Interview with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg


Their newest album, The Golden Archipelago, is easily one of the finest releases of 2010 and now, they’re focusing on the melodic prowess of their music. Still very busy with a tour that finds them travelling through different cities every night, Shearwater’s main man, Jonathan Meiburg, sat down for a brief interview on his band’s music.

The piano plays such a prominent role in your music, where songs are often built off of it, besides the fact that it is your primary instrument, what other qualities draw you to it?

Different instruments inspire you in different ways.  I love the piano’s dynamic and emotional range. I think differently when I’m playing it than I do when I’m playing guitar. It wraps around you.

With that, your sound can change from straight up rock, to lush balladry in a heartbeat, is this a conscious decision or one that comes naturally?

If it didn’t come naturally, I wouldn’t do it.

On a purely aesthetic level, how much of your music is about the feelings and sentiments that arise, rather than the basic music and lyrics?

I’ll meet you on the astral plane!

Anytime people discuss your music, from a critical or fan standpoint, we often can agree that your music doesn’t get the proper exposure. Do you ever feel as if your music gets wrongly overlooked?

I think it’s much better to have people feel that you’re underappreciated than the other way around.

I’ve always wanted to ask you, Jonathan, how has it been not being in Okkervil River anymore, in terms of being able to solely concentrate on Shearwater?

Wonderful. I enjoyed being in that band, but I’m certain that this is what I should be doing now.

The new album concludes a supposed trilogy of albums that are circled around similar themes, what’s your best description for this trilogy?

It was partly inspired by the Dylan lyric: “no sound ever comes from inside the gates of Eden.”

Rook had an atmospheric take with “South Col,” and The Golden Archipelago features a change of pace with “Corridors,” do you like throwing in curveballs to surprise or do they convey a deeper meaning?

Those songs don’t seem like curveballs to me.

Your latest album was recorded in three different locations but all in Texas , how important was each location for you? And how was that Texas sound like? Did you feel like it helped create a certain identity, as opposed to if you have had recorded it in New York, for example?

The studio in Dallas could have been in any sprawling, rotting US city.  The one in Austin has a beautiful old live oak outside whose branches you can see through the windows. And Sonic Ranch, near El Paso, is a very special place, an oasis of trees and water in the middle of the desert. I was amazed by the huge wasps there – big blue-black bodies with orange wings. They paralyze tarantulas and lay eggs on them.

You could have simply made the book available as a download for computers but you purposely included it with the LP and CD version of the album, was there any reason for this?

I miss the days of elaborate album artwork – when I used to pull out my parents’ dusty LPs and listen to them, I loved leafing through the covers with their paper cut-outs, gatefold panoramas, hidden posters. These days having the art reduced to a little postage stamp on a screen is a little depressing, so I wanted to make something physical for this record that you could hold and contemplate, and dog-ear the corners if you wanted. The booklet smells a little like creosote. I think it’s beautiful.

Very few artists still believe in an album as a true art form, what’s your opinion on the matter?

I like idea of the album as a musical form, in the same way that the novel is a form.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.

And as a musical artist: one who agrees to work with a label and promotional people and who specifically chooses a release date, how do you feel when your album leaks?

Go, litel bok . . .
And red whereso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understood, God I biseche!

Can you share which five albums have had the largest impact on you and why?

Too hard to say.  Over the last few years, I’d say these keep standing out:
Nina Simone – It Is Finished/Emergency Ward/Black Gold compilation
Pekos/Yoro Diallo – s/t (?)
Pink Floyd – The Final Cut
Glenn Gould – Bach 2 and 3 part Inventions
Nico – Desertshore
And of course The Secret Museum of Mankind Vols 1-8.

What are your nearest plans for recording and touring?

Touring 2010, recording 2011.  But I expect they’ll barge in on each other sometimes.