Just a few weeks ago, we brought you an In-Time Interview with The Eastern Sea, where we talked about their new release, Plague, while listening to it in real time. Today, we present an In-Time Interview with Shearwater, where I got to chat with frontman Jonathan Meiburg and producer Danny Reisch about their new album, Animal Joy. It was the first time either of them had listened to the record since its release in February, and Jonathan had expressed some reservations about revisiting the album, and possibly focusing too much on where it could be improved. In the end, it was a fascinating discussion and I thank them both for the opportunity. If you’d like to follow along by listening to the album, you can cue up your copy of the record, stream it on Spotify, or stream it via the Sub Pop-approved YouTube link above. Enjoy!
Carter: So you open with what is effectively the title track of the record, but…is there a difference for you between “Animal Life” and “Animal Joy”? Why have that distinction and not just make the track and record name line up?
Jonathan: Puts too much weight on the song. It has to be somehow bigger than the rest of the tracks or something. I wouldn’t rule it out on future records, but it wasn’t the case on this one. This song was always going to be first, but not the ‘meat’ of the record.
Carter: So no difference for you between animal life and animal joy?
Jonathan: No, of course difference.
Carter: It’s a great leadoff track. This song is like your declaration of freedom from past styles, right? If I’m not mistaken it has one of the only bird references on the record (“like the rooms a swallow made”) and suggests that maybe that isn’t sufficient for an animal life such as the one in which you find yourself?
Danny: I would mention that we struggled a great deal with getting the right take and right sound for that opening guitar, I think at least partly because of knowing that it would be the first thing heard on the record.
Jonathan: And there’s that little piano note in the very first instant.
[Engineer] Peter Katis loved that.
Carter: How did you settle on that sound?
Jonathan: What was it, DR?
Danny: The piano you mean?
Jonathan: Did we re-mic/re-amp? I think it’s still mostly my harmony rocket.
I meant the guitar sound.
Ha, hearing Peter k’s weird, programmed celeste part now in the end…that track ain’t too bad.
“Breaking the Yearlings”
Danny: It’s your harmony rocket with the AC-15. We tried your brown Princeton and the AC-30.
Jonathan: Oh, right! So we didn’t re-track with the U67?
Danny: Ah the pitch correction on the guitar line still slightly bothers me on this…man that backbeat is a force, though. Lots stacked up there.
Jonathan: It’s funny to hear my voice back on this; I’m 120+ performances away from this moment now.
Jonathan: And it sounds a little tame to me, honestly…wilder animal now.
Danny: I’d agree. There’s Sam Lipman’s distorted clarinet that sounds like an elephant being tortured.
Jonathan: Ha, yes, Sam Lipman!
Carter: I imagine there’s been a lot of difference with the tracks after being on tour for so long?
Danny: Certainly after that show in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago… 🙂
Carter: How has that changed these songs?
Jonathan: It happens so gradually you don’t notice.
Danny: It’s true.
Jonathan: The live show now is such a force – a blast of energy – and some of that’s there on this record. But this is the sound of us trying to imagine what that would be like, whereas now it’s the sound of us actually doing it.
Danny: I do wish we had an extra army of jonathans for the end of this song to get all those vocals washing over each other.
Jonathan: Thank God there are not an army of Jonathans.
Carter: Do you wish the record sounded more like the live show now?
Danny: Haha, we’d keep them [the army of Jonathans] in flight cases in the trailer. Don’t worry.
Jonathan: I don’t like where this convo is going.
Carter: With this song, the emotional tenor of the album gets complicated. The album title suggets joy and the first two don’t stray tooooo far from that. But here everything gets far more subdued and insecure. How do you maintain a consistent tone across an album when tackling such a range of emotional subject matter?
Jonathan: This was the first song I had for the record. …Danny? How did we do that?
Carter: By tone, I mean lyrically and sonically.
Jonathan: Some of it is just that my voice is kind of the thread that you hold through the record, even as other things change around it.
Danny: Well the vocal treatment is really different on this one.
Carter: What’s different here?
Danny: In terms of treatment there’s some subtle distortion on the vocals and a spring reverb that I think makes it sounds a little more emotionally detached.
Carter: To complement the feel of the song itself?
Danny: The drum sounds are different on this one – they share something with “Believing Makes It Easy.” Dryer, fatter, meaner.
Jonathan: Live this song sounds less clean and clanky, more like AC/DC.
Carter: Ha, that’s hard to imagine for me.
Danny: AC/DC might be a stretch, but it’s a bit tougher.
Jonathan: Come see us with Dinosaur Jr [on October 4th at the Mohawk]. I’m sure we’ll be cranked up for those shows.
Danny: I’m sure we’ll have to be.
Carter: Is there more emphasis on the distorted guitar?
Danny: Yeah, and the overall just attitude while playing, I think, not just the volume or tone.
“You As You Were”
Danny: ….This piano. Hopefully all that musical editing is invisible to the listener. I kind of pride myself on that.
Carter: Yeah, I don’t know that I heard any specific edits in there and I’ve got the good headphones on now.
Carter: I understand that the first verse of this one is a based on a true story that happened to you, Jonathan…and yet it’s in the second person. Why?
Jonathan: When the performances are as edited as much as they are on this record, you’re really sculpting the entire performance. Kind of like Dylan changing from first to third person on “Tangled Up in Blue.”
Carter: What do you mean about that Dylan reference?
Jonathan: His demo version is in first person.
Danny: Ahh, still wish we put a different crash in there when it kicks in.
Jonathan: And the recorded version is third person.
Carter: What does that distancing do?
Jonathan: I thought it might be too insular if I made it 1st person, and I wanted this record/these songs to reach out more, be more embracing of the audience. The longer I’ve played the more I’ve felt that it’s the relationship between audience and performer that’s most important…by the end here, 1st person is back.
Jonathan: I think because….I’m not sure why, but it felt right.
Jonathan: My hope is that “I am leaving the life” could be adopted by other people as their own “I.”
Carter: It seems that everyone is picking up on the timbre of the opening to this track – that drum sound in particular – you’ve articulated the how before, but I’m more interested in the why. What drove you to such a distinctive sound?
Jonathan: Complete accident. Danny?
Danny: Well, it’s two different drummers in two different studios at two different tempos. It was interesting how we concocted it.
Jonathan: (Extra kick hit there. Glad we took that out live.)
Danny: (me too) Thor was playing the strait 2/4 beat in the room next to a huge spring reverb, and it was creating this swelling pulse that bloomed with each hit. It was a total accident. Typically you have to feed signal to those, but it was triggering it acoustically because he was sitting in the room next to it. And I noticed it and pulled it in and recorded it back.
Carter: And you kept the effect.
Jonathan: It’s the sound of Thor just rattling the springs by playing next to it. The closer drums are Cully [Symington].
Danny: Then I did sort of the opposite with Cully, with it playing the more rattly part on top. I was using/abusing a compressor called the level-loc, and when the signal hits, it ducks the signal down. So as Cully’s drum signal gets squashed Thor’s drums are blooming.
Carter: It’s a kind of brooding song, and I think the effect fits it well.
Jonathan: Since the song is about tearing yourself open, in a way, it makes sense to have these two opposing drum sounds fighting/complementing each other.
Danny: Kim’s upright sounds so nice.
Jonathan: Yeah I miss that. No way to really get that live.
Danny: Then we switch over to Cully entirely here on the break. This is one of my favorite moments in the live set.
Jonathan: This song kills live – always the highest point of the set.
Carter: No stand-up live, though?
Danny: The band kinda voltron’s into the giant monster and is just coming for you.
Jonathan: Hahaha, these last big vocals, which have become so important to the song, were totally ad-libbed late at night.
Jonathan: While Danny was falling asleep at the console.
Danny: I was literally passing out from exhaustion with my head on the console while Jonathan was going totally balls to the wall in the room next to me.
Jonathan: It’s real/It’s real/and It’s real. One more time, it’s real…cribbed sorta from Buffy Sainte-Marie song, ‘Cod’ine.’ … Nigel Godrich loved this song.
Carter: It builds so well.
Jonathan: Yeah. And then I did the little weird lead guitar in the back there, which Lucas [Oswald] totally shreds now live.
Carter: Nice long fade out.
Danny: I forgot we used that starved plate 60s-ish garage fuzz on that guitar. I like it a lot.
Carter: So is there any particular thing that’s real?
Jonathan: It’s meant to suggest what happens when you feel your life has opened again for you, after it’s been shutting on you.
Jonathan: Yeah, that one (“Insolence”) is my fav….My debut on bass in the top of “Immaculate.”
Danny: That was so tricky. We did so many versions of bass takes at the beginning. It’s actually doubled with your scratch guitar too, from when we tracked with Cully.
Carter: “Immaculate” is like a straightforward, old-fashioned kind of rock song, certainly compared with the rest of your catalogue. What were you going for there? Why fall back on the classic rock character of “Jonny”?
Jonathan: Aw, c’mon! ‘Jonny’ is me.
Carter: 🙂 I don’t mean that in a bad way.
Jonathan: Can’t I refer to myself?
Carter: Haha, third person now instead of second.
Jonathan: Jamie Stewart addresses himself as “Jimmy” in his songs.
Danny: Wish we had that tambourine in there live.
Carter: Man, I can’t believe I missed that it’s you – the song’s totally different now.
Danny: “Johnny get a hold of your espresso addiction.”
Jonathan: IT’S NOT A PROBLEM.
Danny: I dont have a problem! Have you tasted this stuff????
Carter: Still, it’s like a straight-ahead rocker. It sounds like y’all were really letting go on this one.
Jonathan: Actually, a lot of labored work on this one!
Jonathan: Many guitar overdubs.
Danny: It came together close to the end of mixing.
Jonathan: Making it seem like it was effortless is the hardest thing to do!
“Open Your Houses”
Jonathan: Thought that drum take was pretty near flawless.
Danny: There were a few elements added right before the end on this one and “Believing Makes It Easy.” I was worried about those two up till the end. Cully is an animal.
Jonathan: Though it’s Thor here in “Open Your Houses,” right?…This was my last vocal, and I can hear how tired I am in this one.
Danny: This one was largely created afterward. “Immaculate” was second to last, wasn’t it? … There’s a line in there inspired by Peter Katis…
Jonathan: “You are alone on the ice.”
Carter: Jonathan, your voice is so unique, and you use it quite expressively. When you’re recording vocal takes, what do you do to get the most emotion out of it?
Jonathan: I usually under-sing the first takes, and then get more into it in the second, third ones. And then I get worse. Still learning about my voice.
Danny: Then he leaves and Danny compiles.
Danny: Then we fix spots, and get into the harmonies.
Jonathan: Danny is the master at that. He shrinks down to 1″ high and jumps into the screen.
Carter: After seven records, you’re still learning about your voice?
Danny: Oh God, I can’t imagine you ever really stop learning about your instrument.
Carter: Well true enough. I guess I should rephrase it to: what are you still learning?
Jonathan: I feel like I’m singing better than ever these days. I’m still learning how to communicate.
Danny: I would agree.
Carter: The emotional side?
Jonathan: How to be more emotionally transparent – a struggle for me personally as well sometimes! I’m getting better all the time.
“Run the Banner Down”
Carter: It sounds like this record was groundbreaking for you personally in that regard.
Jonathan: It was. I had not much else in my life at the time, but it was fun to invest so thoroughly in it.
Danny: Funny, I had the first sequence cued up, actually, which had “Immaculate” following “Open Your Houses.” We struggled a bit with the sequence for the back half.
Jonathan: I loved this recording.
Danny: Man, I love that clarinet. Again, Sam Lipman. Such a nice, pleasant texture back there.
Jonathan: No one ever mentions this song, but I was really proud of it. I think it adds to the depth of the record. And is the most like some ‘old’ Shearwater records.
Danny: It was nice for me to record something strictly in a really pure acoustic documentarian sort of manner.
Carter: For sure – it doesn’t have the “groove” of lots of the new songs – more textural. Maybe that’s why people haven’t mentioned it?
Danny: It’s really a beautiful very clear straight-up recording. Lots of room mics.
Carter: Like “Meeting Across the River” on Born to Run.
Carter: You really do all sort of different textures on this album.
“Pushing the River”
Danny: That piano sounds like a totally different piano than the one on “You As You Were.” What a great piano.
Jonathan: That’s because that piano is amazing.
Danny: One of my favorites in Austin.
Jonathan: Up at Texas Treefort… ah, “Pushing the River!”
Carter: This might be my fav on the album.
Jonathan: This one was a TON of work. Assembled from loops. So many layers.
Danny: This and “Insolence” are the most fun to perform for me.
Jonathan: I’m playing Bill Callahan’s acoustic guitar on this one. He kindly loaned it.
Danny: This wasn’t really a song until we made it after the fact.
Carter: What do you mean?
Jonathan: This started as a loop of Thor’s drums.
Danny: Thor played like 20 minutes of ideas to a lick, and we assembled it all afterward.
Carter: So it’s built around that drum part?
Jonathan: That he played into my Macbook at his house.
Danny: Edited to oblivion.
Jonathan: When you zoom out on this track in Protools, it is just BLACK with edits.
Danny: Those shakers were a last minute add; I still feel like they’re too loud.
Jonathan: Yeah, they are. Let’s go back and fix it. See, this is what I was talking about, Carter!
Carter: It emphasizes the rhythmic aspect of the song, gets me “dancing.”
Danny: Yeah, the screen is just black with edit lines because the whole thing was built from chopping things and moving them around.
Jonathan: That’s Scott Brackett’s keys there, played again into my Macbook. One take. He was just fucking around, and then it ended up in the record!
Danny: We didn’t know what the song was going to be so we got Kim just hitting bass notes on her upright. Some of those things came in SOOO handy.
Carter: What I’m hearing now is from a Macbook mic?
Danny: Well, one layer is. Not all of those.
Jonathan: Some of it is SUPER hi-fi; some of it SUPER low-fi.
Carter: With a song with so many edits in the studio, what do you do to get it going live?
Jonathan: We just play the hell out of it live.
Danny: Well, playing it live was sort of the easy part because there’s already the road map. Making it is the hard part!
Carter: Love this guitar squall at the end here too.
Jonathan: That’s me! With an e-bow!
Danny: Yeah, sounds like a teradactyl giving birth.
“Believing Makes It Easy”
Carter: This song sounds like you’re kind of taking stock of the new direction that has preceded it, and asking how the listener likes it. Is that right? How do you anticipate the listener will respond? And did you like the offerings?
Jonathan: Hahaha, “How are we doing so far?” … This song is about taking mushrooms.
Carter: So I was totally off.
Jonathan: I figured no one would think I would write such a thing.
Danny: I love the vocals through the Leslie. It gives it such a wobbly, weird feel. This song has defied attempts to play it live.
Jonathan: But I like it a lot.
Carter: What’s wrong in the transition to the live setting?
Danny: Well, we only really tried it once at a sound check in France.
Jonathan: It just seems dull to me. I could be wrong.
Danny: We never really tried to put this one together for the live show, did we?
Carter: Are you happy that it’s on the record?
Carter: Just not made for the live set.
Jonathan: Some songs want to be played – and most of these do – just not this one.
Danny: This is my favorite song on the record.
Jonathan: I was very fond of the b-side, “I’m So Glad” (meant to referene the Skip James tune, obliquely).
Danny: It’s not as immediate as the others, but there’s so much to it.
Jonathan: All the parts are very clearly articulated.
Danny: I like the pensive, nostalgic feel.
Jonathan: And there’s that weird delayed Rhodes part played through the Echoplex.
Danny: Kim’s piano playing is what made it, isn’t it? That was another last minute addition.
Jonathan: Yeah, Kim’s piano debut!
Carter: So many subtle touches across the record.
Jonathan: She’s a very slyly good piano player – musician in general, in fact, I would say.
Danny: Well she has such a good ear for simple melody.
Jonathan: Catchy, graceful.
Carter: Important to ground a full arrangement like this one.
“Star of the Age”
Danny: This song has so much to offer on repeated listens, I think.
Carter: So why is this one the album closer?
Jonathan: Anything we put after it always seemed ‘extra.’ … I don’t love that the tempo is so similar to ‘Believing,’ but the tones are so different. This one feels like liftoff to me.
Carter: It seems like the lyrics are attempting to put your personal change into a broader context, maybe?
Danny: I still never was totally confident on the drum sound on this, even at the end.
Jonathan: Whoa, this vocal is better than I remembered.
Danny: The kick seemed sunken in.
Carter: It’s a very direct vocal for you.
Danny: Vocals are great, yeah.
Jonathan: Carter, you notice we’re getting sunk into the sounds while you want to talk about larger meanings?
Carter: 🙂 I’ve noticed. It’s my background, I don’t have the technical background you guys have. But you’re both hearing things that I never would have thought of.
Jonathan: Sorry about that. But it’s paying so much attention to the sounds that allows the bigger picture to be revealed.
Danny: I love the power you take on in that last section, Johnny.
Jonathan: Aw, thank you. I do that more live.
Danny: So mean and fierce.
Jonathan: Prob more on the next record too.
Danny: Ahh, Elaine [Barber]’s harp.
Danny: Fused with the synth arpeggiation…beautiful. We did try to balance synthetic with organic to keep things grounded.
Carter: Am I right that there are tons of sounds on this track that weren’t there previously? It just feels so grand compared to prior tracks on the record.
Danny: Yeah, it was a big construction.
Jonathan: But to answer your question, yes, this song seems like looking at a city from the air at night to me. A good place to leave the listener. …That’s if anyone ever listens to whole records anymore. But this one does reward that approach.
Carter: For sure – do you think it rewards a bite-sized approach too?
Jonathan: That was the thinking. The last one (Golden Archipelago) I think ONLY worked as a complete piece, which just doesn’t work these days.
Carter: It’s tougher.
Danny: Not when people are as ADD. Singles, iTunes.
Jonathan: So this record we made more bite-size pieces, but I think it still adds up.
Carter: So did you feel like you were bending to the market in a sense?
Jonathan: Yes, but only in the sense that we were trying to make something that suits the way people listen to music now.
Carter: Any final thoughts? Was it as painful as you expected?
Jonathan: Hahaha, no, I’m proud of that record.
Danny: I am too.
Jonathan: I think it’s the best SW record, and also that the next one will be better.