Shearwater salutes its ‘Fellow Travelers’ at the Rock and Roll Hotel

March 20, 2014

Considering how much time Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg spends on the road playing shows, he’d probably prefer to commute via subway. (James Hamilton)

Shearwater is letting loose — relatively speaking. Known for grandiose, folk-inflected post-rock, the Austin, Texas, band is about as serious as they come. But in 2012, Shearwater began to shed its austere skin with “Animal Joy,” a set of uncharacteristically gleeful, up-tempo rock songs.

Cue last fall’s “Fellow Travelers,” a seemingly laid-back (mostly) covers record. In Shearwater’s hands, though, even laid-back seems arduous. Band leader Jonathan Meiburg covered only artists the band has toured with, arranged the songs to create a fluid structure and named it all after a quote by Russian revolutionist Leon Trotsky. The result is an album-length think piece on the touring experience.

“I wanted to make a Shearwater album that just happened to be composed of other people’s songs,” Meiburg says.

Before Friday’s concert at D.C.’s Rock and Roll Hotel, Meiburg told Express the stories behind the set’s 10 tracks.

‘Our Only Sun’ based on ‘Deeper Devastation’ by Jesca Hoop
“She’s our official fellow traveler for these shows,” Meiburg says of the singer-guitarist, who is opening for Shearwater and playing in the band. Her music is “very ornate and precise — unlike anything else I’ve heard.”

‘I Luv the Valley OH!’ by Xiu Xiu
“I love the feeling that [Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart] has of ecstatic despair,” he says. “I always thought that there was sort of this rock anthem in it, just trying to get out.”

‘Hurts Like Heaven’ by Coldplay
In 2008, Shearwater opened the first four shows of Coldplay’s massive American tour. “The experience of getting up in front of 20,000 people who don’t want to see you is something I recommend to everyone in life,” Meiburg says with a laugh. “It was like opening for Cirque du Soleil.”

‘Natural One’ by Folk Implosion
“People who were in high school or college when the movie ‘Kids’ came out [in 1995] know this song,” Meiburg says of the Lou Barlow-penned track, which was on the art-house shocker’s soundtrack. “Then it kind of vanished. I thought it would be fun to resurrect it by covering it very precisely.”

‘Ambiguity’ by David Thomas Broughton
“David is very unusual,” Meiburg says of the British folk singer. “When we toured with him, he would wander into the audience and start knocking things over, or engage in long, uncomfortable staring matches with the audience.”

‘Cheerleader’ by St. Vincent
“I tried to imagine it was a song about the frustration of being a perennial opening band,” he says. “I don’t want to be ungrateful, but opening can be a frustrating experience. It would be nice to be the team that people are cheering for, and not just the cheerleader.”

‘Tomorrow’ by Clinic
“They were one of the most inspiring bands I’ve ever toured with,” Meiburg says of the surgical-mask-wearing U.K. post-punk act.

‘A Wake for the Minotaur’ by Shearwater
This duet with singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten, whom Shearwater supported in 2012, is the only original on the album. “It’s about how touring makes you feel that you and the people you’re traveling with are the only three-dimensional beings in the world,” he says. “Everything just flies away from you at such a speed.”

‘Mary Is Mary’ by Wye Oak
“It’s a really beautiful melody,” Meiburg says of the Baltimore band’s song. “I kept it in the same key, I just took it an octave down from where [singer] Jenn [Wasner] has it. It’s the lowest vocal I’ve ever recorded.”

‘F—ed Up Life’ by The Baptist Generals
“Fellow Travelers” culminates with an upbeat yet dark song by one of Meiburg’s favorite unsung bands. “The characters on this record, many of them are sort of broken or disturbed in some way,” he says. “The answer in this song is that it doesn’t matter.”

Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; Fri., 9 p.m., $12-$14; 202-388-7625.

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Jeffrey Tomik · March 19, 2014