Shearwater Navigates Explosive Waters

Bird is the word for Jonathan Meiburg and company.

Jonathan Meiburg is up early. Not because it's the first day of a tour and his band, Shearwater, still needs to practice before leaving — though that's part of it. Mostly it's because he wants to make sure all the talking he'll have to do for this interview won't drain his voice before tonight's show.

"The songs, for good or for ill, are pretty tough to sing," he admits. "I kinda put my voice through a lot to do it. So you have to force yourself to only talk so much and really save up. It sure does make you come across as an asshole."

Actually, the Okkervil River contributor and former graduate student in ornithology (the study of birds) couldn't be more amiable. He's just a little nervous, which is understandable. Between the recent re-release of 2006's Palo Santo as a double disc — which finds him in the role of lead songwriter and singer for the first time and has the band navigating explosive waters instead of its usual calm, haunting territory — and a looming fifteen-date tour, the guy's got a lot on his mind.

Birds of a feather rock together: Jonathan Meiburg (far right) and Shearwater.
Steven Dewall
Birds of a feather rock together: Jonathan Meiburg (far right) and Shearwater.

Westword: What is your greatest strength as a musician?

Jonathan Meiburg: [long pause]

We could talk about your weaknesses first, if you'd rather self-deprecate before bragging...

[Laughs] No, I do that enough in my ordinary life. I guess maybe flexibility. I like that I can slip in and out of a lot of different roles and not feel out of place. It's sort of like being a spy. I can go and play with my rock band and then go to the university, and no one will give it a second look in either situation. Musically, I feel the same way. I'm not particularly technically wired at anything, but I like to drift between lots of instruments and different styles and different bands and try to put something of myself into all of them.

What's easier to describe to relatives or old friends who want to know what you're up to these days: your passion for birds, or what Shearwater sounds like?

Not that my relatives would ever ask me a question like that [laughs]. Graduate school is really nice because it's an accessible thing to do. 'Oh, you have a master's degree?' The thing that's really interesting about trying to get people to understand your music is that it doesn't sell records, as far as I can tell, or really help with your family. But you get a positive review in the New York Times, and it's like, 'Yes! No one's going to ask me why I do this for another six months!'

Do you typically feel elation or anxiety before leaving for a tour?

I'm kind of a worrier, so I'd say mostly dread. But we practiced all day yesterday, and I was really surprised and happy with how we sounded. It's taking less work these days to get the rust back off.

Do you worry about the van breaking down mid-tour?

You're a vast chamber of horrors, now, aren't you? [Laughs] We're always worried about the van. Bands die in vans.

 
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