Jonathan Meiburg (Shearwater) Talks the Covers Album Phenomenon

Nina Simone, for my money, was the greatest singer of other people’s songs that the 20th century produced. There was almost nothing she couldn’t...

Jonathan —

I just saw that Xiu Xiu is releasing an album of Nina Simone covers.  That was the straw that broke the camel’s back: Covers albums are all the rage.  Just this year: the Flaming Lips have a Stone Roses covers album on the way, Matthew Sweet & Susanna Hoffs did ’80s covers, Alice Cooper is recording an album where he covers “all my dead drunk friends,” Mark Lanegan did one, Randy Travis did one, John Fogerty covered his own songs, Mike Doughty also covered his own songs (after covering other people’s songs in 2012), Sammy Hagar did one, Destroyer did one. Mick Hucknall did one, System of a Down’s drummer (!) is working on one, Danzig has one coming up, Anthrax did one, Tommy Keene did one, the Melvins did one, Norah Jones & Billie Joe Armstrong did one, and I heard Paul McCartney is organizing an all-star tribute album to himself.

And since you’re about to release a covers album, maybe you’d be a good person to explain this phenomenon for the Talkhouse.

Your thoughts?

— M.A.



MA: This is not fair to Xiu Xiu, Nina Simone, or camels.  Leave the poor camels out of it.

Nina Simone, for my money, was the greatest singer of other people’s songs that the 20th century produced.  There was almost nothing she couldn’t do in a way that made it sound like she’d just thought of it, and she’d have been a distinctive and revered pianist even if she’d never sung a note.  Covering her is an act of nearly suicidal courage — which is pretty much what Xiu Xiu is all about, as far as I can tell. Sammy Hagar, on the other hand, is probably releasing a covers album because he is bored, terrified, in debt, or trying to escape a contract, or maybe because Michael Anthony won’t return his calls for a Chickenfoot reunion.

But, for the sake of argument, I’ll take the bait.  Ground rules first.   Some covers are recorded for purely commercial reasons, since people like to buy stuff they already know.  Let’s set those aside right off the bat, because they just clog the drain.  There’s a truckload of Christmas albums every year, for example, for the same reason there’s fruitcake: because people feel compelled to buy them as gifts. (Plus a lot of those songs are public domain, so they’re an easy cash grab since labels don’t have to pay publishing.) But artists are usually about as fired up to do these as you’d imagine.

Every once in a while, though, someone makes a good covers album (proving the “any genre can bear fruit if approached with imagination” rule).   I’ll admit to a grudging admiration for the one Sting did a couple of years ago, which I think was mostly music from the Middle Ages (no publishing issues there).  In a different vein, the hyperbolic orchestations of the 1966 Firestone Presents the Sounds of Christmas with Julie Andrews record were an inevitable feature of my childhood, but I’ve come to love them in a new way as an adult.  André Previn’s arrangements on that album are so dazzlingly histrionic that they blow past camp and approach protest. The next time Christmas music makes you want to smash your brains out with a brick, go find that record and try to keep a straight face during the harpsichord cadenza in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

And here we shade into another category: farce, which I guess means talking about the difference between “bad-bad” (American Idol, say, or Guns N’ Roses covering “Sympathy for the Devil”), which just adds to the amount of bullshit in the universe, and “good-bad” (Biz Markie doing “Bennie and the Jets,” Mrs. Miller murdering “Moon River,” or Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm’s “Jailhouse Rock”), which falls, intentionally or no, in the “life and joy” column.  If you have a heart, you’ve gotta grant these a pass.

These categories aside, why might everyone else you mention be recording covers right now?  What’s in the water?

1) It’s easy.  Not having to write the song lifts a huge burden from your shoulders, and lets you start halfway up the mountain (or so it seems, at first).  In an age when musicians trying to survive at the whim of the market are pressed to provide more and more “content” at greater and greater speed, it’s a way to keep making stuff even if you can’t up your writing pace, no matter how hard you whip the horses.

2) It’s hard.  If a song is iconic or even just really good, trying to find some way to get in touch with its goodness in your own version is tougher than it looks, especially if what’s good about it is superglued to the personality of the original singer.  Hearing (or seeing) someone do it well, though, is thrilling.  One of my favorite audacious covers is, actually, by Xiu Xiu, who tucked an affectionate and stirring version of “Under Pressure,” with Jamie as Freddie and Swans’ Michael Gira (!) as Bowie, into the middle of their wild album Women as Lovers.  I remember being knocked out watching Of Montreal throw a note-perfect cover of Talking Heads’ “Wild Wild Life” into a set just to show that they could; it’s such a simple-sounding song if you’re not listening closely.  And remember that link you sent me of Patti Smith doing a really earnest version of “You Light Up My Life” on that kids’ show from the ’70s?  I loved that.  Even (maybe especially) when she forgets the words at the end.

Then there’s the truly epic.  I saw Neil Young play “A Day in the Life” once, and at the end he ripped all the strings off his famous guitar, which made a sound like a death rattle, and for a second he looked like he was actually considering smashing it to bits.  (Sonic Youth, poor things, had to go on after him).  And Nico used to cover, if that’s really the word, the pre-1945 version of the German national anthem — not because she was a closet Nazi, I don’t think, but because she enjoyed pointing out, in her way, that the urges that animated the Nazis weren’t buried with the end of the war.  It also enraged her audiences, which I suspect she loved.

3) But here’s why I did it, and why you’re seeing a lot of it right now, I bet: It’s fun.

The sound of musicians just having an unforced good time is one you don’t hear so much right now (as distinct from fun’s coked-up cousin, hedonism).  Maybe it’s because musicians are so desperate; there are more bands and releases now than there have EVER been, despite tanking sales across the board, and trying to do anything that anyone might notice, much less like, is tough in an oversaturated, overstimulated, hyper-judgmental, herd-following, knee-jerk media hellscape where you get hosed instantly by the blogosphere (ahem) for stepping out of line.

In this brave new world, the simple act of playing someone else’s song feels like an old-fashioned and satisfying kind of interaction that you just can’t get from the internet.  What’s more, it comes with a rare and implicit amount of permission to fuck up (or at least fuck around).  It’s kind of like a trip to the roller rink: only a few skaters are all that good, but the whole scene has a generous charm about it, and even if you cling to the wall or fall down, people just laugh at you a little and then help you up.  Plus, there’s air hockey.

The risks people take out of curiosity and freedom feel different from the ones they take out of desperation. When you play someone else’s song, you get to think, and learn, about basic stuff like: What makes a song a song?  Is it the lyric?  Is it the melody?  How much can you distress a song without injuring its soul — or do you dare, as Nina Simone always did, try to give it a new one?

Here’s the thing:  I’m setting the bar high at my own peril, because, as you point out, my band just released a covers album.  And, to make matters worse, it includes a Xiu Xiu song.  (Touché?)  But that’s because my idea/gimmick was to cover songs by bands we’ve toured with over the years, both as a nod to the fact that we’ve been doing this for a while, and as a gesture of solidarity.  I tried to throw in as much variety as I could, from bands who barely played outside their hometowns to bands so much bigger than us it’s hilarious.  I’ve already taken some flak for doing a Coldplay song, as if it were some kind of indie-rock party foul, but I thought it would have been cowardly not to.  I also covered the wonderful David Thomas Broughton, whose picture appears in the dictionary under “obscure.”

We had a small budget, so we tried to think up a bunch of different (and cheap) approaches to the songs, and if they didn’t work out — well, maybe the failures, as Eno said, would at least be interesting.   I’m fond of all of them.  We did one pretty faithful reconstruction of a lost ’90s hit (the Folk Implosion’s “Natural One”), just to see if we could eyeball the pattern. (If I were a painter, I guess that would be a “study.”)  But I also tried to imagine a St. Vincent song as it might have been if Neil Young had recorded it for Tonight’s the Night.  I emailed the Baptist Generals’ great song “Fucked Up Life” to Liverpool to see what Clinic would do to it, and convinced Chris from the Generals to sing on Clinic’s “Tomorrow” as tribute/revenge.  I dropped a field recording I made in the Falklands into David’s song “Ambiguity,” and he sent a field recording back from North Korea, which I shoehorned into the dreaded Xiu Xiu song.  And then we made a video for one of the songs that alludes to the original video for one of the other songs.  Etc.

If you think it sounds like I was having a good time, you’re right.

Playing and recording covers, at its best, lets anyone with pure (or at least mostly pure) intentions inject a little unruly life back into a world that’s paved with crap.  When we were learning our craft and our instruments, most of us went through a phase of playing other bands’ music, but returning to it a little older and wiser feels different.  It reminds you that the entire notion that someone could own a song is actually kind of weird.  Playing someone else’s stuff is a way for music to talk to itself through us, over otherwise unbridgeable stretches of distance, time, and memory.

Sometimes, admittedly, those conversations are dull.  But sometimes they lead to places that can’t be reached by any other route.   If anything, and not to get too heavy here (too late, I know), playing a cover lets you step up to the most fundamental challenge of art, which is to steal the ball from the past, and hurl it into the future.

Talkhouse Contributing Writer Jonathan Meiburg is the singer for the band Shearwater, whose new album Jet Plane and Oxbow will be released early next year by Sub Pop Records. You can follow Shearwater on Twitter here.