Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg on Protest, David Bowie and Jet Plane and OxbowMusic Features Shearwater
Few rock bands in the year 2016 possess the knack for crafting the kind of open-air rock anthemia Shearwater achieves on their new album, Jet Plane and Oxbow. Their third title for Sub Pop, the record really soars with a depth, passion and romance that recalls the open-sky rock of U2 and The Frames, only with an experimental edge that is entirely their own. If there was any wherewithal within the world of program direction on mainstream rock radio, a song like lead single “Only Child” would be in heavy rotation across all the major markets. “Rise in the air over the mountains,” Jonathan Meiburg sings here. “Run like the days that cut them down.” Nobody writes songs like Meiburg, save for perhaps David Gilmour or Robbie Robertson circa 1987. Like the beautiful seabird it was named after, Shearwater’s music has always felt like gliding across the water towards an unknown horizon. Jet Plane and Oxbow is the sound of them finally reaching land. The band is currently on tour with fellow Texas outlanders Cross Record. Paste was lucky enough to catch up with Meiburg to speak on a range of topics pertaining to his band and the political undertones of their latest creation while Shearwater was in rehearsals before hitting the road.
Paste: You’ve been in Austin for quite some time now…from someone who has never been there yet, it seems like that city is a bubble in that crazy state.
Jonathan Meiburg: I’ve lived in Texas for 17 years now in Austin. But it’s not like you leave Austin and suddenly everyone is insane [laughs]. I’ve met cool people from all over Texas. And Austin, honestly, has gotten completely different than when I moved here in 1999. It was more sleepy then. Now it’s more sort of like Seattle or something, only much whiter and much richer [laughs]. It’s really getting that way, very very much so. And there are some things that are better about it, but there’s also things that are a lot less interesting about it. Austin was definitely a lot stranger when I first got here. But now it’s sort of like you can be in one of several major cities that are like that. Brooklyn’s like that, too!
Paste: As someone who grew up in the upstate New York area, there are parts of that region that are really transitioning, like Kingston and Hudson.
Meiburg: Yeah, I was up in that area recently, and you can tell that this wave had swept over it pretty fast up there.
Paste: It’s a lot of people who moved up there from Brooklyn and Manhattan to get away from the gentrification there, but they’re in that demographic that attracts those who wish to gentrify. It’s a strange symptom of these towns…
Meiburg: Well, there are also larger things going on in the country in general that are causing these things as well. It’s an interesting time; I have to say. [laughs]
Paste: Did you watch Obama’s last State of the Union?
Meiburg: No, but I recently read a transcript of it. I gotta say, in general, I’ve been incredibly impressed by this president. Given what we could have had at the time, and we got that guy, we definitely lucked out. I’m really gonna miss him as our president.
Paste: He’s such a funny guy. He’s dorky.
Meiburg: Yeah, he’s a real nerd, which is endearing. He has a real sense of what the role of president is supposed to be, and I he kind of imposes limits on himself based on that. And in our age of absolute megalomania, it’s hard to imagine anybody having power at their disposal that they don’t use because they think they shouldn’t [laughs]. In a way, I’m glad this record is coming out in an election year. Not that I think it’s going to have any effect or anything, but because it just seems appropriate. Election years are the times when the horrible nasty American id comes screaming out of the attic and onto the streets and parades around. And this record is about that.
Paste: You said before you see Jet Plane and Oxbow as a protest album.
Meiburg: Yeah. It’s sort of like an oblique protest record. I mean, it’s not like I don’t really like the United States. I grew up here, I drank the water. I couldn’t possibly see myself positioning myself outside of it. But there’s some real pathologies in it that run very deep, and that I wanted to poke at on the record. But in a way that leaves room for the listener also. I mean, a protest record is awful. Nobody wants to listen to a protest record [laughs]. This isn’t like somebody yelling at you with slogans or telling you what to think, and that’s the last thing I want to do.
Paste: Some of the recent stuff out there is a far cry from Phil Ochs.
Meiburg: Yeah, and that kind of record has not been done well since then. I recently heard an audio recording of an interview with David Bowie, actually, from when Scary Monsters came out; it’s like this track-by-track commentary with him. And he described the record as social protest music. I kind of laughed at first and thought to myself, ‘What?’ But then I went back and thought about it a little more. And then I realized that really is what Scary Monsters is all about. And I said to myself, that’s the kind of record I want to make, in where the protest angle was the undercurrent not the overcurrent of the music.
Paste: You can definitely hear it in a song like “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps),” actually.
Meiburg: And that’s the thing. There’s a kind of protest that can happen by inhabiting a really horrible character, too. On this record we did, that kind of comes out, too, especially on the song “Filaments.” “A Long Time Away,” too. Did you ever see that film Powers of 10? It’s a little short film that was made by these two IBM guys in the ‘70s. And when it starts off you see this couple lying on a picnic blanket, and then the camera pulls back by a factor of 10. And then it keeps doing it 10 times each until you are looking at the universe and then it scrolls back in the opposite direction, like 10 to the negative one, 10 to the negative two and so forth. And before long, all you are looking at is an atom. It’s incredible, and this is before computer graphics or anything. I wanted to the record to feel like it sort of zooms out as it goes. And by the end of the last song, you feel like you are looking at the earth from outer space.
Paste: You get that feeling when you hear a song on this record like “Wildlife in America,” for sure.
Meiburg: That’s one of my favorite songs that we’ve ever done, I have to say. I was really happy with it when we were done with it. I was surprised how long it took us to do, because it was so simple. But it was really, really hard to pin down. Even the drum sounds, we took forever to get the drum sounds right [laughs]. It doesn’t seem like it would make much of a difference, but it changed the emotional feeling of the song when the drums weren’t right. So we had to keep working on it until it was very, very…plain. We were actually thinking of a group like Roxy Music when we were making that song.
Paste: Getting Brian Reitzell to play throughout Jet Plane and Oxbow was a real coup. You can really feel his presence on these songs. I know you did an interview with him once for Tape Op Magazine a little while back. How did you first connect with him?
Meiburg: He got in touch with me after he got a copy of Rook, I think, on vinyl and figured we’d have something in common. And so we’d talk a couple times a year, and I went to work with him on that TV show Boss a little bit. Then I approached him about doing some work on this record, and he was thrilled about getting to work on something he didn’t have to be in charge [laughs]. I mean, for Hannibal, he’s making like 40, 50 minutes of music a week, just churning it out. It’s great, but it wears him out. So I think working on Jet Plane was something really fun and relaxing for him. We learned so much from his techniques and instruments and pieces of gear. He’s a really inspiring guy to be around.
Paste: Oh, by the way, major props for that cover of Coldplay’s “Hurts Like Heaven.” It’s such a great song from a very misunderstood band.
Meiburg: We got no love for that! Everybody hated it! We did a couple of shows with them, opening up their Viva La Vida Tour, and they were so cool to us. I just couldn’t believe it. They paid us like crazy. They all came down to hang out and sent us down champagne on the first night. I was like, “Why are you being so nice to us?” [laughs]. I couldn’t figure it out. But then I came to realize that they were genuinely sweet dudes and they also work really hard and are very serious about their music. I got nothing but good things to say about Coldplay.