I don't think there's any reason why someone should become a Decemberists fan unless they're fully prepared," says vocalist/tunesmith Colin Meloy. "Frankly, I'd rather see a smaller audience, but an audience that is more attuned to the music, than a huge audience made up of moderately interested people."
The Decemberists' leader may get his wish -- for a myriad of reasons. His musical influences are generally accessible; for example, he speaks eloquently of his fondness for the Replacements, a band to which he pays tribute in an upcoming memoir for Continuum International Publishing Group. But he's just as inspired by writers Thomas Hardy, Dylan Thomas and Charles Dickens, who aren't exactly known for rocking out -- and if that statement persuades folks with lower-than-average brain activity to steer clear of the Decemberists, that's fine by him. As he puts it, "I'm fully aware that some of the literary references and some of the subject matter is definitely going to frighten certain people away."
Those who stick around will be rewarded for their adventurousness. After all, Meloy and his compatriots (multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, bassist Jesse Emerson, keyboardist Jenny Conlee and drummer Rachel Blumberg) are melody-obsessed Anglophiles whose second disc for the Kill Rock Stars imprint -- 2003's Her Majesty, the Decemberists -- is clever, quirky and unpredictable. So, too, are the band's alternately witty and morbid lyrics, delivered by Meloy in a keening tenor that darkens or lightens as required. The opening cut, "Shanty for the Arethusa," tells a tale from long ago of the South Seas; it's peopled by a "Jewess," a "Mandarin Chinese boy," "natives dark and nubile" and the ghosts of sailors, "their spectral bodies clinging to the shrouds." Subsequent offerings include the jaunty "Billy Liar," about a lad who's introduced with his knickers down, and "The Soldiering Life," which finds the frolicsome side of trench warfare.
With Tome Heinl and Uphollow, 9 p.m. Friday, March 12, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, $8, 303-291-1007
By creating protagonists and supporting players who exist in disparate settings and/or eras, Meloy deliberately distances himself from the confessional stylings so prevalent among post-emo collectives. According to him, "People are kind of sick of hearing first-person monologues going on about relationship issues." On the other hand, characters from historical time periods "can be enjoyed on multiple levels. It's exotic, even as it speaks to more contemporary issues and experiences. That turns a song into a sort of meta-narrative."
Following this turn of phrase, Meloy laughingly apologizes for his use of hifalutin terminology, conceding that he "can get too academic talking about songs." He swears he doesn't fuss over his work, preferring compositional spontaneity over excessive self-consciousness. "Sometimes I think writing songs is like handling meat," he says. "The longer you touch it, the worse it gets."
Literacy is a tradition in the Meloy clan: Colin's sister, Maile Meloy, is an author whose first novel, Liars and Saints, was published last year. Outside his family, though, his interest in the printed word, not to mention his fixation on the Smiths and Robyn Hitchcock, made Meloy somewhat suspect among his peers in Helena, Montana, where he grew up. "I spent a lot of my time as an adolescent bemoaning my fate: the ass-backwards state of discovering this music that I was listening to at the time and knowing that I'd never get a chance to see it live," he notes.
Because he was alienated from Helena's jock culture, he naturally drifted toward drama -- which is celebrated in "I Was Meant for the Stage," a Her Majesty highlight. "Theater, for me, was an important outlet and really the first thing I discovered that gave me a community of friends and peers doing something expressive. The organized sports programs in my junior high and high school were really intimidating, and I didn't necessarily get on very well with that set of people. So theater was an alternative to doing things like that."
Music and writing also filled this bill, and when Meloy enrolled at the University of Montana in Missoula, he dove into both with varying degrees of success and satisfaction. He earned a creative-writing degree, but the school's program emphasized Western roots that held limited appeal for him. He found more freedom creating songs, in part because "there's a lot more entry and exit points," he says. "I think the listener's suspension of disbelief is easier to manipulate in a song, because the use of syntax and alliteration really evoke an environment so much more easily than writing fifty pages of description about a room."
Unfortunately, Meloy's membership in Tarkio, a country group named for a community near Missoula, gave him relatively few opportunities to test this theory. Instead, it reinforced his already acute sense of otherness. "I had the experience of looking out in the audience and seeing a lot of people whom I couldn't have had a five-minute conversation with," he allows. "There was definitely a more populist side to the music, and it was attracting, dare I say, some of the frattier elements, which got really discouraging for me. It was weird to see people who probably wouldn't have given me the time of day in high school -- a crowd I never related to, and never really wanted to relate to, but here they were, somehow condoning the music. That made me reflect -- like, 'What am I doing?'
"From there, my music got progressively stranger and stranger, and that separated the wheat from the chaff," he continues. "That's not to say those people were chaff. It's just that my tastes had always differed, and I wanted to make that come through in the music."
Portland, which is blessed with a burgeoning and cosmopolitan music scene populated by bands such as the Thermals and Dolorean, proved more conducive to Meloy's artistic temperament. He arrived in 1999 and quickly got to work forming what would become the Decemberists. Three years later, a local label, Hush Records, put out the group's debut, Castaways and Cutouts, and the attention the platter received convinced Kill Rock Stars to reissue it in 2003, just prior to Her Majesty's appearance. The decision was a good one, because Castaways is as charming as it is odd. In "Leslie Anne Levine," the nineteenth-century narrator is dead, but that doesn't stop her from looking back wistfully on the chimney sweep who once owned her heart. (Odds are good Meloy has a fixation with Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, because Her Majesty features a curio called "The Chimbley Sweep.") Later, the main figure in "The Legionnaire's Lament" waxes nostalgic for his days "on the old Left Bank/My baby in a charabanc/Riding up the width and length/Of the Champs Elysees."
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When Meloy and the Decemberists performed this material in Missoula, they learned firsthand why Thomas Wolfe warned about going home again. "It was one of the most drunken romps I've had in a long time," Meloy says. "It's such a wild drinking town that we sort of swore not to play there ever again."
A return to Missoula may not be necessary. The distinctiveness of the Decemberists' approach has attracted a national fan base that Meloy calls "slavishly loyal and just a really sweet group of people." He describes such boosters as "semi-reclusive, shy, bookish. Maybe not the most socially graceful people -- people who might spend the weekend reading a book instead of going out and getting crazy." He includes himself in this classification.
Because Meloy aspires to make the Decemberists' music sound physically bigger, in homage to the production aesthetic he associates with U2 and the Waterboys, he'll need to attract additional followers -- and the more of them that come aboard, the less likely it is that they'll all be on the same rarefied wavelength. Nonetheless, he's confident that individuals like him are in greater supply than some observers might believe.
"I know there are little pockets of people still waiting to be turned on to the music," he says. "I think we're playing music for a particular set, but there are those kinds of people every place -- so we're definitely becoming more populist in our approach. We're reaching out to the drama fags and the bookworms of the world."