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Colin Meloy talks about the Replacements, being an author, and yes, the Decemberists' new album

  Play Now [13:00]

by Bill DeVille

June 02, 2024

While in town on tour with The Decemberists, frontman Colin Meloy dropped by The Current for a friendly chat with Bill DeVille. Meloy talks about cross-collaborating with his Portland pals, about how he discovered the Replacements, and much more —  including the making of the Decemberists' new album, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again.

Watch the full interview above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

Bill DeVille: Hey, I'm Bill DeVille, and I'm here with Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. So nice to see ya, Colin.

Colin Meloy: Nice to see you.

Bill DeVille: How's everything?

Colin Meloy: Everything's great. I mean, I think we're about three weeks into the first tour on the record, and it's been exciting.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. And it's been, let's see ... if you were here last in what was it? '22?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, I think it was. Yeah, I think we well, yeah. I think that was. We did, you know, our twice-postponed kind of 20th anniversary tour. Finally made it out here.

Bill DeVille: Well, it's nice to have you here.

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: I still remember the first time I met you was back in 2005 at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. And the one thing, the reason I remember so well is because, you know, this was the summer of the fall of hot, and it's always hot there, but not usually in October. It was like 105, 108, you know, 109 degrees over the three-day festival. And everybody's wearing, you know, scarves over their faces because of the dust.

Colin Meloy: Right.

Bill DeVille: Do you have a recollection of that?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, I mean, I do. I remember being on the bus, thankfully, like, looking out all the people and just feeling like, "Oh my god, I can't imagine being out in that." It's kind of how I feel about a lot of festivals. But being so hot. I do remember drawing a tattoo on Jenny [Conlee’s] arm and Sharpie with 104 degrees and a thermometer that was exploding. I think that that was that that festival.

Bill DeVille: Did that work?

Colin Meloy: I think it was just trying to kind of like lighten the mood a little bit, you know, because the idea of getting out there and playing a rock show in that temperature is, it's tough.

A man plays guitar on an outdoor stage.
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists performing at the Austin City Limits Music Festival on September 25, 2005, in Austin, Texas.
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Yeah. So you have a new album. It's due, what is it, the 14th of June? I believe it is.

Colin Meloy: June 14.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Tell us about the album. What's different this time out?

Colin Meloy: Well, I mean, it's our first proper double album, and our longest record. It's our first record in six years.

Bill DeVille: Why the long gap? Well, besides the fact that there was—

Colin Meloy: Well, there was a global pandemic. Yeah, that slowed things down. I was working on a book at the time when COVID hit and I, you know, finished that and then just felt generally, you know, like kind of hibernating.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: And I think my creative winds were kind of drawn to other projects. And it really wasn't until, you know, February of last year that I like felt like, OK, I feel like there's enough material, I think we should probably try making a record.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. I saw you have a 19-minute epic on the album.

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: Is it hard for a full band to learn a song that long?

Colin Meloy: No. I mean, we have experience doing that. You know, we've done that a few times before — not 19 minutes.

Bill DeVille: Is that your longest?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, though—

Bill DeVille: I mean, you passed Iron Butterfly, I think, with that one.

Colin Meloy: “The Tain" comes close. "The Tain" is 18.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: You know, and "The Island," and then The Hazards Of Love was meant to be basically one long track; I mean, everything flows into the next. And we had to we learn that to tour that on. So I think everybody's sort of old hands, you know, and that kind of thing.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. I saw you have a couple of special guests. You have Mike Mills — Mike, the longtime bassist in R.E.M. How did you get him involved in the album? 

Colin Meloy: Well, it happened to he was in town. He was in town playing with The Baseball Project, one of his bands. 

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: With Scott McCaughey and Pete Buck. And their last night on tour was in Portland. And Tucker Martine, our producer, suggested it; it was like he knew he was in town. It was like, "Why don't we give him a call and see if he'll come in." And I've met Mike on a few occasions; actually, you know, played with him when, you know, we've done different benefits and things with Peter. And so we just called him to see if, you know, saw if he wanted to come in. And I couldn't, I thought that there's no way you know, it's the last night of a tour, he's like flying out that day. But he was game. He changed his flight, came in probably really hung over and totally banged out this great part singing and playing piano.

baseball project 3
Mike Mills at The Current in 2014.
MPR photo/Nate Ryan

Bill DeVille: Well, that's awesome. And then I saw you had James Mercer. I suppose that's pretty easy to get him because he's a Portland guy too.

Colin Meloy: Well, yeah, he's a Portland guy. And, you know, we're friends. But yeah, it's another one of those situations where Tucker and I were just in the studio, wanting kind of a distinctive voice on this one part and trying to think of like, who could be somebody to nail it, and, you know, James's name came up, and I texted him, and he happened, he was in town, and he came in the next day and banged it out.

James Mercer of The Shins onstage
James Mercer of The Shins performing in 2017 in Pasadena, California.
Rich Fury/Getty Images

Bill DeVille: He's on "Burial Ground," right?

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: Tell us about the song.

Colin Meloy: That is a song that actually has its germ, it started out in, as a dream, as a dream song, which happens occasionally, where you'll be in a dream, and you'll be performing or something, and the song, you'll be performing a song. And occasionally, you can remember the song when you wake up, and you can actually kind of chart it out as long as you get to it quickly. And it's always kind of a curiosity, you know, more often than not, it's like nonsense and doesn't really work. But for whatever reason, "Burial Ground," that hook made sense, outside of my dream world, and so I just kind of kept building it out from there.

Bill DeVille: It works really well. It sounds awesome on the radio. It's been a big track for us.

Colin Meloy: Oh, good.

Bill DeVille: You know, another thing that you and I have in common, besides the fact that we were both at Austin City Limits in '05, is we were both in the film Color Me Impressed.

Colin Meloy: Oh, OK!

Bill DeVille: The documentary about the Replacements.

Colin Meloy: Oh, you were in that, right.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, yeah. So what is it about the Replacements and you?

Colin Meloy: Well, I mean, I think that I learned a lot from the R— I was introduced to the Replacements at a relatively young age, I think I, you know, it was in sixth, third, seventh grade. And my uncle who was, you know, the youngest brother of my sister, was at school at University of Oregon.

Bill DeVille: So he wasn't all that much older. He was like, he was like the cool uncle.

Colin Meloy: He was the cool uncle.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: And he was the the uncle that busted out the guitar during family gatherings.

Bill DeVille: Sure.

Colin Meloy: And was really hip to like, what was happening on college radio in the '80s. And he would send my sister and I little mixtapes at Christmas. And yeah, on one of them, there was the Replacements, "I Will Dare"; Hüsker Dü, "Hardly Getting Over It"; a Smiths song, and an R.E.M. song. And I mean, those four tracks just sort of instantly blew up in my mind about what music was and what it could be. We got really into the Replacements. I feel like there was something about how much they just, they were just such kind of miscreants, you know? And they were so, like, their behavior and the way that they approached their songs, and even though their songs were gorgeous, you know, and Paul was writing these really beautiful, you know, really important, lyrically, you know, really deep and heavy songs, but there's also the side to them, where, you know, the first track on Hootenanny, they all just switch instruments and played a song, you know?

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: And that's the lead track. I just feel like there's kind of a bravery there in their, in that kind of absurdity and playfulness that I think has informed not only my songwriting, but the way I approach performance and recording and everything.

Four guys sitting on a sofa in what is now the Midtown Greenway
The Replacements circa 1985
Deborah Feingold

Bill DeVille: Did you ever get a chance to see them?

Colin Meloy: I never did. I saw Paul Westerberg play.

Bill DeVille: One of those solo shows—

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: in the early 2000s, maybe?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, well, he did like a tour of record stores.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: I saw him at a record store date. But that's it. I didn't get a chance to see them when they reformed.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, well, they were pretty great. I was lucky enough to see them in both Chicago and here.

Colin Meloy: Oh, cool.

Bill DeVille: And it was a real real treat to see him. You also wrote a book! One of those, what is it, 33 and 1/3 series? How did you get involved in that?

Colin Meloy: I just got asked by the guy who was putting them together if there was a record that I felt like I could write about, and that was one, Let It Be, is sort of a formative record. It hadn't been written about yet. And so I took it.

Bill DeVille: Do you got a favorite Replacements song?

Colin Meloy: It might be "Nowhere Is My Home."

Bill DeVille: That's a good one.

Colin Meloy: Which is off the Boink EP, but then they've just recently remixed it and remastered it for that new Tim reissue. And it's kind of a deep cut, but it's one when I was a kid I just loved.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, yeah. I'm gonna go with "I Will Dare" or "Within Your Reach," depends on the day.

Colin Meloy: "Within Your Reach" is great. "Can't Hardly Wait," you know, is, another favorite.

Bill DeVille: So earlier on, back in, let's see, '05, you released an album called Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey, you had a Sings Shirley Collins, a Sings Live, a Sings Sam Cooke, a Sings The Kinks. Are you going to do another one of these? I know it's been a while since you have, but is that something you'd entertain doing again? Or?

Colin Meloy: I think I would do it if those were kind of made explicitly for solo tour, at least tours, solo tours that I would go on, and to have some kind of special recording that would be available at the shows. That's kind of how those started. And so I don't think I would make one, another one, unless I was going on the road again. But we did just recently collect all four of them, and put them on vinyl for the first time.

Bill DeVille: Well, there you go. That's kind of fun.

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: So the Decemberists, I was just looking at the dates, looks like you've been a band for almost 25 years, you're coming up on 25? What's the key to have a band, and largely intact, for 25 years?

Colin Meloy: Oh, gosh...

Bill DeVille: And you survived a pandemic.

Colin Meloy: Yeah, I think, I think one of the saving graces is I think we were all a little bit older when we started, you know, late 20s, early 30s. I was... when the band as it is today, you know, even though we've had some member changes, but what I think of like the definitive Decemberists lineup really didn't come about until, you know, 2001. And I was in my late 20s. And I think Jenny and Nate, you know, were 30. And I think just being adults, and being more mature, and also having had experience playing in other bands, was really helpful. And the fact that we got along, I also think taking lots of breaks, you know, allowing to...

Bill DeVille: Well, you all have your own thing going on outside of the Decemberists.

Colin Meloy: Yeah, to pursue other things is really important, too.

Six people pose on a sweep with an arboreal projection for a group portrait
Portland, Oregon, indie-rock band The Decemberists.
Holly Andres

Bill DeVille: Yeah. And how did you get through the pandemic as a band?

Colin Meloy: Well...

Bill DeVille: Just kind of stepped away and... ?

Colin Meloy: We just stepped away. I mean, it was just kind of happened that it fell when we were naturally going to be kind of, I mean, the tour was going to happen, our 20th anniversary tour was going to happen, and that certainly got derailed or put off for a couple of years. But I mean, that wasn't anything that was gonna, like derail our career or anything like that. So I think everybody just kind of stayed put. We did a couple of streaming shows, which was a lot of fun.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, I caught some of those. That was about the only thing to do.

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. Now, as an artist, as a singer, songwriter, and author, what's a person like you's view on artificial intelligence, on AI?

Colin Meloy: Hmm. Well, I mean, I think it's potentially going to be a really great tool.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: I think it's fascinating.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: I mean, I think it's, it's made me think a lot about our own processes, our creative process.

Bill DeVille: I mean, you could have it write a song for you, and then just switch the words around a little bit.

Colin Meloy: I mean, I don't think I would do that. I mean, if you could use it as a tool to kind of get, throw some ideas, but in a certain sense, we are all kind of large learning models. And that my process of writing songs, where you're kind of guessing at each turn, what is the next chord? What is the next word? What is the next chapter in the story? is not that different from what an LLM or an AI model does.

Bill DeVille: Yeah.

Colin Meloy: So that's kind of fascinating. But I think that there is... there is something that will be critically missing, I think, in music that is created by AI, even if they get it to a point where it can make hooky choruses and, you know, verses that work.

Bill DeVille: "Make this sound like the Ramones."

Colin Meloy: Well, yeah, I mean, even if they get to the point. And I think now, even AI-created music feels very soulless, but even if they get to the point where it's like, "Oh, this sounds like it's hooky and it's catchy," I think it's sort of like, there will still be something there. It's like those things that you see on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, that's like somebody telling you like, "You're OK, and you're gonna make it through today." You know, these, like, kind of banal, therapeutic statements that are so — they still don't mean anything. I feel like when I see them, I'm like, that doesn't — I mean, sure, thanks for the sentiment — but like it was created by somebody to very generally speak to a huge population. I think AI is the same way. If it's not, if there's not something in that that feels like it's speaking, that's coming from someone's direct experience — a person, a human — then I think it's, it can't work.

Bill DeVille: Yeah. I agree with you. What was the last album that you listened to start to finish? There's a question for you.

Colin Meloy: Cara Beth Satalino, and she has a new record called Little Green. And I was, I heard a song on some mixtape, you know, and thought it was great. And the record just came out. I walked around Toronto listening to it, certainly start to finish, and yeah, I think it's great.

Bill DeVille: All right. It's Colin Meloy of the Decemberists, the new album is out on the 14th of June called As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin. What about—

Colin Meloy: ...So It Will Be Again

Bill DeVille: Ah, I got it wrong. OK. There you go. Thanks for correcting me.

Colin Meloy: Yeah.

Bill DeVille: Now, as an author, do you have anything that you've been working on writing-wise of late?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, I'm actually working on my first novel for grownups, for adults.

Bill DeVille: Yeah, you've been doing children's books?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, mostly middle grade novels, like middle readers, kind of, and that's been a great place for me. It's, you know, I love writing for that age. But, yeah, this will be my first time writing for grownups.

Bill DeVille: Well, congratulations on the new album on the way, and so nice chatting with you.

Colin Meloy: Yeah, thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

Bill DeVille: My pleasure.

Man performing on stage
Colin Meloy of The Decemberists performing at the Palace Theatre in St. Paul on Sunday, May 19, 2024.
Steve Cohen for MPR