Shearwater: Cosmic Castaways

<strong>Shearwater</strong>'s Jonathan Meiburg could simply have said "the new record's about islands, sounds a bit like Talk Talk." But oh no, he went cosmic on our ass.

Feature by Paul Mitchell | 03 Feb 2010

After five minutes of chat with Jonathan Meiburg, formerly of lauded Texan rock act Okkervil River and now head honcho in the equally acclaimed – if distinctly more subtle – Shearwater, it becomes apparent that he's an impressively eloquent and charming conversationalist. It's also clear that he's passionately committed to his art, viewing it as a prism through which the numerous hues and shades of the world can be observed.

Meiburg, discussing Shearwater's sixth LP The Golden Archipelago ('inspired by man's impact on the natural world'), is certainly well-considered, but also inclusive; he wants everybody to draw their own, equally valid opinions on his work. "I keep getting asked if this is a concept album or not. Those words have become so loaded over the years; in the sense of Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, or The Who's Tommy, then the answer is no. I don't want to have a plot, a libretto you have to go through and try to figure out who the characters are. That often feels too much like leading people by the nose."

So how does this thinking impact on his songwriting process? "It's hard to draw a line between what you're listening to and what you write. That's the fun of working on art in general. You're not always sure why you get certain kinds of messages from your subconscious but you have to try to be as receptive to them as you can be. As the person who makes a record, you'll never hear it in the same way another person will. The compensation for that is that there are certain moments in the process where suddenly something lines up, and it suddenly gets bigger than it was, or it seems to know something you don't know. What you hope is that you can carry those things through the process and that they are obvious to the listener as well."

Perhaps accordingly, early reactions from the blogosphere (OK, Stereogum went there) suggested that The Golden Archipelago is far more bombastic in its delivery than the comparatively tranquil and reflective tones of the band's previous output. Meiburg laughs and seizes his right to reply. "I don't know about the word bombastic. When you say that it seems to suggest way more pomp and circumstance than something deserves. That's the thing I'm always afraid of though; you want to go right up to the edge, but not over it."

In conjunction with the album release, Meiburg and designer Mark Ohe have created a full-colour 75 page dossier comprised primarily of photos and documents from Meiburg's travels to remote locations of the world. "To me, the physical packaging of a record is very important, and that's something we're losing very rapidly these days, so I thought I would come up with an absurdly enormous physical document that, if you had it in your hand, you could interact with it as you listen to the album and it might inform the way you do that. At the same time, I don't want to give a play by play guide to the record."

One of the documents in the dossier is a transcription of the national anthem of Bikini Atoll, part of the Micronesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Meiburg explains why a recording of the anthem by natives moved him to include it on the album. "It's a song of exile, of never being able to return to the home from which you came. I think everyone feels this way to some degree, at least on an emotional level about their own lives. But for these people it is literally true. Bikini Atoll is radioactive, they still can't go back to it. It's heartbreaking. But the sound of the recording, which is the first thing you hear on the album, is joyful. It's stirring, it has an energetic defiance to it. It's a victory over death and destruction in a way that only art can provide."

Affably concluding that he can never be accused of not overthinking, Meiburg offers the rationale for his heady approach to songcraft in parting. "In order to make the world of the record convincing I've really got to live in it, and I have lived in these islands. I take the more ineffable parts of those experiences and try to bring them to life, musically. We've remade the world in the shape of our own perception to a degree that's greater than anything else that's ever lived on the planet. And that's a lot of what I wanted to talk about on The Golden Archipelago, this interaction between the world we create in our minds through our perception of it, and the world we actually physically change and make, and the differences between them. I can't help feel that there's a great gulf, and that our understanding is incredibly imcomplete. Maybe these places where the hand of human beings isn't present are where you sense it more... so incredibly dense, complex, beautiful and frightening. And they leave you thinking 'wait a minute, I don't understand the world at all.'"


Shearwater play Captain's Rest, Glasgow on 23 Feb.

The Golden Archipelago is released via Matador on 15 Feb.

See for further information on the album's accompanying dossier.