Like a rugged explorer paddling into the seemingly endless reaches of moody waters -- all while looking at the mysterious islands coming ahead -- Austin-based band Shearwater sets out on a sonic journey using its lush orchestral-like experimental rock in pursuit of the unique faces only nature can provide: beauty, menace and fragility.
These journeys, captured in the band's latest album, "The Golden Archipelago," (released earlier this year and produced by John Congleton, who has worked with artists such as St. Vincent, Black Mountain and Polyphonic Spree), describes travel through choppy and peaceful waters to new islands waiting to reveal their secrets.
The new album, following previous themes featured on 2006's "Palo Santo" and 2008's "Rook" of environmental decay and human impact on nature, journeys further to capture the grandeur, simplicity, mysterious silences and troubles of life on a series of islands (as well as the mental islands of the mind). Throughout the album's rises and falls of sounds, the album's sound and lyrics also describe the incredible habitation of plants, animals and humans that arise miles from any main land.
Among these changing sonic landscapes is a powerful voice and lyrics of songwriter Jonathan Meiburg. Meiburg's inspiration for the album came from his own enrichment and discoveries in nature, mainly in the form of his role as a researcher.
Venturing around the world through countless camping trips to islands such the Falklands, Tierra del Fuego, the Galapagos, Madagascar, Nunavut and New Zealand's Chatham Islands (as well as a few powerful months in a remote Aboriginal settlement in northern Australia) Meiburg certainly knows a thing or two about the intricate facets of life, nature and history (his grandfather's experiences during World War II as a radio operator in the South Pacific also helped influence the new album's lyrics). With all these experiences he weaves into the sonic journeys that capture the wide spectrum of human emotion in the album's eleven songs.
As with any great pursuit and goals for discover there are risks with testing the limits of rock, but the five members of Shearwater aren't ones to back down from finding reward in the clutches of that exquisitely textured sonic journey.
Before the band brings its dynamic live show Monday at The Mad Planet that also includes Wye Oaks and Hospital Ships, OnMilwaukee.com caught up with Meiburg to talk about the new album and putting together its sonic journeys.
OnMilwaukee.com: What's touring like so far with the new album and what kind of reception is it from the crowds?
Jonathan Meiburg: I'd say we're getting the hang of it.
OMC: How would you describe the band's sound and what you try to accomplish through your music?
JM: I still don't have a good answer for this question. I guess I'd say we try to use as wide a variety of sounds as we can to evoke as wide a range of reactions and emotions as we can. Music's ability to evoke strong and often contradictory feelings its most beguiling and addictive quality, to me, and my favorite artists are usually the ones who are hard to pin down to a particular style or genre.
OMC: Could you talk a little bit of how you go about writing songs, especially for the new album, and incorporate journeys into nature/learning about history into songs?
JM: Usually, I start with a melody and a few lyrics, and then over time the empty spaces start to fill themselves in. It's often a weirdly passive experience, and my favorite ideas are the ones that come when I'm not concentrating too hard.
OMC: How did the sound for the band/new album progress (i.e. did you arrive at it quickly or was did it morph a number of times?)?
JM: The band's grown sort of organically over the years, changing so gradually (and thoroughly) that it's hard for me to point to any one pivotal moment or experience. For the new album, I kept thinking of different landscapes, from different islands, and trying to figure out how we could 'paint' them sonically and give a sense of light and space. I wanted the drums to be really loud.
OMC: "The Golden Archipelago" is quite the sonic journey. Did you approach the songs individually or was there a plan to have an overall flow for the album? How do you judge when it's time to go for loud rock guitars (in other words, the big moments) and more peaceful moments?
JM: Working on an album is kind of like carving a statue from a block of stone -- the thing reveals itself gradually. As you keep working and can step back from it a bit, it sort of tells you what it needs and when.
OMC: How would you describe the band as individuals? What's the band chemistry like?
JM: It's a funny and independent-minded group, but we get along really well. We've been together long enough that we're like a family -- if the family was made up entirely of eccentric uncles.
OMC: Judging from the album the live shows sounds like people are in store for a memorable show. How would you describe your live shows?
JM: We don't try to replicate the albums exactly, especially since we can't bring the strings and woodwinds along. Our live shows are a lot noisier and wilder, I'd say, I'd wear earplugs for the whole show, though there are plenty of delicate moments too.
OMC: What's one or two of the stories or moments from recording or on the road that you would say are pretty defining who the band are/where you're at musically?
JM: I just watched a red-tailed hawk catch a pigeon for its dinner in downtown Toronto. Fantastic.