The Decemberists

Set to Overthrow?

by Devon Powers


Colin Meloy speaks with the same weathered cadence that charms his singing—both have the familiar creak of a worn door leading to one of your favorite places. And like that old, treasured nook, there’s something about his disposition that suggests a full, though mysterious, history. He’s read, and lived, and been and done—but the details are spotty about exactly what, when or where. He is wise, even a bit wizened, though he has yet to hit 30 years. Like all of us, an intricate calculus of experience and essence has made him, but more so than many, it would be too painstaking and complicated to derive.

Perhaps I speculate too much. Either way, one can only hope that a band like the Decemberists would have such an enigmatic frontperson, one who so perfectly lives up to the curiosities that also comprise the band’s sound and sentiment. After all, what moves someone to sing about 19th century life, with a musical attitude that some might describe as equally bygone? In a time where much music aims to be blatantly anti-intellectual, what causes a band to write songs that they hope encourage their listeners “to want to read more books?”

Rather than purposefully contrarian or pitifully out of the loop, the Decemberists aim to be refreshingly and beautifully simple, working from the nub that moves them and creating art that they, and others, can love. “When it comes down to it, we really just play folk music,” Meloy explains. “I think that it’s important to at least keep one foot of your music in the simplicity, in the background where rock and roll started.” Of the literary and historical references that pepper the music, Meloy also calls attention to rock’s beginnings. “The fact that our music is narrative-driven is something that keeps it close to the roots of rock and roll, too. It’s a story that people can follow, and in that sense we’re also drawing from the folk tradition as well.”

This talk of traditions somewhat belies the modest beginnings of the Decemberists’ career. “It was so teeny, it was barely perceptible,” he says, speaking of their expectations of their first full-length, Castaways and Cutouts, (Hush Records, 2002). “A smattering of songs we’d been performing live for the past year or so—it was done so innocently, there were absolutely no expectations whatsoever.” Veterans of the live circuit in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, “we were [recording the album] merely to create something to give to the world,” says Meloy—and as follow up to their five song EP/demo, originally released on CD-R in 2001. To him, it was “almost a compilation”—hardly an intentional work of art.

But that album proved to be an accidental masterpiece. Since its re-release on Kill Rock Stars earlier this year, it has been heralded almost uniformly as an astonishing debut—thick, rich and highly accomplished. “A lot of people like it and the word of mouth has been great,” Meloy says. Most often, the Decemberists receive comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel, but their arrangements are fuller, their songs’ content more intricate, and the vocals far more dynamic. The result is a collection of songs which are painstakingly detailed yet remarkably straightforward, and etched with passion like timeless antiques unearthed from a family cellar. It’s quite unbelievable to listen to something where the musicians so obviously care about sound, tone, individual words, pauses, breaths, rhymes, rhythms, and cadences—and it reminds you how many artists simply don’t.

This September, Kill Rock Stars is releasing the follow up to Castaways, Her Majesty The Decemberists “We all feel a lot closer to the songs [on Her Majesty],” says Meloy, comparing the new record to the previous release. As opposed to Castaways, where Meloy did the lion’s share of the writing, arranging and producing, “the new one is much more collaborative. It was easier to work on the songs and look at the entire record as a whole,” he says. The band—also consisting of Jenny Conlee (keyboards, accordion), Chris Funk (guitars, pedal steel), Jesse Emerson (electric and upright bass) and Rachel Blumberg (drums, vox)—is also gearing up for a tour to support the new album, starting this October.

The Decemberists take their name from a band of traveling musicians in 19th century Ukraine who, through a strange turn of events, stoked the flames of the insurgents who lifted the entertainers’ moniker and would try, and fail, to overthrow Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Despite the celebrity of said rebels, the group who inspired them would flounder in obscurity. Meloy and his band mates may not be seeking fame (when asked, Meloy merely replies “Fame is perfectly relative… I don’t think I am very famous) but they are, in their own way, hoping to inspire a revolution. It is a quiet one, indeed—one marked by listening and contemplation, modest joys and quixotic observations. But from these tiny sparks, a sea change can come—and those who have heard the band know that the tide is already turning. But of this, Meloy again remains humble. “I’m just wanting to at least make a living at what I do. That’s all.”

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