"You Can Only Sweat or Spit or Kick So Many People": An Interview with Colin Meloy
The Decemberist explains the virtues of cover songs, the senselessness of going solo, and that he's saving the crazy stuff for later.
"Every time I try to score coke I can't do it."
Colin Meloy is joking, of course. This witty quip came after I asked the Decemberists frontman about whether or not he'd ever "do a Rob Thomas" and release some crazed solo album outside of his main band, and though he jokes that it'd be interesting to lock himself in a studio for two days with a bottle of whisky or cocaine a la Springsteen's Nebraska ("I don't know if that's how Springsteen did [that album], but it certainly sounds like it"), he notes how it's doubtful he'd ever do any major release without his incredible bandmates.
There's only one exception to this rule, and that's Meloy's third solo acoustic tour. With each cross-country jaunt that he's done, Meloy has released an EP of covers that's only available at the venue. It started with 2005's Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey and continued with 2006's Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins. Now with his third tour rapidly approaching, fans can expect not one, but two new discs this time around: Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke and -- for those who haven't had a chance to catch Meloy in his element -- Colin Meloy Sings Live!, due out April 8th via Kill Rock Stars. Recorded during his second tour, this stripped-down record features two new songs ("Dracula's Daughter" and "Wonder"), a slew of Decemberists songs, and even a track from his first band, Tarkio.
Before speaking to Meloy, I honestly didn't know what to expect: after all, he's the leader of the most hyper-literate indie-rock group out there, a band that made a move to the major labels without losing any of their credibility, were unafraid to challenge Stephen Colbert to a guitar shred-off, during which Colin still found time to write a book about the Replacements' Let It Be, and have his first child (who just turned two). What I found was a man who was remarkably down to earth, a well-spoken gent who doesn't make a big fuss about his expansive vocabulary. He explained his process for picking out covers, how hard it is to connect with live audiences, and even alluded as to how that next Decemberists record could be "a very crazy and different thing than what we've done in the past". And if that's not exciting foreshadowing, then I don't know what is.
We're of course here to talk about the new releases you have coming out: Colin Meloy Sings Live! and Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke. I actually wanted to start off with the latter first: when doing your solo tours, you started off by releasing an EP of Morrissey covers. When I saw that you were doing the Sam Cooke EP, I thought "… that's slightly unusual for him," but only later did I realize how perfect the matchup was: aside from the fact that he was a great singer/songwriter and performer, what Cooke did with his music was ultimately uniting multiple types of listeners together, marrying pop songs to political causes, and with a genuine sense of theatricality to it all; using these simple character portraits to reach a higher sense of drama … a lot like your own songs. Here you seem to be focused on some of his early soul singles, which made me wonder: how do you connect with those songs?
Well, I just think they're great songs! [Those melodies] … they're pop songs. They're sensationally crafted. Those melodies are just gorgeous … knockout melodies. And that's really what I've always been drawn to with music, I think. That's really the thing that drew me [into] doing that material. For me, a lot of it -- the political stuff, the civil rights anthems … I think in particular "A Change Is Gonna Come" … what I wanted to showcase in doing them is how the melodies themselves transcend genre and that they can be arranged in a variety of different ways, showcasing the melody in the song itself. For me to do something like "A Change Is Gonna Come" is probably a little loaded. (laughs)
Yes, but at the same time, you're not touching "(What a) Wonderful World".
Yeah, but that I put in line with the ones that I'm covering -- like "Cupid" -- which are great, really simple, simple pop songs.
Earlier today I was listening to the …Sings Morrissey EP and I couldn't help but think of what Mark Kozelek does with Sun Kil Moon, like how he does an entire album of AC/DC covers arranged for folk guitar; sometimes those innocent little pop songs can hold quite a bit of weight if put in the right context.
Yeah, he's become kind of a master of that, though he's definitely in the kind of Cat Power [vein]: free to do whatever he wants. I tend to be a little more conservative in my covering.
True, but just taking a gander at the tracklist for Sings Live!, you got Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M., the Smiths (of course); it's obviously not an arbitrary thing where it's going to be "I'm covering 'It's Raining Men' one night!" There's something about these song selections that seem to have a bit of gravitas for you personally. What is it about "the cover song" that you find so fascinating?
Yeah, I don't really consider myself an interpreter of other people's songs. I'm really just a fan of music and obviously got my start learning to play or having people teach me -- or teaching myself -- these songs that I've always loved, and I think that's how a lot of people kind of get their footing before they start exploring and writing their own songs. So I always have a real strong attachment to learning other people's songs. Obviously, the songs that I grew up listening to, but also, every once in awhile, sitting down and sort of opening the hood and kicking the tires, just trying to see how [the songs] operate.
Well that's another thing that you're doing: your typical indie-rock fan, when they go to a show, are not necessarily going to know who Shirley Collins is, but [when her songs are performed by] someone of your status, it's like you're connecting the audience with that part of pop history.
Yeah, I mean I wouldn't go so far as to say that I'm, like, going across the country trying to educate people, or proselytizing a certain artist. If somebody came away from that last solo tour and dug it and checked out some Shirley Collins, [then] I think that's great. I always appreciated the covers that my favorite artists did, and they would typically lead me off in new directions of just discovering new music. But, really, I did it just because I love the songs.
And how could you not want to perform what you love?
It's like you're that eager kid that just wants to share this "coolest thing ever!" with your best friend.
Going back to the track listing for Sings Live!, you toss in some new compositions, but you largely stick with some classic Decemberists songs, a song from Tarkio, etc. With this album being your first-ever full-length solo release, you seem to be a bit reticent to define yourself as Colin Meloy: Solo Artist. Do you ever see yourself making a true all-Meloy solo LP, or do you find yourself tied too strongly to the Decemberists moniker?
Ya know, I don't know that … I think that if I were to do a solo record, it would be -- basically -- a Decemberists record, but I guess I would be not doing it with my bandmates? (laughs) I mean, they would be the same kind of songs, but they would -- I guess -- [be] switching up instrumentation, but this doesn't make sense to me. I'm certainly not at that point where I can't stand the company of my bandmates or don't like their contribution. I feel like what they bring to my songs is pretty great, and what we've built so far has been pretty phenomenal. So I don't really have any reason or drive … I mean, if there was a moment where I thought that … a few years ago that I wanted to do a solo record, ya know, do something like Springsteen's Nebraska: spend a weekend with like a bottle of whisky or cocaine or something and just record a record in like 48 hours … but I don't know if that's how Springsteen did his, but it certainly sounds like it. But every time I try to score coke I can't do it. (laughs) No, but every time I sit down to write songs, they would end up just being Decemberists songs and it would be weird, I think, to try and release them by myself.
It's not like we're going to see you do a Rob Thomas or Gwen Stefani [and] do a crazy pop EP…?
Yeah, I feel like Decemberists songs are Colin Meloy songs, so why change the name?
Exactly. Yet one of the things about those songs is just trying to connect with people, and in a recent interview you were talking about how on your last solo tour, you were working towards creating an intimate, almost campfire-like environment with your listeners. But with the Decemberists profile being higher than ever -- signed to a major label, battling Stephen Colbert, etc. -- and your own tour being bumped up to mid-sized venues, how do you envision maintaining that intimacy?
I don't know. I mean it'll be, ya know, maybe bigger than the places we played on the last tour, and I discovered just from playing -- doing big shows with the Decemberists and playing big theaters and places -- that it's all about just trying to connect at least with the first ten rows of people. I mean that's all you can really do, if you wanna get down to it. You can only sweat or spit or kick so many people … and we're talking (at that point) like the first two rows of people. But I think that that sort of thing translates when people see you engaging and interacting with even just a couple people or the first couple rows or the first ten rows or people, then it really, in my opinion, expands to the rest of the crowd. I think one thing is just to not be too cowed by the size of the place or, ya know, the fact that you feel disengaged from the people who are sitting in the double-K row of the balcony … which is inevitable. I think initially when we started playing big places, that would trouble me. I would retreat because of it, but once you sort of ignore that [then] everything's fine.
Yeah. Decemberists headline Coachella.
Well, you know what I mean. Once you move beyond 500 people, you start really getting disengaged with every hundred people beyond that and they're all standing in the back or at the bar or something like that.
Yeah, but at the same time, that's sort of the "crowd mentality": it's not necessarily "me" interacting with the artist, it's "us, together" interacting with the artist. It's "us" singing along with "Mariner's Revenge Song" at the same time, ya know?
Yeah. Those are the moments that you kind of hope for.
Speaking of, you said that you were using some of this downtime before the tour to start working out the frame for the next Decemberists album. From where I'm sitting, you're in a very exciting place right now: you finished your first album with Capitol, you're a published author, and your son is about to turn three, right?
Two. He just turned two.
That's great! With all these changes that have happened, can we expect a more personal side of the band this time around?
Oh, I doubt it! We'll probably be getting even farther away from ourselves. Yeah, I mean it's really too soon to tell. There's stuff in the works right now that's really exciting, but I try not to talk about it too much 'cos its still in the very, very beginning stages. Yeah, but what it will be will be a very crazy and different thing than what we've done in the past.
'Cos Crane Wife was out there in the most spectacular and wonderful way.
(laughs) Well thank you. Hopefully we'll be moving in that direction.
It was at this moment when I was informed that Meloy's time had run out (I'm pretty sure his management was kindly letting our interview run over), but they let me squeeze in one last little question. For being such a loaded query (much less one that's tacked on at the very end of an interview), I was genuinely surprised that Meloy answered it as candidly and openly as he did, but then again, this isn't the first time that Meloy and company have surprised us… and at the rate that they’re going, it's far from their last as well.
At this point in your career, what is your biggest regret and, conversely, what do you feel is your proudest accomplishment?
(feigns laughter) Ha ha ha. Biggest regret … that's a big one. I gotta think. I hate being put on the spot like this … I think my biggest regret is not having more faith in myself at the very beginning. It took Kill Rock Stars stumbling on us to actually get signed to that label. I was really unsure of the work we were doing, and as a consequence never sent out a CD single to any label -- the 5 Songs demo -- and maybe I wish, even though it was great working with Hush [Records] initially, I wish that maybe I'd have been a little bit more … had more faith in myself in the beginning.
And proudest accomplishment?
Oh, proudest accomplishment is easy: it was definitely standing onstage this last spring in London at Shepherds Bush Empire and playing a couple songs with Robyn Hitchcock and Mike Scott. It's one of those things where, you know, you have dreams as a kid that you would sort of fantasize about being in a band and playing crazy places and maybe playing with some of your idols, but I don't think I would have ever even remotely fantasized about [playing with Hitchcock]. I think that might have been too far-fetched when I was thirteen years old. So that, by far, is probably my proudest moment.