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Shearwater celebrates over 10 years of music at Bottom of the Hill

Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater
Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater
Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

Interview with Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater. The band recently released Fellow Travelers, which features reinterpretations of songs by some of the artists that have toured with Shearwater over the past 10 years. While a few of those artists do contribute to the album, they only do so on tracks that aren't of their own original composition. When I spoke with Jonathan he was in Austin, Texas, just prior to Shearwater's 2014 Winter West Coast tour.

Wendy:

Are you in Austin to record?

Jonathan:

We [were] rehearsing for the tour and also working on the new record; we're about halfway through actually, but I don't think it's gonna come out till 2015. We've taken much longer to work on this record than any other record I've ever done - not continuously, but in that we've worked on it for a few days, gone away a few weeks, worked on it for a few more days; it's been very interesting.

Wendy:

And all the touring experiences give you more to draw from too, I imagine.

Jonathan:

Exactly, and also I'm trying to avoid what you'd call 'studio head', where tiny things seem huge and huge things are invisible (laughs). I find that going away from the songs for a number of weeks or months, without listening to them at all and then coming back to them, is really helpful in terms of letting you know what's wrong and what's right about them - things that should be obvious, but not usually at close range.

Wendy:

You have your tour spaced out in such a way that it accommodates what you've just said: you have two weeks in the west, then about a month off, two weeks in the east, a month off, and then two weeks in Europe.

Jonathan:

Yeah, for once I wanted to do the touring for a record in a way that didn't mean that everyone was away from their homes for nine weeks on end. Part of the reason that we did Fellow Travelers was a way of taking stock, for me - of all the time I've spent on the road over the last decade and more. It was a lot of fun to look back on all of those tours; it was kind of like leafing through a scrapbook, and then trying to pick some bands and songs out of that time that I felt a connection to, and felt like I could enjoy rethinking and reworking and inhabitting in one way or another. Plus it was also a good chance to get back into the studio after a year of touring for Animal Joy. We played about 200 shows last year. So getting back into recording was fun to do with these other people's songs, where we could throw all kinds of things at them and try out new techniques, and just feel a little looser and less pressured than we might if we jumped into the next full length.

Wendy:

So the fact that you were doing other people's songs was liberating in a sense.

Jonathan:

In a sense is exactly the right phrase. On the one hand you don't have to write the songs but on the other hand, then you're charged with doing something worthwhile with it. That's harder to do than it at first appears, especially if the song itself is good. We also knew that we had to work very quickly because we just didn't have time to make mistakes so there was a kind of pressure to that too - it had to be done so fast, [which] we haven't felt in working on the newer records. I was just listening to a mix of a song right now; it is very different from Fellow Travelers. We're gonna try to play some songs from the upcoming record on the tour.

Wendy:

After Animal Joy you were talking about doing something of a follow-up record. Is the new record a follow-up to Animal Joy or is it in a similar vein to Animal Joy or is it completely different?

Jonathan:

It's really different. But it also reflects the chops that you get after a year on the road with an album. This is sort of a very abstract way of thinking about it but I'm trying to capture sonically a sound that I associate with a very particular time, which is 1980. For one thing, a lot of great albums came out around that time, in different and interesting ways, but I think there was a feeling in the air about then - I don't really remember it; I was four years old at the time, but looking back at it there was a feeling of a looming "technosphere" that was going to either exalt all of our lives or completely ruin them. Now I feel like we're in another iteration of that same feeling; [we've] come around to another version of 1980. As far as sound recording and technology goes, it's also when a lot of interesting devices were being made, early digital devices and things like that that all sounded really good and really strange. We've been teaming up with my friend Brian Reitzell over in LA, working with him in his studio. He also adores that time period.

Wendy:

So you're recording in both Austin and LA.

Jonathan:

Yeah, a few days here, a few days there, but with that time interspersed between sessions you can gain perspective that's really invaluable.

Wendy:

Who are you touring with this time out?

Jonathan:

It's me, it's Danny [Reisch] - our drummer and engineer, and Lucas [Oswald] - both of them were in the Animal Joy lineup, but then we have a new guy, Abram Shook and Jessica Hoop, who's opening for us, is also gonna be playing.

Wendy:

You've been working with Danny Reisch for quite a long time as an engineer, no?

Jonathan:

Yeah, I've been working with Danny for three or four years. We started working together on the demos for Animal Joy; we've gone from there to doing the full record together, touring around the country and the world. He's a very prodigiously talented person; I didn't even know that he played drums until we were near the end of making Animal Joy. I needed to find a drummer for the tour and he said, "Well I could do it." I was a little nervous just hiring someone sight unseen but in Danny's case he's every bit as fastidious and able a musician and drummer as he is an engineer and producer. Even though he can make something that's more like a living if he just stays in his studio and records all the time, he still likes to ]go] out on the road, I think because he feels like it connects him to the whole reason for why we do this in the first place.

Wendy:

Speaking of the road, Fellow Travelers had a great concept behind it - getting everyone from your touring history involved like that, and then it's exciting for everyone to see it come out too.

Jonathan:

Yeah, everybody really liked the cover versions that we did of their songs, and honestly, anytime somebody pays that kind of attention to your song it's really flattering. It was a chance for us to really have a good time and symbolically celebrate our 10 years on the road before [we've] moved on to the next thing. You're gonna catch us in our transitional phase between that and whatever this next record is gonna become.

Wendy:

It'll be fun to take all these songs from the road onto the road.

Jonathan:

Yeah. I'm not gonna play too much from that record I think, but there are a couple of them that I definitely wanna do. This is not gonna be a set of covers; we're not turning into a cover band for this tour (laughs).

Wendy:

So this'll be a nice mix of everything.

Jonathan:

Oh absolutely - some older songs that we haven't done in a few years, some new songs that we've never played, a couple of the covers, and some stuff from Animal Joy because even though I felt like we were on tour for that record forever, there were a lot of people who didn't get to see us.

Shearwater plays Bottom of the Hill this Saturday, February 8th. Doors at 8:30

For more information please visit:

www.shearwatermusic.com

www,bottomofthehill.com