INTERVIEW: The Decemberists (February 2009)
In a genre characterised by its relentless pursuit of the latest musical fad, oddball indie favourites The Decemberists have always stuck out like a herd of cattle during rush-hour. While many of their contemporaries were busy cribbing Joy Division’s best moves and busting out punk-funk anachronisms, the Portland quintet instead studiously applied itself to a litany of old-fashioned ballads, shuffles and shanties, all dusted with a playful sprinkle of theatrical melodrama.
Following on from the early Irish mythology of The Tain EP and their 2006 breakthrough The Crane Wife (loosely based on an ancient Japanese folk tale), his band’s latest offering The Hazards Of Love is the third Decemberists release to fall into the difficult category of ‘concept album’. A sprawling, 17-track suite woven around a fantastical tale of damsels and lovers, beasts and rakes, the record is fast-becoming one of the year’s most talked-about LPs.
While in recent years The Decemberists have nestled comfortably alongside close friends Death Cab For Cutie, Modest Mouse and The Shins at the forefront of the US indie scene, refreshingly you won’t find a hint of affectation anywhere in sight - when I phone the singer’s Portland home on a Saturday morning, he’s actually putting up a shelf.
Morning, sir. Can you give us a brief overview of what the project’s about, how it came to be and what it was that particularly sparked your imagination?
The idea came from a couple of different directions – one, I think I reached a sort of zenith in my obsession with the folk revival in England in the 60s and 70s, and for probably five years I’ve been steadily digging deeper collecting records and just obsessing over the different approaches that different musicians were taking in arranging these old songs. One of those people was Anne Briggs, who lives in Scotland now but was sort of a touchstone for a lot of the folk revivalists – her first EP was called The Hazards of Love and I managed to track down a copy as a 45 on eBay. It has 4 songs, but none of them are called ‘The Hazards of Love’ – it’s such an amazing title and it provides an over-arching theme for the four songs, but I also think think ‘The Hazards of Love’ could be an apt title for most of the selections that a lot of the folk revival were choosing. A lot of them were dealing with the dangerous romantic notion of what it was to be a young person in the 16th and 17th century, and we’re also uncovering a lot of the darker roots of that music: a lot of the female folk artists like Anne Briggs and June Tabor and Sandy Denny were selecting these songs which were dealing with a lot of the darker aspects of medieval life – a lot of the violence and misogyny which went along with living back then.
Then I got to thinking about these common concurring elements of these folk songs and tying them together into whatever narrative it could create – if you made them co-mingle, they’re basically archetypes in folk songs which create their own narrative. That was the experiment, to create a sort of narrative, albeit one that’s a little abstract.
‘Progressive’ is no doubt going to be a term bandied around a lot in relation to this album – how do you feel about being described as ‘progressive folk’, and do you think it can actually be applied to a folk context?
I don’t think we’re a ‘progressive’ folk band – if anything we’re regressive. I think that prog had its heyday in the 70s and it sputtered out as it should have… punk rock came and wiped it out, and I think it’s good that that happened! There’s certainly an element of prog music that became very exclusive – you had to be classically trained with a sweeping knowledge of classical music to play rock music, which is sort of a silly notion. What we’re doing I feel is toying with that genre through a lens of 30 years – it’s not only interesting to play that kind of music, but it’s also kind of funny, and it immediately evokes something for people as it takes you out of your own time a little bit: it’s a very ‘classic’ rock sound, which is sort of a fun thing to toy with.
Your style of orchestration and the way that you write about characters in a specific historical context has always reminded me a little of The Band (in fact, quite a lot of the new album seems to continue this tradition of folk music which is modern in sound but draws heavily on imagery and language from the past). Do you see yourself as a ‘postmodern’ band in that respect?
I definitely think that we’re poaching, but I wouldn’t characterise us as simply a folk band – I think of this record if anything as being a folk narrative or folk opera. I don’t know – I guess we are sort of ‘post-folk’ in that way. In my mind at least, having grown up listening to American and English alternative college rock – The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, R.E.M. and The Smiths – they’re all really keen on writing these terse and well-worked pop songs, even if at their heart they’re doing all different kinds of music. That’s my bones, that’s where I feel like I got my head around music was with these little pop songs, and I think that for whatever reasons having that base it’s interesting for me to explore these other longer or more experimental approaches to pop songwriting or songwriting structure.
Do you even class yourself as a folk band? An indie band? A rock band?
We have lots of friends in that scene, and I definitely consider them my peers – certainly Death Cab For Cutie are good friends of ours, as are The Shins and Modest Mouse – but how we got into the ‘indie’ scene is sort of inexplicable to me… I guess to a certain degree we share some of the arrangements and instrumentation and approaches, but I don’t know that we’ve entirely fit in – perhaps it’s more of a spirit or an ethos.
You’ve mentioned the link between the British folk revival and early heavy metal as something that’s been a source of inspiration on this album. Won’t Want for Love, Repaid and The Crossing in particular are quite reminiscent of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and even Deep Purple in places. What is it specifically about this style of writing that informed your own direction on these tracks?
It’s a similar vibe to what the folk revival was doing – whereas that was taking legitimate source material and giving them traditional or contemporary arrangements, the Sabbaths and the Zeppelins and the Deep Purples were kind of appropriating that tone and creating their own world - they started to develop a sort of fantasy world. So those two scenes were then working symbiotically – it’s well-known that Zeppelin were huge Fairport Convention fans, and Sandy Denny sang on The Battle of Evermore. There’s definitely a separation in people’s heads, but I think they’re more akin than people give them credit for. To take it even farther, there’s even a definite connection between 80s alternative music and heavy metal – I read a review of this record recently and someone said we had traded The Smiths for Black Sabbath, but we were still going to get stuffed in a locker for it! I think there’s a certain amount of truth to that – what I’ve always been interested in, certainly growing up, was that sense of feeling marginalised or alienated. I’ve definitely been attracted to the margins.
Obviously you’re the principal songwriter and author in the group. How did the band react when you presented the themes, ideas and songs to them for this record? Are they just ‘used to this sort of thing’ from you by now?!
They’ve definitely been desensitised to these ideas – it actually wasn’t that hard of a sell, as we’re all big record collector and fans of music across the board. Jenny is the hugest Jethro Tull fan, Funk dips in and out of goblins and giants and is always touting these bizarre prog bands, Nate’s an avowed jazz guy and John and I share a love for the folk revival, so everyone really dug into it. I think the narrative line was a hard thing to get your head around, but I was even having a hard time, so I can’t blame them for that!
You’ve almost created the ultimate antithesis of a modern commercial album in the sense that it’s a comprehensive piece of work that demands to be listened to from start to finish in one go, it doesn’t work on an iPod Shuffle, and you can’t really pull any singles off it. What on earth did you record label, Capitol, think?
I was worried about the same thing – I knew that fusing the songs together and the lack of any kind of saleable singles was going to be an issue, but we didn’t tell them what we were doing! We got so far into it that they couldn’t have stopped us – that was the advice from our management when I told them what it was, and after a long pause they said: “Let’s just not say anything…”
We brought [the label] in about three-quarters of the way through the recording, told them what it was and sat them down – and everybody was super into it. Blow me down, I didn’t see that coming at all! I don’t know, I think that in this time for major labels, it’s like there are no formulas, all formulas are out the window, nothing seems to be really saving anything and I feel like we’re benefiting from being in the major-label system when it’s in its death-throes, because I think there’s a lot of people who just don’t give a fuck! We aren’t constrained by a lot of things that made major-labels so evil in the past – their concern for creating bottom-line, their concern for commerce.
So are you just ‘left to it’ at this stage?
I’ve been told by people that almost those exact words have been used by the bigwigs – even our old A&R guy (who’s thankfully not working there anymore) said to our manager: “I don’t get them, I don’t get what they do, let ’em do whatever they want”.
I imagine that must be quite a good position to be in.
Yeah, it’s great – there’s no expectations, they know that we’re not gonna be breaking the bank for them; we’re not going to be shovelling piles of money on their heads, but we bring enough in, I think. Maybe there’s also a little caché there to have us on the roster for whatever reason - for the music nerds. I don’t know, it’s kind of inexplicable! Rough Trade has been awesome, so I guess this is only really in reference to the Capitol side of things, Rough Trade been amazing and hands-off and very nurturing in its way. But with Capitol, we bring enough money in, there’s not huge expectations to make their fourth-quarter earnings swell up, so I think we’re in good stead.
The Wanting Comes in Waves seems to be the song on the album which might make for an unlikely hit.
That’s so funny – that’s getting such a good response from people, so much so that the radio department has marked that down as a single – and I’m like “…WHAT?!” I thought of it as a song on the record as the glue that pieces things together – I like it, but I never felt there was quite enough there to warrant a song. But it’s always that way – you never really know what a song is about or how good it is ’til it’s in front of people… especially on this record, since it existed so much in my head that I completely lost any kind of objective view of it, and it will be interesting to put it out into the world to see what people make of it, as I have no clue really if it’s good or bad. There’s parts of it that I like and that I think work well, but for the most part - I dunno, we’ll just see what people make of it, I guess.
How did the recording process of this album differ from previous releases? On the Practical Handbook DVD there’s footage of you recording Picaresque which seemed to suggest that the approach was quite improvisational. With the wealth of ideas that you needed to get across, was everything more ‘mapped out’ when you came to record this album, or was it a similar kind of ‘free-for-all’ approach?
I think out of necessity it had to be more mapped out – our old approach would be for me to bring the songs into rehearsal bare-bones, just guitar chord progression and the lyrics, the basic outline of the song and everyone would work on their own parts. But this one being a piece from start to finish it had to be engineered a little bit from the beginning, so a lot was falling on my shoulders just tying everything together, bringing certain musical elements in and out. So over about an 8-month period my wife and I went to the South of France in a little house and I had a room in there that was dedicated to being a little recording room. So I just focused in provincial isolation and I made a rough demo from start to finish and handed it round to everybody.
Apparently the intention is to perform the album in its entirety on tour. Given its scope, mood swings and the sheer range of instruments – not to mention the cast of characters buried in there - are you at all daunted by the prospect of performing this material live, or do you relish the challenge?
I think we’re all excited by it, I think we’re all up for the challenge – we’ve done similar things before that involve frantic instrument-switching mid-song, and I think it’s part of the fun of performing these things onstage. This one is obviously a little more daunting – we have a little Excel sheet that tells us exactly who’ll be playing what during each song in an effort just to make sense of it all!
After such an ambitious creative gambit, what’s next? Is the constant expansion of the band’s ideas and sound something that you want to keep pursuing, or is this project just something that you needed to get off your chest?
It’s definitely something I don’t think I’ll be attempting to follow… I think it was a slippery slope to this considering that we kept on piling on these longer suites – in some ways, just doing a whole record was an inevitable eventuality, so we did it. I definitely think it’s the apotheosis of my obsession with British folk revival music, and I think I can try moving on now and exploring different aspects of music. I have no idea where that will lead us, but we’ll see! I love that band Alphabeat – there’s something about, like, wow, bringing back that late-80s New Order sound, like Technique – make a record like Technique again, that would be kind of interesting.
“Forever standing in the gutter gazing at the stars, beneath Colin Meloy’s oddball tales of Victorian peasants and doomed Civil War romances beats a yearning heart capable of turning even the lowliest street-rat into a king amongst men” – do you think this is a fair representation of the band’s ethos?
Oh, I think that kind of nails it, that’s probably true. I think a lot of the songs are sheathed in a lot of glossy narrative, but hopefully what’s underneath is some sort of universal gesture that people can relate to.
Paupers, urchins, star-crossed lovers, trench-bound soldiers, downtrodden actors… these are the band’s stock-in-trade as far as narrative viewpoints go. Yet the songs are often so plaintive, heartfelt and so emotionally rich that I’ve often got the impression that there’s something else going on beyond merely empathising with a certain character. The Engine Driver, Eli the Barrow Boy, I Was Meant for the Stage - without wanting to get too psychoanalytic, my question is: which of these personas represents the real Colin Meloy?
[Laughs] Oh… I don’t know how to answer that question; I think it’s a little bit of both. Eli the Barrow Boy is being a little more cryptic than the other ones, but I think The Engine Driver and I Was Meant for the Stage are two of the closest to autobiographical that I could possibly get in my current mode. The Engine Driver is really just about loneliness – regardless of what you do and where you go, there’s a certain amount of isolation that you just kind of have to deal with. Similarly, I guess I Was Meant for the Stage is kind of a tragic tale of someone who is forever trying to do this thing because it’s the only thing they know or want to do, and in that monomaniacal approach there’s a certain amount of isolation involved that goes along with that. I don’t want to spell it out as I’m lonely and sad all the time, but I think those are the most fascinating aspects to me about the creative life.
So do you see yourself reflected in the “poor and wretched boy”?!
Definitely, though I think that might be farther of a throw - there is some of me in that, but it is meant to be kind of a ghost story.
Do you feel a natural affinity with the underdog? It strikes me that The Decemberists are just about as far away from conventional definitions of ‘cool’ as it’s possible to be…
[Laughs] Uh-huh! Yeah, definitely. Sometimes it feels like a badge of honour, sometimes it feels like what it shouldn’t feel like – like you’re on the outside a bit looking in. I feel like it’s like a rollercoaster throughout – sometimes it’s perceived to be cool, sometimes it’s not. I always take comfort in revelling in the margins, like I said before. That’s where I sort of exist; I never felt comfortable as being touted as being cool – and I think that coolness is so artificial and insulting. I think that going after your own… it sounds so cheesy, but staying true to your own aesthetic is the right approach.
The Decemberists have always been defined by an overt sense of melodrama. Where did the band’s theatricality come from? Was this aesthetic of vaudevillian pantomime ever something that you particularly thought about, or did it evolve naturally with the music?
I think some of the other band members wouldn’t choose to be roped into that, as it’s probably a fascination of mine - I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it vaudeville or pantomime… I have a lot of community theatre in me having grown up doing theatre, and a certain love for that ideal. I think there’s something really cool about that, it’s about people in an earnest, irony-free way getting together as a community and creating funny and accessible theatre on a really low-budget, and there’s something really sweet and moving about that.
Regarding Jenny’s comments about being surprised at the band “having fans” on the Practical Handbook DVD – from my understanding of the Portland music scene, it seems like a lot of musicians just played around in different bands for the fun of it, and in that respect The Decemberists almost came together by accident. Has the band’s success come as a shock to you at all?
Yeah, definitely. There’s a wonderment about it constantly, and I mean that with an honest humility, but I really am amazed and surprised because there are certain things that you kind of understand as a basic truth or an inevitable thing. And for the longest time, I just knew that this project, this band and my approach to songwriting was forever going to suffer and be totally anonymous, totally obscure. And I really believed that, and it was a huge shock to me to find that people enjoyed it – I think a lot of the stuff that I was writing early on was almost an attempt to push people away. I felt like: ‘Okay, so nobody’s listening, well then fuck you – I’m just going to totally write stuff that nobody in their right mind would write’. You’d have to be crazy to write these songs and think that they would garner some sort of audience. I think that’s also because I was around a lot of people who were really trying to make it, and tailoring their aesthetic, their songwriting and their own approach to making music to what they thought people would like. And I think that not only was nobody listening to me, and to our band, that I found that to be just so… disgusting, that it pushed me farther into a corner - and then I think when you do that, inevitably you’re going to get people listening to you!
It feels like the songs serve as a vehicle for the emotions, then, rather than embodying them directly - yet they still have a strong emotional core. Do you think this idea of them being one thing on the surface and something else much deeper underneath is what attracts the indie crowd? Do you think people see it as a more ‘intelligent’ form of songwriting?
Um… [thinks]. Yeah, I’ll take that…!
The Hazards of Love is available now on Rough Trade.