Jonathan Meiburg is speaking to me from an apartment in New York City – a surreal place, he says, made all the more strange by the beating anticipation that his new album is released on Sub Pop within the next two weeks. He is the innovation behind Shearwater, a band whose respect and enthralment for nature and ecology becomes incredibly refreshing. Your favourite band’s lyricist may have watched Planet Earth, but they’re (probably) not a certified ornithologist.
“It’s a bit strange,” he says. “I finished mastering the record almost a year ago, after a two-year process of making it, and at that point I really needed to put it down and not think about it for several months. But, coming back to it now and getting ready for the tour, it’s been a relief to find that I really like it, and I’m really excited about performing it.” The album, entitled Jet Plane and Oxbow, takes its name from a moment when he looked out of a 737 as another plane, passing below, bisected a loop of the Mississippi. Its release punctuates Meiburg’s travels to Guyana, where he’s been writing a book about “weird, social, intelligent falcon relatives from South America” called caracaras.
“They’re unlike any other birds of prey in the world—but for a number of reasons, they’ve mostly been ignored by science. There aren’t any large crows in South America, and caracaras sort of occupy the same niches (and a few others besides). Why they’re there—and nowhere else—is one of the questions the book answers. But, to arrive at that answer, I had to do a lot of traveling to meet these odd birds and the equally odd people who live with them.”
“to do it he had to use a guitar amp, a spectrometer, a set of C-clamps, a beekeeping suit, and a crossbow”
He explains, for example, “red-throated caracaras live in dense tropical forests, where they eat wasps’ nests and fruit, live in communal groups that raise one chick at a time, and build their nests by turning giant bromeliads into topiary. One of the humans I follow in the book is a graduate student who spent years in the forest in French Guiana trying to figure out if these birds actually do secrete a wasp repellent (as two eminent naturalists once suggested); to do it he had to use a guitar amp, a spectrometer, a set of C-clamps, a beekeeping suit, and a crossbow. I travelled up a river in remote southern Guyana with him and three Amerindian men last April to find this bird in a place that’s hasn’t changed very much, in some ways, since the Cretaceous period, and among the other animals living up there were giant armadillos, pumas, jaguars, vampire fish, the world’s largest scalefish, and the world’s largest spider.”
He enacts them as magpies fuelled by the everyday humdrum, talking about the striated caracaras who live on islands in the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego. “They are famous for stealing things from people—hats, knives, pots, ropes, cameras, pens. I’ve spent time down there with them, but I also visited some captive ones in the UK. There’s probably one near you!”
I locate my hat, and assure him that there probably isn’t, moving it a bit further away from the window nonetheless. But, there’s another bird to have a considerable tenancy with Meiburg; the shearwater bird lends its name to his project. He talks about the spirit of adventure of the seabird that made him associate it with his music. “Shearwaters are some of the world’s great travellers; some species fly more miles per year than even arctic terns. They live a really long time—I think there was a banded Manx shearwater who lived more than 50 years. And they’re fairly common birds; but unless you trek out to one of their breeding islands or spend a lot of time at sea, you’ll probably never see one. All those qualities —long-lived, wide-ranging, ordinary but elusive—seemed like good omens to me for a group of traveling musicians.”
Conversation turns back to the new album, and its embedded fascination with travel. “Traveling to really far-out places really stretches your mind, sometimes in uncomfortable ways; I was lying in a hammock in Brazil several months ago in a tiny hut I shared with several large tarantulas, and it definitely wasn’t the easiest night of sleep. But, when I woke up, I couldn’t believe the sound of the dawn chorus—all the frogs and birds and insects calling in every register, across what seemed like every audible frequency. I don’t think you can take in an experience like that and not have it come out in your art in some way.”
I remember my first encounter with Shearwater’s music some five years ago, when my grandfather gave me their 2010 release The Golden Archipelago as a late Christmas present. It’s an album that’s lauded as a contextual “whole”, a proverbial kick in the shins to mp3 and download culture paralleling the decline of a concept album. The minor drawback was moments of instrumentation being overplayed by an extremely powerful vocal line. Jet Plane in comparison has been impeccably layered and textured towards a much more complete sound.
“Bowie once described Scary Monsters as ‘social protest music’… I think the most effective and memorable expressions of protest come from spontaneous eruptions of feelings”
The transition has come, he says, from a lot of trial and error. “We also had the time on this record to really think about it; instead of making the whole thing in a month-long sprint, we kept going away and coming back to it, so there was a lot of time to step back and see what was working. And then, towards the end, Danny [Reisch, producer] and I went out to work with the film and TV composer Brian Reitzell for a week, which really helped push the record toward the kind of sonic depth and you’d expect more from a movie than a rock record.”
I wonder if there were any points in recording that were written to cater specifically to the live show, and he says it was a constant thought. “I’m going all-out on this tour, in a way that might surprise people who’ve seen us before. And when we were making the record, I’d sometimes ask myself, would I want to see someone play this song? If I didn’t, I stopped working on it.”
“I wanted the record to be compassionate as well as angry, like it’s coming out to meet you, not yell at you”
Amid its ecological emphasis and music texture, Meiburg also labels Jet Plane as a protest album with the context of conservation and social commentary. I ask what he’s protesting and the answer’s simple: “Certain pathologies that lurk in the American psyche.” He continues, “I didn’t mean for the album to come out in a presidential election year, but it seems appropriate, since this is the time when our national identity really comes out of the attic and onto the streets. That said, I wanted the record to be compassionate as well as angry, like it’s coming out to meet you, not yell at you. And I think the overall sound of it is as important as the words.”
“Bowie once described [his album] Scary Monsters as ‘social protest music’, and I loved that. I think the most effective and memorable expressions of protest, even political protest, come from spontaneous eruptions of feelings like helplessness, confusion, rage, love, and sorrow, which though volatile, are all comfortingly human. Certainty and unbending ideology, on the other hand, are just spooky (part of why I find Donald Trump, nightmare though he is, less frightening than Ted Cruz, who seems almost inhuman). But, in general, I don’t trust slogans—even the ones I’d tend to agree with.”
He attributes the album’s space to this weird old USA, where he’s lived all his life, “but I’ve been lucky enough to step outside of it for months at a time for research and touring, and I wanted the record to have some of the strange (but valuable) feeling you get when you’ve just come home after being away for a while. You see aspects of its beauty and ugliness that are invisible when you’re there all the time.”
There’s a certain timelessness to the record in spite of the audible references to David Bowie and Peter Gabriel; on the one hand, it’s evocative of theses characters, and on the other it engages with an implacable mythology. “Implacable mythology!” he laughs, “I’m going to have to use that somewhere.” He seems to agree. “I didn’t want the record to be an exercise in nostalgia, and I don’t think the early 80s are cute or funny. But, I did think that some of the sounds and anxieties of that time seemed really appropriate for the time we’re in now.
I don’t want to talk about “Quiet Americans” [the lead single] too much—I want you to be able to interpret it for yourself. But “Stray Light at Clouds Hill” was partly inspired by TE Lawrence (of Arabia), who fascinates me as an example of a person who indulged and then recoiled from heroic national and personal myth-making. He basically renounced the image he’d created in the last years of his life, even referring to the character of “Lawrence of Arabia” as “a cad I’ve killed.” When I was in the UK a few months ago I visited his tiny cottage (Clouds Hill) in Dorset, and I took a picture of my blurry face reflected in his shaving mirror.” (He says that he’ll send it to me, see above).
We near the end of our conversation, and I take this mention of the UK to ground it back the February tour. “I love performing; it’s what’s kept me doing this for so many years. I’m about to head down to Austin, Texas this weekend to rehearse for the tour, so in a couple of weeks it’ll all feel more real; right now it all seems a bit abstract. But, I came to Bristol at the last minute as part of the same trip in which I visited Lawrence’s cottage, to give a little talk about birds at a Caught By the River event. I met some really lovely, interesting people there, and wished I’d had longer to spend—so I’m really looking forward to coming back.”