The Decemberists interview
First of the month
The Decemberists aren’t interested in treading a conventional path. They talk to David Pollock about their rise from underground favourites to mainstream success
Any band who name themselves after the Russian uprising of 1825 are, you feel, coming from a different place to most other heralded groups for whom the tune’s the thing. The Decemberists’ architect and songwriter Colin Meloy is not so much a tunesmith as a storyteller, his songs and their titles referencing Greek mythology, Herman Melville, Billy Liar and Irish loyalist gang the Shankhill Butchers.
You get the impression that Meloy reads a good bit more than your average contemporary singer, and his music bears a certain well-worked aspirational quality as a result.
Right from the band’s beginnings, in fact, Meloy’s plan was to do something different from the more traditional guitar quartet that forms the basis of rock music, both good and bad.
‘I moved to Portland, Oregon from Missoula, Montana when I finished school and I started playing solo acoustic gigs around town in clubs and coffee shops,’ he says. ‘When I decided to put a band together I knew I didn’t want to do it the conventional way, so I ended up asking Nate (Query), who played upright bass, and Jenny (Conlon), who was a keyboard player and accordionist.
‘I thought the songs I was writing were straight pop songs, you see, which drew from the tradition of XTC and Robyn Hitchcock. So with just two guitars, a bass and drums I reckoned we’d be doing it a disservice, that it would be a whole lot weirder to play straight pop music with a folk band. As far as the lyrics go, they’re just a channel for my weird fascinations, an opportunity to get it all out there.’
The Decemberists formed in 2001 and produced their debut album Castaways and Cutouts the following year. They released two albums on the label Kill Rock Stars (2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists and 2005’s Picaresque) but it wasn’t until last year’s The Crane Wife – the first album of their new deal with major label Capitol (and Rough Trade in the UK) – that the band made headway towards the mainstream. So, although The Decemberists have been an underground pleasure for some time now, this UK tour might be the first to bring them to the attentions of a really broad audience.
All of which might make it appear to British audiences that The Decemberists are riding the crest of a rather fashionable, Arcade Fire-driven wave, rather then receiving due respect as one of its progenitors.
‘We had gotten to a point in the States where we were all able to quit our day jobs,’ recalls Meloy, ‘but it took us a little while to get over here [to Europe] and find a label, so we were a little behind the curve on that. I remember Arcade Fire when they played their first New York show, they were being suggested as a band who might possibly support us when we went out on tour. Then, six months later, it was like, “Woah – they won’t be opening for us!”’
There have been reports that The Decemberists’ next album will follow more traditional folk lines, but Meloy is unsure whether he could actually bring himself to step away from pop music altogether.
‘I’m drawing a lot from the British folk revival,’ he says, ‘from people like Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and Pentangle. Of course there was a prog element to those bands; they couldn’t help but be influenced by the music of the day, but on their own terms. So I think it’s time people tried to get a bit more experimental with the rock format again, to see where it can take us.’
The Decemberists play Carling Academy, Glasgow, Fri 12 Oct. Their single ‘The Perfect Crime’ is out Mon 12 Oct on Rough Trade.
UPDATE: THIS GIG HAS BEEN CANCELLED