Music | Migrating North: Austin’s Shearwater spread their wings. 

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It’s often difficult to capture nature through a camera lens—no matter how good the footage is, it’s never a completely accurate representation of real life. Audio becomes muddled, the contrast is always a little too overblown and animals/people get camera-shy; it’s no surprise that mainstream movies must create sets to make “exteriors” seem more natural.

On the other hand, Jonathan Meiburg’s footage of Jason Island perfectly captures the remote location’s raw wilderness. In his short video series Looking for Johnny Rook (viewable at MatadorRecords.com), Meiburg travels to this part of the Falkland Islands in search of the Striated Caracara, aka Johnny rook, one of the rarest and most-endangered birds on the planet (side note: one of the Rook specimens that Meiburg collected on the island is now on display at New York’s American Museum of Natural History). In the footage, gulls and pinnipeds snap at the cameraman. Even the striated caracaras don’t hesitate to swoop down on Meiburg’s crew. It’s a true vision of wildlife fearless of and unspoiled by human interaction.

It’s also Meiburg’s way of promoting Shearwater’s new album, Rook.

Of course, this is not just some avant-garde experiment in viral marketing. Looking for Johnny Rook is the singer/multi-instrumentalist’s genuine labor of love, showcasing his intense interest in bird studies (ornithology), which plays a major role on Rook.

“I really have no perfect answer,” says Meiburg when asked about his passion for the flock. “It may be because their lives are so parallel to ours, yet they don’t seem to be aware of us at all. When we were all reptiles, they took a different path but we’ve been watching them and seeing what happened when they took a different route. It’s fascinating! It’s a wonderful, egoless experience just delighting in their being, not their value. But it wasn’t until Rook that I incorporated them.”

Rook is a similarly egoless experience, full of wonder, trepidation and beauty suitable for the wilderness of Jason Island. Like the Romanticists of the 18th century, Shearwater evokes sublimity and the feeling of being infinitely small in the natural world which makes Rook the band’s best and most personal album to date. The quiets are nervewrenching and the louds are doused in grandeur, separating Shearwater from many of their minimalist, folk-rock contemporaries. Even the album’s beautiful cover, rendered by an artist team known as Kahn and Selesnick, imagines the “King of Birds” at the behest of Meiburg: a wooden creature that’s both encompassing and terrifying.

“Our previous album Palo Santo was sort of a homage to Nico,” says Meiburg, dropping into his articulate thoughtfulness which is so recognizable on his records. “When you’re working on something like that, something that’s so outside of you, you get an album that has a detached coldness to it, which is what’s so cool about Nico’s music; so interesting and attractive, yet so alien and strange.”

“With Rook, I was trying things that were more personal to me,” he continues. “I was trying to incorporate personal feelings toward natural things, like my bird research and how they contrast with the human world. It seems more human and less removed. Plus, it’s also more of an acoustic record. I didn’t find myself reaching for those electric instruments. It’s more fun to make a racket with quieter instruments.”

The change of tone has definitely paid off. After collaborating with Okkervil River’s frontman (and Shearwater co-founder) Will Sheff on last year’s hugely acclaimed Stage Names, Meiburg has garnered love from Entertainment Weekly, The Onion’s AV Club, and Pitchfork, making Shearwater’s Rook of the most critically acclaimed releases this year. They’ve even found fans in a little band called Coldplay, who included Shearwater as their opening band for a short leg of their tour.

“It was amazing; unlike anything we’ve done,” he says. “The stage is so huge and the crowd too far down and away from the stage. You begin to feel invincible after the first few songs. We actually got a really complimentary review in the L.A. Weekly, praising our playing and then it was like, ‘and Coldplay played, too,’” he laughs. “But to say that Shearwater is enjoying mainstream success and attention—I think that idea is hilarious! It’s definitely a trip, and we still have a long way to go.”

Meiburg’s persistence and dedication to fans is clear when asked about the double performance in Salt Lake City (an early show at Slowtrain in addition to the Urban Lounge show).

“A couple years ago, [Slowtrain’s Anna and Chris Brozek] e-mailed and asked us to play in their record store, and no one had ever asked us to do that, so we have a special relationship with them. Another time, I got stuck in Salt Lake going from Seattle to Austin, and I caught a cab into town and just hung out with them. Every time we play in Salt Lake City, I’m amazed at how kind it is.”

SHEARWATER
Slowtrain, 221 E. Broadway
Saturday, Aug. 30, 7 p.m., All-ages

The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East
Saturday, Aug. 30, 10 p.m.,
24Tix.com

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Ryan Bradford

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