Thursday, August 7, 2008

Interview with Jonathan Meiburg of Shearwater

The shared area in the Venn-diagram of "cool rock stars" and "avid birdwatchers" is pretty thin. In fact, it may be occupied by just one man: Jonathan Meiburg.

Since I am not a music critic - and therefore not qualified to use terms like "heartbreaking" and "narrative acuity" - I will try to define the music of Meiburg's band, Shearwater, in birding terms: Think of a cross between the spiraling hymns of a Wood Thrush song and the lonely insistence of a Broad-Winged Hawk. Got it? It's fantastic, and the band is considered one of the most exciting acts in indie rock (if that's the proper term...I don't know).

Mr. Meiburg also loves birds. And not just the animals themselves, but the idea of birds, the world of birds and their history and evolution. His admiration comes across in the lyrics and imagery of Shearwater's new album, Rook, as well as in an incredible series of videos chronicling Jonathan's return to the Falkland Islands to study the Striated Caracara (aka the Johnny Rook).

As a big fan of Shearwater's music, I am beyond delighted that Mr. Meiburg was able to answer some questions I had about his dual life as a musician and a bird-lover.

Birdist: At what point did you realize you'd spend the rest of your life looking for birds?

Jonathan Meiburg: Like a lot of birders, I had a conversion experience, though I was lucky enough to have it in a really exotic place. After I finished college, I won a strange grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation to study human communities 'at the ends of the earth' for a year, and one of the places I ended up was the Falklands. I'd been there for about two weeks when I met Robin Woods, a British ornithologist who's been studying birds in the islands since he first traveled there in the 1950s. Our meeting was completely by chance - we were staying in the same little boarding-house - but when Robin told me that he was there to lead a survey of Striated Caracaras in the outermost islands of the archipelago, I started trying to convince him to take me as an assistant. Eventually I wore him down, though I hardly knew anything about Falkland birds, much less birds anywhere else! But the six-week crash course in field ornithology that followed beggared all description. When we weren't at sea, we were walking the coasts of wild islands, covered in giant native grasses and huge colonies of albatrosses, penguins, burrowing petrels, and some odd endemic waterfowl like the flightless Steamer Duck or the curious little Cobb's Wren.

And then there were the caracaras themselves - crafty, charismatic, social raptors with very little fear of humans, equally at home walking or running on the ground ('very much like pheasants', as Darwin says) or soaring on the never-ending westerly gales that buffet the islands.Needless to say, I had no idea that the world contained places like this, and I was completely bowled over by the experience. As I kept on traveling to other remote places throughout the year, like the far north of Australia's Cape York, the Chatham Islands of New Zealand, or the Inuit settlement of Kimmirut in Baffin Island, I kept encountering more strange birds (and people who cared about them), and I came home a year later with my circuits blown wide. I'd bought some binoculars and an NGS field guide within weeks.

But the caracaras in particular - and the mystery of why their range is so small compared to the ranges of their close relatives - were stuck in my mind, and I went off to graduate school with the idea of trying to find out more about them. I was delighted to find that one of the best early accounts of the species comes from Darwin - he wasn't especially enamored with the Falklands in general (they paled after the tropics), but he paints an endearing, bemused, and altogether lifelike portrait of Striated Caracaras in the Voyage of the Beagle, along with a line in one of the notebooks he kept on that trip that I took as a challenge: "This species, doubtless for some good reason, has chosen these islands for its metropolis". That sounded like a glove hitting the ground to me, so I spent six years writing a thesis about it.

How would you describe yourself as a birder? Lister? Scientist? In your Falkland videos you appear to have more of a scientific interest than most casual birders...

JM: How many ways can I fall in between those categories? I love seeing new birds, of course, but I've also been resistant to keeping a list. To me, listing can be a way to turn the momentary and ephemeral appreciation of an animal for its being - my very favorite thing about birding, and one of the most pleasantly egoless experiences there is - into a sort of acquisitiveness that can be pernicious. But my aversion may be because I know how easy it would be for me to go down that path...really, I just love birds for what they are, and I'm grateful that I'm able to be here on the planet while they're still here, too. We came too late to see so many incredible animals! I love seeing live birds in the field, I love seeing dead ones in museum cabinets, I love watching the feeder and I love reading about the evolution of the different avian families. I also enjoy standing on a beach with a spotting scope trying - and failing - to tell small shorebirds apart at a great distance. I'd say I'm an average birder, trying to improve. Songs and calls are my weakest point right now.

Touring with a band seems like an ideal life for a birder. How regularly do you bird while on tour? Do you find yourself scheduling an unreasonable number of shows in Portal, Arizona and Attu, Alaska?

JM: Sadly, touring often means long drives between cities where you see great birding spots only as you pass them at 70mph. That said, I always have my binoculars close by, and you'd be surprised how productive rest stops can be. I like pointing out raptors to the rest of the band since they're big and exciting, but for smaller birds I usually keep my mouth shut. On tours this year I saw my first Brown Creeper up in Vancouver, a Calliope Hummingbird in San Francisco, and a White-Throated Swift at a rest stop in Arizona.

In the liner notes for Rook you thank, among other creatures, Turkey Vultures. Why?

JM: There was a night roost of TVs near the studio where we made the album, and in the evenings there'd be huge columns of vultures circling in a thermal above the studio. One night I counted 65. We took some pictures of them and posted them on our web site - it was really spectacular. I should have thanked the Barred Owl that lived in the ravine behind the building, too - after a long night's work I could step outside and call to it, and it usually answered.

How did the Striated Caracara trip to the Falklands come about? Are those islands really as eerie as the videos make them seem?

JM: The first survey that I mentioned, which was my real introduction to the world of birds, was in 1997, and in 2006 Falklands Conservation did a repeat survey. Robin led it again, and I did my best to make sure I could be involved. It was wonderful to re-visit the islands and to see how the caracara populations had - and hadn't - changed, and we also made it to some new islands we hadn't managed to get to the first time around. I felt very, very lucky to be able to return, especially with a broader understanding of the birds and their world.As for the second question, I don't know about 'eerie'... I'd guess I just say 'wild', with all that word implies. There are islands in the outer Falklands that feel as if they've never known human presence, where the animals aren't afraid of you since they have almost no experience with you and your kind. To be there is humbling and strange. Those places are some of the last, tiny remnants of the pre-human world, which is fast disappearing, never to return. I think of Rook as a kind of meditation on that disappearance. By the way, the URL for the "Looking for Johnny Rook" videos is

How do you approach the use of birds in your lyrics? Is there a struggle in your writing process between thinking of birds scientifically and thinking of them in an artistic or archetypal sense?

JM: Actually, I'd rarely used birds in my songs until Rook, when I figured that I should probably throw some of them in so that I could have a better answer to just this kind of question. But no, there's no dissonance for me between thinking of birds artistically and scientifically, just as I think there's often not really as much of a difference between art and science as people suggest. Art and science both rely on using your intuition to cast your line into the great's just that you use different techniques once there's a tug on the hook. Ø


Jeff said...

Awesome!! I adore Shearwater and I am an avidly amateur birder. Hell, I think that you even interviewed ( me a while back. Cool...

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