Jonathan Meiburg’s Shearwater are a decade young. To close out a triptych of dense, ambitious albums the impressionistic, metaphysical themes of which are interconnected, 2006‘s Palo Santo and 2008‘s Rook are completed by The Golden Archipelago. Together they form the grandeur that is the Island Arc, “a world of lushness and austerity, silence and sudden cataclysms”, with music to match.
Meiburg is a cerebral mine of information, as much an academic as musician. Alongside his recordings, the keen ornithologist and front man has for this release compiled a 50-page dossier comprised of archive photos, hand-drawn images, typed verses and sundry other ephemera from assorted trips to far flung islands which, combined, give The Golden Archipelago the feel of a discovered artefact rather than mere long-playing record. The titular archipelago is a mindset based in fact, though not governed by reality; an amalgamation of aspects of other places, of emotions, of memories. The project is neither just an album, nor a glorified travelogue; there’s more at play here.
“I got a call from a Greek interviewer earlier today, and of course since it’s Greek they pronounced ‘archipelago’ perfectly. But nobody really knows in English how it’s supposed to go,” opens Meiburg. “I had the title first before I started working on it. The process of starting an album is so mysterious, and you have no idea what it is, and you’re feeling around in the dark in this giant cavern for a while, shining your light and trying to figure out what’s what, what the dimensions of it are, what the objects contained in it are. I guess I worked on it for about three months, gathering melodies and raiding my files for different things from all the different trips I’ve taken to different islands in the last 15 years for research.”
At this point, how he came to be travelling around islands for research in the first place bears examination, for this is something most musicians releasing albums simply do not do. We travel backwards through time and meet a younger Meiburg, one for whom birds and music were yet to shape life, or concepts of it across time. “I took a degree in English literature, but I applied for this bizarro grant at the end of college from an organisation called the Thomas J Watson Foundation,” he recalls. “They’ll fund you to do a project that you design yourself in one or more non-US countries for a year. The project can be anything you like. The application is just: personal statement, project description. I made this massive thing about how I wanted to study community life at the ends of the Earth and wanted to go to all these remote places, and I thought they’d never go for this, but I turned it in. I hadn’t really left the south eastern United States before. And then, suddenly my poor parents had to put me on a plane to Argentina and wave goodbye.”
For someone relatively sheltered of upbringing, this was a pivotal moment, and an opportunity seized on with the devil-may-care attitude of a young man for whom all the world was a possibility. “The first place I went was Tierra del Fuego, then on to the Falklands,” he recounts. “I went just to go, because I could. I stayed for about two weeks, and when I was getting ready to leave a man came in to the guest house where I was staying. He was an ornithologist named Robin Woods – I’m actually going to visit him tomorrow, he lives in Devon – but he was about to do a survey of these strange birds of prey called striated caracaras that live in the outermost northwest of the Falklands. It’s an area where almost nobody gets to go; you have to go by boat, nobody lives on these islands. I thought it would be an amazing place to go, just to see it, and I kept trying to convince him that he needed an assistant. Eventually I wore him down and he said he’d take me along.”
“This pretty much blew my mind. I had no idea the world could be like this! This glimpse of the world I had before people had our fingerprints all over everything. It was just astonishing.” – Jonathan Meiburg
Meiburg’s persuasion skills achieved his desired outcome, and the bird known locally as the Johnny Rook became something of a companion species. “For the next six weeks or so we were on this boat, going round these islands surveying these birds that are like a combination of a falcon and a crow. They’re intelligent, clever predators that live around colonies of albatrosses and penguins and eat their chicks and eggs in the breeding season.” He takes a deep breath. “So this pretty much blew my mind. I had no idea the world could be like this! This glimpse of the world I had before people had our fingerprints all over everything. It was just astonishing. I wasn’t an instant convert right there, but about as close to that as you could get. As the year went on and I went to other remote places that tended to have strange birds there as well, I got to meet people who were interested in them, and that’s where the interest came from.”
Then came the return to what had gone before. “When I came back to the US, I felt completely at sea because I’d just had this experience that meant I didn’t have anything in common with anyone. There was no-one to talk with about it. So I moved to Texas just out of a lack of anything better to do, and started doing temporary jobs and playing in a band, but the temp jobs were just awful. I was processing death certificates at a credit card company for a while. I would enter into your file that you were dead, because I had your death certificate in my hand. And then the company could go after your estate. It was hell. Terrible. I thought, I can’t keep doing this. I started thinking more about the birds again and how maybe I could turn that into some way of getting into grad school. I started looking around the geography department at the University of Texas and eventually they let me in there. For the next six years basically I studied striated caracaras, the birds that I’d met on that first survey. I went back to the Falklands a couple of times, and to Tierra del Fuego to try to understand this species better and why it was confined to this one set of islands.”
So far, so research career. But it was around this time when Meiburg met Will Sheff. “We started Shearwater, and I joined Okkervil River after that, and gradually the music started to take up more and more time, and it made me push my three year degree into about six years. It took me so long to get my thesis finished.”
Six Shearwater albums on, and he is still drawn back to those research trips to far flung islands, to which he’s continued to adventure when time allows. “Because I’ve been to a lot of them, and because I spend so much of my daydreaming life still on them, I knew somehow there was going to be a record somewhere in here if I could find it. And about three months in I heard this recording, one of the people from Bikini Atoll singing their national anthem.” This tiny Polynesian outcrop became world famous for all the wrong reasons after the end of the Second World War. “In 1946, the US Navy decided it was an excellent place to test atomic weapons,” Meiburg frowns. “There were people living there at the time and the Navy removed them, sent them to another atoll to live, and they’ve never been able to return since because it’s still radioactive.”
The French navy did something similar with Moruroa Atoll right up until the mid-1990s. When one thinks of the south Pacific islands it is usually images of white sand beaches, turquoise lagoons and breezey palms, but the latter-day history of the region is pockmarked with blast marks, and therefore not complete without the telling of military matters. “They pick these atolls because they are very far from everything, and the US Navy wanted to test in the lagoon as they could tow ships in there and try to sink them with atom bombs,” he says, with a hint of disbelief. “They worked very well for that. They did testing there from 1946 to 1954, including the only US atmospheric H-bomb test, so the people of Bikini were unable to return, and they now live in exile on this island called Kili. It’s a tiny little thing, no lagoon at all, about a kilometre long with an airstrip, and they’re dependent mostly on food aid.” He delivers this summation in a matter-of-fact academic lecturer voice which belies an obvious rage at the injustice of the Bikinians’ situation.
He returns to the music. “That anthem was recorded in 1998 on that island, but it sounds like it could have been recorded a thousand years ago. I put the words to that song in the front of the dossier. The language in there is Polynesian, but translated it’s: ‘No longer can I stay, it’s true, no longer can I live in peace and harmony, no longer can I lay my head on my sleeping mat and pillow, because my island and the life I once knew there, the thought is overwhelming, filling me with hopelessness and deep despair, and my spirit wanders until it meets with a current of immense power, and only there can I find tranquility.’ I was blown away by that when I read that was the national anthem. It seems like it could be the anthem for everyone on Earth.”
This signposted the terra firma to which The Golden Archipelago would be tethered. “In some way, everyone feels like you’ve left a home that you can never go back to,” he says. “And the thing that gave it its power and made it so moving to me is that the sound itself is almost joyful or defiant, it’s full of life and energy, it doesn’t sound like a song of defeat or exile. That sound almost manages to alchemically change sorrow into joy, or some third kind of state that is both at once, is a thing that music can do that words really can’t do. I wanted the album to explore this very complex emotional state, and also what happened to these people. I want to fold my own experience of living on islands into it as well.”
There are remote lands scattered across the planet, but why did islands in particular hold such fascination for him? “Islands have been in human stories for a really long time. Islands of the blessed, islands of the damned, fantasy island. They seem to be a rich ground for our projections of what we want the world to be like. Or they’re places of horror. Because they’re little worlds within themselves. It seemed like rich ground symbolically. Ecologically and culturally speaking, islands sometimes preserve little fragments of worlds that are long gone, and that’s another theme or obsession that I always return to, the disappearing world. Islands are evolutionary laboratories. They have to be isolated enough. In the Galapagos, they’re volcanic; they didn’t split off of a continent, they rose right out of the sea, like Hawaii. So they’re just absolutely tabula rasa” – a Latin term which can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle which approximates in English as ‘blank state’, or the epistemological idea that individuals are born without built-in mental content and therefore all knowledge comes from experience or perception. “And then they were colonised by chance by various different species and then, over time, these species diverged there. The effect is really pronounced in a place like that. On other islands, depending on their proximity to a mainland, the effect can be less striking.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to be in some places no other person has ever been. The feeling you get there is of a vast and ancient system that’s the very thing that gave birth to us but that we barely even recognise any more as something that we’re related to.” – Jonathan Meiburg
The interaction between humans and environment has informed the three most recent Shearwater albums, which form a loose trilogy of sorts. “Rook was preoccupied with the relationship between people and the natural world,” he agrees. “This one is maybe more metaphysical in some ways, or religiously preoccupied. I feel there’s an emotional thread that runs through all three; the conflict between the interior life and the exterior life. We live in our minds only, really. That world that you’ve constructed in your mind conforms more or less to the world outside of it, that’s actually there. We end up trying to square the circle between the two by remaking the exterior world in a way that’s more comfortable for us to try to understand. I’ve been lucky enough to be in some places no other person has ever been. The feeling you get there is of a vast and ancient system that’s the very thing that gave birth to us but that we barely even recognise any more as something that we’re related to. You see animals that just come up and look at you. It’s very odd! This isn’t some strange anomaly; this is what was everywhere, and not very long ago. That dissonance between those worlds is a preoccupation for me and these three albums look into different aspects of it.”
For such a thoughtful man whose career has involved much research and adventure, it is perhaps a surprise to discover that he has no formal musical training. His voice – a powerful holler at times, an intimate treatise at others – was initially honed in episcopal church singing, in Raleigh, North Carolina and in Dallas, Texas. “They still did a lot of renaissance music. We were singing stuff from the 1500s, hymnal and even before that. Stuff in Latin, (Giovanni Pierluigi da) Palestrina and the Anglican hymns, there’s something in that sense of melody and harmony burned in there.”
His musical appreciation did not begin and end with the Renaissance, of course. “There are albums that I loved in high school that got just as burned in, like Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut, or Peter Gabriel’s third record. I don’t know why those two in particular I latched on to, but I had a tape with one on one side and one on the other. Sometimes you want to pick something specific, like you’re taking a colour off of a palette, like I want to get a drum sound for this that’s like the sound on this song, but as far as overall structures go, you don’t want to remake something. And also a lot of the process of composition is really trying to turn off your conscious mind and get stuff from your unconscious that’s a combination of all kinds of things you like all churned up and served up to you in a way that you don’t really understand.”
On both The Golden Archipelago and Rook, Meiburg as singer has thrown out some extraordinarily long notes, almost long enough to put Bill Withers to shame; his voice remains one of the band’s most distinctive characteristics. “That’s probably the only time I’ll ever be compared with Bill Withers,” he laughs. “My voice is very interesting to me because I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t quite understand where it comes from or why it is the way it is, it’s more a question trying to use it and what it can do. I do enjoy the feeling you get of a long, sustaining note when the chords keep moving. My favourite kinds of music and art contain contradictory forces. Something that’s moving at great speed and something that’s static. Something that’s beautiful and something that’s ugly. Something that’s tranquil and something that’s uneasy. The more you can pile these conflicting forces into each other in music or in art of any kind, the more powerful it becomes.”
“The more you can pile conflicting forces into each other in music or in art of any kind, the more powerful it becomes.” – Jonathan Meiburg
And what of his contemporaries? “It’s certainly easy to get fatigued by listening to every band that’s playing right now, and you do want to retreat from that or it would make you a bit crazy, although you can also miss out on some things that way. I find lately that some things I really enjoy listening to and put on most frequently is this collection called The Secret Museum Of Mankind. It’s a collection of recordings from around the world from between about 1922 and 1947 or something, from very remote parts of the world. There was this golden age of the gramophone, where these guys were running around trying to get the wildest sounds they could and sell them as novelties. They’re field recordings. You just cranked these things up; you didn’t require generators with you or anything to make these recordings. They’re so full of life it’s disgusting.”
As to why that matters, his appreciation goes beyond the pursuit of the curious. “It’s a snapshot, the last snapshot in some ways, of the world before recorded music really changed the way that we hear music and that we perform music. It used to be that music was a thing that happened when you were making it, or it did not happen. The switch from that to all these little boxes…” His eyes mist over. But he loves hearing sounds from relatively uncharted territories. “Isn’t it nice that you don’t always know what’s going to happen? It gets hard to listen to anything else after you get obsessed with stuff like this.”
There have been various iterations of Shearwater since Meiburg and Sheff formed it. He calls himself “the last man standing”, with his sometime Okkervil River buddy having departed in 2009 – “I was just trading emails the other day with Will, we still talk, but I was in that band for eight years, that’s a long time.” He points to Thor Harris, also of Swans, and ex-wife Kimberley Burke, who have been in the band since 1999. “A band has to be a pretty elastic thing, because it makes an incredible demand on your time and your life, for very little remuneration, of money or otherwise even, sometimes,” he reasons. “You have to be very flexible, especially if you’ve been a band for 10 years. In some ways I wish I’d changed the name of the band after the third record. Some bands are just hatched from the egg fully formed, but they’re not usually my favourite bands. I feel like we’ve taken a long time to figure out what we’re about. I would be very pleased to continue with this line-up forever.” He of course finds a way to tie these thoughts to his avian friends: “Seabirds live a long time, and let’s hope that’s true for the band as well. I think the oldest living bird is a manx shearwater…”
With his music career taking up so much time, does Jonathan Meiburg ever want to leave the industry treadmill of writing, recording, promotion, tour, and back again, and return fully to the birds? “Sometimes I can do that, not to the degree I would like necessarily, but I think everybody feels that way about their job, there are things about it you really like and there are things you can’t stand. I feel lucky that I like as much of it as I do.”
Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago is out now through Matador. Tour dates and further information can be found here.