The Fabulist Sounds of the Pacific Northwest
The Decemberists' triumphant new record, Picaresque, looks like it might propel the band to dizzying heights of acclaim. The mystery that surrounds this merry band of beloved, anti-cool Portlandites who sing clever theatrical songs about Pirates,
Last summer, when it came time for the Decemberists to make the follow-up to their breakthrough 2003 LP, Her Majesty, the Decemberists, they did what any other band in their position might: They rented out a big left-wing hippie church in NE Portland for a month, filled it with outboard sound gear and musical instruments (including several guitars, an upright bass, drums, accordion, various brass and percussion instruments, and a hurdy-gurdy) and made a record.
The scene inside the Prescott Church was a hilarious collision of music, theater, politics, and religion--all the elements that would make the presidential election a few months later such a frustrating failure. Set in a classically Portland neighborhood combination of urban, suburban, liberal, and utopian, the church was covered in anti-government signage--"Impeach Bush!" "Cheney Is a War Criminal," etc. --and full of radical literature (Inside Job: Unmasking the 9/11 Conspiracies, by Jim Marrs). Under the vaulted 30-foot ceiling, in the glow of stained glass windows, past a tangle of children's toys, a seven-foot-tall abacus, a bicycle pump, and a few rows of pews, stood the unlikely remote recording setup: a 32-channel Yamaha mixing console, two racks of compressors with flashing lights, a mile of cables, a dozen or so microphones and stands, a few pairs of headphones, and a fortress of road cases. Producer Chris Walla focused on his knobs and faders as stand-up bassist Nate Query performed a few overdubs on the song "We Both Go Down Together," while singer/songwriter/guitarist Colin Meloy listened intently from the comfort of a padded bench.
Behind Meloy, on a small table, several scraps of paper lay in an upturned bike helmet. When it came time to work on something new, someone could draw a piece of paper from the hat. They'd read either a song title or a variation of Brian Eno's oblique strategies--vaguely Zen-like instructions for working through creative blockages, along the lines of "Walk outside… breathe" or "Wash your face and hands with peppermint." Almost every studio I've ever been in has a box of these strategies in it--alongside tattered copies of Maxim and Tape Op--but this was the first time I've ever seen a band that appeared to actually be using them. It all seemed a very Portland approach to record-making, one in which friends and acquaintances (myself included) were brought into bang tambourines, sing back-ups, and generally provide kitchen-sink atmosphere while the band did its thing. As Meloy noted between Query's bass takes, "This is really unlike any recording project I've ever been involved in before."
One by one, the other band members arrived, first keyboardist Jenny Conlee, followed by drummer Rachel Blumberg and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, who, in order to sit down, had to move an accordion, a hammer dulcimer, and an open half-rack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Query's overdubs were completed to a small round of applause, and it was Meloy's turn to add some acoustic guitar to "The Infanta." Just as he was about to begin, he jokingly yelled, "Quiet on the set!" prompting everyone to talk a bit louder. But later, while Meloy power-strummed his guitar, open-mouthed, making dramatic faces as if interacting with his bandmates, Conlee and Funk drew close together, listening along to the performance in a shared earphone.
Throughout the afternoon's genial conversation--about the upcoming election, the Music for Change tour, the Metallica documentary, Metallica in general--I could hear snippets of the songs: pounding, shuffling, epic rhythms alongside quiet intimacies; curious phrases like "from all atop the parapets blow multitudes of coronets/melodies rhapsodical and fair," and "veranda" being rhymed with "my sweet untouched Miranda"; snatches of vaudeville, of gypsy jazz, of Fairport Convention-style British folk and so on. Nothing new to a Decemberists fan. It was clear that this unorthodox recording process was going to yield an unorthodox album--again, nothing new for the Decemberists.
An Album That Fears Nothing It's now seven months later, and the results of the band's unconventional labors are about to be released to the world. In terms of quality and ambition, Picaresque would be a triumph for any band, but for the Decemberists, it represents a consummation of all the disparate musical elements--burlesque, music hall, sea shanty, klezmer, pastoral folk, straight-up pop, et al--that have been swirling around in various stages of commitment since their first recordings emerged three years ago.
The album begins like a widescreen epic adventure, equal parts Ennio Morricone and ABBA. In opening song "The Infanta," a surreal assemblage of exotic courtiers gallops heroically astride a parade of wild animals ("five score pachyderm, all canopied and passenger'd," "a phalanx on camel back!") to pay tribute to a newborn son of a king: "and we'll all come praise the Infanta!" It ends in a tender close-up, with the sweet, unadorned, one-to-one acoustic love song "Of Angels and Angles." In between, we meet archaic characters, like Eli, the Barrow Boy, selling his curious wares (coal, marigolds, corncobs, candle wax), alongside more contemporary figures like the failed jock of "The Sporting Life," the lusty criminal lovers of "The Bagman's Gambit," and the sentimental rent boys in "On the Bus Mall." Midway through lies "16 Military Wives," a stand-alone, cryptopolitical pop smash. All pass through the filter of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy's timeless craft, in which real tenderness goes arm in arm with absurd, bawdy humor, and in which the lexicon of pop is stretched like a painter's canvas to include anachronisms, puns, acrobatic rhymes, and references to other songs. And sex. Let's not forget sex. Despite the Decemberists' theatrical conceits, the songs burst forth with "luscious young girls," veiled virgins, assignations in grassy clearings, trysts in the greenery, and gay hustlers trying to make a few bucks to get high.
Meloy's lyrical sense of humor is arch, but also very low, like a dirty limerick written in calligraphic script. In this sense, Picaresque carries on the tradition of Her Majesty, the Decemberists, and also of The Tain, the band's 18-minute (loose) adaptation of an eighth-century epic poem. But the difference between earlier Decemberists works and this new record is like the difference between bi-curious and all-the-way gay; you get the sense of a band emboldened by success to fully commit to its more outlandish characteristics. Witness the album art: a series of photographs in which the band members enact scenes from the songs on a community theater stage, with crude scenery, heavy make-up, and garish costumes to match. Far from playing it safe, the record dives off a cliff and comes up with fists full of doubloons. Picaresque is an album that fears nothing, and if all goes well, it may introduce the band to an even larger audience than the one it has already gained--which is no slouch to begin with; Her Majesty sold close to 50,000 copies, and Decemberists tours sell out big clubs all over the country.
But if all music business success is unlikely, the success of the Decemberists is frankly baffling--even to its devotees, even to the band itself. How, in the straitlaced, take-no-chances world of indie rock, does such a fearlessly theatrical, non-rock gesture gain such a zealous following? Sure, the records are good, but so are a lot of records. No, the Decemberists offer something more than just good. They represent a real rarity in popular music: a band fully immersed in an aesthetic identity that is neither glamorous nor blue collar, that is both pretentious and self-effacing, smart and silly, high- and lowbrow, and defiantly anti-cool; the overall vibe is far more Gilbert and Sullivan than Jagger and Richards. The question remains, however, how did they get this way? Like all things in music, it comes down to the songs, and in this case, the songwriter. According to Colin Meloy, the Decemberists' wildly fabulistic style was born in a frustrating weekend on the Smith River.
"My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist"
Like many before him, Meloy was a frustrated college student before he was an acclaimed songwriter. While majoring in English, with an emphasis on creative writing at the University of Montana, he also played in an alternative-countryish band called Tarkio. The band had a respectable following in Missoula, but at least one member was losing interest, both in alt-country as a form, and with the band's lot: playing "party music" in college bars. "We weren't even really a party band," Meloy explains. "But because we had some songs that sounded kind of like the Eagles, people were really into it. There's this attraction to playing rock music, but I was also getting away from that and writing really dour--we would play entire sets of really dour songs, and we were steadily losing our fan base."
Seated at a long wooden table in the kitchen of the spacious NE Portland apartment he shares with artist Carson Ellis and a timid black kitty, Meloy drinks Negra Modelo from a bottle and speaks slowly about the last days of his old band with only the tiniest discernable measure of regret.
Tarkio recorded a full-length record and an EP, but after graduation, with no real outlet for success as "a rock band from Missoula, Montana," the band lost steam. Unable to convince his bandmates to leave town, Meloy moved to Portland in 1999 in search of a fresh start, both professionally and creatively. That same year, he took a trip with his family down the Smith River in Montana. The little vacation was a nightmare.
"My dad and my uncle fought the whole way," Meloy recalls. "My uncle sort of barbed my dad by using my sister and me as ammo. All this weird brotherly stuff. And at the same time, I was trying to get my dad to help me pay for my student loans, which were out of control. Then my dad had heat stroke. It was this super, super intense, three-day river trip where we were all just stuck together and it was all just like one constant fight, and everybody was angry at each other for all different reasons."
By the time he got home, Meloy was ready to attempt a new style of songwriting.
"I came off that trip with this loathing for my family," he explains, "and I wrote a song about basically completely re-creating the family in this really fantastical setting, using myself as this sort of sad anti-hero."
The song was called "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," and it marked both the end of Tarkio (the band recorded a version during its last session) and the eventual birth of the Decemberists, though it didn't seem like any kind of breakthrough at the time.
"I completely wrote it for myself," Meloy says. "I thought it was too bizarre to ever appeal to anyone. I think I sang it to my girlfriend, and that was it."
Listening to the song now--it's available on the first Decemberists EP, Five Songs--it's easy to hear the rudiments of Meloy's signature style: fanciful language ("my mother was a Chinese trapeze artist, pre-war, Paris, smuggling bombs for the underground/she met my father at a fete in Aix en Provence he was disguised as a Russian cadet in employ of the Axis"), sung to a light pop melody over a slow, minor key waltz, dressed up sparingly with accordion and steel guitar. It's also easy to hear how the singer, embarking on this new style, is holding back a bit, as if to test the waters, wary of straying too far from the familiar shore of his earlier songs. What's less obvious, though, is the degree to which "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" represented a declaration of intent, not just for Meloy the songwriter, but for Meloy the writer. Observed by a typical creative writing major, the hellish rafting weekend would have offered all the ingredients for a classic tortured short story--family, alienation, post-adolescence… there was even a river, for God's sake.
"That was how I was supposed to see it," says Meloy. "I was taking all these workshops from the faculty at the University of Montana, and that MFA program is pretty renowned, but they teach you a kind of dogmatic approach to writing that's really terse, you know, the Western style of writing: creative nonfiction… So that's what I was being taught in writing classes, and that's how I should have regurgitated that whole experience on that river trip, but I was so disillusioned with that whole approach that it was a reaction against that as well. I think it has a lot to do with the songwriting style that I followed after that."
Armed with the beginnings of a new voice, Meloy hit Portland full of ambition and soon discovered what his history as a moderately successful Missoula bandleader was worth. "I supposedly had these connections here," he recalls, "people I'd met--none of whom were returning phone calls. I kind of had to start from absolute square one."
That meant several months of open mic nights, "insipid" songwriters-in-the-round events, and the demoralizing quest to land even a crappy solo show. Eventually, things picked up a little, and Meloy was awarded a few thankless slots at one of Portland's respectable pubs, the Laurelthirst, playing to almost no one. Though lonely, these shows reinforced the impulses that had led to "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist."
"Being able to have a sense of humor about the fact that I was playing these shows to no one allowed me to kind of poke fun at myself," Meloy explains. "And my way of poking fun at myself was to try and write more and more ridiculous songs, just to sort of jab the audience. So that's when I started writing these ghost-story songs and things like that. But I loved doing it so much, because when you don't have that thrill of having a roomful of people jumping up and down to your songs--when you have five people sitting at the bar who aren't even listening, you glean what you can from the songwriting process as far as what joy it gives you. The creative process is sort of all you have at that point."
And the creative process grew bolder.
"I was going to do whatever the fuck I wanted to do," Meloy recalls of these shows, "and if that involved playing a song in three parts, or playing a song about a legionnaire, you know, then that was what I was going to do. But then I discovered that people liked the songs. But I think also, they liked having that thrown in their face a little bit, liked to be jabbed a bit."
A Strong Congress Atlength, Meloy hooked up with Nate Query, Jenny Conlee, original drummer Ezra Holbrook (later replaced by Rachel Blumberg, who recently left the band, to be replaced by John Moen), and Chris Funk, and a band was born--not a rock band, per se, because most of its members came from non-rock backgrounds, and the material was veering further and further away from rock all the time. The period Meloy had spent in the audience-less hinterlands had stiffened his resolve. "I was just playing acoustic guitar, Nate only played upright, and Jenny only played accordion, so we were this really weird folk band," Meloy says of the early days. "I guess we are still."
The challenge of figuring out how to reconcile a strong vision with the wills and desires of other musicians is at the heart of making a band--even a weird folk band--function. According to Jenny Conlee, "Colin is obviously the main creative guy, the songwriter. But he pretty much lets us do what we want, then tells us if he doesn't like it, like he'll say 'Stop being so Bruce Hornsby, Jenny,' or something like that."
She describes the band's governmental model as representative democracy: "He's like our president," Conlee laughs, "but we have a strong congress. That goes for the business, too. He can say no, but he has to get a vote from us."
Bandmate Chris Funk agrees. "The band is very democratic in terms of day to day," he explains by phone. "Like how much we want to tour, and label stuff, all that. Everybody gets their say. But I think we're all kind of aware that Colin is the main thing that has been attracting people to the band and we're kind of the icing on the cake, which is totally fine."
The Decemberists' gradual rise, through lineup changes and all the other growing pains associated with making a group work, has catalyzed Meloy's evolution as a songwriter. From the promising, if tentative, first steps of "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" to the commanding songs that fill Picaresque, such development wouldn't be possible without a strong, supportive (and successful) band to help it along.
"Colin responds to the things people enjoy," Funk explains. "I mean, I don't think anything we do is very contrived. Wearing costumes in pictures, or something like that--we just do that because it's fun. But we've never really had a big plan. I just think that [the evolution of the songs] comes from people enjoying the Decemberists, and responding to the character studies in the songs. That's given Colin the confidence to explore that kind of writing style more and more."
"Plus," he adds, "he has the time to do it now, and the focus--he's not making pizza anymore."
Crucially, Meloy's creative development hasn't been limited to the fabulistic material. A number like "The Infanta" draws you in, but when you dig into the records, you find that the real stars are the delicate beauties like "Of Angels and Angles," or Her Majesty's "Red Right Ankle." You also find that the offspring of the Chinese Trapeze Artist are deceptively emotional.
Having watched and participated in Meloy's songwriting progress, Funk appreciates the variety. "There's actually a lot of straight folk stuff on this record," he observes. "I mean, for every step further into the world of Oscar Wilde that Colin has taken, I think he's still pretty rooted in the world of traditional songwriting--Robyn Hitchcock or New Order, or whatever."
"I know that people are going to pay more attention to the song about the 'chimbley sweep' than about something else," Meloy admits. "It's a lightning rod sort of song. But that's fine, you know. In a way, playing those songs off the more serious, earnest, heartfelt pop numbers--my attempts at doing the perfect pop song--really kind of balances the band, and kind of keeps the humor there. You know, we don't necessarily take ourselves that seriously."
What's clear, however, is that everyone involved is taking Picaresque plenty seriously. The band is touring extensively across the U.S. and Europe, and there's even a video, for "16 Military Wives." In the next few months, the Decemberists are likely to push further down the road of unlikely success than their leader ever could have dreamed in Missoula--or on the Smith River, or at any number of sparsely attended open-mic showcases for songwriters no one will ever care about.
"I do think it's an important record," Meloy asserts with no apology, "and I love it. It's as close as we've gotten to the thing, you know? I don't know if we can get closer."
The Decemberists perform with Okkervil River Fri March 18 at the Showbox, $14, 8 pm, all ages. Picaresque will be released by Kill Rock Stars on Tues March 22.
To read the full transcript of Sean Nelson's interview with Colin Meloy, click here.