The Decemberists are a staid, highbrow Portland, Oregon–based indie-folk rock band who specialize in the "lush ballad." They're on a major label, but somehow some people still classify them as indie. This past January they released their sixth full-length album, The King Is Dead, their third on Capitol Records. It's a meticulously executed, perfectly produced, R.E.M.–inspired collection of rustic and sun-drenched Americana. It's an attempt by the band to be looser, but singer/guitarist Colin Meloy (who wishes he were Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum) still comes off as stiff. The Decemberists usually base their albums and songs on fancy stories from folklore, history, and literature—such as the ancient tale of a Mongolian pea farmer from the first century AD who transforms himself into a ferret due to an unrequited love for the queen. But with The King Is Dead, there is no concept, just Meloy trying to be Mangum. The Decemberists' music seems more fitting framed within the concept of a fancy story. Without the concept, the fancy falls short.
The Decemberists' publicist said they were too busy touring to answer questions for this interview, so the crushing synth-metal doomgazers He Whose Ox Is Gored answered for them.
How do you go about making such pastoral music?
Well, basically, we were at the Value Village and we found some pilgrim outfits and toy muskets, and we just knew, this is it. Straight to the top from there.
Colin Meloy, you've said that the album started out as more of a paean to R.E.M. Did you really use the word "paean"? Or did you just say it to sound collegiate? Define paean.
Paean is a vegan donut at Voodoo Donuts. R.E.M. is our roadie Robert Eugene Morris. The album is about how we waited in line for two hours to get vegan doughnuts for our idiot hippie roadie.
The song "Down By the Water" has been called radio-friendly. When you write songs, do you set out for them to connect with large numbers of listeners?
Well yeah, you know, I know there's a ton of boring indie rockers who are more than happy to shell over their hard-earned paychecks to keep radio station managers in Benzes for life, so I'm just trying to get a piece of that lily-white pie, nahmean? It's hard out here for a Civil War–fetishizing pimp.
In that song, you sing, "and the Panamanian child stands at the dowager empress's side." What does this mean?
Pass. I was high as fuck when I wrote that.
You all recorded the album in an Oregon barn. It rained a lot, and you had no heat or indoor plumbing, so if you had to pee, you had to go to a freezing outhouse. How did that add to the vibe to the record?
I'm going to let you in on a little secret here. The secret is to just be as big of an asshole as humanly possible, and sooner or later someone will think you're smart. You know how Jack White stripped it down to guitar and drums, and made his ex-wife pretend to be his sister? Well, I PLAY A MANDOLIN AND DRESS LIKE ULYSSES S. GRANT, AND MAKE MY BAND SHIT IN AN OUTHOUSE. SO EAT IT, JACK WHITE.
Your previous album, The Crane Wife, was inspired by a Japanese folk tale. One version is that a poor man finds an injured crane on his doorstep. He takes it in and nurses it back to health. After he releases it, a woman appears, with whom he falls in love and marries. They need money, so she agrees to weave clothes out of silk to sell, but only if he doesn't watch her make them. Please describe what this story is really saying. And why you based an album off it.
The Crane Wife is like that time I found a hot dog on the ground in the parking garage. I was like, oh shit, that's a hot dog. I knew it came from the 7/11 around the corner somehow, but nobody saw me eating that shit, so I was like, word.
Mr. Meloy, how did you challenge your songwriting with The King Is Dead?
I wake up every day in some random dorm with some co-ed and GET. THE. FUCK. OUT. I spend the rest of my time roaming the aisles of Powell's and accidentally spilling lattes on bitches in the Young Adult section, sitting in coffee shops writing negative Yelp reviews for food carts on my MacBook, and driving my horse and carriage down to the Acropolis for some steak and legs. Wait, what was the question?
How do you go about writing pretty songs?
You mean besides playing scales on my mandolin and picturing titties in my head?
Is the song "This Is Why We Fight" Mr. Meloy's critique of American policy abroad?
Actually, foreign policy can be a metaphor for many things, including rocking too hard. Next time you're at a show and you rage too hard in the pit, knocking some UW bro's beer out of his hand, and he starts some shit, just think, what would Obama do? If he's short like Kim Jong Il, challenge him to a thrash off; bust your best moves, and leave him in the dust. If he's bigger than you, like Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, say fuck it and stage dive on him.
Also, we, as He Whose Ox is Gored, challenge the Decemberists to a slam-off/thrash-off.
What's the scariest thing you've ever done in your life?
One time, I couldn't get my ye olde fixie unlocked from the bike rack outside of Sushi Ichiban, and I had to confront a bloke of the biker persuasion. As a gentleman by the assumed name of "Spike" or "Thaddeus" assisted me in unleashing my transportation, I graciously tipped him a Washington. To my surprise, he snarled at my gesture of kindness! I realized I had no idea how much to tip a common street thug, and I wet my trousers like a little schoolgirl.
Colin, as a grown man who still sucks his thumb, do you think that would turn off your massive fanbase? People who like pretty songs probably wouldn't like pretty songs sung by a dude who still sucks his thumb.
Au contraire, mon frère, I believe plenty of our fans suck thumb. Our music is meant to be heard with a thumb in your mouth. Thumb-sucking is an autoerotic satisfaction from an erotogenic zone, bro.
It's kind of like the host of To Catch a Predator, who got caught cheating on his wife by a hidden camera.
Yeah, I loved that show. Like the time the guy got stabbed on a boat? Or was that Cheaters... and Cops. God, I love Fox.
When you were playing with Star Wars figures as a kid, did you have love scenes between Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia?
Totally. And talk about daddy issues...
The Decemberists play Mon Aug 22 at Marymoor Pavilion, with Okkervil River and Fruit Bats. He Whose Ox Is Gored play Sat Aug 27 at the Comet.