Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
One impossibility, or more appropriately, one downfall with imagination, regardless of its strength or direction is that it can draw all it wants and create representations and facsimiles of places that we've never been, but there's no way to adequately feel an unfamiliar place without having been there first. There's no way to get to anywhere telepathically without doing oneself all kinds of disservices. There's a reason why we say that words don't do certain things, tastes, views, people, smells or destinations justice. You had to be there. You have to be there. Whatever the tense, you've never been. The places that have most shaped the teeth and the eyes and the ears and the skin of Shearwater lead singer Jonathan Meiberg are places that we only see in encyclopedias and on television. He's fallen madly in love with these far-flung places of trees that he pictures as animated and nocturnal. These are places like the Falkland Islands, located in the South Atlantic Ocean just to the east of Argentina that are more lost world than found world. He's comfortable and goes there whenever he has the chance.
It's those records and T-shirts that you buy that help send him there when he needs to get there again for a temporary fix. He studies community life at the far ends of the earth - he's been to the Arctic and worked his way over icebergs in different modes of observation. When he's in the Falklands, he's getting up at sunrise, drinking some coffee, eating some oatmeal and hiking miles and miles out into what amount to isolation booths in forests to study birds of prey. He goes mildly crazy and it's voluntary, all of it. He might even be proud of the insanity for all we can tell. This place and this walking he describes as "walking around on Mordor." Meiberg unhesitatingly takes us to this place, to this dementia on the song's from the band's latest album, Palo Santo, a potpourri of glee hidden as glum and softness hidden as bracing electricity. Somehow it feels like all of those conditions might exist out there on those two islands in the middle of the sea.
The album's songs are deviations of his surroundings there and his massive amounts of alone time studying mating habits and mannerisms of these sluggish birds. They aren't about birds, but when all you've got is time to think, that's what you do. When you play Palo Santo, it feels as if you've been dropped from a passenger plane (flown by Meiberg, multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper, celloist Kim Burke and drummer Thor Harris), with a blindfold snug around your eyes and a parachute generously packed onto your back into the center of place where beauty, solitude and fearsome anxiety exist - where your eyes can never adjust. The trees that the album is named after are a story unto themselves.
"I worked on a study of Galapagos Hawks about two summers ago. For two months, I camped with two other people on one of the volcanic Galapagos Islands, Santiago, and we spent every day roaming the island, trapping and banding and re-sighting hawks (and, "Apocalypse Now"-style, slowly went insane)," said Meiberg. "I ended up drinking a lot of rum at night in my tent, which I couldn't leave for 14 hours a day since the mosquitoes were so fierce and nights on the equator are always 12 hours long. Palo Santo trees were the most common species on the island and I became very attached to, and kind of afraid of, them -- they're greyish-purple, twisted and gaunt, and can send their roots down into what looked like bare lava to me. They also leak an orange sap that smells like incense (they're in the frankincense family) and, looking at a slope covered in them, I wasn't entirely sure that they didn't wander around at night and freeze back into place in the morning. Anything seemed possible out there after a while, with giant centipedes and tame mockingbirds and painted locusts and penguins roaming around. I wrote some of the songs from Palo Santo out there and it seemed fitting to give their name to the record."
A sense of elegiac roominess permeates each body on the record and before you've had time to get the chair warm from a sit, there you are looking slowly from left to right and north to south like a newborn, wondering how the hell you got to this crazy place you couldn't have even dreamt in a billion years.
The Daytrotter Interview:
*When did Shearwater become more than an Okkervil River side project? Has it always been that way? Was there anything that happened to turn the things?*
Jonathan Meiburg: It was never an Okkervil River side project. Somehow that tag got attached to it and I've been trying to squash it dead now for years. I didn't play in Okkervil at all when Will and I started working together on Shearwater back in 1999 and only later started playing keyboards for them -- you could say Okkervil is a side project of Shearwater for me! Part of the reason Will didn't sing any songs on the new record was in an effort to make sure that the bands were perceived as entirely separate, which they are. I was at an Okkervil rehearsal this morning and was recording with Shearwater last week, and the energies of the two bands couldn't be more different. Both are in really good form right now.
*What's all the dark stuff you're singing about on "Fierce Little Lark?" It's REALLY dark stuff, right?*
JM: Not too much, I don't think, or not from one point of view anyway. I don't want to reveal too much about that song. I re-recorded it for a charity 7" about a month ago, outside on a windy day, so you can hear the wind in the trees swelling and subsiding.
*What's one bit of insider trivia about everyone in the band?*
JM: Jonathan was bitten on the ass by an albatross two weeks ago
Kim recently attended the Miss Tibet beauty pageant in Dharamsala
Howard had a brush with death while doing tricks on a bicycle
Thor has returned from the last three tours to find the windows of his car smashed out
*How often does Will play with Shearwater now? Is it only when you're playing around town or not even that frequently?*
JM: Not too much these days. Okkervil keeps him quite busy and is in the process of making what I think will be an excellent new record. He's written my favorite batch of songs yet. But back when we started Shearwater, you couldn't pay people to book an Okkervil show anywhere.
*Jonathan, tell me about all of your bird-watching adventures? You've been doing this for a long ass time, correct? What have you found out about the creatures that fascinates you to no end? Do you share this knowledge with your bandmates or do they tune bird talk out?*
JM: I've only been studying birds since 1997, when I had a chance to travel all over the world on a travel grant from the Thomas J. Watson foundation. I don't think I'll ever quite understand why they actually paid me to go to some of the most remote places I could think of when I'd hardly ever left the southeastern U.S. But, to make a long story short, I ended up in the Falklands, where I met an ornithologist named Robin Woods from the UK who was leading a survey of a strange bird of prey called the striated caracara in the outermost islands of the archipelago. He very kindly allowed me to come along as an assistant, and that 6-week period was my first introduction into the odd and wonderful world of Falkland birds. I was hooked, and my interest grew from there. I ended up spending six years working on a master's degree on the caracaras, which are my favorite animals of all time, hands down. They're social, clever, adaptable, curious, and strangely unafraid of humans.
*Where's your favorite place in the world to visit, not to play? What do you do when you visit that place?*
JM: Probably Steeple Jason Island in the Falklands, an eerie, majestic place full of strange animals and landscapes, a real lost world. I've been lucky enough to go there twice. I was just there counting breeding pairs of caracaras, which is among my very favorite things to do. I also love the mountains of northeast Georgia, where you can climb through the last stands of southern hemlock and put your bedroll down in the red clay.
*Is Thor part superhero?*
JM: He's ALL superhero. Carpenter, musician, visual artist, architect, animal dad, and counselor to his many friends. And he doesn't appear to age. If you watch "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" you can spot him at a record store in Austin getting an autograph from Daniel in the late eighties...and he looks exactly the same as he does today.
*Can you tell me more about the benefit show you're doing with Bill Callahan this weekend? Do you do many benefit type things?*
JM: It's pretty rare for us to do a benefit, mostly because we're not big enough to be much help to anyone. Though sometimes I feel like every show we play is just a benefit for the oil companies since most of our touring income seems to get sucked into the van's fuel tank. As for this weekend's show, Bill pretty much organized it, and I think we're going to be playing it in a special 'round robin' style with Bill and with Nick from the Weird Weeds. I think we're all going to contribute to each other's songs. I'm really looking forward to it. We're honored to be playing with both of them.
*On your website, you said that you had some big upcoming news to spill about the next record, etc. Would you like to use this forum to tell all?*
JM: I can't quite yet, I'm sorry! All I can tell you right now is that there is sure to be another Shearwater record (we're recording in April, I think), and that Palo Santo has a new lease on life (and may re-emerge in a different fashion.
*Which fictional character are you most like? Why is this?*
JM: Stephen Maturin from Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels. I hope. Sort of. Well, not really. I'm not a secret agent, though I do take pleasure in being able to 'blend in' in a lot of different situations. It's fun not looking out of place behind the scenes at a university, a museum, or a rock club. And I'm not the ace with a scalpel that Stephen is, though on this most recent trip to the Falklands I did find a dead caracara and prepared its skeleton for the American Museum of Natural History. That required a couple of days of scraping flesh from the bones in the taxidermery behind the Falklands Museum in Stanley. They have an excellent resident taxidermist named Steve Massam, who very kindly lent me tools, latex gloves, and a workspace, and he wasn't at all put off by the smell or the little city of maggots living inside the remains of the bird. While I worked, he sanded the ends of feather shafts off the inside of a jackass penguin skin.
*What hits you hardest in a song: sadness or happiness? Do you think it's plain to see what you're better at writing? What's it say about a person if they write the sad better?
JM: The best songs just have depth and soul, more so than 'happiness' or 'sadness,' which can be kind of superficial qualities. The moments I strive for in my own songs are the ones where multiple emotions seem present at once (as they usually are in daily life).
*Howard, you've known Joanna Newsom for quite some time now. How did you first discover her/meet her and what were those first songs you heard of hers doing to your head when you listened to them originally?*
Howard Draper: I was playing with Okkervil at the time, and I think it was our first West Coast tour. Joanna opened the show in San Francisco, at Hemlock Tavern, I think. We had no idea who she was, and she's since said that it was one of her first shows. The house sound-guy was not very accommodating and friendly, and I remember her first tune being fraught with feedback and PA problems. After no escape from the feedback, she walked away from the harp and to the front of the stage, and launched into a riveting performance of "Yarn and Glue," all a capalla. The rest of the performance was amazing and golden. The whole context was beautiful: the club was packed, the crowd was polite, the songs were amazing, her performance was serene and sincere, and it is one of the few shows that I've ever felt transported by. It ended and left me in a daze, and I still have no idea how the Okkervil set even went. Afterwards, I chased her down outside; she was loading the harp into a car. I bought a CDR from her for $3, and that's how I found out about her.
*Are you more comfortable around the clang of the city or out in desolate, country-ish silence?*
JM: The country isn't silent, and I've heard some terrible silences in cities. At least you're never alone in the country.
*What happened with Misra?*
JM: They put out a couple of our records and were good to us when we hadn't figured out how to play live and no one cared if we lived or died.