A conversation with Jonathan Meiburg
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Photograph by Nicholas Kahn
Also published in abridged form on ARTISTdirect
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 sort of 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 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.
I caught you guys at the Troubadour with Clinic.
That show was a little peculiar for me because for some reason the front monitors weren’t working – so when I was singing, I couldn’t really hear my voice at all. I could just sort of vaguely hear it bouncing off the wall. So I was trying to not freak out and tune it as best as I could, based on what I was hearing out there.
I didn’t notice anything amiss.
Good! [Laughs] You play enough shows, and you start to learn not to panic. You have all these different safety nets – “If this isn’t working, then maybe this will work, and if that doesn’t work, then I can try this.” In your first days of playing shows, if everything isn’t perfect – which it never is – you freak out and collapse.
I haven’t really kept up with Clinic, but I thought they had a good set.
They’re really good. I think they’re really special. Their songs seem to have their own set of idiosyncratic rules; they have this code by which they write songs. It’s really fascinating. They’ve known each other for a really long time, too – they’ve been a band for like sixteen years old. The drummer and the bass player have known each other since they were six years old. They’re really close in a way that few bands are. They’re married and have kids now, but they still have that energy of “Hey, let’s form a band and put on a show!” I think they’re really inspiring.
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.
Rook was available at the merch table on the tour with Clinic, which was in advance of the release date. Had it already leaked?
It had already leaked by the time we started selling it, so I wasn’t overly concerned about that. I thought the thing that was most important was that people who were at the shows – who either we won over or who were excited about seeing us – might be excited about buying the record just then, before anybody else could get it. They might tell their friends and it might help build things up in advance of the official release. We’ll see how well that works. [Laughs] But especially since we were playing the songs from it, I wanted to be able to go ahead and get it into people’s hands.
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, 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 the sessions with the strings and the winds, what were those sessions like? Were they fragmented or were you recording a lot full and live?
We did the strings all at once, we did the winds at once, and we did the harp separately. Those are always really magical moments. It’s all been written down on a page or mocked up on a MIDI thing and you just have to trust that it’s going to sound good. You get them in there and they start playing along with the track and it suddenly comes to life in front of you. The other night at the New York showcase, when they were actually playing live with us, we were practicing a couple hours before the show and I kept screwing up because I kept listening to them, like “Wow, listen to that, that’s amazing! That sounds great!”
“Oh, yeah, I’m on stage, too!”
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly. I felt like I’d been dropped into some kind of rock and roll fantasy. But doing it on the record, it was really great to hear it blooming out of the speakers. The great thing about working with orchestral musicians is that they take listening to one another and working together as a precondition for making music. It takes most bands a long time to learn that – if they ever do. Even if they don’t like each other, string players cooperate in a way that reminds me of bees or ants or something. They solve problems really fast, and make these little chicken scratches into something magical.
I look forward to the Hollywood Bowl show out here some day with the L.A. Philharmonic.
Oh, me, too. [Laughs] We can definitely have jumped the shark at that point.
Shearwater with special guest John Williams.
[Laughs] I thought his music for the new Indiana Jones was pretty good. It was definitely the best thing about the movie – it kept heroically trying to save it.
I didn’t see it.
Oh, it’s dreadful. I mean, it’s absolutely awful. No, no. You can never go back. My friend Jordan, who’s been playing with us, says that inspiration only goes one way – and I think that’s really true. You have it with bands, too – you can’t recapture something that you did and make more of it. You can play that stuff again. It seems like there’s a lot of these older bands getting back together and they play the old stuff and people always are like “Wow, that sounds great, they sound just like they used to!” And then they play the new stuff and they’re like “What’s wrong with them?” I think that’s blaming people for being subject to time and aging – it’s really unfair. You can’t go back and be who you were.
Bob Dylan said not too long ago that he didn’t have it in him anymore to write one of those old classics – and that he didn’t fully understand what “it” had been in the first place.
Yeah, I think they were asking him about “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding” and he said he didn’t remember how he did that. You know, we rely on artists to kind of cheat death for us sometimes, and we get kind of disappointed when they don’t. But it’s the art that cheats death, not the artist.
You’ve been opening shows by singing a cappella – which I thought was a bold choice when I saw you guys as headlining, but then you did the same thing as an opener. Is that nervewracking? Can you still get thrown by a tough crowd?
Well, thank god we’ve had Emo’s here in Austin to cut our teeth on. No matter who you are, there are always people yelling in the back of the room at Emo’s. You kinda get used to it after a while. [Laughs] But the set we were playing at the Troubadour [opening for Clinic] – I kind of designed it to try to bring people in and intrigue them, to go through the whole range of the things we do. I find that opening with that actually makes people shut up and pay attention – more than any loud song you could throw at them. Everybody kind of stops and looks at you like “What is he doing?” Then follow that with some faster songs, and we play the one song from Rook, “I Was a Cloud,” that’s super quiet all the way through. Sometimes I could sense people starting to go away while we were playing it, like “Ooh, a quiet song, I’m going to talk now.” The weird thing that happened was by the end of it, as we kept resolutely going on like that and it became obvious that we weren’t going to get louder – in fact, we were just going to get quieter and quieter – that people would start to shut up again and start looking at us and going “Wait, what’s happening?” And that’s exactly the kind of reaction you want. If you played all rock for thirty minutes, that’s easy to ignore, too.
You can nod your head, but kind of tune out.
Yeah, “I know what this is.” If you can keep throwing curveballs, that’s what is going to help. Playing these opening slots is really fun, but it’s also nervewracking. You have that feeling that the crowd’s inclination is to ignore you, whereas when you’re playing in front of people who like your music, you feel completely different - you feel at ease and welcomed and able to try something different or stretch out a little bit. I’m looking forward to the day when audiences are more the latter than the former.
Someone told me after one of your shows that he thought your shows weren’t “fun” and didn’t seem “fun” for you to partake in – but he meant it as a form of praise. If you see a serious movie that really affects you, you very well may not describe it as “fun.” But everything in music is supposed to fun – shows are fun, the artists are supposed to just be having fun on stage.
Fun, fun, fun till Daddy takes the T-Bird away.
Do you have fun night after night?
Yes is the short answer to that one – I love playing these songs and I have a great time. But you’re absolutely right. A really downbeat or serious film that’s no good just makes you feel like killing yourself. But one that’s really good can make you excited about life in a way that no popcorn fare can. You’re not always going to hit that, but I think there’s something noble in trying for it. I think the most important thing in a live show is that an energy is communicated from a band to the audience – and vice versa. We really mean it. This is really important to me. I think Kim Gordon said that people go to see a band to watch people believe in something. If you’re making jokes about yourself all the time or something, it kind of lessens the effect. With that said, seeing someone like Bobby Conn is completely awesome. He’s hilarious and he and his band look ridiculous, but they have an incredible intensity that makes you want to laugh but is also really riveting.
We have to find time for this very pressing question. What song from Rook would best serve a high school dance performance? [A high school dance team did a routine to Palo Santo’s “Red Sea, Black Sea”]
Oh, man. Maybe “Rook.” That high school team contacted us over MySpace months and months ago and said they were doing that. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I traded messages with them and realized, no, this really is a high school dance team. I don’t know how they got ahold of the song. So I said “Please, please, please send the video.” [Laughs] It’s so awesome. I was absolutely floored. I was delighted.
They’re good, too. My high school dance team didn’t look anything like that.
They had gotten pretty far. Last year they had won state and maybe placed at nationals or something like that. It reminded me of being in high school and I worked for this little local access TV station that ran out of my high school in suburban Dallas. I would go and videotape things like that – the football team, the drill team, the flag corps, the marching band, all the other various phalanxes of uniformed high school students doing various things.
I thought it was really inspired to not just go with the latest Beyonce song or whatever.
Yeah, it’s like “What? Why?!?” [Laughs] I’ll never know, and I don’t really want to know. I’d rather it remain a complete mystery to me – a gift from the cosmos. I did wonder who they were going to deal with the f-bomb in that song. But they edited that section completely out.