Shearwater are incredible, that’s a fact. Their album, Rook, released in 2008, will certainly be featuring in my albums of the decade come this New Year’s Eve. There’s an unmistakeable passion, a yearning in their music that begs to be heard as an art-form. In more brute terms, Rook absolutely rocks. For a band that’ve got better with each album, the next one is a massive cause for excitement in these parts – so here’s some words from Jonathan Meiburg:
First up, absolute note of reverence: your Union Chapel show was quite possibly the most astounding live music experience I’ve ever seen. I was absolutely speechless, the sound was astonishingly crystalline and the new material was fantastic – do you remember what new songs you played? There was one with Thor and Kim on glockenspiels which completely blew me away. Can you tell us more about that one?
Thank you very kindly! That was probably the most beautiful venue we’ve ever played. I think we did three new ones: ‘Black Eyes’, ‘Meridian’, and ‘Hidden Lakes’, which is the one with the glockenspiel duet.
How did you feel playing that venue? Is it still a daunting experience playing churches or are you used to it now? And how do you react to such feverous audiences? Standing ovations and the like…
The funny thing about that show was that we hardly got to enjoy it. We had one minute of bliss after left the stage, and then discovered that our green room had been robbed while we were playing. Passports and laptops were stolen. It cast a pall over the evening (and my memory of it). But that’s touring for you – it’s amazing how many highs and lows get packed into a single day.
From what I’ve heard, Shearwater began by you all e-mailing each other ideas. How does the collaboration work now? Do you plan to collaborate with any others over the next year?
The new record is the most collaborative we’ve made in quite a while, as we were all together for most of the recording. I still bring in the lyrics, main melody, and chord structure, but all the textures get filled in by everyone else. When you’ve got five heads really focusing on a song it can suddenly change in unexpected ways, or take on new life, and that’s always a thrill. As far as outside collaborations go, I’ve been talking with Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu about making a record together for a a while; maybe that can happen now. And we’re really looking forward to seeing our friends in Clinic at the Leeds show; maybe we’ll do a song or two together.
What does the future hold? When can we expect a new album and how is the rest of the new material progressing? Is ornithology going to figure once again? Is it thematically linked or less so, like Palo Santo?
The new record is finished and should be out sometime in February, I think. And yes, it’s thematically linked… maybe more so than the others. It’s about islands, especially certain kinds of islands. There are a lot of birds on islands, but they only have bit parts in this story.
How difficult a decision was it to break from Okkervil River? Do you ever have regrets, and do you ever think you’ll work with Will again? Did you see Shearwater taking off on the scale it has done?
I talked with WIll just a few days ago, and we compared notes on the new records we were finishing. I do miss those guys, and I’m proud of the work I did with them, but I also feel very strongly that this is what I ought to be doing right now, and very lucky that I get to do it at any level.
How do you find a focus for your songs? Do ideas simply enter your head and recur? The song themes are very much based on nature – is this Shearwater’s main inspiration?
That’s a good way of putting it. If a song idea won’t leave me alone I figure there’s probably something to it, even if it’s very simple. As for the natural world (and our uneasy place it), I’d say that it does seem like the richest vein for me; it feels inexhaustible.
The soaring vocals towards the end of ‘The Snow Leopard’ – were they recorded in one take? Did you pass out?!
Yes and no, I think, but my memory of a vocal session from two-and-a-half years ago isn’t too good. That’s actually not a very hard note to sing, for some reason; other, lower notes at full voice are much more difficult. On the new record I sang a note higher than that, just for fun, but I also sing lower than on the previous records. It’s always interesting to push the boundaries of your voice and see what it’ll let you get away with.
I love the dynamic range and the nuances of timbre. The instruments used are very natural acoustic sounds, traditional instruments – is there any room to incorporate electronics in their music? ‘South Col’ for example, with its bowed cymbals and harmonics – maybe you could increase the range of sounds in these more atmospheric moments… but perhaps that natural rawness is essential to their sound?
There aren’t electronics on the new album – I think almost all the instruments we used were made before 1970 - but it’s much more dense and wooly and complex than Rook. I think you’ll like it. We recorded a lot of strings and winds on the album, but then beat them to a sonic pulp so that they’re unrecognizable, odd and mysterious.
Your records, particularly Rook, have this knack of creeping up on the listener and revealing themselves more and more with time. Is this deliberate? How are they crafted? Are the intricacies deliberate?
That’s very kind of you to say. I would hope that that’s the effect. They certainly sneak up on me as I’m writing them, and they take a while to record. But when you’re the one that’s making the album, you never have the luxury of hearing it for the first time; by the time you’re done, everything feels very well-worn and familiar. All you can do is try to remember the little flashes of fun and inspiration that led you to make certain decisions, and hope that you’ve assembled the thing in a way that preserves the life of those moments and presents them to other people.
Are any more covers are forthcoming? We very much enjoyed your version of Talk Talk’s ‘The Rainbow’.
I’m sure there are; we’re trying to get one together for this tour but I’m not sure we’ll have time as I’m just back from the mastering session for the album. We did ‘Cymbaline’ by Pink Floyd earlier this year, and ‘Tomorrow’ by Clinic, which we loved. Really looking forward to playing with them again in Leeds.
What music do you listen to? And what is your earliest experience of engaging with something and thinking that you wanted to do it yourself?
I can’t stop listening to the Secret Museum of Mankind series on Yazoo records; it’s comprised of recordings made all around the world between 1925 and 1948, before recorded music had really changed the way that people play and listen to music. The performances are astonishing and moving, and it’s a tantalizing and heartbreaking glimpse of the world that once was. They squash most modern recordings like a grape.
My earliest experience…. hmm. It would probably have to be setting out pots and pans on the kitchen floor in Baltimore and drumming on them with wooden spoons while listening to a record of E. Powers Biggs playing Bach on the pipe organ. I think I was three or four. I still remember the sound of a big green pot lid when I thwacked it with a spoon. So satisfying! I must have driven my mother crazy.