The Empire That Dreams of Us
In search of Shearwater's 'The Golden Archipelago'
At first glance, the sepia-toned photograph appears innocent enough. A young, athletic man – a tourist perhaps – reclines barefoot on a log stretched across some exotic beach, confident and composed. Then you notice the eye, squinting just above the water's surface. Slowly the hardened ridges scaling the remainder of the massive crocodile come into focus, along with the rope tied around its belly and jaw.
"Nothing says 'man's attempt to dominate the natural world' like this photo," offers Shearwater frontman and co-founder Jonathan Meiburg, sitting in front of an antique typewriter in the office library of his South Austin home.
The image is one of many startling artifacts included in a limited edition 75-page dossier released in conjunction with Shearwater's sixth LP, The Golden Archipelago. Originally sold through Kickstarter.com for a range of price pledges, the "loose, numbered pages ... come packaged in a personalized, numbered, heavy-duty envelope fastened with a string tie" and act as a visual narrative that frames the LP's lyrics and production credits with photos, maps, research notes, and historical accounts. Where else might you encounter the national anthem of Bikini Atoll?
Most of the documents are from a research project, titled "A Study of Community Life at the Ends of the Earth," which Meiburg conducted after receiving a fellowship grant in 1997 from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. Over the course of a year, he traveled to such remote areas as Kowanyama, an aboriginal settlement in northern Queensland, Australia, and southern Atlantic Ocean archipelago the Falkland Islands, where he studied the striated caracara, a rare bird of prey native to the isles and the eventual subject of his master's thesis in ornithology. A decade later, he returned to the Falklands for a follow-up survey, which served as the inspiration for Shearwater's Matador Records studio debut, 2008's Rook.
"Science isn't very well-equipped to answer questions about meaning, about why these fragments of the earth that still haven't been completely modified by people are so crammed to the brim with meaning and life, with a sort of richness and intensity that's completely foreign to us," Meiburg surmises. "But art is. Art is one of the only ways we can interact with the universe that way. With this [new] record, I thought I would go back to the islands and try to better understand what happened there."
For Shearwater's core trio – Meiburg, percussionist Thor Harris, and bassist Kimberly Burke – The Golden Archipelago signals the close of a thematically linked trilogy initiated by 2006's exquisite Palo Santo, which took its name from a tree found in the Galápagos Islands and marked the departure of co-founder Will Sheff of Okkervil River (see "Transcendentalism," May 12, 2006). To call Archipelago the locals' most majestic and ambitious work seems almost redundant at this point. Since debuting with 2001's rustic haunt The Dissolving Room, each passing release has marked an evolutionary advancement in depth, style, and grace.
In fact, the contrast between Archipelago and Rook is comparable to the effect of watching an IMAX film in 3-D – it elevates the entire experience to another level. As meticulously assembled as the dossier itself, The Golden Archipelago is Shearwater's grand climax, a decade in the making. It's largely uncharted territory, a ruminative realm of grandiose savagery, with Meiburg's crystalline tenor and imagistic lyricism like a lantern leading straight into the heart of darkness. There's no easy way on or off this island.
Ever the consummate host and scholar, Meiburg elaborated on some of the dossier's relics from The Golden Archipelago.
“That’s an island called Europa that’s in between Madagascar and Mozambique. I liked it mostly for the embryonic shape of it. I thought that it was good to place at the beginning. The preoccupation of this record is how we create our own fantasy worlds in our minds and try to make the rest of the world conform to it. The song ‘Hidden Lakes’ is about that – the empire that dreams of us. It seems as if we remake landscapes in terms of some sort of hidden imperative. I had the title, The Golden Archipelago, before I had anything else. Islands of the blessed and islands of the damned are familiar metaphors, but I wanted to explore what that means in the context of these islands I’ve been to.”
“I was thinking about Bikini Atoll one day, wondering whatever happened to that place. Did people get to go back after they did the atomic testing? It turns out that the only people that are living there now are from the Department of Energy. The Bikinians have been in exile since 1946 when they were removed, except for a very brief time in the Seventies. The recording of their national anthem that opens the album is from 1998 on the tiny island of Kiwi, which is where some exiled people still live. That recording was fascinating to me not only because of what it meant – it’s a song of exile and despair – but it’s delivered in a way that’s full of life. It illustrates more than anything the ability of music to change sorrow into joy and to score, if only for the space of that song, a victory over that exile and over death.”
“When I lived in Kowanyama, I was allowed to help out in the land management office. They had an archive of photographs and documents that was in disarray, and I tried to get it in slightly better order. I was basically trying to look through somebody’s personal archive without the personnel. The sort of organizing principle behind it was missing, so I had to try and group together things that seemed related. That’s exactly what scientific research is like – nobody’s going to tell you any clues – and when I assembled the dossier, I wanted to do something similar. You couldn’t really tell what the organizing principle behind it is, but there seems to be some sort of logic or repetition of themes. What I want is for the listener to be able to do what I had to do: Make up your own story for it, and see how it interacts with the record for you.”
“That place [Kowanyama] just exists by its own rules. The village was located on a bit of highland where people from three different language groups would go during the wet season. It’s a completely different world from the one I’ve always lived in. I don’t pretend to understand the tiniest fraction of what was going on around me while I was there, but I did meet a lot of interesting people. I got to tag along on a couple of trips – hunting on the back of a truck or gathering goose eggs out in the swamp.”
“The striated caracara has an uncanny level of intelligence. There’s a really different kind of mind operating there. When you meet it, you feel like it meets you. They have also an absolutely insatiable curiosity about things they’ve never seen before. That’s their greatest asset. They’re trapped on these islands, so they have to eat anything that they can. The same instinct that makes it crawl up on the hood of your Land Rover or try to get things out of your backpack is what helps them survive. I think that’s a trait that’s been selected for them.”
“That image is almost religious-looking. Something about it is really compelling. It’s such a strange, mythical-looking scene.”
“The oldest story in the dossier is the story of the German explorer Gunther Pluschow. He was a World War I flying ace and a national hero. He imported a little plane into Punta Arenas down at the bottom of Tierra del Fuego, assembled it, put his camera on the wing, and flew around the Indies on it in 1927. Then he sold the boat off in order to pay for his passage back to Germany. The boat lived on after him in the Falklands for 80 years, basically as a farm boat. Here it is taking horses to Bleaker Island in 1985.”
“I’m pretty sure I went to some places on Isla de los Estados, off Tierra del Fuego, where no one else has ever been, just by accident. It’s an island that was never occupied. In these places the songbirds come out of the trees and scream at you. The animals treat you as if you’re an intruder as opposed to an object of interest. Darwin mentioned that he thought animals had been rendered wild by grand experience. I like the idea of there being a prewild state: wildness as a side effect of us … and before that there was this state where the world hasn’t made up its mind about you yet. Getting to glimpse that world was just fascinating.”
“When you’re doing these research expeditions, the data that you come back with seems awfully pale to the actual experience. You’ll have this extraordinary moment where you can tell that it’s going to take you years to understand what just happened. That’s a very powerful feeling. This is from my field book for the trip to the Galápagos. It symbolizes this process of trying to understand all of these things that don’t make sense to you at first. What I’d like to share is pretty much everything except for the data, which is why I blacked out the coordinates themselves. That’s not information everyone should have. Not that anyone is going to look for a [striated caracara] nest, but it’s still a protected species.”