Shearwater frontman Jonathan Meiburg insists that you don’t need a PhD to love his band’s new full-length, The Golden Archipelago. Sure, it was inspired by a yearlong trek around remote islands like the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos and New Zealand’s Chatham Islands. And, yes, it comes with a 75-page dossier of photos and historical documents collected from his travels. But really, it’s just a great old-fashioned folk-rock album. “I enjoy building these gigantic conceptual worlds,” says the Austin, Texas-based singer. “But I worry that people think they’re going to get a dissertation instead of just a record.”
Well, “just a record” is selling it short: The Golden Archipelago is a hugely ambitious exploration of island life, from its daily rituals to its deepest historical wounds, all rendered with a complex but delicate interlay of brass and string instruments. A decade in the making, it’s a true labor of love.
Melissa Maerz of emusic caught up with Meiburg to discuss the intensive research that went into it.
You have a master’s degree in geology, and you spent a year conducting research everywhere from the Falklands to Australia. How did those experiences shape The Golden Archipelago?
After I graduated from college, I got a travel fellowship from the Thomas J. Watson foundation, so in 1997 and 1998, I went to Tierra del Fuego and the Galapagos and other islands. In the Falklands, I met this ornithologist named Robin Woods, and I became his assistant. Then I went with two other researchers to this place called Isla de los Estados, which is this island that no one lives on except like 120,000 penguins. I also spent two months in this remote Aboriginal settlement in Australia. It was fascinating to observe a culture that’s been there for 60,000 years. If you spend a lot of time in isolated communities like that, you get the sense of feeling sheltered and protected but also trapped and imprisoned. That’s part of what the album’s about.
The album begins with the national anthem of Bikini Island, sung by Bikiniians themselves. What spoke to you about that song?
It’s from this 1946 recording made by people from Bikini, this incredibly remote atoll. From 1946 to 1954, America used it to test the affects of atomic bombs on battleships. As Bob Hope said, we found the one place that hadn’t been touched by the war and bombed the hell out of it. Because of the radiation, we removed people from Bikini and sent them to another atoll where they ended up getting sick. They wrote the national anthem during the first year of exile: “No longer can I stay, it’s true / No longer can I live in peace and harmony.” It’s so sad, but it’s not just sad — there’s also this feeling of joy in the way they sing it. To me, it’s one of the best representations of the ability of music to transform sorrow. Art is the only thing that we can use to fight death and win.
Many of the songs, like “Black Eyes” and “Corridors,” deal with people enduring hard labor. Is that an integral part of island life?
Well, one thing you find is that islands often serve as prisons or labor camps. That’s something I tried to capture with “Corridors”: there’s this wild, manic type of energy, but there’s also a grinding repetition that’s wearing your down.
You’ve said that you wanted this album to be more of a “rock record” than your previous work.
Yeah, the other albums have been pastoral and pretty, and there’s a little of that here, but there’s a much stronger undercurrent of menace. We were finally able to capture the way Thor [Harris] plays the drums live — people are surprised by how manic our shows can be. And we also got these really powerful textures in the fuzz bass and these layers of mallet percussion and marimbas and a vibraphone that Thor carved himself out of wood. He’s a woodworker and a carpenter, a real craftsman.
John Congleton, who produced the album, once said that he likes to include imperfections in his work. Did he urge you to keep any mistakes?
He never had to worry about mistakes with us! [Laughs] But I understand what he means. I really believe in the moments when you’re recording and something sounds so outrageous, you just have to laugh. It’s like the string section in the middle of “Corridors,” where everything goes all Disney, and Thor’s drum entrance in “Uniforms,” when everything comes raining down loudly on your head. You laugh not because it’s silly, but because everything clicks together in a way that suggests the music knows something you don’t.
Did you record in any unusual places?
We worked in some great spaces. We used The Hi-Fi, which is Spoon’s recording studio in Austin, and this wacky treehouse studio, and Congleton’s place in Dallas, which is an old funeral home. We did some of our best work at Sonic Ranch, which is near El Paso in the middle of a pecan grove. There was always a family of skunks running around outside the studio. It was important to us to use large rooms where you could place the mics a long way from the players and get that sense of depth. If you’re listening on headphones, you can almost hear where people are standing in the room.
The album comes with a dossier of research you’ve collected from your travels. Tell us about the final image in it: a photo of a man holding a violin.
That’s a man named Andrew Peck. I found his photo in the guesthouse where I was staying in the Falklands. He built that violin himself, out of matchsticks. There’s something about his expression. He’s smiling, but he’s not smug — there’s just this radiance coming off him. That image said so much to me about the power and persistence of human cultures: people continue to create culture out of anything they have at hand. Our culture is so pervasive, that kind of resourcefulness gets thrown into the sharpest relief. When you’re surrounded by the whole wild world, you see how small your own little corner is.
interview first published in emusic here
Hidden Lakes – Mini Documentary
Castaways: contains a zip file with track and artwork.
- 02/21 – Brighton, UK @ The Freebutt
- 02/22 – Leeds, UK @ Brudenell Social Club
- 02/23 – Glasgow, UK @ Captain’s Rest
- 02/24 – Manchester, UK @ The Ruby Lounge
- 02/25 – London, UK @ Scala
- 02/26 – Diksmuide, B @ 4AD
- 02/27 – Hamburg, D @ Knust
- 02/28 – Berlin, D @ Magnet Club
- 03/02 – Munich, D @ 59 to 1
- 03/03 – Geneva, CH @ L’Usine (PTR)
- 03/04 – Fribourg, CH @ Nouveau Monde
- 03/05 – Milan, I @ La Casa 139
- 03/06 – Montpellier, F @ La Taf
- 03/07 – Barcelona, ES @ La (2) de Apolo
- 03/08 – Madrid, ES @ Moby Dick
- 03/19 – Austin, TX @ Antone’s (SXSW)
- 03/24 – Atlanta, GA @ The Earl
- 03/25 – Chapel Hill, NC @ Local 506
- 03/26 – Washington, DC @ Rock N’ Roll Hotel
- 03/27 – New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 03/28 – Philadephia, PA @ Johnny Brenda’s
- 03/30 – Boston, MA @ TT The Bears
- 03/31 – Montreal, QC @ La Sala Rosa
- 04/01 – Toronto, ON @ Lee’s Palace
- 04/02 – Ithaca, NY @ Castaways
- 04/03 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Tavern
- 04/04 – Chicago, IL @ Lincoln Hall
- 04/05 – Milwaukee, WI @ Mad Planet
- 04/06 – Minneapolis, MN @ 400 Bar
- 04/07 – Grinnell, IA @ Grinnell College
- 04/08 – Lawrence, KS @ Bottleneck
- 04/09 – Norman, OK @ Opolis
- 04/10 – Dallas, TX @ The Loft
- 04/22 – Phoenix, AZ @ Rhythm Room
- 04/23 – Tucson, AZ @ Club Congress
- 04/24 – Los Angeles, CA @ Spaceland
- 04/25 – San Francisco, CA @ Bottom of the Hill
- 04/27 – Portland, OR @ Doug Fir
- 04/28 – Vancouver, BC @ The Biltmore
- 04/29 – Seattle, WA @ Triple Door
- 04/30 – Pullman, WA @ The Belltower
- 05/01 – Boise, ID @ Neurolux
- 05/02 – Salt Lake City, UT @ The State Room
- 05/04 – Denver, CO @ The Walnut Room
- 05/05 – Albuquerque, NM @ Launchpad
- 05/07 – Austin, TX @ The Parish