Audience size matters - even to indie-pop performers.
Listen to Decemberists’ bassist Nate Query talk about the band’s reaction when Hollywood Bowl officials suggested earlier this year that he and his four band mates play their baroque, folk-influenced story songs with the 106-member Los Angeles Philharmonic.
“We just jumped at it,” says Query excitedly over the phone from Los Angeles. “How often do you get to play for 15,000 people, especially when you’re usually doing 3,000-seat venues? How do you not do something like that? In a lot of the songs we picked, there are parts that imply a big, dramatic sound. ... With an actual orchestra, hopefully, we’ll hear these big, dramatic changes.”
Indeed, the day after the interview, the Portland, Ore., quintet led by singer-songwriter Colin Meloy did join forces with the Philharmonic, drawing just under 14,000 to the 17,000-capacity Bowl for a 90-minute concert.
The two groups played selections from The Decemberists’ four albums - including “Odalisque” (from 2002’s debut, “Castaways and Cutouts”); “The Chimbley Sweep” and “I Was Meant for the Stage” (from 2003’s “Her Majesty”); “The Infanta” and “We Both Go Down Together ” (from 2005’s “Picaresque”), and “Perfect Crime #2” (from 2006’s “The Crane Wife”). Also, 2004’s “The Tain” EP, a five-part epic based on the eighth-century Irish poem of the same name, was performed in its entirety.
According to reviews in Variety and the Los Angeles Times, the show was both a critical and popular success.
“The orchestrations, by Sean O’Loughlin, bring to Meloy’s music the same ornate quality as his lyrics, an equivalent vocabulary and diction that can curlicue and counterpoint the song much as his words do with the melodies,” observed Variety.
After committing to play with the Philharmonic, The Decemberists decided to do five other orchestral shows. “We thought that if we were doing these orchestrations of our music, why not find a half-dozen other orchestras to play them?” says Query.
So The Decemberists slated orchestral programs in Atlanta; Columbia, Md.; Chicago and Philadelphia.
Query says the most important thing in collaborating with an orchestra “is getting the scores right. So for the last month we’ve been working with the arranger.
“First, we gave him a little direction. We would make up the basic charts. Then he arranged them and would send us the mp3 arrangements of the songs. It was like working with a digital orchestra.”
The Decemberists and the Los Angeles Philharmonic rehearsed a total of three times the day before and the day of the first show. “That’s the most preparation we’re going to have going into a show,” says Query. “Most times, it’s just going to be an afternoon rehearsal. That kind of blows your mind as a rock musician who doesn’t read music very well.”
The 33-year-old Query, who grew up in Portland, describes his musical education this way: “At 9, I learned piano. Got bored. At 11, I learned clarinet. Got bored. At 13, I learned bass. I liked it because I didn’t have to do it at school. I got to play with my friends. They told me, `You play bass. You’ve got big hands.’ Next thing you know, they have two guitars and a drum.”
After high school, Query enrolled at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. “I was going to be a geologist,” he says. “I had chosen earth science as my major. But I dropped out when I was 20.”
After returning to Portland, Query played in several groups, most notably a hippie jam-band called Calobo, which also included future Decemberists accordionist-keyboardist Jenny Conlee, whom Query had known since high school.
In 2000, Meloy, who had moved to Portland from Missoula, Mont., and original drummer Ezra Holbrook (since replaced by John Moen) asked Query to play upright bass in The Decemberists. After one rehearsal, he agreed. “I really liked the songs. I hit it off with the drummer. And I thought it would be really cool to play upright in a rock band,” says Query. “At the beginning, we were just trying to be different.”
After Query signed on, the group quickly added Conlee. “As Colin once said, from a distance we could look like a strange salsa group, or a polka band.”
As the interview ends, Query is asked about a comment made by multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk during an interview in March. Asked about The Decemberists’ reputation as a “literary’ band, he replied: “First and foremost we’re a rock band. We may listen to people who can really play 10 times better than us, but we’re at liberty to get a little drunk and get a little sloppy under the guise of being a rock band. Not completely knowing how to play to the nth degree is liberating.”
Query laughs as he responds, “That makes us sound like we don’t know how to play our instruments very well. And it’s true, we have only one classically trained person in the band, Jenny.
“Still, contrasting how you play rock music and classical music and develop a career is sort of comical.”