[Part 1 of 2] The world’s an odd place, but the world of pop music is decidedly odder. And Colin Meloy, who fronts the Portland, Ore.-based Decemberists, has crafted perhaps the most fantastical environ in pop. Over accordion, Theremin and stand-up bass care of Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Rachel Blumberg and Nate Query, Meloy spins yarns about Spanish kings and moribund cathedrals, about sailors and petticoats, about trousers and legionnaires on reprieve.
Meloy’s songwriting skills put the Decemberists at the top of the literate-bands heap. He has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, and his book, Let It Be, a memoire about the Replacements, came out last year. But he’s spending most of his time these days writing theatrical songs, including those on the mini-epic EP released last year on Acuarela, The Tain and their acclaimed full-lengths, 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts and 2003’s Her Majesty. We caught up with Meloy and Query before a show in New York and talked about Dylan Thomas, A River Runs Through It and why Meloy and his two sisters have not followed their father’s advice to keep their interest in arts on the side.
Prefix Magazine: You guys played John McEnroe’s show recently. What was that like?
The Decemberists: Nate Query: It was our first experience doing television. There’s an audience there, but it’s not like playing a show. It was a little strange to be playing and trying to be really enthusiastic and engaging, but you’re playing for people who have never heard you before. But it was really fun and exciting. I think we all got a little bit nervous before playing. I hope we get to do more of that, but who knows.
PM: How did you think the crowd reacted to the music?
The Decemberists: NQ: They seemed like they were into it, but honestly on the TV thing there is a guy telling them when to clap. They seemed really enthusiastic and we had a few friends there, but it’s really hard to gauge how genuine it was.
PM: What song did you guys play?
The Decemberists: NQ: “Billy Liar.”
PM: Why that one?
The Decemberists: NQ: We just released it as a single in anticipation of the U.K. trip that we just finished, so it seemed like a natural choice. As soon as it’s released it’s a single; now we’re treating it like a single from the album even though the single came out almost a year after the album was originally issued.
PM: Did you guys meet John McEnroe?
The Decemberists: NQ: Oh yeah. He even played a song with us at the end. He plays guitar. He played “Sweet Jane” by Velvet Underground for like a minute.
Colin Meloy: Maybe just the chords. I thought he was going to solo over it, but he just played the chords. And then he was like, “I was just about to play the solo from the live record.”
NQ: Totally dropping that for the cred. Just as he was about to do the solo, one of the guys from the studio was like, “Alright, that’s good!”
CM: He was just like, “I was just about to solo!” [Laughs.]
PM: Have you guys covered “Sweet Jane” before?
The Decemberists: NQ: No. It was spur of the moment.
CM: He just said it has to be easy and it has to be classic rock.
NQ: That seemed like the closest to classical rock we could do.
PM: You guys are still with Kill Rock Stars I assume. What’s been going on there?
The Decemberists: NQ: We’re releasing another album with them in March. We just did a big festival with them in Olympia. That was a lot of fun. And just a lot of local bands. I haven’t been to privy to the inner workings of KRS lately, but it seems like they’re always signing cool new stuff.
PM: You guys have been touring all year it seems.
The Decemberists: CM: Practically.
NQ: Except for recording in the summer.
PM: Is it hard to keep a place in Portland when you’re always on the road?
The Decemberists: CM: No. I mean, I think that for some reason there’s this illusion that we’re always out on the road, but it doesn’t feel like we are. I guess this fall there was a lot going on, but we actually have four months off before the record comes out, which will be nice. So it’s not that much of an issue. It’s not like we’re sleeping on people’s floors until we leave again. Thank god.
NQ: For me it actually makes me want to have a cozy, comfy home even more. When you go home, you just want to stay home all day, everyday.
PM: How was touring Europe? Was that your first time in Europe?
The Decemberists: CM: No, that wasn’t our first time. It was really great actually. We played really small clubs in the city, but the crowds were great. We had a couple sold-out shows. It was really fun.
PM: Any particular moments stand out?
The Decemberists: NQ: The funny thing was that it was a lot like touring here, except that we have about as much status as we have here about a year and a half ago. Our first national tour here, we were playing little clubs and just scraping by. It was really fun and there were a lot of really enthusiastic fans, considering the size of the clubs we were playing, which were small. Over there it was a lot like that, except the streets were a lot harder to navigate and the bars close at 11.
PM: You also toured with Lou Barlow?
The Decemberists: CM: We’ve done a bunch of dates with the Kicks and two dates with Lou Barlow.
PM: What was that like? How did you guys end up touring together?
The Decemberists: CM: We have the same booking agent. [Laughs.]
PM: Has there any band where you were like, I can’t believe we’re playing with this band?
The Decemberists: CM: Well, we opened for the Pixies in Oregon. That was amazing. We opened for Death Cab for Cutie and also Belle and Sebastian in Seattle.
PM: A lot of people talk about the lyrics behind your songs. Are there writers that you look up to or try to emulate?
The Decemberists: CM: Songwriters? Robyn Hitchcock, Shane McGowan. I think they’ve both been big influences on the song writing. Morrissey. As far as writers, I don’t want to go so far as to say I am influenced by literary figures ‘cause that just seems like a little bit of pretension. But with that said I do pull a lot from Dylan Thomas; I’ve always been impressed with his way with words.
PM: Where do you think your inspiration for your songs come from?
The Decemberists: CM: I think it comes from anywhere — from books I read, music I listen to. All sorts of places.
PM: Are you still writing?
The Decemberists: CM: I wrote a book, Let It Be, which came out a few months ago and is about a Replacements record. That is sort of a memoir. Fiction stuff I still write from time to time, but mostly it’s the songwriting that’s taking up a lot of my time right now.
PM: What about the children’s book that you’ve mentioned in the past.
The Decemberists: CM: Oh yeah. Actually, a lot of that is Carson Ellis, who does all of the illustrations in the records. We kind of devised the story together and then I wrote it out, but I’m sure there will be a lot of changes. But we’re doing it together.
PM: Is it the type of children’s story that’s going to have bunny rabbits and that sort of thing?
The Decemberists: CM: Yeah, it does actually. It’s a cat that’s the star of the book.
PM: Talking cat I assume?
The Decemberists: CM: Actually, yeah.