Q&A With The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy

decemberis550bLeave it to a musicologist to assemble this year’s stylistic Frankenstein: The Decemberists’ bookish leader Colin Meloy has long pledged his fealty to the ‘60s British folk revival, having recorded a tour-only EP consisting of nothing but Shirley Collins obscurities; a few previous releases (2006’s rock opera The Crane Wife; 2004’s The Tain EP, a five-track story-in-song based upon the Irish myth Táin Bó Cúailnge) centered on the Fairport Convention/Pentangle/ Incredible String Band triumvirate. But on their fifth LP and second major-label release, the Decemberists go and get all medieval on your ass: combining English acoustic balladry, the metallic spawn of the ‘70s (think Zeppelin, Heart, Queen) and Broadway musical theater in equal measure, The Hazards Of Love is like nothing you’ve heard before, or likely will ever again. The dense, circuitous 17-song suite concerns the tale of a girl named Margaret, the shapeshifting animal who rapes her, an evil Forest Queen who can easily hold her own with anything conjured in Freddy Mercury or Peter Gabriel’s musical closet and the inevitable reluctant princely hero. Meloy unapologetically plumbs the depths of the genres he loves in service of a narrative that’s less important for its drama than for the aircover it provides the musical comedy going on underneath. The rest of the Decemberists gleefully (and humorously) throw themselves into the task, bouncing from “Evermore”-like epics (“The Hazards Of Love” parts one and two, “Margaret In Captivity”) to “Barracuda”-indebted guitar wankery (“A Bower Scene,” “The Wanting Comes In Waves,” “The Queen’s Rebuke”) to occasional dalliances with Sondheim (“The Rake’s Song”) as though the genres had natively nestled against one another all along. Liberally sprinkled with guest appearances by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden, the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates and Robyn Hitchcock, The Hazards Of Love was inspired by Anne Briggs’ 1964 EP of the same name and pushes Meloy’s penchant for drama, narrative and musical interplay to the edge of the cliff. There’s no going back from here, and although the Decemberists may find it rough sledding to locate another obsession quite as compelling as this one, the album represents the summit of Meloy’s musical journey to date and a high-water mark in the band’s catalog.

Meloy spent an afternoon with MAGNET’s Corey duBrowa in his newly converted studio/rehearsal space in Portland, Ore., ruminating about technology, Sandy Denny and Godspell.

“The Rake’s Song” (download):

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MAGNET: So this is the new Kindle. [Meloy takes off the plastic wrap, saying that his band is always giving him a hard time about “breaking in the new stuff”] It kind of represents “burning my boats, behaviorally.” I’m going to stop doing old things, start doing some new things—and see if this will help me cross the bridge to digital consumption of most of the content I read. That’ll keep me paying for it—if you make something, I should pay you for it. But I’m hoping that the new form factor will get me hooked faster.
Meloy: This is crazy—I’ve read about it. That “e-ink” is really amazing. It looks like it’s just printed right onto the screen.

When I saw (Amazon’s Jeff) Bezos demo it at a conference, he talked about the visceral attachment humans have to the smell of books—and it turns out, the predominant smell of books is the glue that binds the pages to the spine.
[Pretends to sniff the Kindle, laughs] Well, this is just super cool. The screen, and how it works, is just amazing.

What are you reading these days? You gave me some great recommendations last time we talked.
A book called Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen; it’s about Florida at the turn of the 19th/20th century, historical fiction. I finished The White Tiger, it’s pretty wild, a quick read. I dipped into Roberto Bola
ño’s 2666, started into it and couldn’t take on another. I really liked The Savage Detectives. David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I love the ambitious big novels, but they take some time.

The last time we talked, you were saying that you believe that digitization drives the price of everything to zero—people aren’t penalized, really, for not paying. I’ve been wrestling with that given the changes that are happening in the music and publishing industries. I don’t know if the Kindle will have anything to do with accelerating the existing trends or not, but if content is going to be digital—and it is—I want to be able to model the behavior I’m espousing, and this seems like a device that could help me do it.
If you look on The Economist website, you’re getting hit by ads, so that’s one way to pay for it. Pirating music, there’s no way around it: it’s something that was valued, and for whatever reason—it still astounds me, was a lobby not hired in time, or something? [Laughs] It’s no longer valued. It’s a significant amount of revenue that’s now gone, which initially affected the major labels, because their sales were getting hit. The trade-off is that digitization is a dream word-of-mouth scenario—as far as promotion, it’s the dreamiest thing ever; it’s so easy. You no longer send out demos, you have a MySpace page. There are infinite ways of keeping connected to fans, new ways that people are discovering of listening to your music you never had before. It is people’s bread and butter, the way they live—you only need to sell 25,000 records per week to be in the top 10. It’s just crazy. It’s changed so much. 2006’s The Crane Wife sold 26,000 in its first week, and we were number 35 in the pop charts. Now, if you can sell that many records, you’re top 10. It’s crazy.

I think Lil’ Wayne had the biggest selling record of 2008—that was a couple of million copies, which is a lot of zeros. But even just a few years ago, it wasn’t unusual to see acts like Eminem or 50 Cent selling five, six or seven million albums in a year. I keep reading that the retail value of the music industry has halved in less than a decade—even counting analog plus digital form factors.
It’s astounding. That’s why the only things that are still making money, the movie industry, with bandwidth and data storage growing and getting cheaper and cheaper, movies are the next thing to go. Video games are kind of the last thing to go: they can’t really be pirated because there’s simply too much data to replicate. But eventually technology will catch up, and that will go, too. So you have to move beyond that. There has to be some sort of exchange. Bands will continue to make recorded music, we’re not going to revert solely back to just playing live, people like to have recorded music. But is it going to become, I don’t know, like a photograph or something. Something that’s purely promotional—a recording of your songs. That’s crazy to think that way; you have to completely invert your thinking. When we were growing up, the record was the thing, the tour was the promotional thing. And initially the record was a promotional thing, because it was the band and performance that was the thing. Then you recorded a really crappy 45, played it on the radio, so people would come see you. The Beatles changed that and made the record the thing, the performance was just the promotion for the record. And now we’re flipping back again to pre-war mentality.

Medieval. Like, “Come to the town square and see the minstrel show” or something.
Right, which is probably a good thing, except that most of us grew up thinking you can just hang out in your studio and record music and that would be it. For those of us with families and other commitments, that just isn’t reality anymore.

Last time we talked, (your son) Hank had just been born, and you were saying that a tour is really no place for kids—the hours are weird, people get sick on tour buses, etc. There’s tension between the way you can earn a living playing music nowadays and, perhaps, how people would prefer to make a living if all the ways of deriving income from your work were equal. But they’re not.
Yeah, that’s really true. It’s good to see, now that “the digital cloud” is becoming more of a thing—Google docs, Pandora—what if we eliminate the need for local data altogether? That eliminates so much gear you have to have, opens up a lot of possibilities. It can be monitored, and you can pay a subscription for that.

Right—the dream was always “why would I want to have a whole room full of CDs or records or whatever” if I could just get what I wanted and beam it around wherever I wanted: my device, my car, my living environment. That used to sound pretty Jetsons-like; now it’s the new normal for a lot of people.
The guys from Sonos came out here and set me up with a new system—are you familiar with that? I’ve got that set up, and it’s amazing. I totally love it, the fact that I can have a central hard drive or hook up to Rhapsody. I’m getting rid of my CDs, I’m converting them to FLAC super high quality files. Rhapsody is really great, and it’s a good blueprint for the future, where we can treat it like radio. But I think the whole industry, it’s just devastating. We’re not indie, but as you become more popular and successful, the whole musical pirating thing affects you more and more. If we were a band in the late ’90s, I can’t even imagine what our record sales would be as a consequence. We’d never have a chance to experience that. Selling lots of records opens up opportunities within the label, and when you get kneecapped like that, it’s just a weird world. So that’s my spiel about greed. [Laughs]

Maybe we should go back to the beginning, and ask about the Anne Briggs thing. How did you discover her? Hazards Of Love is her first EP, right?
I was unboxing things when I moved into this studio, and just unboxed all my 45s. This is supposedly unplayed; that’s her first EP. I found it on eBay. My Bonny, Bonny Boy.

Reading about her, it sounds like she hooked up with these Irish musicians early on.
With Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, doing those tours. And they initially got her going, then she connected to a younger generation. MacColl and Seeger were at the very beginning of the British folk revival, then she connected—‘64, maybe?—the Watersons, a younger group, newer generation, ran in opposition to MacColl and Seeger, who were all about being the lead and head of the folk revival. The Watersons were seen as controversial because they were seen as younger, scrappy, wore beatnik haircuts. That was MacColl’s main beef. And Briggs fell in with them. This EP is cited by people like Sandy Denny as the thing that got them performing. I discovered Anne Briggs; Wes Stace (John Wesley Harding) found out that I was into British folk revival stuff, and when we were first met, I was on a solo tour and he took it upon himself to educate me on obscure but important figures: Anne Briggs, Nic Jones, stuff like that. I dived in headfirst, and immediately Anne Briggs was the thing that pulled me in.

Outside of the quality of the music, her whole “reluctant superstar” backstory is really compelling. Kind of rock ‘n roll for a folk singer of that era.
She was never really a superstar, but her influence on fellow musicians—among her peers—is legendary. Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny both wrote songs about her. I think she had sort of a hard life. She escaped to music as a way to escape that. I’ve never met her, don’t know her; you hear a story like that and fill in the gaps with your own romantic ideas about the troubled gypsy musician.

I’ve read somewhere—I don’t know if it’s true—that Led Zeppelin had supposedly recorded a version of “Black Mountain Side” with her vocals on it, “Black Water Side.” Maybe this is just apocryphal.
That song’s on her first record.

Really? Wow.
“Black Water Side” is the first song on her self-titled LP—that’s a beautiful, devastating song. Bert Jansch supposedly did that; she learned it from him.

Jimmy Page’s studio career was so weird—playing on Herman’s Hermits albums and the like—and the people he was hanging around with at the time were so diverse, plus the whole Sandy Denny thing on “Battle Of Evermore.” I guess it’s not that surprising to hear that such a track might exist. I remember reading some interview from very early in the band’s history where he and Robert Plant were listening to records and Page came away from that meeting feeling like they could just do “some Pentangle thing.”
They obviously had one foot pretty heavily in the British folk revival. And it’s so strange to me when people ask, “What is the connection between folk revival and metal?” On paper it may not look like they’re connected, but in reality, they really are. Sabbath, maybe not so much, although they’re both still borrowing from the same sources, on different sides of the spectrum.

Queen, also. In fact, I should ask you about this. For whatever reason after listening to Hazards Of Love, I pulled out Queen’s second record, Queen II, and I’ll be damned if songs like “Seven Seas Of Rhye” or “March Of The Black Queen” don’t have some of these influences in them. They’re harder-rocking, but I definitely hear the folk revival. Heart, too. That second generation of people who heard Zeppelin records all ended up in that same place—they weren’t as learned, maybe not as educated about the music itself, but they’re still trying to get to the same location, just playing what they heard.
Zeppelin was pulling from the source—the best amalgam they could between rock, blues and folk revival ballads and traditional instrumentation. I haven’t dug in as much on the metal side of that—I’m more of a naif, toying around with that rather than on the folk revival, where I’m more of a student.

Is that where people like (multi-instrumentalist Chris) Funk pitch in, in terms of their contribution to the record?
He has a pretty vast interest/love for that metal kind of music; (drummer) John Moen too, who’s into psych folk and also into really old-school British metal, like Iron Maiden. That’s in his blood. And (keyboardist) Jenny Conlee, who’s a total Jethro Tull head. I have a lot of help on the classic-rock side of things. [Laughs] But that’s also about being a music fan, having a record collection of any size.

So how did this record come together? I gather that since there wasn’t an actual song called “Hazards Of Love” that this formed the basis of the genesis of this record.
Well, the crass way of saying it is I spent so much money on that thing, I felt like I had to get something more of out of it. [Laughs] I was actually so captivated by it, a 45 with such a cool title, and the folk revivalists were doing that a lot: Cecil Sharp House, this place with a collection of old ballads, was sort of a Mecca for them. They’d find songs and group them into The Iron Muse—one compilation, a lot of Ewan MacColl and A.L. Lloyd’s influence, about the Industrial Revolution. A Bird In The Bush, a collection of erotic folk songs, pretty steamy stuff for the early ’60s!

Well, and a funny title for it, too! [Laughs]
Right, a totally funny title. There was a total sense of humor among these revivalists.

Did the songs come in some kind of order to you? You guys have a history of writing albums that have a narrative thread. I just wondered if it started that way and you deliberately pushed for it, or if it came to you in dribs and drabs as the project went on.
Yeah, it always comes in dribs and drabs. That’s how I’ve worked in the past. This started from the very beginning; the first Hazards Of Love felt incomplete, not only musically but also the story. I only got so far, she goes to the woods and is ravaged, which is basically a rape, a common thing in these old child ballads, songs like the kind Anne Briggs or June Tabor did. And then she comes back and realizes she’s pregnant. So then it was like, “Well, the song’s already six minutes long, it’s only told a fraction of the story, it has to continue.” Then it turned into what would be a longer song with different parts. Then that grew into this idea of creating a longer story—“Hazards Of Love,” the song, was a reimagining of folk songs by stapling some common motifs together. I thought it would be interesting to do a whole album around them.

So how long was it between your EP purchase, the composition of this first song, and then the dawning realization that, “Hey, we might have an album on our hands here”? Did you have to sell it to the band?
We came off that canceled “Long And Short Of It” tour, everyone kind of retreated into their corners. I was getting ready for the solo tour and Sam Cooke EP and home recording and writing at home. I was just working in isolation, enjoying the focus on what I was doing. It was going to be a musical, too—I’d been approached by a director and producer about doing a musical, and this was my pitch. Bless their hearts, we got pretty far into the process before we decided, “Uh, I think this actually works better as a record than as a musical.” [Laughs] I really like the record, but the band didn’t know what was going on until pretty far into the process, when I told them it was happening. They were fine with it—they’ve been thrown a lot of curveballs over the course of our career together. [Laughs]

I found interesting the definitive voices in the recording. It triggers for you, as a listener, a reaction to a character. Becky (Stark) was Margaret, for example. Were you thinking from the very beginning about how you might “cast” the record?
I thought it might be an interesting idea to do a record with different people singing it. I always think that’s cool; it’s done quite rarely. For whatever reason, a band known principally for the character of its singer’s voice, that’s almost always the case with every band we listen to. Not to say it’s principally known—but if you remove it, it’s a different band. The Clash were always futzing around with who was the voice of the band. On Sandinista!, for example, this was the case.

They even had a child’s chorus—“Career Opportunities”—just like you guys do here with “Hazards Of Love 3 (Revenge!).”
I always think that’s a funny, courageous thing to do—the idea of removing the thing that identifies you, mostly. Also, pulling off my love of musicals and musical theater, Broadway cast recordings. (2005’s) Picaresque is a direct homage to the recording of Godspell, for example. [Laughs]

I just wrote about this topic: Records are only as expensive today, used, as they were when we were growing up and they were new. I’ve gone back and bought a bunch of records I never had before, because how big a mistake can you make for four bucks? At 20 bucks for a CD, you’d think twice.
Godspell, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and a lot of Sondheim stuff was on heavy rotation in the house growing up because my sister, Maile, was into that, and a big community theater in Helena was very influential for both of us. In some ways I feel like I’m constantly hearing that in the back of my mind when I’m writing. Certainly on this record. Not just because it’s voiced by different people and has a narrative, but in so much as the music itself is an homage to the folk revival and metal as it is to ’70s musical theater, which I think was influenced by that stuff as well.

The Hazards Of Love definitely zig-zags a lot stylistically. “A Bower Scene” definitely has a metallic “chug chug chug” to it. Queen records were pretty sincere early on. Later, they were pretty campy or kitschy, but early on, they meant it, man.
They did mean it, for sure, but that said, I don’t think there’s such thing as humorless metal. I think metalheads know what they’re doing—because it’s a funny kind of music, packed with a lot of its own mythology. Bombast. Evil. [Laughs] Any metal band worth its salt knows what it’s doing. There’s a little bit of irony there, always.

You can overdo it and become a cartoon, to be sure.
And then you move into entirely different territory—almost like commentary, like Spinal Tap. Part of the great appeal to metal is that when it’s done well, it’s not entirely humorless.

You guys do seem to pull off that fine line between sincerity and the humor you’re talking about. “The Wanting Comes In Waves,” for example. This one line or riff in it—the first time I heard it, it was so metal. I could only fall around the room laughing at it.
It’s supposed to be funny. Hopefully somebody would connect with the music and story but also recognize that it’s kind of funny. I think that’s the right way to come to it.

I can appreciate the record for the craft of it. But I can also put the critic hat away and just be entertained. Laughing at parts or anticipating where it goes next—that’s where it becomes more engaging.
There’s an impulse here—we had to not deny ourselves the chance to make music that makes you say, “That’s fucking rad!” That’s not an impulse that really goes along with writing the songs I typically do. Smiths, Morrissey, it’s more about, “That’s really pretty, desperate, sad,” rather than balls-out riffage, which is really satisfying. We played a house party before The Tain. We’d just finished rehearsing that and played a house party at the Magic Marker House (in Portland) with the Lucksmiths. We were falling into that post-Belle And Sebastian crowd, indie-twee thing, which is possibly a little contained, a little confining. So we thought, “We’re gonna play this five-song, really kind of long, quasi-metal suite thing” at the party and were greeted by a lot of gaping mouths. [Laughs] I remember being bummed out about it afterward and hearing the Lucksmiths guy sitting down and talking to somebody about our performance and making fun of the riff. [Laughs] And that was a bright, shining moment for me. “We’ve managed to irritate the twee crowd; we must be doing something right! We’re on the right path if they’re making fun of us!”

Where do you go from here? Once you do something as audacious as a narrative record with elements of “rad” to it, what do you do for an encore? Your guys’ Wilco record? A return to power pop?
I don’t really know, either, I’m working on music now, but it’s kind of like looking into a void. This record is the apotheosis of my British folk revival obsession. Hopefully I will have exorcised that to a degree, since our last three records have been heavily, heavily informed by that style of music. I love talking about it, but I’m ready also to move on and explore different things. Invariably we’ll move on, but not sure where to.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted March 31, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    My only comment other a mention of Smarty Pants Alert, is

    “occasional dalliances with Sondheim (“The Rake’s Song”)”

    Sondheim? Is there a typo? That song, the one you get to listen to, is certainly a cool song… but, mostly 2 chords throughout with a pounding rock riff does not a Sondheim dalliance make, despite the lyrical story-telling shenanigans…. maybe if instead of going to music school sondheim went to a party with the stooges?

  2. Glenn Kelly
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    Horslips’ (the greatest Irish band ever!) 2nd album was titled “The Tain,” and was a full lp song cycle on the legend. They also recorded the greatest con-
    cept album ever, “Book of Invasions,” based on another Irish legend.

  3. Laurence Edwards
    Posted July 25, 2009 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Noticed your comments re Anne Briggs; Bert Jansch; Blackwaterside etc. It seems true that Jimmy Page ripped off Blackwaterside & called it Black Moutainside. Lots of sources mention it. – It seems not to be the only thing he ripped off. — Interestingly, Anne, many years ago was a close friend of Bert Jansch. She collected songs like Blackwaterside, Willy O’ Winsbury etc & gave them to Bert. Amongst others, Bert developed the guitar for Black Waterside & Page ripped it off. Several songs performed by The Pentangle were collected or written by Anne. She appeared late 90’s in Documentary; Bert Jansch, Acoustic Routes #1 with Hamish ? & sings 2 part songs.; She is still great. – Docos. on Youtube now. I have downloded them all. Regards Laurence Edwards