October 17th, 2006 5:33 pm | by MARK BAUMGARTEN Music | Posted In: Columns

Extended Q&A with the Decemberists' Colin Meloy

Colin MeloyColin Meloy has come a long way from his days as a young songwriter penning fanciful songs in the Oak Street Building in Industrial Southeast Portland. At that time, around the turn of the millennium, Meloy was writing to his internal muse alone. Now Meloy is writing those songs for a lot of people, including his fellow bandmates in the Decemberists and an international audience that will surely grow with the release of the band's recent major-label debut, The Crane Wife (Riff City, WW, Oct. 4, 2006). Meloy has also gained a different audience with his partner, Carson Ellis (who does all the album artwork for the band), and the couple's seven-month-old son, Hank "The Tank," who—despite the fact that he is teething—is a considerate onlooker as Meloy answers questions about the evolution of his songwriting on a recent Sunday afternoon in his Northeast Portland home.

Are you thinking about the next record yet?
We've talked about it just for scheduling reasons because we always have to schedule way way out in advance and people have a lot of stuff going on and we have to think about the future. There has been some talk that after we do this record we might take a little break, because we've never taken a break for longer than three months or something like that. So, to actually take a six-month break or something like that will give us the opportunity to work on other stuff.

Do people feel burnt out working at that schedule?
It's probably gonna feel the same. It's really a mellow schedule. It's not like Death Cab proportions, where those guys are just like “We're gonna work our asses off and be on the road all the time,” which has been a good thing for them, obviously, but it has its tough parts; they've had to cancel some stuff. I think it's a strain on anybody who is out that long. I've never been that fond of touring and we have babies now and we don't want to play arenas, we don't want to conquer the world, we just want to do our music, so there's no reason to kill ourselves, when we can just live normal, human, adult lives and do this as a job, so that's what we're shooting for.

Are you actively against playing arenas?
If that was what happened, if that's how you fit everybody in, that's what you do. I mean it's impersonal, but so is playing a 3,000 seat theater. I think anything beyond a 300-capacity club is, you know, every person beyond that gets more and more impersonal. And then you start playing arenas and stadiums and stuff and that's unthinkably impersonal. But I can't imagine it will ever get to that. I think that we will comfortably play nice, nice theaters and keep it at that. We're not much of an arena band.

Well you played that secret Acme show a few weeks ago. Do you think you're going to do more shows like that for the Portland community every once in a while?
Just like drunk fuckin' displays? (laughs)

Well, you don't have to be drunk.
That, like, little stuff? Oh totally. We'll keep playing little benefits and things like that around town. Just because we like that. That was weird, that show. I think it was fun for some of us and some of us had a hard time with it, because we really got out some aggression, I think, and not necessarily some aggression, but we vented. We had been in the studio for so long and we'd been playing these really orchestrated shows for so long and it was just sort of a release.

Essentially, the move to Capitol hasn't changed the way you go about playing shows. You're still pretty much on the same tour schedule as you were with Picaresque, but is it strange to not play out that often and be able to work new songs out in front of a crowd? You go into the studio, cut these songs and never really get an audience reaction.
It's just a different mode. And we already started to move into that with Picaresque, and I never had time to write on the road. Definitely this record was all in chunks of time and I think that we only had played a couple of the songs live. So it was all something that was learned in the studio. And I like that. It's nice because, by the time we were recording Picaresque, “16 Military Wives” was already a year-and-a-half old. And we were already sick of it. And all of a sudden we recorded it and it's kind of the single on the record and we have to play it a million more times. In that case it's nice to have it be so fresh so that after you record it in the studio, you are really excited to play it live.

And so now you're really excited to go out with this batch of songs?

Are you a little frightened to play these songs to an audience that isn't totally familiar with them?
With the new stuff? Yeah, but that's the challenge with any new record. I remember going out and playing songs off Picaresque and getting muted reactions, but then it changes and it's kind of interesting to see how it changes when people get really familiar with those songs. And also, we're going out a couple weeks after the record comes out, so hopefully people will spend some time with those new songs.

In your mind, what songs do you think the crowd will grab onto?
Well, really, I think “The Island” simply for the spectacle of it. It's technically—and not just musically technically, but switching instruments technically—it's really challenging and takes a lot of orchestration. That will at lest be really interesting to watch. That one I think will go over well. But I don't know. We've never played any of them. That song we played for some radio stations, but we have not played it for a crowd, so your guess is as good as mine as to how it will go over.

As far as the album goes, you choose to do the three-song Crane Wife cycle, but you do the third song as the first track. What was the thinking behind that?
That was Chris Walla's idea and that came about mostly because I had recorded all the demos and sequenced it so that “The Island” started it and so “The Crane Wife” ended it. I just felt like those two songs should bookend the record, but because I felt so unsure of these songs to a certain degree. I though having not played them for a band, having not played them live, like I didn't have a sense what was going to work. When you play them live, it's almost like automatic thumbs up or thumbs down and after a while you get a sense of, well, that song isn't really that good, maybe we should pitch it. So what I did when I sent out the demo to everyone in the band, is that I said, “Do whatever you want with these. I have no connection. Let me know if you don't want to do half of them. The song cycles, we can keep them as they are or we can break them up into little pieces.” And everybody seemed to like it, except Walla wrote in and was like, “Let's keep ‘The Island' the same, but let's take ‘The Crane Wife 3' and make that the first song on the record,” and he kind of layed out the sequence even before we stepped into the studio and was like, “Let's stick to this.” And I don't really know exactly why we stuck with that. In some ways I think that it was completely arbitrary, and was just like, “Let's grab that and put that there.”

Well, it's a good song to start off an album.
Yeah. It's great. It has a really nice feel to it, it's interesting in that it provides a more abstract inner monologue at the beginning of that story, and then when you come back and hear (“The Crane Wife 1 & 2”), it helps put the pieces together. In that sense it works in a narrative way. It's an interesting idea. I doubt I would have ever done that myself.

The Crane Wife is a story from Eastern mythology, so it's definitely a narrative. Do you feel like you miss out on that story by breaking it apart?
No. I think that … somebody else pointed this out, that there is a mode of writing, especially when I'm writing an inner monologue song that it will start in the present tense and then it will go back and reflect, and that, essentially what I'm doing with “The Crane Wife 3” being a very present tense monologue, and then it goes back and reveals some of the earlier development in “The Crane Wife 1 & 2.”

Where did you find that story?
I found it at Wallace Books, which is the bookstore that Jenny (Conlee) and I used to work for. I randomly saw it and picked up a copy and flipped through it, it was a picture book, and thought the story was really compelling. That was a good two years ago and I started working on a song after that, and it was a long two-year process of writing and scrapping and rewriting and revising and scrapping. It was definitely the longest I have taken working on one particular idea.

It feels like the writing on this album is very different from the earlier albums. The song “The Perfect Crime #2” stands out to me, where it is a series of images, rather than being a traditional storyline at all. Are you playing with the way you write? Are you getting bored with the way you used to write?
Maybe. I mean, there is still a lot of straight narrative on the record, but it does delve into more abstractions. I think a lot of the writing on the new album was done in service to the song, rather than exploring a lot of verbal acrobatics, which I think I had done in earlier records in a way that was just kind of fun and kind of funny to. In a way I was just poking fun at myself. Maybe this one I kind of calmed down on this and concentrated on the stories themselves, which required just a simple telling.

Do you regret the verbal acrobatics of the past releases?
No, not at all. I still do it. There's this part of me that feels that those records are a lot more funny than this record, this is certainly a more serious record. I was just trying to be more playful with those records. Not that I don't still do that now, but moving on to doing more sprawling storylines, as a consequence, some of that minutiae has fallen by the wayside.

So you're progressing as a storyteller, maturing. Do you see, not an end goal, but maybe a progression that you're following. I guess I'm asking if you're going to do a concept album.
(Laughs) Well, there's no telling. I do know that whenever I finish a record, my immediate impulse, and it's always a really strong impulse right after the record is done, is that I want to do something the very opposite of it. You know, I think with this one, as soon as we were done with it, I thought, well, for the next one, we should just bust it out in two weeks. Hole up in a barn and have all the songs be three or four minutes long and just be pop songs. Not pop songs, but just song songs. But who knows how long that will last. You always have these directions you want to move in , but they're never really clear in your head. And then when you come down and record it, it takes on a completely different hue. It's less and less so, I remember with the earlier songs because I was so uncertain as a songwriter and because I didn't really know what the band members were going to bring to the song, so I would come in with the song and even have the arrangement spelled out for everyone, and it would come out completely different. Now, usually, the arrangement in my head is pretty easily brought together because everyone is more comfortable playing with each other, they have a clearer sense of how to achieve certain sounds.

Does that open it up for the other band members to be able to flex a little more. With “The Island,” say, do you come in and tell Jenny that you want that certain kind of sound?
I think that they're having to flex less; I think that I'm writing more to their strengths. I think that everyone having been on tour together, everyone having three, four records under our belt and just having been a band for five years, now, not only does Jenny have a sense of what our collective voice is as a band, but also, when I'm writing these songs, I can write to people's strengths, and play that up. Like writing “The Island,” there was a place there for Jenny to just go really nuts, so that's one of the major differences on this record.

What about the fact that this is the first record that John Moen plays on? How does losing Rachel Blumberg and adding John change the dynamic of the band?
Well Rachel is a totally different player than John. In fact, I don't think that I have ever met a drummer that plays like Rachel. She just has, really, her own style, and I'm not saying that as a nice way to say that she isn't a good drummer. She is. She is an amazing drummer, but she just has her own thing, which is so much more about mood and character and not so much rock ‘n' roll, and John is a rock ‘n' roll drummer. That's where he comes from. He is a rock and, like, tight, pop drummer. That's the difference there, and I don't think that either is better than the other, but I do think that the material that is on this record benefits from the fact that John is more of a straight rock player.

It seems like the bass lines are more pronounced on this album.
The bass lines are much more pronounced and that was one of the really cool things that I think happened with this record. I think that Nate (Query, bassist,), on the first record, and probably also on Picaresque, I think that he kind of hung back a little bit more. But, for whatever reason, on this record, I discovered a lot more about his melodic sense and it's just amazing. A lot of those bass lines were his inventions. And sometimes, when we were trying to think up melodic lines to go through instrumental sections, he was really great at coming up with them, and I had never really known that about him, as a player. And that was really exciting to see that, and there were couple songs where it was just like “Oh my God. That line was great. That should be the focal melody.”

In “The Crane Wife 3,” when that bass line kicks in, it's one of the best parts of the album.
Definitely, it's an amazing bass part. And then there's another one, in “The Crane Wife 2,” that do-do-d-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do-do. That's all his doing.

But that bass line doesn't work without having that rolling drum part going along with it.
The rhythm section really fits together and the melodic bass stuff, it hadn't even occurred to me that that stuff would work in these arrangements.

Do you feel, in the last five years that you have been humbled in your songwriting, that your idea of a song has changed, that maybe the story isn't as important as putting together a piece of music where all the components work.
Yeah, definitely. The first record was essentially my songs with a backing band. That was really what the Decemberists were early on, and that's because everybody had day jobs and had other projects they were working on and they couldn't spend that much time in the studio. People would pop in every once in a while and rehearsals were once a week for a couple hours. So, as a consequence, I had to pick up the slack by being a central leading figure. Now, I'm able to cede that authority more to the other people in the band. Now I think we are much more of a cohesive unit and we all have a good sense of what we should be moving towards. You know, like when I say, with the collective voice, you know, a writer develops a voice and I think a band develops a voice and I think we finally might have hit at it, like we're all little cogs and we're working together.

Are you scared of losing your voice in that collective?
No. I don't think so. This is really exciting to me. Maybe I got a little sick of always having the songs and the songwriting be the focus when I was working with so many amazing, creative musicians who I felt, as an ensemble were capable of putting together really amazing music. So, I think that this record was a really good chance to play that up and pull back from the songwriting, because maybe everyone's sick of hearing that story from the Decemberists with their weird crazy songwriting. Initially I think we were kind of a sloppy, weird band that was maybe playing the sort of arrangements that the songs would immediately suggest. The arrangements themselves weren't that notable, and that probably had a lot to do with the fact that I was dictating a lot what the arrangements were going to be and it's better when everybody is being collaborative about it and being involved. So, I think we've become a much better band, and not just a songwriter backed up by a band.

Do you worry about being pigeonholed at all? I think about Death Cab. Death Cab writes a certain kind of song and their audience counts on them to write a certain type of song, which is love songs from the psyche of a 15-year-old, which they do wonderfully. But you're counted on to provide a certain song.
I know that. You think about that every time you sit down with a guitar, that there is an expectation of a certain kind of music that people are expecting to hear from you, but also I know that our crowd of people that buy our records are people who don't want to hear the same thing recycled over and over again. So, I do have the sense that there is a need for change. When we first started working on this record, there was a really prevailing sense that, if we just put out another Picaresque, that we would have lost a lot of fans, or that, at the very least, there would have been a lot of disappointed fans. So, this gave us a chance to flex a little muscle and do something a little different.

Do you think that there is only so far you can go before you change your voice drastically?
Honestly, so much of it is meditative, trying to get to that place where you were writing it without any outside influence and it was just the thing that was coming out, and it's hard to get to that place after five years of outside influences, you know, reviews and stories and fans and people's favorite songs, you know, a million different things that makes it different now as a songwriter than one living at the Oak Street building, sitting down to write a song just to write a song with no intention to play it live. So, there's a world of differences there, but there is always the hope that you can continually pull yourself back to that neutral space and come up with something genuine.

How do you do that?
I don't know. You just have to really rely on your own critical skills and know when you're off base, when you're pitching too far, when you're playing too much to the audience or playing too much to what the critics will think. I remember I used to work at a coffee shop and this sort of failed singer-songwriter owned it and he used to tell me, “I write my songs to the fans. Whenever I sit down, I think of the fans and what the fans want.” And I remember thinking, how bullshit is that. How annoying. How do you know what that want? Whatever you come up with is going to be weird and kowtowing to popular demand. So that's the wrong way to go about it. But it's weird, it's the age-old question.

What's the most surreal thing that has happened to the band since all the major label machinery has kicked in?
Possibly meeting Mr. T (on Late Night with Conan O'Brien).

What did you say to Mr. T?
Nothing. We just kind of got our picture taken with him. He is just so incredibly sweet and probably everything you would expect him to be. He's not just an actor. His Mr. T-ness has to extend into his everyday life. It's kind of a terrifying prospect. I could never do that, but he's just Mr. T, you know, and just so magnanimous. He made sure that everybody got all the photos they wanted to have taken. He's just an entertainer on and off the screen. So that was really nice.

But as far as the machinations, just going to the Capitol building in general and going up there and talking to people, being like, wow, this is our record company, these are the people who put out our records. It was a little bizarre. It's kind of an iconic place.

So, even before Picaresque came out, you knew that the fourth album was going to come out on a major.
Did I know that?

I think you might have. We talked about it.
Did I say it was going to come out on a major label?

Sure. Yes. I think there was at least the consideration.
Yeah. I think we really wanted to move on and I think the thought at the time was that we were at a place where we were getting major label interest and we had a sizeable enough fan base that we felt we had built a foundation that we couldn't really shake. It seemed like the right time to move to a major, so that's when we started to talk to majors, but, honestly, Capitol was a total dark horse. When they initially contacted us and asked if we were interested, it was like “Are you kidding me? We're not going to sign to Capitol.” I mean, we were talking to Strummer and Nonesuch and Geffen.

What was it about Capitol that turned you off?
Just the fact that, if you're signing to a major label, that's about as major seeming as you can get. And I think the A & R people we were meeting weren't really … they didn't say “Get the most indie guy on the staff and send him out and talk about his years driving the tour van for Sonic Youth.” You know, that kind of thing, which is totally fine. Of course there are people at major labels that do that, where there is a sense that you will send out indie people to sign indie bands. But our A & R guy was Ron Laffitte, who was not only lambasted in the indie world by Spoon, but had also managed Megadeth. So, it was really weird and we were like “This guy? He didn't drive the van for Sonic Youth.” But there was something really about that, sitting in his office and listening to him talk about Slayer and being really excited about Slayer. There was something that was a breathe of fresh air about that.

Did that make you feel like they were taking you more seriously, as a business venture, rather than as a hip group?
I don't know. I go back and forth. Obviously, they're not pushing us like they would Chingy, you know. How you reach people to buy Chingy records is that you put up billboards and you go crazy with the marketing. Crazy and as crass as you can get. With us, I think, they know that so much of it will continue to be word of mouth. There is a lot of marketing that goes into it, you know, there are bus benches in L.A. that have my face on them. But it's much more subtle. So, even though I do think that it's a business venture, I do think that we are a feather in their cap, which is cool. I'm perfectly happy to be that. It means that we will be protected and that we will be able to continue, even if they don't push us to be the number one record like they do the Coldplay record. Why would they? They certainly wouldn't get their bang for their buck out of it. Initially, I was worried that they were going to give us a bunch of money and see how well the first record does and, if it doesn't do that well, we're going to get ditched. But now, I have the feeling that we are going to have a very long career with Capitol. We'll be in their back pocket for a while.

The Decemberists celebrate the release of The Crane Wife with Lavender Diamond on Tuesday, Oct. 17, and Wednesday, Oct. 18, at the Crystal Ballroom. 9 pm. $18 advance, $20 day of show. All ages.
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