Interview with Shearwater - 23 November 2008

Interview and article by Aline Giordano

Shearwater “For all the haunting beauty and the quiet aspects of the album [Rook] we’ve been touring for so long that I think we really have figured out how to be an effective live rock band that is actually really fun to see. And sometimes it’s easy to overlook that actually”.

Shearwater bass player Kim Burke is right. The poetry and the beauty of the music of Shearwater are carried live by Jonathan Meiburg’s dramatic and powerful voice while the energy is majestically harnessed by the rest of the band. Thor Harris’ percussions are particularly remarkable at bringing out the vitality of the songs on the deeply dramatic On the Death of the Waters, the sophisticated Leviathan Bound and the more rock-based and aggressive Red Sea, Black Sea or Century Eyes. The live arrangements offer subtle and appealing variations from the album versions. The raw and distorted electric guitars are particularly effective on songs like White Waves.

“I like the idea that we make music that has different currents within it at the same time”, says Jonathan. “The art that is most interesting - whether it’s music or visual - is the one that has multiple different tones all at once. There’ll be something very beautiful and quiet but at the same time there are little monsters lurking beneath the surface or something that’s big and loud but that is undercut by something that is quiet. I think that the different tensions in harmonies and in dissonances are what make music interesting. And that’s the kind of music that we want to make.”

Palo Santo and Rook have become landmark albums in my musical journey, as important as The Cure’s Pornography, Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on The Hill or Gabriel Faure’s Requiem. Although in different lexical fields the lyrics of Jonathan Meiburg are as thought provoking as Robert Smith’s lyrics were back in 1982 when he wrote Pornography. Smith was depicting alienation just like Jonathan constructs an alternative reality with his beliefs, knowledge and imagination.

Jonathan admits: “Palo Santo is all about Nico and every song relates to some part of her life: Real, surreal or imagined. The song La Dame et La Licorne is taking place at the moment when she died on Ibiza and had a stroke and fell off her bicycle. A little bit like the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, where you see him on his motorcycle and then crashes and then it goes backward from there. That’s how that album proceeds. When I was writing that song, my mum had a book of the tapestry. I was at my parents’ house when I was working on the song and something about that other world and the ladies surrounded by strange animals kind of fitted with Nico and how her life turned out. I thought of her that way, then later after I recorded the song I saw the tapestries in Paris, I was so moved by them. The most interesting thing is that the ladies seem frozen and unreal but the animals all seem very alive, like they’re going to walk right out of the tapestry. They have all these emotions while the ladies seem almost totally impassive with a mysterious kind of a half smile, like the Mona Lisa but the animals are expressing joy and fear and annoyance. It’s wonderful. The thing that is the most moving to me is the life, humour and vibrancy of the way that the animals are depicted.”

Animals and especially birds are the principal actors in Shearwater’s songs. They are usually set in Jonathan’s alternative and fictional vision of the world. The song Rooks reminds me of the work of French author René Barjavel, especially La Nuit des Temps or Ravage, where humanity has moved away from nature and society as we know it has come to a halt before its inevitable perdition. Remember how the song Rooks goes? “When the swallows fell from the eaves and the gulls from the spires and starlings in the millions will feed on the ground where they lie; the ambulance men said there's nowhere to flee for your life so we stayed inside and we'll sleep until the world of man is paralyzed”.

Barjavel’s stories are set in a life after our own, a life which is doomed and yet a life in which mankind has the choice, the fatal and ultimate choice to learn from its mistakes in order to preserve life on earth. Jonathan hints that he would love to read these books and asks me to write the titles down for him, before commenting: “With Rooks, I was not just thinking of a world where everything dies but a world where the balances are shifted. Some species are being destroyed while others are being privileged and our role in changing the way that this balance is shifting. Every species is doomed, both in the short term and the long term. The story of life on earth is the story of species arising and then going extinct. And we are not exempt. We will too but we are changing the way that things are going extinct in the short term. We are in the process of making this new kind of world and that’s what that song is about, that’s what the whole record is about.”

I hand Kim and Jonathan a copy of L’Albatros, a poem by French poet Charles Baudelaire. Jonathan reads the French version, pauses and says: “That’s a beautiful poem”, then he adds: “This is like the song Leviathan Bound, it seems that our first impulse with wild animals is to try and catch them as if they had something that we want, and as if we could get it by killing them or by imprisoning them or in some other way exerting our domain over them or even by just putting them in a national park. There is that author Alistair Graham whom I really love who compares national parks to graveyards which isn’t very charitable but he’s got a point that it’s our way of asserting our dominance over the landscape by setting aside this little reserve out of our largess [he has a cynical laugh]. I don’t know why it’s in our nature to do that.”

Nor do I.

I share with Jonathan my belief that mankind has become a cancer to earth. By way of acknowledging my pretty dark realisation and statement he follows on with: “It’s hard to not feel that way a lot of the time! Although what a terrible place that leads you to. I felt that very much in the researches that I have done. In the islands that I’ve been to, you go out there and you feel like an intruder, no matter what you do, you feel like you’re disrupting things. The only good choice we can make is to act as if we are part of this world and not just some other separate thing either sent from heaven to impose orders on it or something whose extinction is to be wished for as soon as possible, which is an easy place to get to these days when you think about things.”

I then ask: Would you say that humans are fundamentally good or bad? Jonathan replies: “If I was able to go back in time and stop human kind from evolving I would do it. But humans did not evolve as a good species or a bad species. We just appeared. Our affect on many other living things is really detrimental”.

There are artists whose lyrics and acts are committed to political or social causes but who are in fact reticent to discuss their thoughts about politics or social construct during interviews. While Jonathan shows no sign of reticence, we both acknowledge that this is a terribly dark place we’ve ended up in. So I think it’s time to go back to talking about music. I suggest to Jonathan that the music of Shearwater is actually quite dark in places. Jonathan agrees with this and offers his definition of shades of darkness: “There is good sad and bad sad, just like there’s good happy and bad happy. There is sadness or darkness that has depth and you feel it enriches you, even sustains or restores you. There are some works of art that are sad but you leave it feeling inspired and you feel rejuvenated by it. And sometimes it’s just bad and you go away thinking why did I waste my time on that?! Some works of art really fill you with joy and some make you feel like an idiot. There are songs in our music that are sad but our music has a great deal of passion and life, and that’s really important to me”.

On the Snow Leopard EP, Shearwater covered the song Henry Lee [also brilliantly covered by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on their Murder Ballads album]. “It’s an old traditional song” Jonathan says. “I did that song as part of an interview I did for the local radio station in Austin and thought that it would be neat to play a song that had a little bird as a character in it because I get asked about birds a lot. I love the little bird in that song and there’s such a strange and mysterious end to that song. The bird is going to fly away to the merry green land, the bird can talk and the girl, like the sailors in this poem you’ve just handed me, her first instinct with the bird is to put it in a cage or if it won’t come down in a cage, then she wants to kill it; but the bird has the last laugh.”

Even though I feel certain that Jonathan must have been asked this question millions of times, I ask him where this passion for birds came from. “I received a grant to travel the world in 1997 to look at human communities at the ends of the earth. So I went to all those places for a year and one of them was the Falklands and I met a bird scientist there who needed an assistant for a survey he was going to do in the other islands which have all this wildlife on them, huge numbers of different kinds of bird, sea birds, penguins, albatross, and this species we were studying extra curricular, which is like a type of falcon, a strange falcon that only lives there, and walks around on the ground a lot, and hangs out in groups and is very curious, a sort like a crow or a raven. I just followed behind him for a month and a half on these islands looking at all these birds and I had no idea that the world was like that anywhere. That turned me on to birds and then I spent the next few years studying about birds”.

Some of you may say: “Shearwater, is this the band where the guy is an ornithologist?” I guess it’s a fair comment as Jonathan is passionate about birds and has studied them extensively, especially Johnny Rooks. But to me, Shearwater is the band whose music “enriches me, even sustains or restores me” to use Jonathan’s own words. Shearwater will soon be back touring in the UK and will be appearing at the 2009 End of The Road Festival in Wiltshire. I long to be captivated by the haunting beauty again and swept off my feet by the musical drama and raw energy that will be emanating from the stage.

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Photograph © Aline Giordano 2008