“A Body, Not Just a Brain”: An Interview with Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg

By Zach Schonfeld, Arts Editor
Thursday, February 2, 2012

Though he spent a year studying remote human life in New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, and earned his master’s degree in Geography with a thesis titled “The Biogeography of Striated Caracaras (Phalcoboenus australis),” Jonathan Meiburg is likely better known for his work with Austin-based indie outfits Shearwater and Okkervil River. Animal Joy, Shearwater’s eighth full-length album (and first for Sub Pop), ditches its predecessors’ orchestral melodrama for a muscular guitar presence well displayed by lead single “Breaking the Yearlings.” Its influences range from latter-period Talk Talk to Gorillaz; the result is one of the first great records of 2012.

On a frosty December morning over winter break, I spoke with Meiburg about the new record, his experience working with Wye Oak’s Andy Stack for a Whitney Museum exhibit, and the effortless beauty of birds.

 

The Argus: Your new album, Animal Joy, is really excellent. Can you talk about some of the major influences that went into the record?

Jonathan Meiburg: We started listening to the Gorillaz record a whole bunch on tour, and I started getting really into that second Gorillaz record, Demon Days. It might seem a little weird for us, but we just loved it. As I was listening, I thought, “You know, the rhythm section on this record—it’s so awesome and thoughtfully done that I’d like to make something that reflects it.”

A: What about Plastic Beach?

JM: I only listened to that one, like, twice. I didn’t like it as much for some reason.

A: You’ve said that your previous three records—Palo Santo, Rook, and The Golden Archipelago—form a trilogy of sorts. What makes “Animal Joy” a departure from that trilogy?

JM: We made a lot of decisions to try to do things very differently from how we’ve done them before. I threw out the string section. I said I was gonna write about my own life, which I’ve never done before. I wanted a rhythm section that was really up close and right up front on the recording. Overall, I wanted the record to have a specificality to it—a body, not just a brain.

A: How did you go about accomplishing that?

JM: A lot of it’s in the songwriting, but also a lot of it is in the recording. We approached the recording of the drums and the bass very differently from how we’ve done it before. On the previous records, a lot of it sounds like the drums are 50 feet away from you in a giant room. On this one, I wanted it to be right up next to you.

A: The first single, “Breaking the Yearlings,” has such a straightforward, heavy guitar riff to it, which is different from anything you’ve done before.

JM: When I first did demos for the record, I went into the little rehearsal studio with a drummer. I worked with the drummer Cully Symington, who played a little bit on the record, too. We hashed out a bunch of these backing tracks for demos in two days. We had a lot of fun making the vocals match the sound of that cymbal recording. We just recorded it into my laptop, through the internal microphone.

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I love the sort of trashy sound of that. So I wanted to try to capture some of that energy in the recording itself. On this record, we didn’t have as many people working on the record—it was just me, Thor, and Kim, and then Danny, our engineer—so I did a lot more of the overdubs myself.

A: Was it a conscious decision to emulate a more guitar-heavy rock sound?

JM: Well, I just wanted to be a little more economical about it. I didn’t want to have that grand, sweeping orchestral feel with this record. I wanted it to sound like a band playing. I wanted a grittiness and an earthiness to it. The guitar really lends itself to that.

A: You guys also signed to Sub Pop earlier this year. Did that move influence your sound at all?

JM: Well, when I was talking to them about working with them, I told them the truth, which is that I wanted to make a record more visceral, and maybe more straightforwardly appealing, than the last couple of records we made—even though I like those records a lot. I feel like we reached the end of a certain kind of approach, and I wanted to try something different. I think that interested them. But they didn’t tell me what to do or anything.

A: You performed your last three albums in full at one show at a church in Austin last January. Where did you get that idea and what was it like performing those three records in sequence?

JM: I can’t remember quite why I decided to do that. It just seemed like a good way to link them together because I started to realize how connected they were. What better way than to play it all out as one giant show? It took three hours to do. [laughs] While we were rehearsing for it that week I realized that I had signed us up to do a show that was twice as long as any show we’d ever played. But it was really, really fun. It sold out, it was in this big church, and we had a lot of the people who had worked with us over the years playing on it. It felt like a validation of those records. But it also felt like we’d reached the end of it. By the time we played the last note of the last time, I thought, “Ok, from now on, it has to be different from this.”

A: Will there be some big differences in the upcoming tour?

JM: We’re gonna have a totally different lineup. We’re gonna emphasize songs from the new record. It’s not that we’re not going to play any old songs, but I think it will have a different energy. Some people won’t like it as much. Other people will like it more. [laughs]

 

A: You also did a project for a Whitney Museum exhibit with Andy Stack of Wye Oak. Did that play into your music with Shearwater at all?

JM: It definitely did. I loved working with Andy; we toured with [Wye Oak], and then Andy came down and played on Animal Joy as well. With Wye Oak, he plays drums and keyboards at the same time. For that project we did together, he didn’t play any drums, just samples and keys. It was fun to watch him work in a completely different way than what I’ve seen. Andy is one of those completely amazing musicians who can play anything—he’s trained on upright bass. But he’s just a wonderful musical personality. I hope we can get him on our tour, but they’ve played like 220 shows since last year.

 

A: Was that project a one-off thing for the Whitney or can you see it turning into something else in the future?

JM: I don’t know! You know, it’s funny, someone said that me and Andy should form a band to tour museums. I don’t know if that’s a good idea or not. [laughs] But certainly I’d work with Andy again. He was a joy to work with. If you listen to “Star of the Age” [on Animal Joy], all that wonderful synthesizer stuff at the end of the song is Andy. He played some electric guitar, and he played saxophone on a song.

 

A: You also contributed vocals to the Okkervil River album that came out last year. What was it like working with Okkervil River as a contributor rather than a bandmate?

JM: It’s funny, I just went in and sang for a day. And it was in the old studio where Okkervil worked for a long time. I walked in, Will [Sheff] was sitting right behind Brian [Cassidy], it was almost like no time had elapsed since we worked on the last record together. It sort of felt like jumping back into 2005 or something. It was fun. It was just one day of work, and then I went away. I’m definitely a fan, but I like what I’m doing now.

 

A: No regrets about moving on?

JM: No.

 

A: Has your interest in birds inspired any of the new songs?

JM: I’ve been trying get away from being the “bird guy.” I mean, I do love birds, but I’m most interested in what they reveal about the nature of being. All animals kind of show this in some ways. They so beautifully are right where they are doing whatever they’re doing at every moment. You know? Like, I want to go to eat right now! I want to sleep right now! That effortless presence that they have is something that I really love to contemplate.

 

A: There’s one song on the new album that is so fantastic—it’s called “Insolence.” That song reminds me a lot of the band Talk Talk, specifically their last two albums. Have you received that comparison before, and have they been an influence on you?

JM: Um, yes and yes. Laughing Stock really blew my mind several years ago, and I absorbed a lot of that into what we do or try to do. “Insolence” is probably my favorite song on the record—it goes the most places.

 

A: It’s my favorite as well. Those snare hits just remind me of “After the Flood” from Laughing Stock.

JM: Oh, yeah. It’s funny—do you know how Talk Talk recorded that record? All the drums are in mono on that record, and there’s one single drum mic that’s like 30 feet back from the drum. And on “Insolence,” Thor was playing next to this reverb tank. We weren’t running any signal into it, but we were running a signal out of it. The sound of it was vibrating as he played the drums next to it. We heard that come up by accident on the console, and we were like, “Whoa, listen to that!”  So we threw that in and made that the top of the song. And then there’s another drum part played by Cully, that kind of skittering sound you hear on top of it as well.

 

A: Okay, last question: what are some of your favorite albums or artists from this past year?

JM: I’m not a very good person to ask that question. My music listening habits are very slow. I did like that James Blake record a lot. A lot of the things I listen to, I think, I’m not like, “What’s going on immediately right now?” I didn’t listen to the Beatles for a very long time, like consciously or deliberately, and during this record I got really into listening to the Beatles again, which I hadn’t done since I was in high school. You know, you listen with different ears twenty years later. There’s so much attention given to the way that they arranged those songs, listening to the bass parts, the drums parts, the recording technique. It definitely helped me a lot.