The Decemberists Barnstorming
Published Jan 23, 2011"After this record, we're going to take a nice long break." Colin Meloy isn't ready to call it quits with his indie rock band the Decemberists, but after a decade together he's looking ahead ― which means tying up some loose ends in the form of the band's sixth album, The King is Dead.
While nothing in the band's discography hinted at this destination, Meloy himself, like a fairy tale character trailing breadcrumbs through the forest, has spent the last ten years winding his way back to this very spot: a rough and tumble, country-inflected folk-rock record. Flirting with vintage Americana and Celtic rhythms, The King is Dead might not sound like a Decemberists' album, but Meloy insists that it's a "natural progression."
"It was something we ― or at least I ― have been threatening to do for the last three records," Meloy says. "None of this crazy, over-the-top stuff ― we're gonna do it in a barn in two weeks, that was sort of the joke. But each record seemed to get more and more complex, and each time we finished it was the same threat: the next one's going to be the barn record. I think after The Hazards of Love, it was the perfect time to make good on that promise. It felt like a natural and very normal thing to do to make something more stripped-down."
The left turn into alt-country territory might seem natural to Meloy, but the band's fans might be a bit more confused. At the very least, the blueprint for Hazards, a high-concept rock opera, had been laid in the foundations of the Decemberists' earlier work. Picaresque (from 2005) and The Crane Wife (2006) are thematically different, but utilize many of the same components ― storytelling songs, dramatic flourishes, interweaving mythologies, song cycles, and everything from Gypsy beats to chamber pop ― that can be found on Hazards.
If anything, The King is Dead, is the antithesis of its predecessor, down to earth and humble, whereas Hazards might be viewed as the zenith of Meloy's excessive ambitions. Meloy admits that the band, including guitarist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen, were grateful to get back to basics.
"I think everyone was a little relieved," he laughs. "I mean Crane Wife, a lot of that stuff was written specifically for Jenny and Chris in mind, because I knew that they would love playing that. The Hazards of Love, I thought it might be a little much to take in, but I knew that they'd come around to it and be into it. It didn't take a whole lot of convincing, but there was a little bit of head scratching. With this one, I think we're all on the same page, and it would be a very simple and organic process, and to a certain degree it was. It was very intuitive for everybody."
The last time Meloy made a record that sounded even remotely like this was over a decade ago when he lived in Montana and fronted an alt-country band called Tarkio. With a return to his roots, Meloy wanted to recreate one of his favourite elements in classic "barn" country-rock: marrying male and female vocals. Famed Americana singer-songwriter, Gillian Welch, a California girl with Nashville in her blood and a permanent twang in her voice, was his first choice.
"Colin had in mind a consistent ― not quite a duet voice, but he had a consistent other character, female, in his head for this song cycle, this set of tunes," Welch says. "Flatteringly, I was his first choice."
Welch, a staple of the American roots scene, has appeared sparingly in the indie music realm, recording songs with Bright Eyes and Ryan Adams in the past. Her biggest crossover hit came from the somewhat surprising popularity of the Grammy Award-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, on which Welch sang two songs and also associate produced. But it's her critically acclaimed 2002 effort, Time (The Revelator) that established Welch as one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation.
The pair had sung together once before, when the Decemberists came through Nashville, and Welch and her partner, David Rawlings went to see them play. Welch remembers them hopping up on stage and singing AC/DC's "Sin City" and Welch's own "Miss Ohio."
"It was a really fantastically pleasant surprise to get in there, get into the studio, and have the tracks start coming up," Welch says. "I think we have a really above-average natural blend!" She laughs at her own review of their harmonies. "One thing I wasn't really sure about is that Colin's got that really exciting, emotional quiver voice, and I sing much more like a hillbilly in that there's no vibrato. I just go 'heeeh'" ― she makes a car honkin sound ― "and it's much more old time. I wasn't really sure what was going to happen.
"Once we got in there it went really easily and organically," Welch continues. "The only thing was, I needed lyric sheets! His vocabulary is a little less colloquial than mine, to put it mildly. One of the beautiful things about his writing are these unexpected words, which you don't get from just anybody."
On the surface, Meloy and Welch couldn't make music that's more different, but both are narrative writers, excelling in songs that tell complete stories. The stories they tell, though, are drastically different. Whole message boards and websites are devoted to dissecting Meloy's numerous literary references, while Welch writes songs that are rooted in everyday experiences, the grittier the better.
"I think she brought kind of a swagger [to the album]," Meloy says. "She was such an amazing and versatile voice, and such a character and quality to it, I think it imprints itself into the songs and on certain songs it brings out kind of a sweetness and there's other songs, like 'Down By the Water' and 'Rise to Me,' it really gives it this rough swagger, which is really an eye-opening thing to hear."
If Welch brought the swagger, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck brought the wish-fulfilment.
"I mentioned to him, while we were on the road, that I was writing fake Peter Buck riffs, and I would love it if he would consider coming and playing them," Meloy laughs. "Everything that [the Decemberists have] done is sort of an R.E.M. paean ― some more than others. On this one, I was really just trying to get back to the stuff that drew me into music and R.E.M. and the Smiths were a big part of that. I feel like I was deliberately trying to reconnect with that."
When it came time to record The King is Dead, Meloy made good on his promise (or threat) to shack up in a barn. The Decemberists had recorded Picaresque in a church, but the intervening years were spent in traditional recording studios. They recorded in rural Oregon and its influence is palpable. The album's spirit is rooted in that rustic environment, a perfect complement to the songs' earthy vibes, many of which have nature-based references.
A lot of the songs are meditations on our immediate surroundings as Pacific North-westerners," Meloy says. "So part of it was, 'Let's get out in the countryside and record this,' so when you look out the window you see an open field and when you take a lunch break, you go and sit by a campfire, or when you have to go to the bathroom, you have to put on your Wellies and go slog through mud and go to an outhouse. In some ways it's a nice thing, and a bit more challenging certainly, but it adds the intangible dimension to the record itself."
That element has fascinated Meloy ever since he first heard Scottish folk-rock band the Waterboys' 1988 album Fisherman's Blues, which was recorded in Spiddal House on the West coast of Ireland. For Meloy, the house became as vital a component as any of the musicians.
"In many respects, this is my attempt ― or our attempt ― at making Fisherman's Blues. Who knows how many records I have left in me or how many years I have left on this earth?" Meloy ponders. "I could get hit by a bus at any moment and I would not have made my version of Fisherman's Blues, which is an album that resonated hugely for me."
Between its homage to the Waterboys, R.E.M., and traditional "barn" country-rock, The King is Dead could come off as a melting pot of disparate effects. Instead, the album feels like Meloy's most personal work. In part, this is thanks to his decision to mine his past for influences. He's also, finally, letting his guard down as a writer. But it hasn't been an easy place to get to.
Though he possesses one of the most unique songwriting voices in modern music, Meloy knows that not everyone appreciates his ability to negotiate the rougher edges of a sentence. "A decade ago, I was working at a pizza place and living in a warehouse and freaking out over my student loans," Meloy recalls, laughing. "It was a different time. I would get called 'college boy' at the pizza place, because I was the only one there with a college degree, which is sort of sad, in a way, but it's probably true. What was I doing there?" In short, paying the rent.
"College boy" has made the most of his time between then and now. Since the band's first album, Meloy has been exorcising his English degree demons with tangents into British folklore, Japanese fantasy, various historical eras, ultimately creating his own strange mythological world on Hazards. The King is Dead is the first album that's mostly devoid of lavishly orchestrated narratives, consisting instead of his most personal songs to date.
Yeah, I think that would be fair to say," Meloy says. "I mean, certainly it has its moments of flights of fancy, I can't really get away from that, but the songs are personal meditations about my immediate surroundings and a lot about family life." ("Henry," for instance, finds Meloy offering advice to his young son.) "I'm not as sensitive as I was about [exposing myself]. Initially, I was very protective of my private life. I think it was just my initial reaction to becoming a not-so-private person, inevitably with whatever degree of so-called fame, you give away a bit of your privacy and I think that was a sort of shock to me. Maybe I've just grown more accustomed to it, so I've just grown more comfortable to discussing these things."
Going forward, Meloy and his family are likely going to be the subject of even further scrutiny, thanks to a three-book deal he and his wife, artist Carson Ellis, signed in 2010. The first book, Wildwood, launches in October later this year. It's another example of Meloy closing the gap on a ten-year cycle.
My wife Carson and I have been wanting to do this for a really long time," Meloy says. "Our collaboration as writer and illustrator actually pre-dates the Decemberists. We started working on a long-form, illustrated novel in 2000, 2001, and had to shelve it just because of our own separate careers happening. Finally we're getting back to it."
Meloy anticipates that the next four years will be about a lot of "book-ish" things. He lets out a loud exhale when asked how songwriting and novel writing differ for him. "God, I feel like the only thing that is similar about them is that they involve the written word!" he says. "That's where the similarity ends. Two processes couldn't be more different involving the same core element. Writing a song can take five minutes. Writing a paragraph can take all day. It's almost like a different definition of time. I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around it. They both really satisfy in a way that's very different from each other, and I feel like I'm really driven to do both things, but they're so very different."
Having turned The King is Dead into a catch-all for all his various influences, homages, and inspirations, and with his publishing obligations ahead of him, one can't help but ask Meloy where he sees himself, and by extension, the Decemberists going. He acknowledges the band will spend a lot of the year touring in support of this album, but he's not making any promises about the future. "While I won't ever leave music completely, I am really excited about exploring other modes of expression, stuff I've been putting off."