It snowed this March in Barcelona, for the first time in so long that nobody’s really sure when it last happened. I’m talking real, heavy snow – the kind that can bring a city to a hushed standstill, shutting down all modes of public transport and seeing cars abandoned on the side of the road in the process. Yet for all this, it was only a few days later that the skies retained their cobalt shade and the temperature crept up even higher than before, making a beeline for the balmy 20s.
It’s been a month of extremes then, much like those found on Shearwater’s new record, The Golden Archipelago (not to be too heavy-handed about it or anything). Broadly contemplating life on remote islands, it veers from the claustrophobic barrage of ‘Corridors’ to the sun-splashed beauty of ‘Castaways’, and soaring, expansive arrangements of ‘God Made Me’ and ‘Uniforms’. In what’s already been a fantastic year for albums, it ranks among the very best – an ambitious, evocative work that serves as the final part of a trilogy that began in 2006 with Palo Santo and continued through 2008’s Rook.
TLOBF met bandleader Jonathan Meiburg at the tail end of the band’s European tour following their show at Barcelona’s Apolo 2, where they were ably supported by a suitably unhinged David Thomas Broughton. It was a fairly long conversation, and what appears below is essentially the complete transcript, bar a few asides.
(Basically, it might be worth grabbing some biscuits and putting the kettle on for this one.)
How’s the tour going?
It’s been great. We’ve really enjoyed getting to know the new songs, and creating a set that really works as one piece. Kind of like the record. That’s how I think of the set…as something that has all these peaks and valleys, but you arrive somewhere by the end of it.
I thought ‘Uniforms’ in particular sounded great tonight.
Oh, thank you. That was a really tough one to figure out, as on the record it’s all strings and winds and mallet percussion and stuff. And we thought, “How are we going to do that live?”, but decided to go for this big, rock, two electric guitars sound. It seems like it’s working pretty well.
Have there been any particularly memorable shows from the tour?
I think…the show we played in Hamburg was one of my favourite shows, ever, of ours, and it’s hard to say exactly why that was; it just felt that way from the stage. But what you feel from the stage and the way the audience perceives it are often so different it’s almost impossible to draw any connection between them. Sometimes you’ll play a show that you didn’t quite feel you were in and the audience loves it, and sometimes you think “Man, that was it, that was the best show we’ve ever done!” and people are like, “Oh it was good. It was fine.” [Laughs] It’s so subjective.
But that [Hamburg] one was really special and good. The one we played last night actually, in Montpelier, was great. There were very few people, in a little place that normally hosts metal and ska bands, but it was small, loud and really fun. We had an interview there actually, and before the show the guy kept asking us about our connections to folk music. I tried to patiently smile my way through these questions and…I get really tired of us being labelled some kind of folk outfit. I just don’t think the band bears much relation to that. And then after the show, he was like: “Okay, I’m sorry I asked you all those questions about folk music!”.
How was the Scala show in London?
It was great. Anytime we play one of the big cities – like London or New York or Los Angeles – there’s always this cloud of anticipation about the show. We really want to do a good job, but the best way to screw up is to say “Watch this!”, you know? But it was great, the audience responded really well. But there’s always this nervousness leading up to it. It makes it hard to really enjoy in the same way you can other shows.
Did you get that here in Barcelona?
I wasn’t concerned so much about that, since it was our first show here other than a festival show, which kind of has a built-in audience. I was mostly just glad that there was anybody here! [Laughs] You never know what to expect.
Thinking about the new album…do you keep up with the press reaction to these things?
Yeah. But it’s not necessarily the best thing to do. You probably shouldn’t do it, ‘cause praise tends to feel sort of unsatisfying; like eating lots of junk food, but if anybody says anything negative about it that’s what you remember, and you carry it around with you for weeks. But I’m sorry, you had a question?
Well – it seems like lots of people have picked up on the idea that it works best as one, coherent piece, like you mentioned earlier with the set list. Although for me, you could take certain tracks in isolation and they’d still be really striking.
Well, yeah, we made it that way very purposefully; we didn’t want you to necessarily have to listen to the whole thing, but I think it’s really best if you do.
I read the interview you did with Nick Flynn for Tank Magazine
Oh yeah! That was fun.
- and he mentioned how he really likes listening to your stuff on shuffle. You were a bit…
Yeah. I was aghast.
Could you tell us a little bit about the way the record starts, with ‘Meridian’ and the national anthem of Bikini Atoll?
I was really happy with the way the record started. There’s always a risk with using a field recording – the main risk being that that music will sound better than your record. I thought that it really seemed to work though. It’s a nice intro on a lot of different levels.
Because I found that Rook was a little…I don’t really know how to put it, but there seemed to be a sense of coldness there.
I agree with that. With this record I really wanted to make it much warmer, and just a little more alive. Rook seems a little bit clinical to me.
And it is warmer, from the off – the recording of the Bikinians singing is amazing.
Yeah. It’s amazing because of the performance; it’s amazing ‘cause it’s 1998 – it’s very recent, despite sounding like it’s from at least a hundred years ago; and because of the words, you know, which are in the booklet. The thing that is so striking to me is that you have this song of despair and exile, but it’s delivered with all this joy. This energy that somehow transcends…it’s like a victory, even in exile. I wanted to try to explore that emotional state with the album.
‘Meridian’ is set on an island in the South Pacific, informed by your grandfather’s wartime experiences. Could you tell us a little more about that?
He was a radio operator on Guam. By the time he got there the war was pretty much over, which was fine for him – he wasn’t involved in any fighting – but he still got this very peculiar sense of being in a place where a lot had happened. And he was really almost a boy, you know; a really young fellow from South Carolina, suddenly stationed on this island in the South Pacific. Some of that was what I wanted to get into with that song. It was something I thought about in the Galapagos. They were building airfields in the Galapagos in World War II, you know? And that place is so far away from anything. It’s like there’s almost no part of the world that wasn’t touched by that war. You’d have places where, for thousands and thousands of years there’d been so little change; cmpletely insular worlds. And suddenly this other world intruded on it in such a massive and overwhelming way.
The album is inspired, in part, by some travelling you did a while ago…
What seems like a long time ago now, yeah – 1997 was a while back. But those travels continued on and off in different places up until about 2006. And since then I’ve been doing this all the time.
Which is travelling in a sense, I guess.
Yeah, but not the good kind. It’s just one continuous tour of the cities of the world, with other places glimpsed from out of the van. So I don’t really think of it like travelling, it’s just like…an interesting business trip.
Would it be fair to say that The Golden Archipelago is a more personal record for you, given its themes, and the dossier you assembled to accompany it?
Yeah, that’s the funny thing. People sometimes talk about our music as impersonal, but this record for me was extremely personal. It doesn’t get more personal than some of these materials I put in the dossier. Like pieces of a little painting that an Inuk [Inuit] drew for me when I was living in their house, or a picture of Robin Woods sitting on top of a mountain in the Falklands. He was the man who introduced me to birds. I’ve got very personal connections to almost every single image in there.
Could you expand a little on the photograph of the bat?
That’s one of the images that I salvaged from the Aboriginal settlement in Australia. I tried to help organise the photographic archives of the Land Management office there, which were just in piles; in complete disarray. I organised them in the most elementary kind of way, really dumb, but maybe I got them back into the cabinets in a way that might make better sense [laughs]. That image, I think, was of a guy named John Clarke, who worked as a ranger there. I think those are his hands. He’s such an enormous guy, holding this tiny little bat. I loved it, that you can see through its wings, and you can see how gently these enormous hands are holding him.
It’s an amazing image. I found a bat in the corner of my bedroom once, and I had no idea what it was for what felt like ages.
It’s strange – they seem like an in-between, interstitial animal. Have you ever been to Australia? If you ever go, there are the hugest bats, Flying Foxes – like this big, flapping around you in the evening like ravens.
In the mini-documentary you talk about trying to evoke this thrill you get when visiting somewhere for the first time, where you have no idea what awaits you…
And then when you’re confronted with it, it’s really difficult to understand. It might take a long time and a lot of work to understand it. Even now, years later, sometimes I’ll see or read something and I’ll think, “Oh! That’s what was going on there!”. When I went back to the Falklands in 2006 it was such a gift, as I was able to see it in such a completely different context from doing it that first time. You’re lucky to go once, you know? I was incredibly lucky to go twice – I was so grateful that I was able to see it in the context of everything that I’ve tried to learn about it in the intervening ten years.
The first time round, didn’t you basically harangue this guy into taking you on as an assistant?
Robin, yeah. I think he was amused by my naiveté more than anything – I think he liked the idea of giving me an experience that would really change my life.
It was a fellowship that gave you the opportunity to do that whole trip?
It’s called the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. He founded IBM. They fund you to do a project that you design yourself in one or more non-US countries for a year, and that’s it. So you just send them a project statement and a personal statement and tell them what you want to do. And they can be any length! I pitched this idea of community life at the ends of the earth, even though I’d never really left the South Eastern United States. My poor parents had to put me in a plane to Argentina and wave goodbye when I was 21! But it worked out; I definitely came back different.
Is that when birds became a massive interest for you?
Yeah. I never would’ve thought I’d develop such a great interest in birds, but when I met Robin in the Falklands and I saw these places, with the caracaras and the penguins and the albatross, all concentrated on these little islands. What made this…how did this happen? That question took a long time to investigate.
This whole idea of islands, and why they have such a strong hold on our imaginations…recently I’ve been to see Shutter Island, taught English out of textbooks all about Borneo and the Andaman Islands, picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, the new season of Lost has just started –
Don’t think I don’t know it!
Not a fan, then?
No, I love it! I’m totally hooked on that show.
Me too. All that, and I’ve been listening to The Golden Archipelago a lot…
This whole thing goes back to Homer, with Odysseus travelling from island to island, trying to get to his home…
What is it, you think, that makes them so appealing?
Part of it, I think, is that we tend to project our own fantasies onto them so much. They seem like a little blank slate. So many people have an idea of being able to create your own world, and an island seems like a manageable-sized world. It’s like in that D.H. Lawrence story The Man Who Loved Islands – more often than not, when you try to project your own fantasy onto the natural world the world that is comes back, and keeps intruding on the world you try and create in your mind. The album is about that.
‘Hidden Lakes’ talks about the “Empire and the dreams of us,” speaking about the tyranny of this world that we want – that we think we want – and that we spend so much time trying to actually create, though it seems like we’re slipping. It’s like there’s an external force controlling us. Or maybe it’s just our own biology, trying to bring that world into being.
I spoke to Will [Sheff, Shearwater co-founder] in London just after Obama became the President-elect. It was really interesting for me, as he was the first American I spoke to since the Democratic victory. He talked about the ‘Herculean’ task that lay ahead of the President – how do you think he’s doing so far?
Better than people think. I have a little inside window to the government because my father works for the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and has done for the last 30 years. He says that in all of his time there he’s never seen it as energised, as effective and proactive as it is right now. People forget that it’s not just the Presidency that changes – the leadership in all those executive offices changes, and even though legislation gets hung up and takes forever to get pushed through, the executive agencies are doing a lot. Interior for Fish and Wildlife, the EPA and CPC; these agencies have been unshackled and enabled in ways that they never were during the Bush administration. They’re doing good work now, even while the endless debate over healthcare goes on in congress.
How’s it been going on tour with David [Thomas Broughton]?
David is inspiring in every way. He’s a fantastic musician and a great person to be around. Every show is different, every single night. I feel really lucky I’ve gotten to spend some time with him.
How did you guys hook up?
We saw him play at South by Southwest last year, and it was…a really aggressive, confrontational performance. We were just totally mesmerised by it. You could tell that half the audience couldn’t understand it and the other half was rooting for him. It was great.
There is a certain intensity to his live show – my flatmate asked if he was alright after his set…
Yeah, it’s wonderful. People aren’t so used to that feeling, but it’s so powerful. On this tour the audience has always been right with him by the end of the show. He’s just been turning it around, completely on his own terms, bringing them in. It’s great.
I have a few quick, adventure-themed questions for you. Like…the highest altitude you’ve ever been to?
Probably…14,005 in Ecuador, the Andes – I was looking for Carunculated Caracaras.
A successful mission?
Oh yeah, a total success. It was incredible – I really want to go back to South America. It’s probably the next place I’ll go.
Hottest and coldest climates?
Hottest…probably Texas [laughs]. And Central Australia is really, incredibly hot – it’s like an oven out there. Coldest…you know, I’ve never really been in –20 degrees kind of cold. I’ve never been to Antarctica. But certainly the Falklands were chilly. And up in the Arctic at summertime; that was pretty cold for me.
And the longest spent without talking to another human being?
…Probably not that long. Maybe a week, something like that. I’d like to try that again. Maybe in the Galapagos – there was a while when me and the other two people weren’t talking.
Getting back to the album, earlier you said that it was difficult not to keep up with the critical reaction to your work…
It made me chuckle a little bit, and it made me sort of sad as well, to see that there seems to be a growing consensus that Rook was…better. When we finished this album I felt far better about it than I did about Rook at that stage.
I’m kind of with you on that. It feels like this one brings it all together…
With all of our records, or at least the last two, there’s this funny lag on the appraisal of them. Like, at the end of the year people have always said how they came to really love this record. And I think, because we’re one of those bands that’s very difficult to classify, the record seems confusing at the beginning, like when you’re trying to work out what it’s like. And that confusion first manifests itself as a kind of distaste – like when you taste an unfamiliar flavour – but then over time it seems to grow, and become more familiar.
Would you say The Golden Archipelago is the record you’re most proud of?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. I feel like at the end of this one we got to somewhere we’ve always wanted to go.
That’s what it sounds like…it seems more fluid.
I was really proud of it when we finished. I thought that it really sounded like a whole piece. I also thought that everybody was instrumentally represented on it really well.
Yeah – and Thor! He sounds amazing on it.
We really wanted to capture Thor. And Kim, too – in ways that they hadn’t been captured before. Like when they play live – I think we got there on this album.
There’s this huge, spacious feel to ‘Castaways’, I think primarily because of the percussion…
It’s funny, we almost didn’t include that song. It was one of the last things we did. We were playing it and we couldn’t get a version that we liked, and our producer and engineer John [Congleton] said “Why don’t you play it without any cymbals?” and so we did, and were like, “Oh, okay; that’s the way to do it.” It sounded a little too normal the way we had it, like a conventional pop song. We wanted to make it a bit strange – or even a lot strange – and it doesn’t… People love this feeling of being affirmed by a big, rock anthem, and that’s the very thrill that I want to withhold in some ways. ‘Corridors’, for instance, is not a big rock anthem – it’s supposed to make you feel nervous.
That song is almost difficult to listen to…
Yeah, we tried to…take it right to the edge but not over it. We tried to make it so it wasn’t too nasty sounding. Just weird enough. But I feel like it really injects a much-needed life and energy into the record.
Do you have a favourite song from the album?
My favourite might be ‘God Made Me’, just because it goes so many places in such a short amount of time, and they all feel earned. I like the depth and the space of it. And also the subject – it’s more about the Bikinians than most of the other songs on the record.
There are so many themes and ideas incorporated into the whole thing – from the Bikinians, to the idea of isolation and our impact on our surroundings – and some of the lyrics suggest a kind of…bleakness. Certainly out of the context of this big, lush sound they rest against.
Like in ‘Uniforms’, where “The earth blooms for the last time.”
People…we tend to destroy every landscape we touch. We sort of can’t help it. Some groups of people have figured out ways to live within it and make it work, but it usually takes a long time. And when the culture that you and I are representatives of comes barging in, it’s usually curtains.
Jonathan recently blogged for The Huffington Post on some of the subjects that crop up towards the end of this interview – read his article here
(Sagrada Familia photo courtesy of Ingrid Abancó)