The Decemberists On Irony, Leonard Cohen And Embracing Dark Energies

Since forming fifteen years ago, The Decemberists have risen from underground cult favourites to enjoy international mainstream success. On the release of their seventh studio album (What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World), singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Meloy explains to Jon Wilde how his band created an instant American classic.
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Since forming fifteen years ago, The Decemberists have risen from underground cult favourites to enjoy international mainstream success. On the release of their seventh studio album (What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World), singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Meloy explains to Jon Wilde how his band created an instant American classic.

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[Pic: Autumn De Wilde]

The original Decemberists were a group of Russian army officers sent into Siberian exile in 1825, after their unsuccessful attempts to convince Czar Nicholas I to establish a national constitution.

The other Decemberists are a five-piece band based in Portland, Oregon that can safely be described as idiosyncratic.
They formed in 2000, having met in a Turkish bath, at least according to one of their early press releases. Their debut album, Castaways And Cutouts arrived in 2002. Their music was pegged as literate indie pop but could just as easily have been described as post-modern American folk. They married unconventional instrumentation to subject matter as diverse as suicidal coal merchants, sailors who get swallowed by whales and Irish loyalist gang the Shankhill Butchers. Many of their songs were informed by Meloy’s love of antiquated language and suffused with his lifelong fascination for the grotesque.
In 2006, having signed deals with Capitol in the US and Rough Trade in the UK, they began to court an international market. Their sixth album The King Is Dead, which featured Gillian Welch and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck became their biggest-seller to date, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.

Already being widely hailed as their masterpiece, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a mix of literate pop and songs of soulful introspection. Both lyrically and musically, it’s their most ambitious work to date.

SABOTAGE TIMES: I heard someone argue the other day that the new Decemberists album is the finest album of the century so far. Would you care to comment on that?

COLIN MELOY: It’s a very kind remark. I’m trying to think of examples that would contradict that argument. I’m sure I could think of many better albums this century but it would only be mirroring my own insecurities. So I’m not even going to try.

ST: You used to make albums fairly quickly. In fact you once compared writing songs to handling meat: “Mess with it too long and it loses its freshness. It’s about getting the meat straight from the butcher to the grill.” Why did What A Terrible World take so long to make?

CM: After our last album, 2011’s The King Is Dead, we felt like we needed to take some kind of break. I wanted to write some novels for children and young adults, do a solo tour and spend some time with my family. I also became a father for the second time. I realized my priorities had shifted. It was time to step away from The Decemberists for a while and enjoy some quiet domesticity.

It’s not that unusual for The Decemberists to take a break. The Hazards Of Love album took three years to make.
When we finally got back into the studio to record this new one, there was no concept in mind, more a lack of concept. Our two previous albums, The Hazards Of Love and The King Is Dead, were both conceptual in their own right. Our older albums had some kind of theme that tied the songs together. This album was some kind of a reaction to that. Going into it, we decided not to put any kind of label on it. That turned out to be an interesting experiment for us. We gave ourselves plenty of time to focus on the songs. We booked plenty of studio time without any deadlines. Then the songs themselves defined the shape of the record.

ST: Your songs seem to come increasingly more from the heart and less from the head. Any truth in that?

CM: I think that makes sense. On this album and on The King Is Dead there’s been a drift towards songs written in the first person. I am writing more about myself and my immediate surroundings now. In the past four years I’m mainly been at home writing these books, being with my wife and children, so the songs are a reflection of that.

ST: Over the years the characters in your songs have frequently met with grisly endings. The bodies aren’t piling up in your songs like they used to.

CM: In one of the new songs, Better Not Wake The Baby, there’s a reference to someone having their eyes gouged out with a butter knife. In another, Easy Come Easy Go there’s reference to a woman found in a shower, seven weeks gone. So there’s still that dark element in there, but the body count is definitely easing up. I’d like to think that darkness continues to pervade my songs. I’m a firm believer in the idea that darkness only illuminates the light part of things.

ST: You’ve got two young kids. Could that be the reason why your latest songs are less focused on kidnapping, torture, arson, assaults with deadly weapons, infanticide, desecration of corpses, indecent exposure and various other felonies?

CM: I don’t think so. I wrote 2009’s The Hazards Of Love after my first son was born and some of the songs on that are as grisly as I get. I think I still have the same macabre fascinations I’ve always had.

ST: I’ve always had the feeling that you’d be a good person to contact if I ever committed a murder. I suspect you’d have some interesting and helpful ideas.

CM: Hmm. I’m not sure I’d be much help if you were looking to dispose of a body. I think my response would be more interesting than helpful. You’d be better off looking for someone with more practical experience in these matters. If you were looking for a more romantic solution to your dilemma, I could probably help you scatter flowers on the river as the body floated by.

ST: Were you drawn to the grotesque and the macabre from an early age?

CM: I saw The Shining On television when I was eight. My dad was like, “Hey! The show is on!” So I sat and watched it with him. The movie scared me but that was probably the point where I became fascinated by madness of various kinds. That movie really stoked my imagination. It carried on from there. In elementary (primary) school back in the late seventies, I wrote a play in the second grade called The Bloody Night which was Shakespearean in that every character in it died a grisly death.
Thankfully I had a very permissive grade school which believed they should encourage the darker turns of my mind. So me and my friends performed that play in front of the entire school. I doubt that would be allowed these days. I imagine the parents of the author would be called in for a stern talk with the school counselor.

ST: I guess it’s very empowering for a kid to feel that his strangeness is nothing to be ashamed of. Is that how you felt about it?

CM: Yeah, I felt I had the freedom to channel those darker energies of mine. In my family we embraced weirdness and I was encouraged to be creative. From an early age I considered myself to be a writer. As part of a class project we had to write a letter to our favourite authors. So I wrote to Ray Bradbury saying, “I consider myself an author too”, which was very presumptuous. Bradbury never wrote back which led me to a life of never writing back to fan mail.

ST: Do you tend to attract obsessive fans?

CM: There are a few out there who are of the rabid variety. For the most part they are sensible people.

ST: Name an album that changed your life.

CM: The Jesus & Mary’s Chain’s Psychocandy had a major effect on my life. It’s a perfect record to my ears. It hit me at just the right time. After I started getting into rock bands in sixth grade, I ditched piano lessons and my parents thought it might be a good idea for me to start taking guitar lessons. It was around that time I bought Psychocandy. Under that immense blanket of feedback and distortion, there’s rarely more than three chords in any one songs. Their solos consisted of two notes. Yet it was so powerful. I quickly realized I could play any song on that record. I realized that music didn’t have to be difficult to play, that it wasn’t about virtuosity at all. Unlocking that was as much of an epiphany for me as any moment in my life.

ST: You’ve cited Leonard Cohen’s Death 1977 album, Death Of A Ladies Man, as a prime influence on your new album. Would you care to elaborate?

CM: I think of early Leonard Cohen as being like pristine poems in song. With Death Of A Ladies Man he’s beginning to emerge from that particular burrow, searching for a different voice. He’s tapping into a kind of adolescent profanity that marks his best stuff. A wry humour runs through the whole thing. Phil Spector’s arrangements are so over-the-top. Beneath the high gloss there’s a great sadness and something profoundly depraved. Unlike the Spector sessions for Death Of A Ladies Man, there were no guns being waved around during the making of the new Decemberists album. To my knowledge, none of us own any guns.

ST: Your songs are routinely described as “ironic”. Is that fair comment?

CM: Quite possibly. Maybe there’s less irony in the songs than there used to be. I don’t want to lose that completely. When you’re finding your voice as a songwriter, you feel you have your aim on something. You’re always having to adjust. Your thoughts change. Your approach to music and life changes. You grow. The ironic tone in my songs has changed but there’s still irony in there. I feel it’s an important part of the process. I don’t want to be an earnest songwriter, even though I do tend to slide into that occasionally. For me, irony is the thing that makes modern pop music breathe.

ST: Many of your earlier songs were suffused with elements of Victoriana and Edwardiana, with occasional Dickensian touches. Have you reached the end of your fascination with those eras?

CM: I always had a fascination with those eras. Victoriana was clearly an influence on a lot of sixties psychedelia, and I played into that on certain Decemberists songs. Maybe I burned through that eventually. For a time I found it very entertaining. Then it stopped being so prevalent in the songs. Maybe it’s something I’ll return to.

ST: Your live shows are renowned for crowd participation. Have there been any particularly memorable nights?

CM: When we toured Europe in 2010, we would perform The Mariner’s Revenge Song at the end and encourage the audience to scream as if they were being consumed by a whale. Meanwhile, the band would pretend to die on stage. That was a lot of fun. We like to get our audience involved in the shows. It’s a way of breaking down the barrier between audience and band. We haven’t encouraged nudity, not as yet. We wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I’ve certainly not got any immediate plans to perform in the nude.

ST: In 2012, The Decemberists appeared in animated form in The Simpsons, playing music teachers at Springfield Elementary school. Did the animators do you justice?

CM: They made me look far more handsome than I am in real life. I think the yellowishness enhanced my visual appeal considerably and did wonders for my profile. Being featured in The Simpsons was a big milestone for the band.

ST: What attribute of yours are your fellow band members most jealous of?

CM: My ability to avoid social contact for extended periods of time while I’m on tour. I’m pretty shy and retiring by nature. On tour I’m one of those people who don’t need to see another face and maybe the musicians envy that.

ST: Do you have any hidden talents?

CM: I can raise my left eyebrow while keeping my right one perfectly still. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Everyone can raise both at the same time. Try raising just one. This talent of mine had some currency in grade school. Maybe I should perform it more often.

ST: What is the one thing about you that has never changed?

CM: I’ve always had terrible eyesight. I’m unable to function if I’m not wearing glasses. I’m just shy of Mr. Magoo.

ST: What happens next?

CM: With my wife, the illustrator Carson Ellis, I’ve now published three children’s books (The Wildwood Trilogy). We’re working together on another couple of books right now. For some time now, there’s been talk of doing a musical with the director Michael Mayer. Finding the time and finding the right project has been difficult. I’m still not super content with what I’ve come up with. I hope that’s going to happen eventually.

(What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is out now on Rough Trade in the UK and Capitol in the US.)