Early into my phone interview, I interrupt the conversation to ask, “Are those doves I’m hearing in the background?” The voice replies, tinged with pleasure, “Yes, those are white-winged doves. Very good!” This is the world of part-time ornithologist (bird scientist) and Shearwater leader Jonathan Meiburg. What began in 1999 as a creative outlet for Okkervil River bandmates Meiburg and Will Sheff quickly evolved into Meiburg’s passion project after Sheff returned to active duties with Okkervil in 2004.
Shearwater is a collection of underground Austin talent; the quartet features drummer and vibraphonist Thor Harris, multi-instrumentalist Howard Draper, and Meiburg’s ex-wife Kim Burke on upright bass. The sound is haunting, beautiful, and otherworldly, centering eerie atmospherics of woodwinds and strings amid droning feedback, while drawing comparisons to late-period Talk Talk and early Brian Eno. The June 2008 release of Rook (Matador) is more engaging and pop friendly than 2006 debut Palo Santo, finding the band mining fertile and epic territory while simultaneously balancing the experimental zeal of past efforts.
“It’s serious music, but that doesn’t mean it has to be humorless or joyless,” explains Meiburg from his Austin, TX home. “There are heavy rock moments, but it’s not something that you stand up and rock out with. It’s like a good book, something that you curl up with and get absorbed in, that creates its own world that you want to explore.” Growing up a child obsessed with hiking and the natural world, Meiburg was eager to explore outside the Southwestern US. After college, he received a fellowship that took him to Argentina, which blossomed into a lust for travel and exploration, soon transforming him into the Indiana Jones of ornithology. “I was in the Falklands and met an ornithologist who was studying a species of birds that lived in the outermost islands of the archipelago, and he needed an assistant and I had the time, so I just went with him. What I discovered was this world of wildlife, and particularly birds, there that was unlike anything I had ever heard of or could have dreamed. It took about a year for me to decide to formally pursue ornithology and return to grad school. I dare anyone to see a colony of 100,000 black-footed albatross nesting and not have their circuits blown.”
Much of Rook was conceived during Meiburg’s two-month hawk study in the Galapagos Islands. “I’d have a lot of time to think while I was sitting on a lava flow under a tree waiting for this hawk to land, and just to keep from going crazy, I’d write in my notebook whatever came into my head.” Rook echoes the experiences of Meiburg’s travels, conjuring swirling images of threatening seascapes (“Leviathan, Bound”) to beautiful clarity and peace of mind (“I Was a Cloud”). “I think it’s a deeper and richer album than Palo Santo,” explains Meiburg. “Sonically, there are a lot more acoustic textures, which is not code for ‘it’s quiet and slow.’ It’s actually the first record that I’ve ever made that I felt pretty good about when I was done.