Seafarers, Vagabonds, Timeless Pop Songs...An Interview With Colin Meloy of The Decemberists
by dave heaton
Putting on The Decemberists' first album Castaways and Cutouts (released by Hush in 2002 and then re-released by Kill Rock Stars in 2003) was like stepping into a unique, fully realized musical universe, filled with chimney sweeps and legionnaires but also perfect melodies and lyrics that held as many secrets and shadows as emotions and sharp turns of a phrase. The Portland, Oregon group, fronted by Colin Meloy, imbue their melodic pop-rock songs with a fiction writer's sense for character, atmosphere, and detail, plus an eccentricity and sense of history that recall Robyn Hitchcock and Neutral Milk Hotel even as the group doesn't sound much like them. The Decemberists' second album, 2003's Her Majesty the Decemberists took their music to the next level by expanding the themes and musical styles - the result was an album that was richer and fuller than you expected it to be, an album to return to as many times as is physically possible. In short, The Decemberists earn every accolade they get. Three cheers for The Decemberists (and thanks to Colin for the interview below).
Your new album has (to my ears) a more diverse sound than your last one in terms of instrumentation, songwriting, style, etc.; was that a conscious attempt to broaden your sound?
I don't know if it was necessarily a real conscious attempt to broaden the sound. I think it was just a natural progression -- as far as the arrangement and recording goes, we had more time and money so we were a bit more freed up to take risks and attempt things we really didn't have time to do during the Castaways. . . sessions. As for the writing, it happens that Castaways. . . collects a lot of the songs I had been working on during a frenzied fascination with things maritime/victorian. I still am enthralled by the stuff, but have since become fascinated with other characters, other settings, and I think that shines through on Her Majesty the Decemberists.
Her Majesty was the first time you've worked with outside producers, correct? How would you describe what Larry Crane and Adam Selzer added to the album?
We are, and have always been, keen on self-production, but we felt that both Larry and Adam put enough energy into the creative side of recording that they were due a production credit. Everybody present in the studio was contributing ideas -- including the occasional pizza delivery guy.
In terms of level of public recognition, Kill Rock Stars is a step up from Hush; did you feel much pressure about this album because of that? And if so, how do you think that affected the way the album turned out?
One of the incredible things about KRS is that they put little to no pressure on their artists. The only pressure we felt was our own, self-created pressure. We knew that this record was going to introduce us to a bigger audience. It had mostly a positive affect on the recording process: everybody was really committed and present during the recording of the record, though in retrospect, I would've liked the whole process to have been a little more relaxed.
Your songs have a literary feeling about them, in terms of description, storytelling, etc. which makes me wonder whether you've done much fiction-writing outside of music. Have you?
I haven't, really, aside from the stuff that I wrote while I was in school. I was an avid writer during my formative, pre-teen and teenage years, but after college, writing songs really started stealing my focus.
What inspires your songwriting, outside of other music? It would seem likely that you're interested in history and literature, for example.
Oh, everything. Books I read, movies I see, plays I read or see, music I hear. There's no telling, really. It just comes out.
To what extent are your songs based on personal experiences? On the surface it doesn't seem like they would be, but appearances are often deceiving.
There are bits of me in all of the characters, I supppose, though my role in the songs is largely as the creator. I sometimes get a little bored with the attitude that pop songwriting has to involve introspective, first person narratives. It's much more interesting to me to use characters well beyond my sphere of experience to motivate the narrative.
"Red Right Ankle" is one of the prettiest songs I've heard in a really long time. What can you tell me about it?
Not a lot, other than it being about my girlfriend who is red haired and has freckles on her ankles.
What about "Song for Myla Goldberg"? Are you a fan of her book Bee Season or is the song about something else entirely?
To be honest, I liked Bee Season, but wasn't necessarily blown over by it. That song comes from an evening spent here in Portland when Myla was in town, doing a reading with a friend of mine, Thisbe Nissen. I was taken on as someone who "knew his way around Portland," and was responsible for the evening's entertainment. There really wasn't that much happening that evening and we spent the evening wandering from club to club downtown. I was quite taken with Myla as a person and thought that she deserved to have a song written about her.
One more 'song' question, if you don't mind. Do you hate L.A. as much as it sounds like on "Los Angeles, I'm Yours"?
It's a love/hate relationship. I am resolved to the place, am drawn to it, but it really does make me queazy.
In the past year or so, it seems like there's been so many great albums from musicians based in Portland? Do you find it a conducive environment for creating music? What about it makes it so?
Mostly, I'm just really happy to see a lot of my Portland indie-type contemporaries getting their due. The Thermals, The Swords Project, 31 Knots and Dolorean are all bands I've known since I've lived here. We've all spent more time than I'd like to recount slugging it out in the trenches and it's really rewarding to see everybody get the recognition they deserve. As for the Shins, they're from Albuquerque. They haven't been in Portland long enough to count.
Portland is sufficiently gloomy to provide us recluses the proper excuse to stay indoors and write songs.
You're about to go on tour. How would you describe your live show? What do you most look forward to about your upcoming tour?
We never intended to be a decent live band. It was thrust upon us. I'm not necessarily a fan of touring -- the constant moving/no privacy/little sleep elements of touring drives me mad -- but we've really come to love playing in front of new audiences. Our fans tend to be very sweet.
What's the best song you've listened to so far today, and why?
"Kanga Roo," by Big Star. It's ineffably perfect. The cowbell is the clincher.
Lastly, if you have other upcoming recordings planned, please tell us about them (when they'll be out, what they'll be like, etc.)
We have an EP coming out on the Spanish label, Acuarela. It's called "The Tain" and is based on the Irish mythology cycle of the same name. The entire EP is basically one 18 and a half minute long song and owes a lot to such 70's hard rock/prog bands as Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly. It comes out on February 24th.