Jonathan Meiburg, rock music’s very own Indiana Jones, recently travelled to the jungles of Guyana in search of a rather unusual Holy Grail. When the American isn’t fronting the band Shearwater, he researches birds in remote locations such as the Falklands and Madagascar. This time, Meiburg was looking for a bird of prey called the Red-throated Caracara.
Venturing upriver by boat, Meiburg’s small expedition group observed creatures such as a puma, wholly unaccustomed to humans, staring at them from the riverbanks. The water beneath Meiburg’s boat hull twitched with creatures far scarier than the piranhas. “There were stingrays in these rivers,” exclaims Meiburg. “The vampire fish has two giant teeth that slot up into its skull!”
As part of the fieldwork for a book he’s writing, Meiburg used microphones to track the call of the Caracara piercing the rainforest.
The part-time ornithologist knows a thing or two about exotic soundscapes. In his more familiar role in Shearwater, Meiburg is a sonic explorer who writes songs about the sort of subjects covered in National Geographic – ecology, history, world culture. Shearwater’s ninth album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, boasts an array of creative sounds, as well as the band’s most widescreen melodies to date. It’s often as lush as an Amazonian ecosystem.
“I tried to make a record that was melodically pretty straightforward but texturally quite complex, such that you could enjoy it when you first listen to it, but then 10, 20 or 30 listens later, you might still be picking up some details,” says Meiburg, who is the only constant member of Shearwater’s ever-evolving line-up. “On the record, there are a lot of places where the songs suddenly take a left turn and enter another realm for a little while. You can’t quite be sure what’s going to happen next. I love that. The more often that can happen in a record, the happier I get.”
At the time Meiburg was writing songs for Jet Plane and Oxbow, he was listening to early 1980s albums such as Peter Gabriel’s third solo record, Laurie Anderson’s Big Science and David Bowie’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Meiburg and regular Shearwater producer Danny Reisch made a bold decision: they’d limit themselves to recording with gear from that era. (That explains the use of Rototom drums, a sound that’s been out of fashion longer than Burt Reynolds’ moustache.)
The choice of instruments tied in with the album’s overarching lyrical theme. Jet Plane and Oxbow examines the stories Americans tell themselves about their country and their place in the world.
I’d been listening to Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock quite a bit – another band that broke almost completely with an earlier version of itself.
“In some ways it’s a Cold War subject, which is why I wanted to place the record more in a Cold War feel sonically,” says the songwriter. “I think of it as a time that’s somehow analogous to the one we’re in. It’s a good way to look at now through then, because maybe we can see clearer than when we’re in the middle of it.”
Yet Jet Plane and Oxbow doesn’t sound like an artefact from Ronald Reagan’s first term. In typical Shearwater fashion, the musicians found ways to transmute the noises of decades-old gadgetry. Various instruments, such as a mountain dulcimer played with a cello bow, were processed through an Eventide H949 Harmonizer. Meiburg warbled notes from an ARP Solina, a string synth famously utilised by Pink Floyd, and ran it through a tape echo into an old spring reverb from the 80s called a Master Room. On the track Filaments, whose jungle rhythm is indebted to David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, Meiburg plays a guitar solo that somehow resembles an Indian snake charmer’s oboe.
“The Stratocaster is from 1979,” Meiburg explains. “I was totally destroying the signal with a couple of different layers of overdrive and distortion and then playing it with an EBow. We distressed the sound so many times that it transformed. You plug in an electric guitar and it turns into a bassoon!”
Shearwater’s pursuit of ambitious sounds and their unique musical identity has made fans out of progressive musicians such as Steve Hogarth of Marillion, John Wesley and Steven Wilson.
“It’s really hard to articulate what it is I love about Shearwater, because it’s really hard to describe what they do,” says Wilson. “It’s very musical, but at the same time it’s the antithesis of muso. It’s very atmospheric, but you also have the aesthetics of noise and modern alternative music. It’s a very unique, personality led band. Jonathan’s very interested in making every record distinctly different from the previous record. He also seems very restless, in a good way.”
WHEN MEIBURG ROAMED A BRAZILIAN RAINFOREST last year, he came face-to-face with a jaguar. It was everything he might have dreamed of when he was an imaginative child rambling in the woods behind his home in North Carolina.
“Following the creek down there and building forts in these tangles of vines, I just had a sense of a world that had many mysteries and where anything was possible,” he recalls. “As I’ve gotten older, that’s scaled up.”
During his early 20s, the budding naturalist earned a Master’s degree in geography at the University of Texas in Austin. But Meiburg had also become a formidable songwriter who caught the ear of Will Sheff, leader of the popular indie rock group Okkervil River. The duo formed Shearwater, named after the long-winged seabird, and wrote acoustic folk music that listed heavily toward the side of twee. (Meiburg concurrently played keyboards in Okkervil River for several years.) When Sheff left after three albums, Meiburg embarked upon a radical new direction. He envisaged using instruments such as banjo, violin, glockenspiel, trumpet, vibraphone and harp in a rock context.
“I’d been listening to Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock quite a bit – another band that broke almost completely with an earlier version of itself,” he says.
You can’t quite be sure what’s going to happen next. I love that. The more often that can happen in a record, the happier I get.
The result? 2006’s Palo Santo, a richly layered rock album that emulated Talk Talk’s sense of space, texture and dynamics. That it did so without actually sounding like Talk Talk is testament to Shearwater’s powerful musical individuality. The full bloom of Meiburg’s baritone voice took its cues from Nico, the German singer who joined The Velvet Underground and later released solo albums such as The Marble Index.
“Her voice always had a kind of disconnected quality with the Velvets, but in The Marble Index she seems utterly, almost scarily present, and I wanted to use her voice, and her music, to guide and inspire me on a new path. In 2005, I spent six weeks on an uninhabited island in the Galápagos, assisting on a study of Galapagos hawks, and at the end of the day I’d sit in my tent and work on songs in my head. Several ended up as the core of Palo Santo, which now seems to me like the first true Shearwater record.”
The follow-up, Rook (2008), was a masterpiece that refined Shearwater’s organic sound with more spacious and atypical arrangements. Meiburg’s lyrics, meanwhile, were equal parts Charles Darwin and Cormac McCarthy as he mused upon mankind’s place in the greater ecological epoch. Shearwater’s next outing, The Golden Archipelago (2010), emphasised concision. With most of its songs clocking in at under four minutes, Meiburg’s attention to vivid detail was akin to Michelangelo working on the scale of a postage stamp. By contrast, the drastic swerve of Animal Joy (2012) found Meiburg ditching orchestral stringed instruments, turning up his guitar amps, and switching up the rhythm patterns.
Meiburg likes to think of Shearwater’s ever‑evolving music as fitting into a category that’s labelled “none of the above”. The explorer in him certainly feels a strong kinship with some of the first progressive musical pioneers.
“The original prog bands – like Van der Graaf Generator, or early Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson or even Fairport Convention or Roy Harper or Queen – were really joyous, courageous efforts to broaden rock’s sonic and thematic template,” says Meiburg. “Even when those efforts were excessive or ridiculous there’s a spirit of courage and adventure in them I admire. And it wasn’t only because they experimented with ‘new’ sounds – some of it was cheeky repurposing of forms, ideas and poses that were quite old. I’d like to think of Jet Plane and Oxbow in that tradition.”
Meiburg has recruited a mostly fresh line‑up to tour the new album for the first half of 2016. Then he’ll once again turn his attention to the book he’s writing about the twin fates of the Caracara and the 19th-century ornithologist William Henry Hudson. For Meiburg, it’s an opportunity to retrace Hudson’s intrepid adventures in South America’s jungles.
“People ask me, ‘How does this part of your life affect the music?’” says Meiburg. “I’m just there to be open and to learn what I can, write down what I can, record what I can, listen and absorb. In the music, you get to turn all that around and become a transmitter. You try to gather all these things that you’ve felt and learned and try to express them in a way that goes beyond words – which is the power of music.”
Jet Plane and Oxbow is now out on Sub Pop. Visit Shearwater’s website for more information .