Proving ‘pop’ and ‘literate’ aren’t mutually exclusive

    [Part 2 of 2] Read part 1 of the interview


    [more:]Prefix Magazine: You’ve worked with Chris Walla. What made you decide to work with him and how did that come about?

    The Decemberists: CM: When we were about to record The Tain, we were looking for some place to do it, and he owns a studio in Seattle. We actually talked to Josh (Rosenfeld) from Barsuk and he suggested we go to Chris. So we approached him and it wasn’t like, “Oh, Death Cab for Cutie, you should do our record.” It was more like, “Oh, he runs a studio and it’d be easy for him to engineer the record.” We then discovered he’s a creative force to be reckoned with. We really jelled and it was a really pleasant experience recording it. So we sort of decided we should do every record with him from here on out.

    PM: I want to touch upon The Tain. Was there a discussion as to whether or not you guys should even go through with it?

    The Decemberists: CM: Kind of. We were asked to do the EP by Acuarela. I had a handful of songs and we worked through all of them and they felt really great. But we decided for whatever reason that we wanted to save them for a full-length. So we were kind of wondering what we should do. But there was this riff we had been playing around with and I went home for the weekend after first rehearsals and basically wrote it over a weekend and stitched it together. Left a little space for Rachel to throw in a song, and then Rachel and I sat down and mapped it out thematically. Then everyone worked together and did the arrangement. So it actually really happened very quickly.

    PM: Seems like a stuff that has happened to the band has occurred quickly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but basically you had a recording on a CD-R and then it was…

    The Decemberists: CM: Oh, the first one?

    PM: Yeah, the very first one.

    The Decemberists: CM: Yeah, that was the Five Songs EP, and that’s something we recorded in Portland in a couple of days. I would just burn it on my computer and then we had some sleeves done up. It’s basically all done out of my house and it was like five bucks. Send a check for five bucks and I would send it.

    PM: Were you playing around at this point?

    The Decemberists: CM: Yeah, yeah.

    PM: Was it sort of an aspiration then to get on a label?

    The Decemberists: CM: Oh yeah, for sure. That was to be used as a demo as much as anything else for a demo for people to listen to.

    PM: Was Kill Rock Stars one of the labels you really wanted to be on?

    The Decemberists: CM: Well, I’ve always admired Kill Rock Stars and I’ve always owned records from Kill Rock Stars, but it was sort of a fluke. I was playing solo at this rock-swap kind of thing. It was at a club and there was an outside patio, and there was a bunch of record labels and record stores sporting their wares. My friend Rob Jones put it together. It was just an opportunity for people out in the Northwest to meet each other.

    I was playing solo — the rest of the band couldn’t do it or something. So I played solo and Slim Moon from Kill Rock Stars happened to be there, got the record, listened to it and loved it. Then we just started corresponding and it went from there. There was no other label interest at the time (laughter in room) and it seemed like it made sense. Then a week after that Josh from Barsuk e-mailed us asking what our plans were, and one of the people from Sire contacted us. We were like, We’re signed to Kill Rock Stars and that’s what we’re doing.

    PM: Did they actually have a contract you guys signed or was it more of a verbal agreement?

    The Decemberists: CM: It started out as a verbal agreement but we ended up signing a contract in order to actually get more money to record with. And we have a lot of instruments — it’s an elaborate project. It’s not like a Sleater Kinney record, although they can take their time. So we signed for two records with them.

    PM: What’s coming up for you guys?

    The Decemberists: CM: Well, I think we’re just going to continue on the course. This record that comes out in March is going to be our last record on Kill Rock Stars, I mean at least contractually. We don’t know what we’re exactly going to do. We’re talking to some labels. We’ll see.

    PM: Are you necessarily opposed to signing with a major?

    The Decemberists: CM: No, as long as we’re able to do everything on our terms. There seems to be a lot of bands of our ilk that are looking at majors or looking to move up to majors. It seems the environment is such you can really tailor your own deal. We won’t make any rash decisions I don’t think.

    PM: I know you have a creative writing background? When did you decide to pursue making music as opposed to that?

    The Decemberists: CM: Well, I graduated from the University of Montana and I had my BFA, but it was recommended to me by faculty to take some time off and gain life experiences. Do some soul searching.

    PM: Is that something you would go back to?

    The Decemberists: CM: Writing? I don’t know if I would.

    PM: What about you, Nate? What was your background prior to joining the band?

    The Decemberists: NQ: I dropped out of college like ten years ago to join a band and pretty much never looked back. I’ve been playing music since. I was in a couple of bands before this. When I met Colin and started playing with the Decemberists, I was just kind of playing with different bands around Portland.

    PM: At what point did you realize that this band was going to make some noise?

    The Decemberists: NQ: It really felt good from the beginning. You’re playing in front of a basement bar of twenty people in Portland and you know half those twenty people. But judging from the response and just how much fun it was from the beginning, it felt really good. That doesn’t necessarily translate into making a splash in any sort of media sense but it really started to snow ball. Even the first EP we put out got really good reviews from the few little indie corners of the Internet that reviewed it.

    PM: Colin, so you grew up in Missoula?

    The Decemberists: Colin: Nah, I grew up in Helena.

    PM: Okay, so this question might not be so good. But basically that city was immortalized in A River Runs Through It. What are your thoughts on that?

    The Decemberists: Colin: My thoughts on A River Runs Through It? I remember reading that and related to it because it’s about growing up in Montana, and Helena and Missoula aren’t so far apart. And I grew up on the rivers, too. We spent a lot of time on the Blackfoot, which is the clear water. I did do some fly fishing, but I never did take to it as much as my father would have liked me to. I guess I related in some sense.