Reisch) working on the record.
QRO: Danny produced it and he’s now your touring drummer as well…
JM: He didn’t play on the record though; he was just the engineer. I actually hadn’t played with him since we started this tour, which is funny.
QRO: How was working with him, and how much influence did he have on the record?
JM: We’ve been always collaborative with the engineers, but in this case it was mainly Danny and me, and Danny did all the editing. So yeah he definitely gave a lot of input to the way the record sounded in the end.
QRO: And the legendary Peter Katis mixed it….
JM: Yes, in his Tarquin Studios in Connecticut. It’s in this awesome old Victorian house: half of it is his own house, and the studio is on the third floor. I called him about two years ago because I was interested in working with him, and then it turned out that Danny was also a big fan of his, which I was very glad with as I didn’t want to take on anybody Danny wasn’t comfortable to work with. And Danny came along to one session with him so they were able to work on some songs together. There was a day when it was just me and Peter, and I called up Danny and said, "Please come back." [laughs] Danny really carried the record, so I felt a bit lost without him. But Peter’s input was great.
QRO: Did the album have a long gestation?
JM: No, it was probably from November 2010 when I started writing some songs, doing demos and things to September 2011, so I guess not that long for a record. It was under a year. And most songs were written over two weeks actually. But we didn’t do a lot of big recording of it till June.
QRO: You are a geographer and ornithologist. How would you describe the relationship between music and science both on a personal level and in general?
JM: To me it seems that the most interesting science and the most interesting art are moved by the same question.
The first important thing is to intuit deeply. With science you can’t investigate everything, you have to pick something specific and you have to at least have some ideas that looking there is going to yield something. It’s kinda like prospecting for gold. You’re not going to look for it in a place where there has never ever been gold [laughs]. You have some ideas on where something good may be and that will tickle your brain.
And that’s probably very similar for scientists and artists. Sometimes we tend to think of scientists as these cold and most robotic characters, but they are really full of whimsy and fun, not unlike many of the best artists I’ve met. And many artists whose work I admire and that are very full of life, even crazy, are very analytical and calculative in their method. So
QRO: Now let’s talk about the lyrics: they’re more personal…
JM: Yeah, I didn’t want to go back to the remote island on this one. I’d always been hesitant from myself in my songs, just because I felt that the confessional songwriting had kinda been done very well but it wasn’t for me. But this time I wanted to make a record that was maybe a bit easier to approach, to warm up to, you know that kind that they give you a hug a little bit more. ‘Cause the last one (The Golden Archipelago) I thought it was a bit hermetic, it was in its own world, it was like looking into a snow globe but you were always on the outside of it. With this one I wanted you to feel like you could get inside of it a bit more.
I’d come to one of those transitional times of my life, I’d had a break-up and lots of things had changed, so I thought looking into those emotions was something I could probably share with a lot of people, and working through that on the record would be something more people could identify with.
QRO: There are also less bird references, but more references to the animals in general, and men as animals as well. The album cover also reflects that.
Moments when your blood is closest to your skin. And those are the moments when I feel we are most like the animal world we came from and still belong to even if we deny it. So that is what I wanted to do for the lyrics on this record.
QRO: "Open Your Houses" features some spiky lyrics, very different from the rest of the album and somehow anything you’ve written. I’m talking about lines such as "So why did you turn away before the horn sounds over the dark terrain and the weapons of the enemy?" What is the song about? Also what does the parenthetic "(Basilisk)" in the title represent? Is it a subtitle? A cross-reference?
JM: That was the original working title. The song was very strange and came very late, from assembling it from different parts. I was still working on the lyrics the day before we mixed it. We haven’t played it that much. We played it last night and we’re probably going to play it [at Scala] too. There was something I really liked about it and Danny liked it too, but I was trying to figure out what that was.
Like other songs on the record it’s an appeal, it’s a song against brutalness and rigidity in your life, about your concept of yourself and the other people, and being willing to admit the darkest side of things into your mind so that you can understand it and get hold of it somehow, because otherwise if you try to ignore it, it’ll just destroy you and it may get you anyway. Either you let it in or it’s going to come into the window.
QRO: Is there any song you are particularly proud of and want to talk about?
JM: In different ways I sort of like all of them but for me "You As You Were" is the heart of the record. It’s a song about losing your way and finding it again. And the next song "Insolence" also, I was very proud of how it turned out. It feels like breaking down a door with that song. It goes from such a cold, compressed place, and this place is right up there with you and on fire [laughs]. And I was happy with the level of intensity we all got to in the recording.
QRO: I read that in "Insolence" the drums’ sound was actually created by layering two separate drum parts over one another, one played by (other drummer) Thor Harris, the other by Cully Symington of Cursive (QRO live review). Right?
JM: Yeah and they weren’t even aware of each other, they didn’t even meet each other when we made the record. So we were recording Cully’s tracks one time, Thor’s at a different time and we were trying to figure out which one to use, then we thought, "Wait a minute, what if we put them together, what would it sound like?" And then I remember sitting there with Danny and we were amazed at how they locked together in a beautiful way. I love the way the drums sound on that one; it’s very interesting.
QRO: Still talking about guests, Andy Stack (of Wye Oak – QRO live review) featured on the new album too. What instruments did he play?
JM: Andy is one of those people that can play anything. We didn’t want him to play drums as we had a lot of drummers already, and in Wye Oak he plays drums with one hand and everything else with the other, so I thought of letting him use both hands on something for once. He played some keyboards parts, synthesizer – he even played saxophone on one song, and some electric guitar.
He came in for a week and we just hanged out in Austin while we were working on the record. We were still at the early stages so sometimes he was just there for moral support. I remember having a tough time getting through the piano track on "You As You Were", I was playing it on this big piano, it was very hard to do and for a moment I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it, but Andy taught me back into it.
QRO: Andy had also collaborated with you before on Shearwater Is Enron, right?
JM: Yes, although I worked with Andy specifically on the Charles Burchfield recording for the Whitney Museum. That was a lot of fun; we just got to make these strange textures out of insects’ sounds.
QRO: How would you describe the Austin music scene?
JM: I have no idea; I’m not really part of it anymore. I moved to New York a while ago and it’s been such a long time since I was in a band playing in Austin all the time. We only play in Austin twice, three times a year now. I love it but I’m not part of that music scene. Danny is though.
QRO: Let’s talk about the two new music videos. "Breaking the Yearlings" was directed by your friend Branan Edgens, but it mainly came from an idea of yours, right?
JM: We worked together on that one, yes. That video actually got pulled because the American Museum of Natural History objected to the way the dioramas were represented [link to unauthorized copy]. But I was very proud of it, I was really happy of the way it turned out. I love those dioramas, they are incredible pieces of art, but part of their power comes from the fact that those animals are dead. And the video kinda points that out in a particular way. I was never really into the Museum, but I like the way the effects worked as if I was actually there.
The video was very cheap to make but it looks very expensive, partially because all the footage of the actual animals was taken by Branan in Namibia, Alaska, and in different places where he’s been. We thought of using those dioramas to sort of create windows into those worlds. And then he made a fake me and turned me into a piece of taxidermy. But I love that video; it’s my favourite video I’ve ever worked on.
QRO: And what about the video for new single "You As You Were"?
JM: Nicolas Kahn, who has worked on our album covers, came along and we used some of the costumes he’d used for some of his photographs. This time I was less involved in the concept and I just let Alix Lambert, the director, run her ideas we’d just briefly talked about. I was just more an actor. It was very cold that day; we shot on Long Island in the middle of the winter, a little before Christmas’ time. But I like that there are different things that video can mean. It just leaves it up to you to decide what it’s about.
Shearwater’s video for "You As You Were":
QRO: How was working with Jamie Stewart (of Xiu Xiu – QRO album review)?
JM: Oh amazing, I loved it. He’s one of the most creative people I know. When we did that Blue Water White Death album, we wrote, recorded and mixed in a week. And we didn’t even know what we were going to do at all before we went to the studio, then we literally walked in the door and asked, "What do you want to do?" "I don’t know, what do you have?" [laughs] "Well, we’d better get going as we just have a week." There are a few moments on that record I truly love and I’m proud of. And it was also fun to make something we just didn’t care what anybody would think about it.
QRO: Did you write everything together?
JM: Yes, we just wrote the stuff on the spot. I would start playing, and he would just start playing another instrument and then we would work on that together. I remember at the time we felt we could carry on doing it for a very long time. And we’re still thinking of making a new one together, sometimes in the future when we are free, whenever that is [laughs]. Jamie is a really good friend. And I really admire his work ethic, his tenacity, originality and absolute commitment to do things his own way.
QRO: Now, finally, let’s talk about the tour. Do you want to introduce your new touring lineup?
JM: We have Danny Reisch on drums, Mitch Billeaud (who had worked with Danny before on a band called The Lemurs) on guitar and keys, Lucas Oswald of Minus Story on guitar, keys, and backing vocals, and Christiaan Mader of Brass Bed on bass and backing vocals. I’d never worked with these guys before January, so when we got together to practice I was a little afraid of how this could work, but it worked out great. It may be my favourite line-up I have ever played with in some ways. I mean, I miss Thor and Kim (Burke) and we can’t replace them, but this is different, and it’s different in a way that it’s very exciting for me right now. We are like a rock band and there is a lot of power behind.
QRO: You’re playing in Turkey and Greece for the first time very soon. Are you excited about it?
JM: Absolutely. Not many bands get to play there and we’re very lucky to have the possibility to do it. We actually have two days off on this European tour, and one of them is in Istanbul.
QRO: You just recently finished touring with Sharon Van Etten, who used to be your tour manager….
JM: She was our tour manager a couple of years ago, yes. Sharon is great. You meet a lot of people whose music you don’t know whether or not people are going to like, but with Sharon’s songs you know immediately people are going to like them. It was great, she’s such a dear friend and it’s good to see how her record is doing so well!
QRO: And Julie Doiron (QRO live review) is now opening on all your European dates?
JM: Yes, I’ve known Julie since the days when Okkervil River [of which Meiburg was formerly a member] signed to Jagjaguwar back in 1999. I remember doing a split record together. We’d never toured with her before, but she’s a wonderful person and very talented too. She has a very distinctive style, she really doesn’t sound like anybody else.
QRO: What do you think of the U.K. audiences?
JM: It really differs from place to place. London tends to be more sort of reserved; Glasgow is more enthusiastic. This has been the best U.K. tour we have ever had so far. People have been very warm and welcoming at all shows. I’ve been touring for a long time so it’s been surprising for me
QRO: And you’re going to do another U.S. tour again soon?
JM: Yes, touring with St. Vincent (QRO spotlight on) in May, back in Europe in June for some small festivals, then we’re going to play over here again late June, early July not sure when as it also hasn’t been listed yet, then back to the U.S. for a West Coast tour, then I’m going to the Falklands to work on a bird’s project for a month, then touring the U.S. in Fall again, and then I think we’re also going to be back here in November, and then it’s Christmas! [laughs]
QRO: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
JM: Not really. This is the happiest I have ever felt on a tour and I’m really excited to be playing with these guys, and I just want to keep it going for as long as I can.