I wanted to start with your passion for birds, but from a scientific point of view. Can you tell us of your last bird-watching activity, a specific behavior you have discovered about some bird...
Three or four days ago, I was in Berlin and, with David Thomas Broughton (who's opening for us tonight), we went birdwatching in a place called Grünewald, which is the place where Nico is buried. We wrote a whole record about Nico, "Palo Santo", so I wanted to visit her grave. So, in the middle of the way, it's in a forest, I saw two different species I had never seen before: the "treecreeper", which is a little brown bird which climbs up the trunk of the tree, looking for insects, and we spotted a woodpecker, deep in the woods.
Have you ever thought about the source of your fascination with birds? Is there admiration, awe, "hitchcockian" fear, Freudian obsession?
(Laughs, Ed.) I want to keep my eye on them! I came to love them slowly, I have always loved the natural world, but I never would have guessed that I would become interested in birds. In 1997 I won this travelling fellowship after I graduated from school and I went to remote parts of the world, as a result of this. One of them was the Falklands, where I met, in a boarding house just by Stanley, by chance, this man (shows a photo taken from "The Golden Dossier"; he's the man sitting on a cliff, with a woman and an eagle, Ed.), Robin Woods. He's a British ornithologist on a survey in this area of the Falklands, of a bird called "Striated Caracara". I persisted until he let me go along with him as an assistant, even if I knew nothing about birds at all, I had majored in English. So he agreed to take me and, for seven weeks, we lived on this boat on the coasts of these islands, looking for nests of this bird. There were albatrosses, penguins... (he shows me the photos of birds appearing in the Dossier, Ed.)
Did you take these photos? They are wonderful.
Thank you! That, really, just blew my mind. I never thought the world could be like that.
I thought it was more of a childhood thing, actually it was a later passion...
Yeah, it happened after college. After that year, when I went to all these strange places that happened to host all these strange birds, I went back home wanting to know more about them. That's when I went to graduate school, I studied Geography, but I was studying Biogeography, and birds specifically.
Can you recall a moment when the admiration of a bird sprung into you the inspiration for a song?
No (laughs, Ed.). I mean, not a specific moment. I really haven't written that many songs about birds: I put a bunch of them in the song "Rooks", probably just to have an answer to this question... I think that on the new record there might be one bird appearing... What I draw from birds is just enjoy watching curiously participating in a world which is separate from the one I have in my own head most of the time.
Not even from free association, you mean...? I read a story where you were like, chatting with an owl, in the middle of the night...
Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about that. We were in Denton, where we made "Rook", there was a barred owl behind the studio, going "whoo-hoo-hoo-hooo". They like to talk so, even if you make some sort of a sound at them, they'll answer back to you. So I would go out and talk to him sometimes.
Let me speak a bit of your career. To start, I noticed a definite change in your sound from "Thieves EP", most of all a new confidence in your voice, for instance (agrees, Ed.). Do you think the development of your sound, which is now very definite, was gradual throughout the years or was there a moment of sudden realization?
I think when we put together the demos for "Palo Santo", having the all together and thinking "This is gonna be different". It felt like a door was opening to something new. But, like everything, it's very gradual , like with my own singing. I'm still learning how to sing. I've just started taking some voice lessons and they're helping already in this tour. It's always the surprise of discovering things: you get interested in something for a while and then you get bored with it and then something else opens up for you.
On the other hand, it seems to me that you grew, in these last three records, a growing attitude for adding an "ambient" flavor to your music. "The Golden Archipelago" really reflects this push, in my opinion: the rain of "Hidden Lakes", the great waves of "Castaways"...
Like, a sort of visual images almost?
Yeah, more than before, in my opinion...
That was something we really wanted for this record. We wanted it to be almost like a film...
It really got me to think that you are kind of "tending" to a completely instrumental record, including voice but without lyrics. Your voice is very evocative, for instance, even without knowing the meaning of words... Would you make such a record?
We have actually started working on a little instrumental record, just for fun, just to get to do something. I don't know exactly what will happen with that, we'll probably put it out ourselves at some point. But, yeah, I have the most fun in the studio creating this sort of soundscapes. I especially love when you combine several textures into something that you can't identify exactly which instruments are playing or what it is, it just merges into one "complete" sound, it's evocative. Like that song, "Landscape At Speed", I feel like there's really well at the end of the song: all these textures "bleed" into one and it becomes something really different from what it was. Or in "Hidden Lakes", with all the different metal percussion...
I know you sometimes use instruments which are built by yourselves, like that strange bell you used for some songs like "North Col", if I recall correctly. Did you do something similar in "The Golden Archipelago"?
Oh yeah, that was a "waterphone". Thor built it, welding it... He didn't "invent", but he did build it. In the new record, we used strange combinations of instruments, I don't think there was a particular "one" thing that was completely novel. Thor built a marimba himself out of Texas hard woods, he carved it all and it took him forever. That's on the record. You know, you tune keys shaving pieces of wood... We also did strange things, like taking string recordings and messing them up a lot, like running them out on a lousy speaker, we made some strange decisions.
I think you clearly have a strong literary touch, in your lyrics. Can I ask you if you have any particular references, particular authors you like to read?
Lately, I guess authors that I really had fun reading are Peter Mathiesen, a writer from the US. He's still alive but he's 83 now, he's had a long and wonderful career. He wrote the book "The Snow Leopard", the song was partially based on that book. I read a book called "Black Lamb And Grey Falcon" by Rebecca West, she wrote it in the Thirties and it's about the Balkan countries between WWI and WWII. It's a huge, say two thousand page book: I love books like this, that are about "one" thing, but really they're about everything. They open the door from one avenue to the entire universe, I'm always attracted by books like that. The one I'm reading now is by John McPhee, a nature writer from the US (he takes it out from his bag, shows it to me; it's a a quite impressive volume, Ed.). It's about geology, supposedly the geology of the United States, but actually about the geology of everywhere. I like books of this size, great, comprehensive sort of things... It's not that I would like to make records as these books, I'm not interested in length as much as in seeing the entire world through one lens and cramming as much information as possible.
There is a great similarity in the atmosphere of your records, "Rook" in particular, with "The Road" by Cormac Mc Carthy (agrees, Ed.). In that book though, the human figure is still central, it's still the one giving hope whilst this does not seem to be the case of your records. Are you not afraid of the Apocalypse?
(Laughs, Ed.) Who isn't? The thing is, in our nature of human beings, that there is a part who loves life and there is a part who loves death. The part who loves death is always the most fascinated by the Apocalypse, wants to bring it on, wants to see it, you know... I think that is the part that we really have to struggle with, I think it's important not to fall too much in love with the Apocalypse. No matter what side you're looking at it from, whether you're looking at it from a religious point... Sometimes you think, if you love the natural world and you hate what people do to it, wouldn't it be wonderful that there would just be no people anymore? But you don't get very far with that kind of thinking. I think it's important to resist that temptation to think that we're too much.
On the other hand, do you think the world will go on without humanity?
Oh, yes. Especially thinking at it in geological terms, if you think of the entire history of the world, if you compress it in the space of a week, the dinosaurs would appear a few hours ago. The industrial revolution would have appeared a fourtieth of a second ago. We're a chapter in the story of the world, but that's it. Life will probably go on after us, like it has been going on after so many different species.
On the contrary, how do you feel about the insurgence of an "apocalyptic movement", contaminating cinema for example? Do you find it therapeutic, for instance, in these times of uncertainty?
Yeah, it's in the water, these days... Maybe, maybe we're just trying to address that fear by confronting it. Or, maybe, it just makes for good television, for good entertainment. It's always been there, to some extent. Think of the Decameron, people fleeing the plague thinking it was the end of civilization and then it wasn't...
Your last record is related to specific places, the Falkland Islands, life in an archipelago in general, the difficulties of living there and so on. Could you tell us the story of a character taken from "The Golden Dossier"?
Well, some of it, the first part, is largely taken from an Aborigenal settlement where I lived, in 1998 in Australia. Some missionaries also lived there, so the Dossier also includes some of the rules they had to live under while the missionaries were there. But the missionaries left after a hurricane, a cyclone came and threw them out, and the people who were there are still there. And then the second part probably concerns this boat, built by this crazy German aviator, who sailed it to Tirdoff in 1927 and made a book and a movie about it, and then later he crashed his plane in Patagonia. But he sold his boat to a guy in the Falklands and it stayed there for eighty years. I worked on this boat in 1997, on a bird survey.
What about the man with the violin?
He's from the Falklands, his name is Andrew Peck and he built that violin out of matchsticks. If you look at it, you can see it (he's the man in the last page of the Dossier; looking carefully, you can see the violin is made o little sticks, Ed.). I love the look on his face, he's like: "I made this". There's something about that, in that place which is so wild and human presence is so small, the durability of culture, you know, making a violin with whatever you have available. I think it's our greatest strength and I think it's the most insidious and dangerous about ourselves, we have to a fantasy world in our minds that we want to project into the landscape, making the entire world conform to what we want.
I have a pair of classical questions, coming at a strange point of this interview. How would you define your genre?
(Smiles and woofs, Ed.) People always ask me this question, I wish I had a response. I don't think at us as "indie-rock", I don't think at us, certainly, as a folk band... The records that I was thinking about while I was making "The Golden Archipelago" were the ones that I loved in high school, this sort of dark, big art-rock epics from the early Eighties, before the synthetizers had taken over everything... Like Peter Gabriel's "3" was a huge influence, Kate Bush record "Hounds Of Love", "The Final Cut" by Pink Floyd, which is a record I really love, this sort of grand, sweeping records which were very ambitious and dramatic. I don't know what "genre" that was, but we'd like to be able to participate in it. On a much lower budget than they ever had...
I have another simple question, but I find particularly difficult to answer by myself, in your case. Which contemporary bands do you appreciate?
Ehmmm... Sometimes I feel guilty about ignoring contemporary bands, you start to feel like you're in competition with them, which you're not, music is not actually a competition. But it gets hard enough to feel that way, sometimes... But let's see... David Thomas Broughton, he's touring with us right now, I love his music and I think he's excellent. Ehmm... I'm trying to think of something different from the things everybody is listening to right now... There's a series called "The Secret Museum Of Mankind", that's all field recordings from the 1920s to the 1940s from around the world. It's put out by a label called "Jazoo Records" in the US, and it's just incredible. There's eight volumes of it, it's just all different recordings from all different places, from really when recording music hadn't really changed how people listened and played music, it's like a snapshot of the old world, the old musical world before recording...
Last question: it is your right not to answer. Given and not granted that you and Will join together on stage at some point, do you find it more likely that he would join you with Shearwater or the opposite?
(Laughs, Ed.) Actually, last year we played a show in Berlin together and I went and sang a couple of songswithOkkervil, but... I think we're probably done with that.