Shearwater Revisits 1980
“It seemed like a good way to make sense of this time”
By Abby Johnston,
11:50AM, Tue. Feb. 2, 2016
Since album promotion requires musicians to endure multiple interviews at a sitting, slotting in after a prime one remains a tough act to follow. Fortunately, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg still had plenty to offer on ninth LP and second Sub Pop disc Jet Plane and Oxbow, David Bowie, and the upcoming tour that kicks off Wednesday at the North Door.
Jonathan Meiburg: I just did one of my favorite interviews of the whole cycle. Happens every time. I got a call from the Falkland Islands Radio Service.
Austin Chronicle: Is Shearwater in rotation there?
JM: [Laughs] Every time we put out a record, they call. I’ve been down there four times over the years and done research there. I even went into the studio and played there one time, so there’s something of a longstanding relationship. It’s just so funny, because I won’t hear from them for two years, and then like clockwork, they call.
AC: Hate to follow up that one, but I’ll do my best: I just watched the “Quiet Americans” video. Did you really have your head shaved on camera or was that some sort of crazy makeup effect?
JM: Oh, yeah. It’s all still growing back in now. I figured that would be a really cheap special effect, but you had exactly the reaction I hoped you would have. I decided I would sacrifice it and see if it would grow back. I look a little like a downy chick or something, a fuzzy little chicken.
AC: Congratulations on the new album, and the upcoming tour kicking off at the North Door. How much is Austin still a home base for Shearwater? I know the band splits some time between here and New York.
JM: Austin is absolutely still home base for the band. It’s easier to rehearse here, it’s easier to record here, it’s easier to do just about everything here. I think Dave Thomas from Pere Ubu once said that being in a band is mostly about moving black boxes from one side of town to another. In a town where there’s a lot more one-story buildings, it’s much easier. Plus, it’s also not below freezing and with two feet of snow on the ground like it is in New York right now.
Austin’s been the home for the band since we started it. We made the first record in a building that no longer exists downtown. It’s just such an important part of what I think of as the identity of the band. At this point, I’m the last person standing from the original lineup. I’m the only one that can’t quit. That’s not because of acrimony or anything. It’s just because people’s lives change, and trying to keep a band going for 12, 13, 14 years is a real challenge.
AC: You said that lyrically Jet Plane and Oxbow is a protest album. What are you protesting?
JM: I heard an interview with David Bowie from 1980 where he said that Scary Monsters was social protest music. I thought, “What?” I went back and listened to it with that in mind, and it really is like an oblique protest record. Almost an emotional protest record. I wanted to make this one about the United States and what it means to live in the United States, and kind of peck away at some of the pathologies that seem to afflict us so consistently. It really seems appropriate that this is coming out during election season, because this is when all of the demons of the national id come down from the attic and out into the streets.
At the same time, I really like the United States. I feel like the jury is still out on it. It’s been out for hundreds of years. It’s got such great energy and great potential, and it’s hard not to love. I wanted to make a protest record that allowed room for you, also. The idea of protest music sounds sort of unappealing. You just think of somebody kind of yelling at you and telling you what to think. Feeling that you’re not alone can be a powerful and affirming feeling, and not alone in your unease just as much as not alone in other feelings that you might have.
That’s one of the things about Bowie that was so amazing to me: For as strange and strong of a flavor as he was, everybody thought he was them.
AC: I feel like Bowie always had my back in expressing what I wanted.
JM: He gave people permission to think about themselves in a way that they already wanted. People keep saying that it was because he kept shifting his identity or whatever, but his identity was pretty consistent. I mean he changed his clothes sometimes, but it’s not like he was always an actual different person. The consistency in him was that he was always smart and brave and generally compassionate and curious about the world. I think that’s the part that was really inspirational about him, not his haircut.
AC: He was literally putting on a costume, but that ties into letting people express themselves in different ways and not having to pin yourself to one rigid identity. There was a fluidity to him.
JM: Yeah, but fluid within bounds. He had an essential quality to him. He wasn’t just some chameleon where you could never tell who it was. As opposed to someone like, I don’t know, Daniel Day-Lewis or something. Like someone who can disappear inside of a role and you can’t really tell if it’s them or not.
AC: Does anyone actually know what Daniel Day-Lewis’ accent is anymore?
JM: Does he know? Or Christian Bale, for that matter. There’s that famous rant from him taped on The Terminator set where he’s slipping in and out of various accents as he gets angrier and angrier. He becomes more Australian when he gets angry.
AC: I know you were listening to Scary Monsters quite a bit while writing this album. What kind of personal significance does that take on, given the album’s release and Bowie’s death?
JM: It’s sort of uncanny, because among other things we’d been planning to cover the entire Lodger record on this tour. Not in every single show, but in pieces. So we’d been charting those songs out and learning them, and really digging into that record. I recommend that to anyone who really loves a record. Try to figure out how to play it. It’s such a different way of listening to it and experiencing it.
When he died, suddenly playing those songs felt really different. We thought about not doing it, and I was like, “Fuck no, we have to do this.” I think it’s going to be a beautiful part of the show, and it’s a thrill to sing. I’d hoped, in my heart of hearts, that somehow we’d be able to make a live recording of this and somehow he might hear it, because I know it’s an album that he loved specifically, and there are some songs that he never even played from it.
Now that that isn’t a possibility, that anxiety is gone and I can just do the best versions of them that I can. It turned something that was kind of just a fun idea into something with a lot more depth and sadness, but also joy.
AC: Was there a real possibility that you wouldn’t follow through with the plans to cover Lodger?
JM: No, there was just a pause because you have to think about it and let it register for a minute. You were asking me about Scary Monsters and that particular era. I’d decided to place our record in about 1980 sonically. I wanted to do that partly because Scary Monsters was released that year and so were a lot of other records that I really liked right around that time, like Peter Gabriel [3: Melt], or [Talking Head’s] Remain in Light.
It was a really interesting time in a lot of ways, partly because digital technology was new in music, just like it was everywhere else, and it was slowly starting to change recorded music. But it hadn’t achieved the dominance that it has now, or even that it had a few years later. Things like MIDI and a lot of sequenced and programmed elements hadn’t crept into music yet. So you had a lot of these wonderful hybrid records that had digital and analog elements in them.
Those early digital devices had so much personality and charm and optimism about them. They make huge, round sounds, and we used a number of them on the record, including this reverb called the Infernal Machine. It looks like a Speak and Spell, and when you turn it on it says “hello” and when you turn it off, it says, “Thank you for working with me.” It’s a great reverb, too. It just makes these colossal sounds, so we loved working with those devices.
I also think of it as a time, and I don’t remember it well at all. I was 4. I’m not nostalgic for it, and I don’t think the Eighties are cute or funny. I think of it as a time when, on the one hand, you still had full-blown Cold War paranoia going on, so the world seemed very frightening. Then on the other hand, you had the sense that there was a kind of technological revolution going on that was going to change everything, but no one knew how.
So in a lot of ways, I think we’re in a really similar moment now. It seemed like a good way to make use of that time to make sense of this time.