It's been a long while since Shearwater transcended their low-key, nocturnal, alt-folk beginnings, and who remembers there was ever another songwriter onboard? With their chamber-orchestration, and Jonathan Meiburg's astonishing vocal range, Shearwater's best songs put them in a league with Low and Antony & the Johnsons. With Shearwater's most exciting and fully realized album due in a few weeks, DiS met Jonathan on promotional duties...
DiS: Given that The Golden Archipelago is being called the third part of a trilogy (with Palo Santo and Rook) it’s pleasing to hear that it’s yet another leap forward. How do you feel about it?
JM: I’ve been the most pleased with it than I’ve been with any record I’ve been involved with… but this band has been involved with a lot of records! It felt like we’ve got a lot of things right that we never did before.
DiS: The biggest change seems to be the percussion…
JM: Yes! It’s very very intentional. I felt that we’d never got [Thor] as good on record as he is live, and let him be more creative. I was just determined to capture Thor’s performances in the way. A real touchstone for the record, in that way, was Peter Gabriel’s third record. He had a no cymbals rule, and we didn’t quite do that, but we used more elemental sounding percussion.
DiS: That makes me think of Yeasayer [whose first record followed the same rule] because cymbals cut through everything, but if you don’t have them you’re forced to write more dynamic rhythm parts.
JM: Well, it’s important to me to use as wide a sonic, and dynamic range as you can, and to hopefully achieve as wide a range of emotional effects as we can… which is sort of the point, and so I’m interested in writing these songs that aren’t very long, but they go a lot of places in a short time.
DiS: One thing that occurred to me [listening to ‘Death of the Waters’], was that although the dynamics are what set Shearwater apart, that it might threaten radio-play.
JM: I don’t care about radio play…
DiS: That’s what I wanted to hear!
JM: I just don’t care. They’ve made a radio edit of one of the songs, but it’s not important… what I’m interested in is the album as a form.
[DiS is quietly delighted by this, because Shearwater have been Exhibit A in a long-running argument for why all this talk of the death of the album is pushing the best artists to prove its merits; Palo Santo was actually re-recorded by the band, and Rook, at 34 minutes, triumphantly refuses to pad itself out because an album “should” be 45 minutes at least.]
…it’s kind of anachronistic, but I like albums that are a whole piece, and the songs are movements within that piece. Although… I don’t want to make a quote-unquote Concept Album. People run to something like The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway [the last Genesis album with Peter Gabriel], or Journey to the Centre of the Earth [Rick Wakeman of Yes]; something that requires a libretto, and leads you by the nose. It leaves no room for the listener.
DiS: The press release mentions The Final Cut… [virtually a solo-record for Roger Waters, though credited to Pink Floyd, which focused on the legacy of WWII and the loss of his father, with most of the rockstar narcissism of The Wall exorcised]
JM: That record was huge for me.
DiS: Is the connection that your grandfather was in the South Pacific during the war?
JM: Both, in fact. It was towards the end of the war, and that’s where you went. One was on Okinawa, and one was on Guam. They were from Georgia and South Carolina, and especially my grandfather on Guam, had never expected to leave South Carolina in his life. It affected them in ways we’re still trying to understand, I think. The first song on the new record, ‘Meridian’, thinks about his time there.
DiS: In a sense, the songs obscure any references to particular times [and so make you think of a larger historical span]. There’s a suggestion that this place, which is associated with the dawn of history, and evolution [in the Western imagination], is also associated with the culmination of progress – the failure of civilization that is the testing, and then use of the atomic bomb.
JM: On Bikini Atoll… well, with any record, it’s like peering into a darkened room, with a flashlight. You know: “what are the dimensions of this room…?” I was trying to gather melodies, and then I came across this recording of these people, on the Bikini Atoll. They were moved in 1846 to this little island called Kili, and this recording was made in 1998, and it’s the first sound you hear on the record. This is all in the dossier [which accompanies the new record]. The words are something like “my spirit wanders until it meets a current of immense power, and only there can I find tranquillity”. It’s just a helluva national anthem! [laughs] I’m sure there isn’t another one like it. And it’s a song of exile, which is a thing, I think, everyone feels a little bit; it could be the anthem for everyone everywhere.
DiS: On the central song of the album, ‘Corridors’, there’s this conflation of images of ecstasy, and leaving the body, that seemed to be related to mental illness and/or shock therapy, but really foregrounded how much they can be like shamanic ecstasy or spirit possession.
JM: What I was trying to do with that was to evoke a literal or metaphorical prison island – which is one of the many things an island can be: a refuge, and they can also be a prison. I was thinking of an island off Guayana, or Saint Helena, or even Guantanamo. So I wanted to evoke this grinding repetition…
DiS: I imagined you’d seen a particular hospital, on an island, in the South Pacific. My mother worked in a leprosarium, out there…
JM: My friend Nick Flynn wrote a book about America in the age of State-sanctioned torture, and talks a lot about Abu Ghraib. But my girlfriend also works in the State Mental Hospital. Going back to the anthem, though… the thing that makes it so moving is it’s quite joyful. It’s got an ecstatic quality to it, and it’s like that IS the “current of immense power”.
DiS: That often seems to be the way with Melanesian choral singing – it’s much more gently undulating than Gospel, say, which pushes you into ecstasy; the Melanesian style draws you in more subtly, using more vowel sounds.
JM: In the last few years it’s been like “World Music Part 2”, so I don’t know if it’s a zeitgeist thing, but some of the records I’ve been listening to are from a series called the Secret Museum of Mankind. It’s up to 8 volumes now, compiled by this awesome guy in Long Island, of music recorded between 1922 to 1997, which captures this kind of music that no longer really exists, where music is made, and then ceases to exist. If we could zoom back 150 years, we’d be amazed at how much music was being made by everyone.
DiS: Back when people bought sheet music the way you by pop singles.
JM: Right, and people would sit around singing after supper, and they’d be amazed if you told them this was all going to vanish, and be replaced by little boxes. So… my favourite records have always had this openness, and it’s a quality I try to achieve, that is extremely important to me, which is why we needed a large room to get the sound, which you can’t really fake […] We recorded at this place in El Paso, out in the desert; a big room with a piano.
DiS: At the Bush Hall gig [September 2008], there was some great showmanship when you all re-located to the back of the room, right at the end, to play at the piano, with the audience sitting down to watch. Have you ever been able to do that since?
JM: Once in a while. Pianos are rare, but it’s fun to do. The new shows may be more theatrical, but I’m not quite sure. I’d love to work with a lighting designer [when the budget permits]. For now, we’ve got the dossier, to expand the world of the record. Every one of those images I could talk about for 15 minutes…
DiS: The first satellite image of an island seems deliberately chosen because it looks like an embryo.
JM: Yes. That’s exactly why I picked that one. That island’s called Europa, and it’s between Madagascar and Mozambique.
DiS: The people you mention in the dossier by name are Henderson Islanders. Could you tell me about them?
JM: You know, what the Polynesians did was extraordinary. To get to Hawaii, to Easter Island, and to New Zealand… [they sailed across] half the globe almost. On the Henderson Islands, they discovered some caves with human remains in, and people thought they were probably from the 19th century – survivors from a whaling ship, or something, but when they carbon-dated them, they were 1200 years old. These people had lost all contact with the world, and it’s hard to imagine what the ends of their lives were like, just surrounded by the ocean.
DiS: Looking across the trilogy of albums, there are some recurrent images that seem to point towards your more complex thoughts about animal and human nature; especially, the metaphors involving “eyes” and “walls” [i.e. points of contact… and barriers], as well as contrasted statements of belief [in god(s) and an afterlife]. There’s so much emphasis on eyes I wondered if that reflects experiences you may have had of being in other countries, not speaking the language, where non-verbal communication becomes important… and also watching animals… and even looking out into an audience… who then come up in the final song of the album.
JM: I hadn’t noticed that. I can’t account for it entirely; sometimes I go back over the lyrics and try to keep them from becoming too similar. I think that a preoccupation of this record is the way our perception of the world, and our fantasies, lead us to manipulate it; to get it to conform with our image it. Really, you only relate to the image that’s in your head, which corresponds to greater or lesser degrees to what’s actually going on. At this point, [humanity’s] so completely re-made the surface world, it barely resembles what was there before. Exactly why we do this – it seems diabolical – [I don’t know]. If you’re in an airplane, you can watch the landscape for hours, and it seems like there isn’t an inch that doesn’t have our fingerprints all over it… and in the course of doing these researches, I went to incredibly remote places, some that no other person might have ever gone, and the animals behave very strangely. Animals don’t act like you’re a threat, while little birds come out of the trees and start screaming at you. These are the little pieces, of fragments of the pre-human world I’ve been lucky enough to see. The dissonance between that world, and the one we live in now, is an endless source of inspiration… and it’s also frustrating.
DiS: Having studied a lot of the oral poetry that was gathered by anthropologists in the 1970s, during the “Energy Crisis” and alongside the emergence of Green Power, it seems that one of the major themes in traditional songs is an expression, and a celebration of your continuity with the natural world. That seems more prominent in Shearwater than almost any other band…
JM: Well, it’s also common to Art and Science; to look at the universe, and say “What does it mean?” When you’re in [some of these remote places] you have an overwhelming sense that this is the world that produced us, and yet we’re extremely removed from it, and it’s the home to which we can never return, just as when we removed the Bikinians from their island, and [detonated] the bomb on it.
DiS: How do you see the connection between the record that draws on Nico’s life and lyrics, and the rest of the trilogy? [Nico, to whom Palo Santo is dedicated, was an exile from her home-country, destroyed by the Allies, and later sought a kind of refuge, or return to the womb, in heroin addiction.]
JM: With her, it was important to me to build that record around that skeleton of her life and things that had happened to her, and then sort of erase the blueprint after. I didn’t – when the record came out – talk about it.
“…you can’t remove people from their source of ultimate meaning, and not give them anything in its place.”
DiS: [Returning to the recurrent images], there are some more explicit references to belief: “a forever life / is an infinite lie / hung wide”, and “I am life / breathed in the radiant lie / God made me”.
JM: The song, ‘God made me’, which might be my favourite song on the new record is partly inspired by an event you can actually see on YouTube – when the US Navy arrives on Bikini, they stage this little ceremony, and they explain to the leader of the people (whose name was Judah) about the atomic bomb, and what it’s going to do, and ask them if they’re willing to go to this other atoll. He says [this phrase], which is now on the flag of the people, which is a fantastic looking flag, like the US flag, but completely weird, with stars in the shape of the islands destroyed by the atomic testing, and two more representing where they live now, Madura and Kili. In the middle, in capitals, is this phrase, which is translated as “EVERYTHING IS IN THE HANDS OF GOD”. And the commodore, when he hears this translated back to him, says: “Well you tell him if everything’s in God’s hands, then it cannot be anything other than good!” and he claps his hands and walks off. To me, it sounds like a much more ambiguous statement than [the commodore thinks]. He’s not saying, “you are agent of god”, or “goodness”, I should say, but that “whatever happens, it’s God’s will”, and that the idea of god supersedes everything, including goodness. Now, I don’t know if that’s what he means – there are a lot of readings – but what could he say in the face of the US Navy? There’s a great depth in that reply.
JM: Anyway, to go back to our modern world, there’s a comment on YouTube, underneath, half in Marshallese, and it says “fucking interpreter – if I was there, I’d kick his ass!” I meant the song to say, “you [the people who forced me to leave my home] may have given me this concept of God, but I can draw from it a meaning, or a power, that’s greater even than you can imagine”. Going back to that anthem, it’s a song of victory over exile, or death even… and art can be that. The thing about art that works the best is that you’re opened by it, and it always has multiple currents running through it. Multiple emotions, multiple rhythms, multiple melodies. Things that would otherwise be opposed, in the rest of life, and annihilate one another. They can co-exist in art in a way that feels truly magical, and truly alchemical.
DiS: In a way the albums seem like a case for pantheism [the notion that if there is a god, then it’s not a discrete entity, but the totality of all living things, and that the idea of godliness is more an expression of value, than a projection of human concerns]. That, in itself, is something that seems important right now, with this contemporary version of atheism that discards all that might be useful within religions.
JM: There’s something very… deathly, about the atheists. Much as I like Dawkins, and stuff he’s written, he seems so hateful. Maybe, when you’ve been up against a very stubborn enemy for a really long time, your patience wears out. So, I’ll give him that… but then he went “God, I’ve had it! I’m a grumpy old man now, and I’m going to let you have it!” But you know, you can’t remove people from their source of ultimate meaning, and not give them anything in its place. He’d probably argue that he does – that he offers The Truth… and Reality. It’s the old Plato versus Aristotle thing. I don’t think he was right about the world, but he’s definitely right about the brain [that what we “see” and think we “know” are merely shadows on the cave wall.] We create a world in our mind, and that’s what we interact with. So, there really are two worlds. There is a world of the Forms… it’s just here, it’s not in the Cosmos. You can’t deny that’s not a part of the psyche. Especially not in the West.
DiS: Dawkins fails to understand that value of religious behaviour, where “religion” means whatever re-creates social bonds, including music.
JM: Organized religions understand the function of ritual – that we need it psychologically – but then they make you furious, because having produced these things that the rest of [the institutions in] our societies don’t, and then they often twist that need, like manipulating an addict, and make the supply of this thing [i.e. that sense of community, and even ecstasy through religious ceremonies] conditional on believing things that are ridiculous.
DiS: Did you follow any of the Darwin-related cultural events last year? [Commemorating The Origin of Species]
JM: In the US, the conversation is very different, and on a pretty low level. It’s a name that makes people light up or shut down, so in a way I backed away from it…
DiS: Thinking of the “walls” on the record, you’ve got a “roaring wall”, a “breaking wall”, and then “the wall of the eye”, in a line that brings several images together.
JM: That’s actually referring to the eye of a hurricane. The walls surrounding the eye, when it passes over you, are where you have the most force. It’s hard to deny the mushroom cloud isn’t kind of beautiful… but it’s also THEE DUMBEST thing we’ve ever done. Still, it reflects something of the nature of the universe: an absolute.
DiS: So, you’ve gone to the extremes with this trilogy, what comes next?
JM: It’s important when you make a record that you should cram every idea you can into it, so that at the end, you can feel like an empty vessel… even though that’s scary. Only by emptying yourself do new ideas come. There’s some places I should go in the world; maybe I should spend some time doing that… I haven’t really been to tropical South America.
DiS: Thinking of records with that quality of openness you describe, is Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden still a touchstone?
JM: That record is always a touchstone; that and the next one, Laughing Stock… They have that quality that you feel like the record is listening. They create so much space. You want to crawl into it, and live in it. I actually talked to that engineer about working with him. It would have been too expensive, because it would have to have been in England, but I sent him Palo Santo, and I said “I like those records, but I’m not interested in trying to re-make them” and I could hear this audible relief. He’d gotten a lot of work from those records, and was very proud of them, but he said he would never do that again; he said his health suffered… it was rough. [Mark Hollis assembled dozens of musicians in a converted church, to experiment with minimal soundscapes, to the horror of his record company.]
DiS: You’ve never wanted to track down Mark Hollis?
JM: No… what would you say? “I really love your record” – that’s a conversation killer right there. I heard he likes Zola though, so I thought I might read some, so I’d have something to say.
…and then DiS has to rush off to another appointment. Jonathan recommends one of his favourite books, a vast tome about Yugoslavia by Rebecca West; we talk about other people who’ve been lost because they’re uncategorizable (or overshadowed by the men in their field), like Martha Gellhorn, Nina Simone (his favourite artist), Alice Coltrane. Rather than the world expanding, as DiS leaves the hotel, it seems to shrink back to a very grey Shepherd’s Bush. The teenage girls waiting for Justin Bieber (this year’s Donny Osmond, apparently), are oblivious to the talent walking past. Inauspicious, maybe, but Shearwater deserve this to be their year.
UK Tour Dates:
21 - Brighton, The Freebutt
22 - Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
23 - Glasgow, Captain's Rest
24 - London, Scala