Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg: “I feel like I’m slowly getting better at this record-making thing.”

Although the concert season is beginning to wind down, making way for the holidays, and weather is finally giving us fewer and fewer reasons to leave our homes, there...

Although the concert season is beginning to wind down, making way for the holidays, and weather is finally giving us fewer and fewer reasons to leave our homes, there are a handful of upcoming shows in the 215 that certainly warrant braving the elements in the next week… and perhaps none more so than Shearwater’s stop this Saturday, December 17th, at Underground Arts.  Led by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Meiburg, Austin, Texas’ Shearwater have been at it for the better part of two decades now, churning out indie rock that would seem to take inspiration from both the psychedelic and Americana persuasions.   This January Shearwater released Jet Plane and Oxbow, their second LP on Sub Pop, and they’ve been on the road promoting it for the vast majority of the year.  The album is monumental to put it mildly, expanding their sound to coliseum-sized proportions.  It also sees them exploring a love of the sounds and technologies found in late-‘70s/early-‘80s post-punk, new wave, and art rock.  The album seems to be Shearwater’s most critically acclaimed to date and late this October Jonathan Meiburg took the chance to chat with me about some of the highlights of recording and promoting Jet Plane and Oxbow and just Shearwater in general.

Izzy Cihak: I know this is a huge question, but I just realized that Shearwater has been officially releasing music for 15 years now, which is kind of crazy to think about.  What have been some of the personal highlights for you?

Jonathan Meiberg: There are so many.  A few shows always stand out; this year, for me, that was Vienna, New York, London, Seattle, Antwerp, Glasgow, Austin, a random house show in Switzerland, and our performance of David Bowie’s entire Lodger album on the A.V. Club.

Another highlight this year was definitely driving the van back to Austin from Oregon in the spring when the US tour ended – the weather was really dramatic, and that drive takes you through some of the most astonishing parts of the country.  The touring ensemble was really excellent this year, one of my very favorite SW lineups, and Cross Record might have been my favorite touring companions ever.  Oh, and hanging out with yellow-billed choughs on top of Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland; that was incredible. When the tour ended, I went hiking down my favorite canyon in Utah with some friends I met through the band and saw mountain lion tracks everywhere.

As for older highlights, I mean, the four surreal dates we did with Coldplay back when Rook came out were certainly memorable…as were tours we did with Xiu Xiu, Clinic, Dinosaur Jr, Wye Oak, and Sharon Van Etten.  This list could go on and on… this job has put some gray in my hair, but it’s been worth it.

Izzy: So your latest album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, has been out for the better part of a year now.  Have you had any favorite reactions to this album in particular, whether from critics, fans, audiences, or just friends?

Jonathan: It’s the reactions from friends that matter the m… oh, who am I kidding.  I mean, I’m not; they do—but you also wait in terror to see what certain critics will say about the record when it comes out, since that determines whether you eat or starve on tour.  Luckily, they seemed to like this one, and many said it was a career best; I agree.  I feel like I’m slowly getting better at this record-making thing.  We deliberately made this one with live performance in mind, and I think that helped the shows.

Izzy: How do you think the album compares to previous releases?  Was the process of writing and recording any different?

Jonathan: I spent a lot of time not working on it, which really helped.  We’d work for a couple weeks, not work for a month, then go back to it – not on purpose, that’s just how people’s schedules aligned.  But this time I made a policy of not listening to rough mixes, or even thinking about the record, when we weren’t actually in the studio working.  That helped.  It made it possible to notice and fix problems I don’t think we’d have spotted if we’d done it all in one go.   For me, the record felt like a big step forward; more than any of the others, it probably ended up most like what I wanted it to be from the beginning.

Izzy: What would you consider to be the most significant influences behind Jet Plane and Oxbow, both musical and otherwise?

Jonathan: I talked about this some in the interview with Michael Azerrad that we put out with the promo stuff for the record, so I don’t want to go over it all again… here’s a link.  Download the “bio + interview” one.

Izzy: Not to detract from your own music but, considering the year is coming to an end, I’m curious what has been some of your favorite music this year.  Have there been any albums to come out or live shows you’ve gotten to see in 2016 that really impressed you?  You have a history of working with a ton of really cool artists.

Jonathan: Thank you!  My music listening is really haphazard.  Honestly I’m pretty selective about what I listen to;  I go long stretches without listening to music at all; after tours, especially, that part of my brain needs time away to recharge.  I listened to a bunch of Roger Miller a few months ago…also the Ethiopiques recordings of Alemu Aga and Kassa Tessema, and Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.  Just yesterday I was listening to Skip James’ early recordings for the first time in a long while and heard things in them I hadn’t heard before.

Izzy: I was so excited to see that your short run of December dates includes a stop in Philly, or Philthy.  What can be expected of the live experience this time around?

Jonathan: These are the last dates of the Jet Plane and Oxbow tour, so it’ll be similar to the shows we did earlier in the year: mostly songs from the new album, with a few older songs and surprises thrown in. We’re doing it to catch places we didn’t play back in March and do a couple of hometown shows.  We played on WXPN, but didn’t get to do a ‘proper’ show in Philly…so we’re trying to fix that this time!

Izzy: And what’s next for you?  What do you have planned for the first part of 2017, whether relating to Shearwater or not?  Anything you’re particularly looking forward to?

Jonathan: In the last few months I’ve been working on a new album with Dan and Emily from Cross Record, who are opening for us on the December dates.  It’s not a Shearwater album or a Cross Record album…it’s something new for all three of us. That’ll be out next year, and I’m very excited about it.  I imagine we’ll tour, too.

I’m trying to finish writing a book right now, which feels like it will never, ever end.  I’ll be working on that pretty much from now until it’s done.  It’s safe to say I’m looking forward to finishing it.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.