Bowie Keeps Swinging:
Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg Weighs In on the Ongoing Impact of the Thin White Duke
When the telephone rings, the caller ID gives me a number with a 404 area code. It’s Jonathan Melburg on the other end, calling from Brooklyn, where he currently lives. Prior to that, he was a longtime resident of Austin, Texas, where he formed the band Shearwater in 1999 with Will Sheff as a companion project for Okkervil River, in which they both also played. So what’s with the 404?
Turns out his parents moved to Atlanta, where his mom’s family is from, after Jonathan went to college. After working for the Environmental Protection Agency in various locations for over 36 years, including 18 in Atlanta, Jonathan’s dad is now the Acting Deputy Administrator of the EPA in Washington DC. And Jonathan’s mom’s a child therapist in Decatur. Pretty cool, eh? Yep, she goes to see Shearwater whenever they pull through town, which this year happens to be December 13th at Terminal West.
Not that you necessarily need to know, but as a public service, here are a few other fun facts about Jonathan Meiburg and Shearwater:
- Meiburg and Sheff amicably decided to stop collaborating in the two bands in the mid-00s. Okkervil River is now Sheff’s focus, while Meiburg commands the Shearwater ship.
- Shearwater’s latest original album, Jet Plane and Oxbow, released by Sub Pop last January, is excellent. It sounds to me like some lost Peter Gabriel album from 1980, which makes perfect sense. (More on that in a minute.)
- Meiburg, the only constant throughout Shearwater’s many lineups, says there are currently no plans to record another Shearwater album, although that could and likely will change at some point in the future. But in the meantime, two other endeavors will occupy the majority of his time in the coming year.
- One of those endeavors is an album with Austin band Cross Record, who’s opening for Shearwater on this current tour. He’s writing a lot of the songs for their collaborative project, and playing many of the instruments, but vows to leave the singing to Emily Cross, the group’s vocalist and centerpiece. Iggy Pop and Robert Plant are already fans.
- Secondly, he has a book to finish. It’s what he describes as a “crazy-ass story” about a group of strange South American birds of prey, and the people who live with them. “It starts with a riddle of why this one species is in this one particular place, and why it acts like it does,” Meiburg describes, with palpable enthusiasm. “And in trying to solve that riddle, you have to go thousands of miles and millions of years, all the way back to the asteroid hitting the planet and wiping out the dinosaurs. It’s a great big, huge scale story.” Meiburg, 40, is an ornithologist, a professional bird-watcher, and in fact the band Shearwater is named after a variety of seabird.
But I didn’t really ask him much about any of that fascinating crap. Nope, I just wanted to talk about David Bowie, an artist Jonathan Meiburg never even ever saw perform. And yet, as is the case with many musicians, Bowie has had and continues to exert a huge influence over Meiburg’s own music and ideas. Jonathan wrote a lengthy and quite insightful review of The Next Day upon its surprise release for the website Talkhouse. He has stated that Bowie’s album Scary Monsters….and Super Creeps was a big influence on Jet Plane, both in cause (as social protest music) and effect (he’s expressed a love for the sound of the emerging digital technology of that era, telling the Austin Chronicle that he “decided to place our record in about 1980, sonically… 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’s [third LP] or [Talking Heads’] Remain in Light.”)
Most recently, Shearwater covered Bowie’s entire 1979 album Lodger for a session for the AV Club, subsequently released as a limited edition LP and digital download (sold out aside from a handful of copies being taken on this December tour; in other words get to the merch table early.) So, yeah. We geeked out about Bowie, dammit.
Is Lodger your favorite Bowie album?
“Well, it’s hard to pick a favorite Bowie album. But last year I had done some really bizarre traveling doing research for my book, and I came back feeling pretty scrambled. And listening to that record over and over somehow made me feel better. I think because it’s so confused, and yet so, um… it’s paranoid, it’s optimistic, it’s angry, it’s many different emotional states at once. And it doesn’t even sound all that good, in some ways. It’s kind of a murky mix. The players all sound kinda confused. I mean, really! You can hear in some of the bass lines, it sounds like the bass player’s giving up and going, ‘Okay… I’ll do whatever you want.’ I think when they recorded that album, actually, that Bowie and Eno and Visconti were up in a control room that was in a different place from where the players were, and they couldn’t even see them, so there was a little video feed or something. So the disconnectedness of it was even reflected in the way that they recorded it.”
You were already performing some of the songs as encores at shows earlier this year – “African Night Flight” and “ Look Back in Anger,” probably others. Is the AV Club recording the first time you’d done it all the way through?
“We did it the night before in Chicago… But [the recording] is all just one take. We just played it all the way through… That was such a bright spot in the year for us. I love our record – I enjoy playing our record – but that was just a surprise. It had an energy about it that I wasn’t expecting. The really gratifying thing was that the guy we got to master it was Gregg Calbi, who mastered the original Lodger. And then just a couple of weeks ago, I heard that Tony Visconti had heard it, and I got a note through a friend that he had loved it, too, which was really exciting. Playing Lodger, I realized because we were only a five-piece band, I was gonna have to not only sing but do the Adrian Belew stuff too, and that was actually the hardest thing for me – trying to figure out how to make some of those crazy, broken sounds. And not play as well as him, because it’s really not possible, but to at least not be embarrassing.”
So have you actually heard “Move On” played backwards?
“Oh, I’ve gone as far down the nerdiest rabbit holes on that record as you can imagine. But yes! It totally is ‘All the Young Dudes,’ and it makes sense when you’re playing it, because, all those songs are really fun to learn, because until you learn a song, you don’t really ever get under the hood of it. There are songs that I’ve listened to a million times that when I sat down and tried to play them, I go, ’Ohhhh – that’s what that is! That’s how that section works!’ And with ‘Move On,’ you know, the chord changes seem so arbitrary. But when you realize it’s ‘All the Young Dudes’ backwards, that’s why.”
You are obviously too young to have seen it at the time, but I’m sure you’ve seen clips of when he performed on Saturday Night Live when Lodger came out. To this day, that’s one of the strangest, most amazing TV appearances by a musician I’ve ever seen.
“Oh yeah. One of the only promotional appearances he did for Lodger was that one. It’s insane. The one with the… was it ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ where he had the little skeleton and the green screen? I think he was operating the puppet, too. He was always kind of frightening, in a way, and of course now he seems much more cuddly in retrospect, but I think he just enjoyed seeing what he could get away with. Even, I just watched the video for ‘Let’s Dance’ the other day. I had totally forgotten how amazing that video is. The thing with the young aboriginal boy and girl in Australia, and they’re scrubbing streets and pulling huge pieces of factory machinery up the highway while motorists are yelling at them. It’s not what you’d think you’d get for that song, and it’s really… the moment when they come over the crest of the hill, and you can see Sydney in the distance – that’s not a special effect or anything, that’s just what it looks like there. He must’ve just made Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence or something, ‘cause they made that all out in the South Seas, so I think that’s why they made the video in Australia.”
I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that your lighting for Shearwater’s current tour resembles Bowie’s around that time – the 1978 tour, the Stage live album, with the vertical lights.
“Yes, purely a coincidence! No, that was really inspiring to me, because I love the way those big florescent lights looked in his stage setup, and it’s just simple. Even though, for something like he was doing, I’m sure it took forever to put together, and they were probably breaking all the time. But I found these work lights that you can use in an auto body shop, and I got a bunch of them and spray painted the bases and tops black, and found these gels to put in them to make them different colors, and it’s just amazing how well it worked. Because we’re not fancy enough to be able to carry a lighting director around with us or anything like that. We fit five musicians, a sound engineer, all of our instruments and those lights in one 15-passenger van. And the merchandise! It’s a tight fit in there. It’s like a church group taking a trip.”
When did you first really hear Bowie and got it, and you delved heavily into all his stuff after that?
“Well, like a lot of things, I went through my Bowie phase kind of late. I grew up, I would say musically, relatively sheltered. I loved a lot of classical music, and Renaissance music and stuff like that, but I didn’t really get into rock at all until I was in high school, and then not into the finer details of all that – indie rock and hip-hop and all the different stuff – until I was out of college. So on the one hand, I felt like I’d been sort of sealed off from this incredible world for many years, and on the other hand, you kind of come to it with the passion of a convert, which is kind of different. I loved Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane back in college, but there’s always a moment, if you listen to a greatest hits record or something, where the songs start to get really weird. (laughs). And I was always kind of like, ‘I don’t understand what he’s doing here…’ But then about five years ago, that stuff hit me like a ton of bricks. And now it’s pretty much the only Bowie that I like to listen to.”
And you’re talking the period from the mid-70s ’til ’80 or so.
“From Station to Station forward, yeah.”
That’s my favorite period of his, too. I consider Station to Station through Scary Monsters to be the most incredible five-album stretch of any artist or band I can think of.
“It’s the one to beat. I don’t think anybody’s done it since then.”
Personally, Low is probably my favorite album of all those.
“Yeah, Low, talk about a disoriented record! But the thing is, when I was thinking about Lodger, for one thing I felt like that album is generally kind of neglected. There were songs from it he never played that I think are great, like ‘African Night Flight’ or ‘Yassassin.’ But also, it seems playable. Like, trying to stage a performance of ‘Heroes’ would just be bananas, and Low also. I just couldn’t imagine doing it, without devoting a huge amount of time trying to figure out how to do that. And we had about two weeks to prep for our tour.”
You’ve told the story many times, so don’t feel obligated to repeat it again. I’ve seen you talk about how the Scary Monsters album was sort of an inspiration for Jet Plane and Oxbow.
“Absolutely. Because he described it as ‘social protest music.’ And I wanted to make a protest album, which, I now feel almost chagrined about, because I didn’t mean to be so on the nose. But on the other hand, these are the last days of the tour. There’s no more Jet Plane and Oxbow tour after this. So, it’s a protest record, and I’m filled up with rage and sadness, so we’re gonna put all that on the stage when we play.”
And musically, it was impactful on Jet Plane also. I’ve read interviews where you’re talking about the emerging technology of the time, and how albums of that time period were so creative, and they sound really strange now but they hold up. They’re compelling.
“Oh yeah. People were really trying to push the envelope with that stuff, and thought it was interesting. You can hear, in the song ‘Scary Monsters,’ on the background vocals on the chorus, there’s this weird, stuttering tremolo thing that I’m certain came out of an Eventide harmonizer – it’s exactly the kind of sounds that they make! And it’s frightening. But it’s like it’s taking the sound and chopping it into all these tiny pieces, and you can’t even identify why it’s so scary, but I totally hear that technology working in that moment.”
So was there ever the idea to cover Scary Monsters start to finish instead of Lodger? It’s certainly a better-known album.
“Lodger is a little more musical, to me, and honestly, a little less difficult. There’s more space in it, it sounds more like a band’s playing. Scary Monsters is like, you have to spend a lot of time trying to be Robert Fripp, and that’s really hard. And also, by the time I get done listening to that record, I feel like my ears have been pounded to death! It attacks you to such a degree. Lodger, on the other hand, is somehow more uplifting. Even though it’s just as dark. But Scary Monsters is just like being yelled at for 45 minutes.”
Sometimes literally, yeah.
“Yeah, can you imagine if we tried to do ‘It’s No Game (No. 1)’? I don’t think Bowie did any more vocals that day. I couldn’t do that at a show and have it be good. But Lodger was that one I thought we could actually do a good job and represent it like it was, and pay tribute to its construction and execution in a way that wouldn’t be too pale. Or too much of just like a Bowie copy. I wanted to try to inhabit it ourselves, at least a little bit, even while being faithful to what they played.”
That was a really inspiring time for music, to me. There seemed to be a really interesting cross-pollenating bond among people like Bowie, Eno, Fripp, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Adrian Belew and a few others, who were taking prog-rock and art-rock into some incredibly interesting areas.
“But also don’t forget all the other musicians they were interacting with and working with. People like Dennis Davis and George Murray and Carlos Alomar. And, like when Talking Heads did their Remain in Light tour, you know, they doubled the number of people in the band, with Steve Scales and Busta Jones, Bernie Worrell. There was really this synthesis between the worlds, in that case, of funk and super-white, sort of what became the precursor of indie-rock, and tried to infuse it with this kind of… you could see these genres kind of talking to each other, and sometimes it was on opposite sides of kind of racial divides, or other kinds of cultural divides, or national divides. Trying to reach out to people outside of your own culture, and see what you might be able to do, musically, together. And sometimes, of course, there’s kind of world music-y stuff which seems kind of bland. Byrne wrote that article “I Hate World Music” about that very thing.”
And yet, he was one of the reasons such things became more popular.
“Well, sometimes you start something and then it becomes something you’re not necessarily fond of. But I think that that instinct of trying to reach out to things that are unfamiliar to you, and embrace them, and see how what you’re doing might inform one another, that’s a really inspiring spirit from that time, as well as the technological stuff. All those guys that you just named, they were very curious. They were very willing to wander outside of where they were maybe supposed to be, and see what was in places that weren’t necessarily so famous, or weren’t so popular. And for Bowie, that period that we’re talking about was, in a lot of ways, a commercial period of wandering in the wilderness for him. Those records didn’t do that well. And I think he was painfully aware that he could’ve been making more money.”
Hence, Let’s Dance.
“Exactly! Oh yeah, you can see it. So the next thing he does, he makes a shit-ton of money. And then says it plunges him into a terrible depression for many years.”
And then, some of his later albums after that are back to being interesting.
“I think he had a really late period kind of resurgence. He took a lot of time off and he decided that he wanted to chase something that was interesting again, and didn’t really care what anybody thought.”
Had you heard Blackstar before Bowie’s death?
“I had, yeah. You know, I narrowly missed reviewing it for the Talkhouse, and I’m so glad I did, because I would have reviewed it before he died, and you just can’t help it seeming different without him… My guess is he probably knew that it might be [his final album], but he didn’t want to just declare an end to his life. He didn’t want that to be his choice… I mean, that’s another thing that’s really inspiring about Bowie – how addicted to work he seems to have been, in some ways. He could not stop doing stuff. And sometimes it was ill advised (laughs), but more often than chance allowed was not. The picture that you get of this guy is… actually, for all that we talk about how he ‘changed’ all the time, he didn’t really seem like he changed that much to me. The person underneath it always seems really consistent. Somebody who’s smart and funny, and slightly bitchy, but generally extremely humane. That song ‘Fantastic Voyage’ that starts Lodger, I can’t think of a more humane song than that one.”
You wrote a really great review of The Next Day. Like you, I thought the album was amazing upon its release, but I haven’t listened to it much since, which makes me wonder if my initial enthusiasm was largely because I was just so thrilled to hear new music by him.
“There are like three songs on there that I would put up with my favorites of his other work. And then there’s a lot of other stuff that’s almost that good, and then there’s some that are clunkers. But it’s so varied, and he tried so many different things, and different groups of musicians, and different styles. If that was him clearing his throat, I was fucking delighted.”
I think the greatest feat of all was that he kept it a secret.
“Yeah, right under our noses! I never saw him in person, ever, and I just regret it so much. He’s one of the very few people that I would have been thrilled just to see. Like, even on the street. I live in Brooklyn, and I know right where he was. I’ve walked past places that he walked past every day.”
You may have passed him and not even noticed.
“It’s totally possible. Just as he could appear very, very conspicuous, I think he could also go the other way. Aleister Crowley said he could turn himself invisible, and I think Bowie could do it too… I was hoping, when we were planning to [perform Lodger], that he would get to see it, because I thought it was such a funny thing to do. We didn’t just do it as a tribute. I was planning to do it anyway. And we were rehearsing the songs, and he died. So it was just like a gut-punch. But on the other hand, it was a way to spin his prayer wheel one more time. And it was a pleasure.”
Photo by Sarah Cass.