This weekend, The Decemberists leave Portland, Oregon for their latest UK and mainland European tour. But don’t expect them to have worked on the set these last couple of weeks. As vocalist/guitarist and occasional children’s author Colin Meloy explained, “We’ve been touring this record since March, so no rehearsal is necessary!”
So are they shit-hot as a band at present?
“We’re definitely as shit-hot as we’re gonna get!”
The Decemberists formed in 2000, Colin quitting previous band Tarkio in Montana to move to the Pacific Northwest coast, meeting Nate Query (bass guitar), who in turn introduced him to Jenny Conlee (piano/keyboards), the trio initially scoring a silent film together.
Colin already knew Tarkio fan and fellow guitarist Chris Funk by then, and he added pedal steel on the first two Decemberists releases before officially joining in 2004, the current line-up together since John Moen became their third drummer in 2005.
The rather splendid I’ll Be Your Girl, released in Spring 2018, is their eighth album in 16 years, the band having first dipped their toes in the water with 2001 self-released EP ‘5 Songs’, playing a hotel gig the night before to raise enough to afford studio time, its tracks put down in under two hours.
And from dates with full orchestral accompaniment to live support for Barack Obama at a presidential rally, late night US TV appearances, work with REM’s Peter Buck, 2011’s Best Rock Song nomination for ‘Down by the Water’ at the Grammy Awards, sixth album The King Is Dead debuting at No.1 on the US Billboard 200 that same year, and ever onwards, it’s been a blast.
The band also contributed a song to 2012’s The Hunger Games soundtrack, made a cameo appearance on The Simpsons – presented as hip new music teachers of Springfield Elementary, the episode’s theme music performed in true Decemberists style – and performed on a 2014 series finale of hit NBC comedy series, Parks and Recreation. And while their song for the Hamilton soundtrack was squeezed out in the end, I’d recommend anyone to track down the mighty ‘Ben Franklin’s Song’. Written by the play’s creator Lin-Manuel Miranda in what he envisaged as a Decemberists style, it’s American history with attitude, you could say. Something The Decemberists have become experts at.
Colin was at home in Portland when we spoke, looking ahead to a tour opener at Vicar Street, Dublin, on November 4th, with six UK dates following, then two in the Netherlands before a Berlin finale at Astra Kulturhaus on November 16th. Does the travel get a little wearing these days?
“Erm, you know, I go back and forth. Sometimes it’s hard, certainly dealing with jetlag, especially after you’ve been doing it for a while. In the early days, your excitement at the novelty of what you’re doing would carry you through, but now … it’s another tour … but with the crowds, it always feels a little different.
“We always spend so much time in North America, and so little time over there that it’s always a little exciting to be playing to UK and European crowds.”
And this side of the pond was home to so many influences that have informed The Decemberists’ music, after all, a few of whom are apparent listening to the latest album, the John Congleton-produced I’ll Be Your Girl, which opens with the anthemic ‘Once in My Life’, its video directed by Autumn De Wilde, described as her ‘love letter’ to her 7ft 2ins tall, size 22-booted brother Jacob, who stars in it, has auditory processing disorder, ‘likes to dress up as Chewbacca, but ‘is not a basketball player’.
As Colin put it, “We were searching for a video idea that would somehow capture the spirit of the song. In my mind, the song is a meditation, a plea to the cosmos that I imagine everyone, at some point or another, has made. We asked our old friend and collaborator Autumn to pitch an idea and she came to us with a simple but powerful story: a depiction of her brother Jacob, a man who has lived with physical and intellectual differences his entire life, dancing in the streets of Los Angeles. The song, in this light, becomes more than just a celebration of sadness, but suddenly a longing holler to the universe against one’s perceived otherness.
“This idea is particularly close to me as I’ve witnessed how the world sees my son Hank, who is autistic. When I’m out in public with Hank, I’m acutely aware of the world’s attachment to social and behavioral norms; in these situations, Hank’s otherness can suddenly be put in stark relief. Through the lens of Jacob’s joyful and defiant movement in Autumn’s video, we see a man shrugging off the constraints of an unaccommodating and judgmental world and truly reveling in his body and mind.”
There’s a powerful message there, and while I’m no great fan of MTV-like promos that are so strong image-wise that you focus on the video’s story than self-interpret the message of the song, I concede that they created a powerful short film here.
“Well, it was really a challenge trying to find a video, getting submissions from people. If it’s taken too literally … one idea involved a woman in a casino who just wants to win. And while that interpretation’s universal, it becomes almost too trivial.
“Other versions had nothing to do with the song and felt like it did a disservice to the message. So we asked Autumn to come up with an idea, and it seemed to be this perfect bridge, where it wasn’t so literal yet it did convey and add a kind of extra dimension to the song.”
And it seems to have struck a nerve with the wider public.
“I think so. We’ve had a lot of nice comments from people.”
And the idea drew a few parallels with your own family experiences.
“There was that kind of a personal aspect to it, but I wasn’t thinking of Hank when I was writing the song and wasn’t really thinking of myself. But I played it to my wife, Carson, as I do most songs, and immediately she said, ‘Do I have a right?’ It only occurred to me at that point that it might be presumptuous given my privilege as a straight, white male in the United States to say, ‘For once in my life, could just something go right’.
“But it’s not really meant for me, it’s meant as some kind of universal plea.”
Don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s perhaps the album’s lighter-waving, stadium-filling Snow Patrol-like moment, as opposed to track two, ‘Cutting Stone’, where you seem more at home wearing your folk revival influences on the sleeve. And across this album we get to hear many sides of The Decemberists, perhaps more so than before.
“Erm, I feel that we’re just making the music we’re making, putting out the best record we can. It does jump around a bit, but …”
In a very good way.
“Yeah, I guess that’s probably true.”
I mention a folky feel, but the fretless bass and synth on ‘Cutting Stone’ take the song a different direction, suggesting something late ‘80s, and … whisper it, a reinvention for the band. And that’s kind of confirmed with the mighty Depeche Mode meet OMD and New Order ‘80s synth-rocky, power-pop of ‘Severed’, while next track ‘Starwatcher’ brings to mind a more mature, 21st Century James, something that’s also apparent on the deceptively-powerful yet still folk-driven ‘Tripping Along’, Colin’s vocal bringing to mind Tim Booth as much as Michael Stipe for me. And then there’s the ‘60s psychedelia of the equally-splendid ‘Your Ghost’, suggesting Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd alongside traces of ELO and Queen-like pop. Yep, on that side alone I think it’s fair to say there’s something for everyone.
“Yeah, we’ve always had a tendency to do that. We’ve been described as a record collectors’ band, often finding different things in our collections that we were obsessed with at the time.”
That continues on the other side, with a little of the quirkiness of past WriteWyattUK interviewees They Might Be Giants on opening cut ‘Everything is Awful’, an eminently-singable ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)’ like ditty celebrating the sheer shiteness of the world today, its more chirpy tone accompanied by … wait for it, a heavy ‘Anarchy in the UK’ guitar riff.
Then there’s the ‘70s splendour of latest single, ‘Suckers’ Prayer’, Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel springing to mind, perhaps tackling a more laidback California highway feel you’d more likely hear from Teenage Fanclub these days. In fact, come to think of it, there’s plenty of schizophrenic depth right across this fine album.
“Yeah. It is all kind of mish-mashed in there.”
There’s even a glam-rock vibe on dancefloor-packer ‘We All Die Young’, I venture, and Colin and co. – carried along on a Sweet tide, so to speak – seem to be having way too much fun singing about death and gloom, Jenny’s Suzi Quatro-like backing vocals and the Roxy-like mad sax proving infectious.
“Well, talking about making a glam record is what we were setting out to do when putting material together and trying to find what would be the true line. We ended up talking a lot about Roxy Music, early Brian Eno, things like that. So I think with a lot of the songs, if it’s not apparent, they are at least in practise shot through with early glam.”
“Yeah. Sometimes I feel it would be blessed to be one of those people who only listened to one thing and then started a band. But we’ve been ravenous. I’ve certainly been ravenous in my consumption of all sorts of different kinds of music, and that invariably finds its way into all the songs.”
In a sense – and this might just be ignorance on my part – maybe I wouldn’t expect a lad from Montana to have such a wide range of influences. Were you listening to a lot of the music you now love from an early age?
“Yeah, I think when I was probably 12 I was introduced to the college and alternative rock of the day, in the late ‘80s, to R.E.M., The Smiths, Husker Du and The Replacements, and Robyn Hitchcock – people on both sides of the pond – and that was the moment music became really huge for me, discovering that music.
“I don’t think you’d necessarily say that was diverse, now I look back at it, even though at the time I thought it was, at the time I was listening to punk and rock, and it felt diverse. But considering today’s climate, it was not very diverse at all.”
I know there are many miles involved between these places, but I guess there was a sense of pride that quality bands like R.E.M. sprang out of middle-of-nowhere cities like Athens, Georgia (and yes, I realise that’s more than 2,000 miles from Colin’s Helena, Montana roots), not just across in the UK.
“Yeah, I think so, certainly hearing The Replacements sing about being in Minneapolis on ‘Stuck in the Middle’, but it was still a hard drive from Montana, while Athens was only an hour and a half from Atlanta. We were more isolated, and it was so much harder finding those records. Local record shops would have the major label releases, but finding anything on IRS or Twin/Tone or SST would involve these pilgrimages to closer college towns or – better yet – to Seattle or Portland, which were 10 or 12 hours away.”
And was that music more on tap when you upped and left for Portland?
“Absolutely. Walking into a record store in the late ‘80s for me in Seattle or Portland, I could spend all day if I had a little ready cash just to kind of thumb through and find all this stuff of legend.”
Was any money you had for studying soon gone?
“Oh yeah. Whatever money I would save was all spent on records, if there was a trip to Seattle or Portland involved.”
We mentioned R.E.M., and for me next track ‘Rusalka Rusalka’ seems to carry their air. Actually, it’s almost Bowiesque in essence. And while that could easily have been the end of it, they’re off again straight away, those folk roots poking through and ‘The Wild Rushes’ emerging, Colin and Jenny’s harmonies sublime, the band’s masterful storytelling again apparent.
I love those re-emergence moments, I tell Colin, and mention that I understand he’s a big XTC fan …
“Yeah … Well, I dabble!”
Well, I’m thinking of the moment where ‘Summer’s Cauldron’, the opening song on 1986’s Skylarking heads into track two, ‘Grass’, a similarly-beautiful segue.
“Yeah, linking songs with sounds is something we’ve always messed around with a bit. But with that, I’d written ‘Rusalka Rusalka’ and then immediately it felt like rather than just end on that, it wanted to go into that kind of ‘dow, ba duddle de dow’ (at least I think that’s what he said there). In cases like that you have to kind of follow the lead, and a song is not done until it’s done. And then eight verses later, it was finished.”
Well, put it like that, arguably it owes as much to The Beatles and the Abbey Road way of linking parts of songs.
“Right, although I think that owes as much to Fairport Convention.”
Funny you should say that, listening to ‘The Wild Rushes’ I wrote part-way through, ‘Gabriel-era Genesis meets Fairport Convention’ … so perhaps I was at least half-way there.
“Yeah, you were getting there.”
And it’s a builder – by the end it’s as if we have Led Zeppelin guesting (albeit with more Lilac Time-like vocals). It’s a mighty number for sure.
“Yeah, there’s a bit of that, but there is some crossover between Fairport Convention and Led Zep. Those two are often linked.”
And then the album ends with the more simple, country-like beauty of the title track, ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’, those harmonies again to the fore and Jenny now your Emmylou Harris, in a track I see as something of an antidote to these troubled times, and a reminder that there’s so much more to America than the images we get over here right now of Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and so on.
But occasionally we’re reminded through music about the better side of America, songs giving us hope. Someone like Gretchen Peters springs to mind.
“Well yeah, there is very vocal resistance, but I also think we as Americans have to own up to this very dark thing underlining our political ideology.”
We have little room to speak over here, judging by the last couple of years for the UK. At times, there seems to be a 50/50 split on all that.
“Yeah, maybe so.”
While Rough Trade handle your affairs on this side of the water, having started out with Olympia, Washington and Portland-based indie label Kill Rock Stars, this is your fifth album in 12 years with Capitol. Yet it seems to me that such belief and support in a band doesn’t seem to be something such established record labels tend to offer their artists these days.
“Right. Yeah, I’m a little surprised myself! Even though we’ve stuck with Rough Trade from the early days over there, Capitol have also been great. I don’t think they’re showering marketing money on us like they would Katy Perry, but I don’t think we’ve ever expected that. I think just having support, being able to see whatever projects or ideas we have and be true to them … yeah, I can’t complain. I think it is kind of a rarity in this day and age.”
Over the years, a band whose name refers to the 1825 Decembrist Revolt in Imperial Russia has built something of a reputation for live shows, past lyrics focused on historical incidents and folklore inspiring eclectic sets and lots of quirky crowd participation.
Take for example a 2009 date in Pittsburgh, PA where band members ran up and down the aisles recreating a fictitious battle at Fort Pitt, while the following year’s European tour’s set finale ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’ saw audiences encouraged to scream as if being eaten by a whale while the band pretended to die on stage. Any historical reenactments lined up for this UK visit?
“Ha ha! No, but we’ve got a new and flashier whale, so that’s something people can look forward to. But no spoilers – you’ll have to come to the show.”
Just bringing to mind your solo recorded tributes to the likes of Sam Cooke, The Kinks, Shirley Collins, and Morrissey, you’re clearly a man of taste. But are you as big a band as you’re comfortable with? Because I can’t imagine you being much bigger.
“I never expected that we would be as big as we are. All the bands I grew up listening to never got to that size of venue or audience, so it’s always been a little shocking to me along the way.
“But it’s something you become used to, and it’s great to have big packed houses, but I’m very grateful for that and also recognise that we are an idiosyncratic band, so is there room for us in the world these days? And I guess that’s a question we’re still asking.”
Maybe it’s just that you retain your charm despite the fame. You seem to be keeping your feet on the ground. I won’t get on to Morrissey and his recent bizarre pronouncements and downright racist claptrap, but let;s just say that some people seem to struggle more with that sense of their own importance.
“Yeah … that’s true.”
Meanwhile, not only have the band made appearances on cult hit TV series like Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons, film soundtracks and so on, but there’s another side to their father-of-two frontman’s career too, this former English and theatre then creative writing student, who graduated from the University of Montana in 1998, having made his debut as a children’s writer in 2011 with Wildwood, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis (sequel Under Wildwood following a year later and a third in the series, Wildwood Imperium released in 2014, followed last October by The Whiz Mob and the Grenadine Kid). And writing’s something that runs in the family, isn’t it?
“Yeah, my sister is a writer (Maile Meloy, a fiction writer often published in The New Yorker and The New York Times). She kind of started that off for the two of us. Yeah, that’s been a lot of fun, and something I’d like to get back to once this tour is wrapped up.”
For ticket details of The Decemberists’ November dates across Europe, head here. For the latest from the band, head to their website and keep in touch via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. And for all the latest from Colin Meloy, try his website and check out his Facebook and Twitter links.