Literary influences explored...

Shearwater began life as a vehicle for quiet, incisive songwriting, measured and steeped in meaning.

Over the past ten years, though, the band have shifted and evolved. BandCamp download 'Shearwater Is Enron' last year introduced squalling new elements, leading up to this year's Sub Pop debut 'Animal Joy'.

Sure, that quiet, tender soul is still there but Shearwater are unafraid to introduce elements of dissonance. Another exciting step from a vastly respected artistic entity, ClashMusic tracked down creative lynchpin Jonathan Meiburg to analyse his literary tastes.

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What is your favourite book and why?
JM: 'The Snow Leopard', by Peter Matthiessen. It’s unlike any other book I’ve read – on its surface, a journey into the Himalayas on a long walk with a biologist who is studying an animal called the blue sheep – but at its heart, a meditiation on life, death, Buddhism, the permanence and impermanence of the world and the meaning of being itself. I cannot recommend it highly enough. And the ending is a stunner. I’m enough of a fan of this book that I’ve actually gone and looked at the notebooks that Matthiessen carried through Nepal; turning them over in my hands made me shiver.

What other authors do you like?
JM: Hmm. Many. I guess, over the last few years, I’ve especially enjoyed Patrick O’Brian, Rebecca West (see below), Alistair Graham (see below, again), Shelby Foote, Oliver Sacks (especially 'Oaxaca Journal' and 'Island of the Colorblind'), Joe Kane, W.G. Sebald, Martin Amis, Nick Flynn, and John Gimlette.

What draws you to certain books?
JM: A sense of a journey, of discovery, of curiosity and wonder tempered by wisdom. An understated humor. And a lack of false modesty.

Have you ever discovered a real lost classic? What is it and why?
JM: Three I can think of offhand: 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' by Rebecca West – a sprawling, unbelievably rich travelogue/polemic about Yugoslavia between WWI and WWII. Such an incredible piece of writing, a model of clarity, precision, beauty and forcefulness. I don’t know why she isn’t better known in the USA. Also, 'The Sheltering Desert' (not 'The Sheltering Sky') by Henno Martin – an eerie, beautiful true story of two Germans living in Namibia who evaded the draft during WWII by hiding out in a desert canyon for years. And 'Eyelids of Morning: The Mingled Destinies of Crocodiles and Men' by Alistair Graham and Peter Beard, a written and photographed chronicle of a bizarre survey of crocodiles on Lake Turkana in Kenya in the early seventies. In which the authors kill 500 crocodiles. It’s the damnedest coffee table book ever!

Do your literary influences have a direct impact on your songwriting?
JM: I’m sure the answer is yes, but it’s hard to say exactly what’s in the soup when you’re working on a song. I tend to think that “you are what you eat” applies as much to your mind as it does to your body – if you feed your brain shit, then that’s what you’ll make. So I tend to be a bit careful about what I really turn my attention to. One thing’s for sure: the natural world will never let you down. I’m at the industry feeding-frenzy/concentration camp known as South By Southwest right now, and I got more out of watching a male great-tailed grackle dancing his ass off trying to score with some females in a parking lot yesterday than I did out of most of the bands I saw.

What are you reading at the moment?
JM: 'Life and Fate', by Vasily Grossman.

What is the first book you remember reading as a child?
JM: 'The Velveteen Rabbit'.

Did you make good use of your library card as a child / teenager?
JM: As a child in Baltimore, yes – I remember the smell and feel of the bookshelves at the Enoch Pratt Library, and like a lot of little boys, I remember checking out and poring over every book they had about sharks.

Have you ever found a book that you simply couldn’t finish?
JM: I’ve started 'Gravity’s Rainbow' three or four times. I loved 'V', but for some reason I just can’t do it.

Do you read book reviews?
JM: More often these days – the NY Review of books is favorite reading material (for me, anyway) in the tour van, and it makes a good bite-size companion to whatever big, long book I’m nursing throughout the tour. Though it also feels a little like keeping a stack of Cliffs notes around sometimes – I have to remind myself that I haven’t actually read these books when I’m done.

Would you ever re-read the same book?
JM: Of course! The book I mentioned earlier, 'The Snow Leopard', I’ve read three or four times. The first time you read a book is like the first time you watch a film – you only absorb the surface of it. On re-readings, if it’s a really good book, you can start to appreciate the architecture and the underpinnings of the thing, the arcs of the characters, the unfurling of arguments and themes. Or you start to see the cracks.

Have you ever identified with a character in a book? Which one and why?
JM: All of them, if it’s a good book. I loved the Stephen Maturin character in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels - especially his dual nature as a naturalist and spy. I’m sort of a hybrid character myself, I guess.

Do you read one book at a time or more than one?
JM: I find that reading more than one book at once is like channel-surfing – it takes away from the importance and impact of all of them, so I try not to do it (though I am sometimes guilty). When you’re really stuck into a book it colors everything around you for a while, and I love that synthesis – of your life-world combined with the book-world, of moments where the book changes the way you see and feel everything. It’s as close as you can get to touching another mind. Best to take that one at a time.

Is there an author / poet you would like to collaborate with?
JM: I’d love to work with Nick Flynn on something, or John Jeremiah Sullivan. Or Dan Morrison – his book 'The Black Nile' is incredible. Maybe we could pick another impossible journey to make together.

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'Animal Joy' is out now.

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