While talking with Jonathan Meiburg and Dan Duszynski for this issue's Loma interview, we also discussed Jonathan's other project Shearwater, and an ambitious recent project they took on. -JB
How did Shearwater begin?
JM: Very humbly. In 1999, I moved to Austin and joined a scrappy young band called Okkervil River. We were full of ideas but could barely get a gig, and the singer, Will Sheff, and I thought it'd be fun to make a record under another name, maybe on a 4-track cassette. I called it Shearwater, after some long-lived seabirds I met in the Falklands. I saved up enough money from temp jobs to record with our friend Jeff Hoskins for three days, who had a ramshackle studio in a partly-vacant building downtown that's since been demolished. We released it in 2001. I feel the same way about that album now as you probably do about your class picture from eighth grade, but I admire our moxie. Eventually I parted ways with Okkervil and took over Shearwater, with Will's blessing.
And you’re still going.
JM: Definitely. I stepped away for a minute to focus on Loma and write a book [A Most Remarkable Creature, Knopf/Vintage 2021], which is a nonfiction adventure in travel and natural history. But Shearwater’s been my main project since 2005. We’ve made three albums for Matador and three for Sub Pop, and I’ve been lucky to work with great producers, engineers and mixers – including Brian Beattie [Tape Op #53], Matthew Barnhart, Craig Ross, John Congleton [#81], Danny Reisch [#146], Peter Katis [#31], and Greg Calbi [#86] – along with an army of wonderful musicians who’ve come and gone over the years. Our new record, The Great Awakening, comes out in June 2022, which I co-produced with Dan and our friend and musical comrade Emily Lee. There can never be too many Emilys.
Your last time on stage was memorable, from a performing and recording perspective.
JM: To put it mildly! Our last full tour was in 2016, but in 2018 WNYC’s New Sounds program asked us to organize a three-night live performance of David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, the wild and adventurous albums he made between 1977-79 with Brian Eno, [#85], Tony Visconti [#29], and Edu Meyer [#95]. So we did. We were really nerdy about it; we knew we’d have a big live audience and a radio broadcast, and we wanted to blow them away. We treated the records like pieces of classical music, down to the smallest details, and Emily Lee spent hours scoring out the parts we couldn’t memorize. She was our musical director and keyboardist, along with the rest of our touring band from 2016 – Sadie Powers on bass, Josh Halpern on drums, Lucas Oswald on guitar, and Dan (from Loma) on guitar and keys. We also had Ed Rodriguez from Deerhoof as our Robert Fripp/Adrian Belew shredder, Travis Laplante from Battle Trance on saxophone, and Eliot Krimsky on synths. Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu [#77] split the vocals with me, since I felt like having a single Bowie stand-in was too much weight for anyone to carry. We even persuaded Carlos Alomar, who played guitar on those records and directed Bowie’s band, to conduct the band during Low’s “Warszawa,” like he did on Bowie’s 1978 world tour! After a month of rehearsing, we had one shot at each record, and everybody rose to the challenge.
How did you record and mix it for broadcast?
JM: WNYC’s ace crew recorded it. Their remote rig is fearsome; they were using vintage [Neumann] KM84s on all the guitar amps! But after that they gave us the raw tracks to mix, which put Dan in the hot seat. I told him all he had to do was remake three classic Bowie albums in a week.
DD: No pressure.
JM: Or at least land them somewhere between our performance and the albums. [laughs]
DD: We had our mixes up on one fader, and the originals on another, and I was A/B'ing between them just to get in the ballpark, since the unique sound of those records is as important as the songwriting – especially since a lot of the songs are instrumentals. It was like doing a study of a really complicated painting. Some moves were obvious, like the harmonizer insert on the snare, which we’d also done live. But others were much more subtle – running the entire mix of “Beauty and the Beast” through a 5 ms delay, for instance, or phasing the bass on most of the “Heroes” album. I was listening so closely to the originals that I almost felt like I was in the control room at Hansa [Tonstudio]. I came away with a huge respect for the way those albums were arranged and recorded.
JM: Once in a while there’d be a moment where we were toggling between the mixes and I was like, "Wait, is that us or is that them?" I had the feeling we were on the same team, trying to solve the same problems, even though there were 40 years between us.
Can we hear these recordings anywhere?
JM: Yes! They’re on Shearwater’s Bandcamp page. We couldn’t put them anywhere else because we had to buy a certain number of licenses.