Interview: Colin Meloy talks 20 Years of The Decemberists

Colin Meloy looks back as The Decemberists celebrate their 20th anniversary. (MPR)

Colin Meloy and Mac Wilson sit down for a virtual interview as The Decemberists celebrate their 20th anniversary this month. The two look back at iconic releases and memories from The Decemberists' catalog, and discuss the craft of building a setlist in the age of streams.

Interview

Edited for clarity and length.

MAC WILSON: Hello, my name is Mac Wilson from The Current and I am joined via the power of the internet by Mr. Colin Meloy. Hello, Colin.

COLIN MELOY: Hello, Mac. How you doing?

I'm doing great. I'm glad that we finally had the chance to touch base. The Decemberists have always had a special place in my heart because the first time that The Current ever did a top 89 poll at year-end was in 2006 when The Crane Wife was voted the number one album of the year by Current listeners. So you have a spot in Current history as well.

That's so cool. That is so cool. Thank you, Current listeners that's really sweet, from 2006.

From 2006, and on now as we we've continued playing your music all through the years, diving into all the different eras of the band. The 20+ year history of the band as you are commemorating over the summer. Colin I wanted to start out today by noting this weird bit of the energy from the universe, to the point where I feel like our simulation is glitching. As one of the principal architects behind the record The King Is Dead, today is the day that Prince Philip in the UK has passed away at the age of 99. I'm sure that's not lost on you but of all days to be talking to you for the very first time it lines up very strange.

The death of royalty. Yeah, though he was the consort, not the king but there's a connection.

It's probably the closest that we'll ever get to say that as well because yes, he was not the king, but it's close enough.

It'll be a few years.

We're thinking about the 20 year anniversary of the Decemberists and The King Is Dead, that album actually commemorated its 10th anniversary earlier this winter. I went back to revisit it lately and it holds up as just a really terrific rock album all the way through. It's held up really well over time. Do you feel like it has a special place in The Decemberists catalog? Do you think that it stands out one way or the other? Are there any special memories that you had of that album as it passed the 10 year mark?

Yeah, I have lots of memories of that album. In my mind, I don't know how much is embraced by our fan base. Probably to some people's minds, it maybe would be seen as more of a--it was certainly our most commercial record. I'll say that much. It is our best selling, it's a gold record now. It was a number one record when it came out. So in many ways, it feels like this big turning point in our career and a career that had been building for a long time. It's not like it came out of nowhere. We'd been a band for a while at that point. But I have fond memories and sort of difficult memories of--certainly the writing of that record was really enjoyable because I think I had just come out of writing the stuff that--we'd written and recorded and toured Hazards Of Love and all those dark and weird and sad and children being killed and people drowning, and stuff like that, in that record.

I think I was working out some demons. I came out the other end of that with a completely different perspective. I remember thinking as I was working on songs for The King Is Dead, like I just want to write some songs that are nice to listen to, you know? That are good folk--going back and not trying to mine the depths of my anguish, instead try to find the joy. I had just moved to a house in Forest Park, it's this big forested park in Portland. We're surrounded by trees just out in the woods in a really sweet little house and I just had a completely different perspective. So a lot of those songs come from that and I have a fond memory of writing them. We had this grand idea because for whatever reason I'm forever like trying to emulate what The Waterboys did with Fisherman's Blues. I have these weird ideas of going places and recording in strange spots. Like they had recorded in this manor house in Ireland. I thought well, why don't--these are kind of country songs. Why don't we go to the country to record them and record them all in a barn? So we made Tucker Martine, our engineer, basically move his entire studio to this drafty old barn with no insulation at the beginning of summer. We had this idea that we would record in this barn and we would sleep on the property. We would sleep in tents and things like that. But it rained the entire--it rained so hard. Most of the time we were there, there was a few moments, glimmering moments of sunshine. Then it was so stifling hot, it was hard to even be in the studio in that barn. So I think we really--it was really a difficult, challenging recording process, but we got it done.

It's funny what you said about the record. On one hand, it's sort of not necessarily embraced by your fan base, and yet, it's your top selling record. I hadn't thought about this connection before, but I keep going back to when the Grateful Dead put out Touch Of Greyi in the late 1980s. Then Neil Young put out Rockin' in the Free World in the late 1980s, like early 90s. Those are not necessarily held up by their fan bases as their "best" but they're some of their most enduring tunes in a really, really positive way. I think that The King Is Dead, you could probably slot them in a similar category with that.

Comparing it to the Touch Of Grey. Thanks a lot, man.

I am! I'm comparing the Touch Of Grey and Rockin' in the Free World. That's good company.

I'll take Rockin' in the Free World.

Talking with Colin Malloy of The Decemberists via the power of the internet. I actually had a question about The Hazards of Love. My impression of the record at the time, I remember thinking, "If I can figure out what this is all a metaphor for, I feel like I'm gonna unlock it and it's gonna to come alive in a whole new light." And because it was written at the very, very tail end of the Bush administration, I could never figure out if there was a political bent or if there was some really big metaphor that I was missing. I feel like we're a decade on. Are you willing to divulge whether there really is like an even deeper political or socio-political metaphor to the plotline of The Hazards of Love?

Sociopolitical? No, there's none at all. I mean, whatever is there would be unintentional and certainly left up to the listener to find that, which is doesn't mean to say that that's not there. Hazards, if there's any kind of key to unlocking The Hazards of Love, it's just that I had this idea of a concept--I was just listening to a lot of old British folk music at the time. For the British folk revival, like the 60s and 70s and Briggs and Nick Jones, and Shirley Collins, I was just like steeped in this stuff. It was all I was listening to. I was noticing all these through-lines and characters that kept showing up in these songs, and sometimes they had the same name, or sometimes they were just sort of archetypal. A lot of Margarets, and Williams making their way through old British folk music, and I thought it would be interesting sort of in the way that like Stephen Sondheim made Into the Woods, like sort of stitching all of these fairytales together to make a story, like what if you took the folk song archetypes and strung them together and see what kind of story you could make? And that's really where that came from. If anything, it is completely removed from any kind of sociopolitical intention.

Okay, that makes sense.

There you go. Sorry to shut you down on that. But there you go.

You didn't shut me down, I shut you down, I'm sorry Colin. We can kind of talk about the idea of a solid year now of doing these sessions, I'm so used to years of working out The Current like, okay, we're gonna go down the hall, you're gonna meet the band, you're gonna shake their hands, and then they're gonna play a song, you're gonna chat about the record for a bit, then they're going to play another song, etc, etc. and doing sessions and conversations like that. We've been doing things very differently over the last year or so, the way that we are chatting now via zoom, is this largely the way that you have done things? Have you sort of shaken up the way that you've had conversations, whether with media or other folks? Or is this basically the format that you have had these conversations?

Yeah, it's all Zoom. It's all one Zoom configuration or another it seems like. I feel like technology is kind of--has as changed. There's some ways that make it easier, some ways that make it harder. I've certainly dialed in. Just being able to do music online a little bit easier and better? Since the beginning of the pandemic, but other than that, this is what it's been.

The Decemberists had been scheduled to hit the road and you've postponed that tour, which is a shame, obviously, but it's done with the best intentions for the safety of everyone involved. The band we'll be doing a series of live streams over the rest of the spring which is really exciting news as each of the sets is going to have its own unique setlist therein. You want to take us a little bit behind the scenes on what you've got in store for these live streams happening later in the spring?

Yeah, well, they are basically what we would have ended up doing in a very compressed form during the 20th anniversary tour, in that they are three unique sets, mining from every dusty corner of our career, and there are probably a lot more deep cuts in there than you would--there's some things that have been left out. Maybe like live staples, but we really--I kind of put the setlist together wanting to have it be this sort of massive overview, like no stone unturned. There's only so much you can do with that much material but it's pretty broad. I think that the casual fan who knows a couple of records or a couple of songs will--there's stuff for that too. But then there's a lot for the fans that have been there with us from the beginning.

I just thought of something--as you're doing these shows, via the internet, it's not necessarily a traditional encore anymore so you don't necessarily need to save "Oh Valencia" until the very end of the set. You could theoretically put that anywhere that you wanted. Do you take that into consideration? Or do you still want it to seem like okay, we're gonna save some of the big hits for the end?

That's a good question. There's a VIP show, an after show with three extra songs and I think those are kind of like an encore. But yeah, I've done a live stream, there's only so much you can do. You don't want to have people sitting in front of their screens for too long. It's not like a live show where you're in the venue. I think a little bit goes a long way. So structuring the setlist, I mean it's not ideal. I'll go out and say that. I really prefer playing in front of people and I'm sure that people will prefer being in an audience because you can't have that sort of energy back and forth which, sometimes we'll change the setlist up or as the setlist mounts it gets more exciting, but I think we do a pretty good job in in emulating that experience as best as we can.

We are talking with Colin Meloy of The Decemberists about the web stream live shows that are coming up later in the spring. Colin, I had another question about a--I don't know if you would consider it a deep cut or not from the 2000s, your tune "Valerie Plame," where when you released it, everybody was like, "Okay, that kind of makes sense that The Decemberists would write a song about Valerie Plame," but you know, we're almost 15 years later now. There's this actual sense of historical discovery as you listen to that song like, "Oh right!" That was one of those strange scandals from from the Bush administration.

It got me thinking about the Bush years versus the Trump years, whether, if someone released a song about some figure from some scandal from the Trump administration, if they put that song out now, I think it would be met with a very different reaction than when Valerie Plame came out back in the day. I'm curious what you think about the differences, and as odd as it sounds, the differences between the two administrations that would make one more likely to have a song written about it than the other?

That's a good question. I mean, to be honest, the reason I had gone with Valerie Plame--the cadence of her name, Valerie Plame? It just really lent itself to song so it kind of built from there. But yeah, there's this whole imagined version of this espionage thing. I think in the Trump administration, there's no romance in any of those people. There's no extraordinary backstory that could you could bring into a song. I was actually thinking about that, like, whoever and I'm sure that the backroom studios are talking about this. Making a film of the Trump administration. You don't want to cast any of that. You don't want to portray these people because they're grotesqueries. They're all just hollow human beings. So there's really nothing there to mine for us--that I'd be interested in mining for us.

It's it's interesting to think about, I got to go back and revisit that one. You've got the shows coming up. Have you as a band stayed busy in other ways whether writing or recording over the last year during the pandemic? Is there more music in the works or have you put that on hold for the time being?

Well, I'm always writing music. I was actually--right when the lockdown happened last year, I was working on a draft of a novel that--I'd just sold a novel. So I'm still working on that and about to dive into the final draft, I think. So that has really taken up my time, which is kind of lucky, because I'm glad that we didn't have a bunch of new material we were excited about and were about to release a record because that would be so heartbreaking. I feel for all the bands out there who are in the midst of the beginning of their career, or just like excited about the material and want to start a record cycle going, you know? It's a s----y time, excuse me, a bad time to be doing that. But power to them for going ahead. I'm sort of thankful that we were in this kind of pause, and we are going to do this 20th anniversary tour. But it's not like it's gonna make or break our career doing that. So what we've been doing--I've been writing on the side, music. We've been keeping in touch and we've done this, and it was really fun to get back together with everybody, and play music. But that's about it. What's in the future I can't really, I don't really know, I can't really say.

Colin I've got one more last question for you. Whether at these web streams that you're doing, or live music in the future--you've got a couple of songs in your catalogue that given what everybody has been through over the last year, I'm curious what the audience reaction will be whether it's a "Everything is Awful," or "We All Die Young". Do you think it's gonna be one of those where your audience is going to want to hear those actively at every single show? Or do you think they'll want to put it in the rearview mirror?

I think those songs are done. I think I may retire those songs, those songs were written before all this went down. Even when I fought--when I did have a dire outlook on the world and little did I know. Just how more awful things have become, to the point where it's absurd, you know? And I don't know that I want to revisit those songs. We'll see.

Okay, fair enough. We're chatting with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. We are looking forward to the live streams and we're looking forward to seeing you back in person and online one way or the other in the future. Colin, thank you for taking the time out of your day today.

Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

External Link

The Decemberists - official site

Credits

Host - Mac Wilson
Technical Director - Eric Romani
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza

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