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  • Interview: Shearwater

    Fri, 24 Oct 2008 15:06:37

    Interview: Shearwater - Frontman Jonathan Meiburg discusses parting with Okkervil River, Indiana Jones and the immortality of art

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    To celebrate the release of their latest album, Rook, Jonathan Meiburg and Shearwater took to the road—but not as headliners. First they set the stage for Liverpudlian rockers Clinic, then briefly made the jump to another venue altogether, opening a series of gigs for Coldplay. By the end of summer, they were back in smaller clubs, headlining across the country, presenting an album that's among the year's most challenging—and rewarding. Cerebral and celestial, the album conveys unusual emotional depth, covering some dark themes with fragile, beautiful arrangements anchored by Meiburg's vocals, tender at times, jarring in their intensity at others.

    Meiburg sat down with ARTISTdirect for a wide-ranging discussion about Rook, Indiana Jones, the challenge of conquering live audiences as an opening band, and his official parting from Okkervil River [he and Okkervil frontman Will Sheff used to split time in both bands].

    The last time we talked, which was around the time that Palo Santo came out the first time [prior to the Matador deluxe re-release], you talked about how you were happier with that album than anything that had come before. You felt that things were kind of crystallizing. I wonder whether that again applies to Rook, or if Palo Santo and Rook are on the same plateau.

    Shortly after that, of course, we ended up reimagining Palo Santo and re-recording part of it, so it may just be the tinkerer in me that's never satisfied. But I was really happy with the expanded edition of Palo Santo. I wanted to make Rook a little less opaque, maybe. Palo Santo is all about Nico and her music is certainly extremely opaque—[Laughs]—and kind of distant and mysterious. That's what I love about her music. I wanted to have our own version of that quality in that record. But I wanted to make this record a little more human, and I think this record is more cohesive than Palo Santo in some ways, and it's certainly less desperate. I don't know if you'd agree. The record is much more acoustic, which I didn't necessarily want to mean quiet. But "Home Life" and "Leviathan, Bound" have almost no electric instruments on them at all, and yet they still really move and get loud and exciting and that kind of thing. I wanted to have a different way of doing that than just piling on the feedback.

    Did you keep the Nico concept close to the vest? When Palo Santo came out, I don't remember that being mentioned very often, and it seems like the sort of detail that the press would have really latched onto and beat into the ground.

    Yeah, that was what I didn't want to happen, so I didn't talk about it very much. It's like you have your blueprint for this thing, and you build it, and then you destroy the blueprint. But I don't mind talking about it. I just didn't want to turn it into an Easter egg hunt.

    I tried to access the lyrics page that's linked in the liner notes last night and the page didn't load for me. I thought, "Ah-ha! Jonathan found this and pulled the plug on it."

    [Laughs] No, no, no—believe it or not, that's my idea. I'm trying to make it a PDF that keeps with the design of the album, and you can print it out and have a lyrics booklet if you want—rather than just having a bunch of HTML text on the page. The main thing that I want to avoid is people reading the lyrics as they listen to the album for the first time. If I can just get people over that hump by not letting it out right in front of them, then that's fine. I don't mind people knowing what the lyrics are—I'm proud of these lyrics.

    ...I feel like the songs have to try to evoke different facets of the same little world...

    Did your experience playing solo shows affect the way you approached the new batch of songs? It seems to me that the albums have become increasingly vocally dramatic, and I'm wondering whether that stems from going out there with your voice as more of an isolated instrument, without a band behind you.

    I feel like I've learned some things about singing in the last few months that have surprised me and made it more fun to do. On this last tour, we did shows pretty much back to back every night, and I didn't wear my voice out, which is kind of a new thing for me. As it's gotten easier and more fun to sing, I've discovered more and more things that my voice can do. But it's funny that you say that it's more dramatic because I feel like Palo Santo has a lot more of that yelly-screamy stuff that's hard to do. Rook has quite a bit less of that.

    Yeah, I still think the drama level is high, even without as much yelly-screamy. But I was also thinking more in terms of the whole catalog arc, going back to Winged Life and Everybody Makes Mistakes and so forth.

    Oh, right. [Laughs] You're one of the ten people that bought those records. You know, we even thought about changing the band name with Palo Santo because it seemed like such a change, but that idea came and went. I'm not disowning those old records, but I feel like we were really figuring things out through most of those. The band that I feel really confident about started with Palo Santo.

    I think someone coming into Shearwater and Okkervil River fresh would be surprised to find out that you and Will [Sheff, Okkervil frontman] were ever in bands together. I can see them thinking, "How did that work?"

    That's been our hope, and that's part of why we did that official announcement about me leaving Okkervil. I've never minded being personally associated with that band, but for Shearwater to be associated with that band, it was a kiss of death. We thought, well, let's just go ahead and make it official.

    Are there leftovers from the Rook session that are going to be trickled out on B-sides?

    There's an extra track on the LP version and the iTunes version. There are a couple ideas that didn't come out of the oven quite right; we went in with probably 15 song ideas, and it's always an interesting process to see which songs want to be together and how they interact with one another. As you assemble the final thing, you keep making little changes to make them all fit together right. I'm not making concept records where there's a plot like "Mr. Roboto" or something, but I feel like the songs have to try to evoke different facets of the same little world.

    When you were recording with the strings and the winds, what were those sessions like? Were they fragmented or were you recording a lot full and live?

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