Conversations with a Strange Bird

Field notes from Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg.


Michael May

In the digital age, album artwork has shrunk to the size of a Shredded Wheat biscuit. But the Austin band Shearwater, a favorite of sensitive, intellectual hipsters across the country, is giving its fans some eye candy. The band is selling a companion dossier — a 75-page, loose-leaf art book — to flip through while listening to their haunting new album, The Golden Archipelago (Matador Records).

There’s a concept behind the dossier, but it’s not immediately clear. Many images are faded and strange. A man sits on a huge, trussed-up crocodile. A delicate-looking bat is stretched open by a pair of disembodied hands. There’s the blueprint to a century-old ship and notes from a field notebook. The dossier feels like the treasured mementos of some long-lost scientist.

“Meridian,” a song from the Shearwater album The Golden Archipelago:

It turns out that it does come from the files of a wayward scientist, lead singer Jonathan Meiburg, and his experiences directly influenced the songs on the album. Meiburg is an ornithologist, although an unlikely one. He studied English as an undergraduate and then received a grant to visit remote human communities around the world. On the Falkland Islands, he accepted an invitation to be a research assistant to a scientist studying the striated caracara, a rare and unusual raptor. He became fascinated with the bird and its environment, eventually returning to study it at the University of Texas at Austin. I visited Meiburg in his tiny South Austin home days before the band left on a tour of Europe. He pulled out a series of photos from the dossier that feature the strange, dark raptor, including one that shows a pair of caracaras devouring a black-browed albatross. He told me about discovering the bird that’s become a lifelong obsession.

I remember where I first encountered striated caracaras in the Falklands. I’d been seasick all night, and when I got up in the morning, we were anchored off a mountain rising from this strange island. There were penguins jumping in and out of the water and these strange birds flying around. There were killer whales and elephant seals. I immediately thought, how did this place end up like this?

The striated caracara only lives on a few islands off Argentina. It’s like a mixture of a falcon and a crow, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s very intelligent, and very social, which is unusual for a bird of prey. They’ll come right up to you and start going through your bags. I felt a kinship with this animal. And when they looked at me, I felt somehow like we understood each other. My encounter with these birds opened a new way of looking at the world. I wanted to understand why they lived only in this small part of the world. And I was overwhelmed with how much I had to learn and realized literature was only going to take me so far. Science was going to allow me to know the names of things and how natural systems are organized.

Meiburg eventually did fieldwork on the Galapagos and along the coast of Argentina, nurturing a deep fascination with the relationship between man and nature. He always carried an acoustic guitar he had bought in Tasmania, composing songs in his tent when the mosquitoes were feeding. The images from these experiences have seeped into many of Shearwater’s previous albums, but not as directly as they do on The Golden Archipelago, where many of the songs evoke the crashing of waves and the awe of discovering a strange new world. Meiburg shuffles through his dossier and pulls out a photo he shot of dead trees lining a beach on Isla de los Estados, a remote island off Tierra del Fuego.

The trees were overwhelmed by these dunes of gray sand that are being blown up by the 50-mile-per hour winds that come howling out of the southwest. Strewn along the beach were pilot whale skulls, a carcass of a king penguin, and timbers of a wrecked ship.

There was a sense that this place existed outside of the world, still. I walked through places here where there might never have been a human being before, forests where songbirds would come out of the trees, sit next to you and just scream, giving the impression that they had never seen a person before, had no idea what you were and were really freaked out. It’s startling because you’re not used to animals acting that way. But really, this is what the whole world was like at one point, and these are just the remnant edges of it. This is the world that produced us, yet we feel almost no connection to it. It’s depressing sometimes, but it can also be a source of inspiration.

As a scientist, the only thing I could come back with was a notebook with a few locations of the bird nests I was looking for. Hard data is useful, but it seemed like such a small sliver of what the experience felt like, and meant to me. It seemed a shame. I wanted to process every part of the experience, and get something more out of it and digest it in other ways. I feel like music is a way to explore the very kinds of things that science is not equipped to explore.

Meiburg has channeled these lingering impressions into the songs on The Golden Archipelago. There’s a rolling undercurrent to the album, as if it were composed on a ship. The lyrics convey the wonder and pain of discovery, full of images of islands with “flares that fall like fireflies” and “little bones among the reeds.” The album begins with a recording that sums up the destructive power of humankind’s relationship to science and nature. It’s the national anthem of Bikini Atoll, written by decedents of the tribe that had been moved off the island for the testing of the atomic bomb. Meiburg read a translation of the lyrics.

“No longer can I stay here, it’s true. No longer can I live in peace and harmony. No longer can I rest on my sleeping hat and pillow, because of my island and the life I once knew there. The thought is overwhelming, rendering me helpless and in great despair. My spirit leaves, drifting around and far away, where it becomes caught in a current of immense power—and only then do I find tranquility.”

Surely there’s not another national anthem like this! But it’s delivered with such energy and life and joy. It’s really paradoxical. But it’s also so emblematic of the victory over exile and death that we can only achieve through art.

In the Falklands, I saw a piece of an Argentinean plane on the side of a hill on a remote island. I thought, you could have stood at that spot for 50,000 years and heard nothing but the wind and waves and watched the albatrosses fly overhead. Then one day in 1982, all of a sudden you hear this roar and see a plane smash into the island. Looking at the wreckage, it felt like nowhere in the world is safe, that a war machine could come screaming out of sky and crash into any place in the world, no matter how remote.

In the song “Landscape of Speed,” I was thinking of how Bikini Atoll would look for the bomber pilots dropping the first of the atomic bomb tests, and the way the South Pacific islands might look from a great height. Musically, we aimed to conjure up a tranquil, undulating landscape, but we also went after an uneasy undertone. The art I like best works with countervailing currents: If you have something beautiful, you want something ugly along with it. That’s more like the world as we experience it. Experiences are rarely just beautiful or just ugly, happy, or sad. Everything is all bound up. So if you can make music that reflects that, it’s more satisfying.

Shearwater is touring Europe. They’ll be back in Texas for a South by Southwest showcase on March 19 in Austin.