Austin, Texas collective Shearwater have been adored for their wholly immersive strain of indie-rock since their cult classic 2001 debut effort The Dissolving Room.
When they formed they were an offshoot of Okkervil River, as the band was made up of collaborators Jonathan Meiburg and Will Sheff as an outlet for their more tranquil artistic pursuits. The band has since evolved – taking on Swans percussionist Thor Harris – and coped with the departure of Sheff with great vigour.
Shearwater’s latest release Animal Joy was amongst their finest, displaying a highly-refined spin on their incredibly successful sound and numerous highlights.
As part of our This Music Made Me series, and ahead of Shearwater’s short April/May UK Tour, Meiburg dredged the deepest recesses of his mind for the music that soundtracked his formative years, and came up with some well-known – and some less-known – selections that are sure to tickle your aural tastebuds…
I’ve done a bunch of features like this before, but they always make me feel a little awkward, since they tend to seem forced (look how obscure I am!) or self-aggrandizing (listen for echoes of these classic albums in my brilliant work!).
So rather than blabbering on about Music for 18 Musicians, or Peter Gabriel III, or Metal Box, I want to talk about a handful of records that surface when I rummage in childhood memories, before I thought of myself as any kind of musician.
I’m pretty sure they made as much of an impression on me as anything I’ve aped or admired since. No research, no Internet: this is 100% from memory (i.e. inaccuracies very possible), and in more or less chronological order.
I couldn’t tell you the exact title of this recording, or even the pieces EPB recorded for it (on the pipe organ), but I remember the cover: a red, gold, and purple stained-glass image of Bach’s face, and I remember placing it on our turntable and laying out pots and pans on the linoleum floor of the kitchen, along with my little toy xylophone, so I could play along.
I’d seen Animal on The Muppet Show, so I knew what drums were sort of supposed to look like, and I guess the fact that drums weren’t a feature of this music didn’t phase me. I drove my mother around the bend with this, especially after I broke two of her wooden spoons—but she says I did, at least, drum along in time.
A few years ago I saw Pictures At An Exhibition performed in Austin, and I was amazed by how familiar it was; I could anticipate almost every note, even though I hadn’t listened to the piece as a whole since I was a small child. But boy was I obsessed with it back then.
I remember gazing at the cover of the LP as I listened—a not at all pretty photograph of an artist’s palette, pocked and smeared with crusted-over dollops of paint. It looked like a suppurating wound, but I assumed that it was supposed to be a picture of the music, and it both attracted and repelled me.
There’s a moment—a blast of trombones, I think—from The Hut On Fowl’s Legs that made its way into the earliest nightmare I can remember, in which I was trapped with a boy named James in a scary, locked basement. It still gives me a chill to think about it, and every time I put on the record I dreaded that moment, because I was never sure quite when it was coming up.
Looking back, I wonder if my ideal of what an album ought to be like comes from this piece—the different passages tied together by an overarching theme, the movements so bite-size in length that they might as well be pop songs, the wild extremes of dynamics and texture. It’s a piece that plays the orchestra from top to bottom, and it’s thrilling. At the performance of Pictures I saw, the final movement, The Great Gate Of Kiev made my hair stand on end. It might have been the loudest music I’ve ever heard (and I’ve seen late-model Swans, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr). I thought the conductor was about to be blown off the stage. Did you know that woodwind players in orchestras are as likely as rock drummers to suffer from hearing damage? It’s because they sit right in front of the fucking brass.
I would put this on in the front room of our little Baltimore rowhouse, crank it up, and turn circles in the middle of the floor until I got dizzy and fell down. God, what a feeling!
I’m not sure I ever listened to side 2, but I remember the gatefold cover, with the black-and-white image of Darth Vader’s face superimposed on a star field on the back. Shivers.
Remember that this was before movies were available on demand, or even home video; this was the next best way to relive it, or imagine yourself inside it. [Note: for an extra thrill: 45 RPM!]
The film is forgettable, but my family adored this soundtrack when I was a kid; it was a record we could all agree on.
For my mother and her sisters and friends it was nearly talismanic—it brought back their teenage years, I guess—but for me it wasn’t nostalgia, it was just a bunch of songs that sounded great. And so unlike the radio!
In my mind, Marvin Gaye, The Rascals, Three Dog Night, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin, and CCR were all in one room playing, partly because I didn’t realize that the picture on the front of the album—of the cast of the movie—wasn’t a picture of the musicians.
A few years ago I met Jeff Goldblum backstage at The Conan O’Brien Show, and I resisted telling him that I’d imagined for a long time that he was the guy who sang Joy To The World.
I was gob-smacked when All I Want Is You turned up in Juno; I thought I owned the only copy of this record. It’s a great children’s album, wry and wicked and clever and childish in the best way, and if I had kids, I’d definitely play it for them.
And then there are the liner notes on the back: a thoughtful essay that includes a picture of BLP as a baby and contains a line about how he doesn’t feel ready to embrace dying—heavy reading when you’re six years old.
I can still sing When The House Is Dark And Quiet all the way through, a song about two brothers tormenting their teenage babysitter:
We tip-toe on our tip-toesand we listen to her laughWhile the water is runningso she thinks we’re in the bath.She tells her friend she’s hungrySo we know just how to tease her:We go and get the kitty catAnd hide it in the freezer…
As for the music, the wooded slopes of the Blue Ridge were familiar to me from family trips to see relatives in Georgia and North Carolina, so all kinds of scenes were handy; I felt like the piece had been written just for us. And I loved the drama and grandeur of the Fanfare and the spring and hop of Rodeo. They seemed like movie soundtracks to me, which was the highest praise I could have given them at the time, and I liked imagining movies to go along with them. Starring me, of course.
In the age of American Idol, it’s hard to imagine that NBC once commissioned an opera to be broadcast live in prime-time, much less a Christmas opera so overtly pious that it’s more or less religious propaganda. But that’s exactly what they did, and the story of a shepherd boy (Amahl) and his mother who receive a visit from the Three Kings on their way to visit the infant Jesus gave me my first starring role on a stage when our choir director cast me in the title role at our church in North Carolina.
The thrill of that might be clouding my judgment, but I still have a deep fondness for this piece as music, and I can sing you almost any part of it. Menotti could be a wild composer (check out Help, Help, the Globolinks!) but for this opera he just penned one beautiful melody after another, laced with dignity and humor and an earthy pathos. Opera in general is still pretty opaque to me as a genre (honestly, it mostly seems shrill and ugly), but this one’s a gem.
I learned the recording by heart, out of necessity, because I was already trying to cover for the fact that I couldn’t really read music (two piano teachers gave up on me because I more or less refused to learn). My father was also cast in the production, as the kings’ attendant, which made for a weird scene when I had to physically and verbally attack him after he seized the actress playing my mother for stealing some of the kings’ gold so that she could feed her hungry, lame child (me).
Don’t you dare,
Don’t you dare,
Don’t you dare, ugly man, hurt my mother!
I’ll break all your bones
I’ll smash in your face
I’ll knock out your teeth—
Don’t you dare!
The scene’s not quite played for laughs, and I remember that it made everyone kind of uncomfortable.
Judging by his record collection, my father didn’t notice most of the musical icons of his demographic and generation – among the missing are Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, The Who, Pink Floyd, The Dead, and Neil Young. But he was fiercely devoted to Simon & Garfunkel, and had all their albums, of which this one stood out, especially the song The Boxer, which I used to put on over and over again.
It gave me the same euphoric feeling I got from Appalachian Spring and Star Wars, and the line “in the clearing stands a boxer” stuck with me, because there’s a field we used to pass off a back road in north Georgia that I always pictured when I heard that line. I drove by there last year and, right on cue, The Boxer started playing in my head, which I guess means the poor guy’s been standing there for a very long time. I hope he gets a lunch break.
One other note about my father and S&G: I remember my mother giving him a copy of Paul Simon’s solo LP Still Crazy After All These Years, because it had the S&G “reunion” song on it, My Little Town, which my father loved. This fact amazes me a bit, though, since as far as I know it’s as dark as his tastes ever ran in any kind of art.
Check out the first verse:
In my little town
I grew up believing
God keeps his eye on us all
And he used to lean upon me
As I pledged allegiance to the wall
Lord, I recall
In my little town
I suppose it’s possible that those lyrics didn’t seem so dark to him. But surely the last verse did:
In my little town
I never meant nothing,
I was just my father’s son
Saving my money
Dreaming of glory
Twitching like a finger on the trigger of a gun
Leaving nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town
What a way to end a recording career. That my dad identified somehow with this song hints at a side of him that still eludes me, even though we’re very close.
This seems like a good stopping place, because it’s the first cassette I remember asking for as a Christmas present, and in a way I feel like I can trace my day job back to that moment. I remember the feel and smell (a slight inky tang) of the plastic wrap and the milky cassette, the enigmatic envelope on the cover, the blank insert without lyrics or information of any kind, even the way the corner of the cassette case felt in my mouth when I chewed on it. It seemed like an artefact from another world.
To be completely honest, I hadn’t really asked for it. I’d wanted Brothers In Arms, because I liked the picture of the floating guitar on the cover, and because I liked Money For Nothing, which I heard on the radio. But the message got garbled somewhere on the way to my father, who gave me this one instead. Say what you will about Dire Straits, but I loved this record (their second), and when I revisited it a couple of years ago it still sounded pretty cool; unlike the canned bombast of their ’80s hits, it’s very lean, just a four-piece band playing, no fuzz or saxophones or synths.
(There was one credit on the tape: “produced by Barry Beckett and Jerry Wexler”, names that meant nothing to me, but now I imagine a youngish Mark Knopfler, fresh from his days as an English teacher and coming off the high of his first #1, going to Wexler and Beckett because he wanted the classic sound of their Aretha Franklin recordings.)
Listening to this album was the first time I ever started thinking about what an electric guitar really was and what it sounded like (in the ’80s you often saw images of bands playing guitars, but as often as not there wasn’t a recognizable guitar within earshot). I wanted to make a sound like that. I’d built fake electric guitars out of scrap lumber before, and pretended to play them along with the radio, but something about this record made me want to go further.
I couldn’t really tell what the songs were about, but I liked how dusky and gritty it sounded, and the last song, Follow Me Home, seemed strange and magnetic to me. It starts with the sound of waves lapping the shore (probably in the Bahamas, where the record was made), and a shimmering, clinking sound I think is probably the rigging of sailboats in port smacking the masts in a light wind.
Well the sun
Celebration in the town tonight
All day long,
They’ve been slaughtering up on the stone
I remember listening, rewinding, listening again, on the old stereo in our little basement workroom in North Carolina. I don’t know what it was about that song – maybe it was its dreamy, droning simplicity – but it seemed like a place where I could get in.
After a while I went looking for the nylon-string guitars my parents had each owned when they met (and hadn’t played in years). My mother’s was in a hard case, fastened with a latch; when I opened it I saw that the bridge had snapped off. My father’s was in a flimsy nylon sleeve, hardly a case at all, sealed with a frayed zipper and covered in dust. I unzipped it and pulled out the guitar – a little mahogany Guild folk model – and took it back to the workroom, where I propped it on my knee. I was tall for eleven, but the guitar still felt huge and awkward, and I pressed down hard on the strings. When I had the first notes of the little figure at the top of Follow Me Home, I rewound the tape again, cued it up to the end of Single-Handed Sailor, and pressed play again.
Shearwater play a short UK tour beginning at London’s XOYO on 30 April 2014. Dates and further information are here.