Jonathan Meiburg’s Shark Week

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Published October 25, 2010

 

JAMIE STEWART (LEFT) AND JONATHAN MEIBURG. PHOTO COURTESY OF BLUE WATER WHITE DEATH.

 

Sometimes the most inspired pairings are those built from seemingly incompatible elements. In the case of Blue Water White Death—the musical nom de plume of Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart and Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg—the combination of hypersexualized art-rock sensibilities and meditative American folk rock makes for decidedly exhilarating results. The songs on Blue Water White Death’s self-titled debut (the name is lifted from an obscure 1971 documentary about sharks) are, quite literally, the sound of friendly collaboration caught on tape. Written and recorded in just a week, the album is surprisingly expansive and polished-sounding affair, and given the “anything goes” conditions under which it was created, the record has a breathless, spontaneous feel that is wholly unlike anything either Stewart or Meiburg has ever recorded with their other bands. More than just a larky one-off collaboration, Blue Water White Death is an eight-song tribute to the creative act itself—a weird and wonderful document of what can happen when two old friends decide to lock themselves in a studio just to see what might happen.

T. COLE RACHEL: I guess the most obvious question I have about Blue Water White Death is: how did this project come to be?

JONATHAN MEIBURG: Well, I toured with Jamie Stewart a couple of years ago. He had decided he wanted to do a bunch of folk songs, like Appalachian folk songs. So he opened our shows playing banjo, it was really funny what happened, like if you had a bunch of die-hard Xiu Xiu fans show up to those shows, and then were just completely perplexed by what Jamie was doing. And Jamie himself didn’t seem like he could quite get his head around it, so after about six shows, he was very nice about it, he said “I think I need to figure out some other way to do this,” and he left the tour. To me that was a beautiful expression of what Jamie’s all about, like he’ll try anything. And I was curious about what it would be like to work with him in the studio, and so we just talked about it on and off for a while, and then I just went ahead and set some studio dates.RACHEL: How long did the recording process take?

MEIBURG: It was a week from start to finish. And that includes writing everything.

RACHEL:  I know sometimes bands say they do that—they just all show up and start fooling around and then they see what comes of it—but I can’t remember the last time anyone told me they made a record in a week, having prepared nothing in advance.

MEIBURG: [LAUGHS] And especially when it doesn’t sound particularly “jammy” or you know… This record is about as far from groovy as you can get, I think. I knew that we wanted certain things; we had ideas about the sort of, palette that we wanted to use. We didn’t want to use any electric guitars. It’s just a very, very particular-sounding record and when we were finished with it and finally, sort of, emerged from the process of listening to it, I thought, “You know, this is really unusual.” And I’m sure it’s going to be hated. But it sure was fun to make and I sure am proud of it. It gives me a really strange feeling when I listen to it.

RACHEL: Yeah, well, it’s such a personal document of a real friendship collaboration that other people get to hear.

MEIBURG: Yeah, that’s very much how it feels. Great fun to make something without any regard to whether anyone else was going to like it or not. Listening to this record is more like eavesdropping.

RACHEL: In reference to the documentary, where the title comes from, is that something you both were familiar with beforehand?

MEIBURG: That was my idea. I got an old VHS copy of it. It’s about these guys who are out looking for these sharks. It’s 1968, and they’re looking for white sharks. The first sequence takes place in South Africa and they’re following the old whaling fleet, which was still operating then, off of Durban. And so they got the whalers to leave the carcasses of one of these sperm whales there for them for a day and they put their cages down the water, around the carcass of this whale and filmed all day and all night, with these lights shining onto the body of this whale while hundreds and hundreds of sharks are just swarming around this thing, burrowing into it. The jaw of this thing is just hanging open and there’s this huge cloud of blood in the water, these divers are out of the cages, swimming around, shoving their cameras up into the carcass of the whale and punching the sharks on the nose, it’s just absolutely unbelievable. And it’s hard to know how to feel about it. So, my initial suggestion like a year or two ago was, “Let’s write songs that respond to this image in one way or another.”

RACHEL: Wow! That’s a powerful image to work from.

MEIBURG: Yeah, for this album we just wanted to create this very intimate, but also very uncomfortable space where [if] you’re listening, you can feel your way through it with us, and be in the same uncomfortable and uncertain place where we began it.

RACHEL: What’s Jamie up to right now?

MEIBURG: Jamie? Oh my God, he works all the time. I’ve never met anybody who works so hard or so much. He’s working on new Xiu Xiu stuff. Jamie never really takes a break. His commitment to trusting in the process is inspiring. No matter what the idea is, no matter how strange it is or how straightforward it is, he just commits to it instantly and doesn’t look back. As somebody who’s much more tentative about things, that was inspiring and that was something that I took away from this experience.

RACHEL: Yeah, that is amazing. I always had that sense about him. It’s awesome to see people whose whole life is this ongoing creative experiment.

MEIBURG: It’s like an expression of faith in the universe.

RACHEL: How so?

MEIBURG: Like, if I really believe in this and if I really commit to this, somehow the cosmos will make a place for me.

RACHEL: It’s a good way to live.

BLUE WATER WHITE DEATH IS OUT NOW ON GRAVEFACE RECORDS.