Q&A With Colin Meloy

The following Q&A with Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy, staged for an April 24 profile timed to an upcoming solo appearance, got off on the wrong foot, unlike a 2004 quiz session that can be accessed here in its entirety. And yet Meloy’s professionalism and smarts make the conversation fine reading anyhow.

The chat took place about half an hour earlier than originally scheduled; Meloy’s handler said his interviews on that day had moved along more quickly than planned. However, Meloy was apparently unaware of this situation – so when I praised him for his punctiliousness, he thought I was expressing surprise that a musician would be conscious during the early afternoon, when we spoke, and launched into a somewhat snippy defense of his work ethic. Then, unwittingly making matters worse, I asked him about the show at the Larimer Lounge prior to which I had talked with him five years ago and was taken aback when he launched into a diatribe against the gig and its promoter. Hence, this blog contains a Backbeat Online Q&A first: a response to the speaker’s assertions. In this case, Scott Campbell, who’s overseen booking at the Larimer Lounge for years and is now a key staffer with the AEG Live production firm, concedes that mistakes were indeed made.

From there, fortunately, talk turns to a safer subject: Colin Meloy Sings Live!, his new solo CD. Meloy discusses the joys of performing for a smaller audience, echoing a sentiment expressed half-a-decade back; the differences between indie imprints and major labels; a cover-song nod to Fleetwood Mac; a selection that dates back to a pre-Decemberists combo; and the worst tune his ever written, as well as some other underperformers almost as poor. He also gives a hint about when the next Decemberists album will appear, but only after declining to reveal why numerous dates by the band were canceled last year.

Ooops – I did it again.

Westword (Michael Roberts): I am astonished that you’re calling early. Are you sure you’re a musician?

Colin Meloy: Well, where I’m at, it’s 3:30…

WW: So it doesn’t seem that early to you.

CM: And I have a two-year-old son. And I actually kind of take exception to this generalization that people have in their minds that musicians are kind of a lazy lot who lay around all day and party and do drugs all night. I think there are a lot responsible parents and sane people who are just trying to make a living at this.

WW: Well, I don’t know how this plays into that stereotype, or the destruction of it, but I’ve been doing music-related interviews for eighteen years, and you’re in very select company. The only other rock star who called early that I remember off the top of my head was Ted Nugent.

CM: Oh. Okay. But it’s 3:30, dude. It’s the afternoon.

WW: I had the opportunity to interview you back in 2004, when you played the Larimer Lounge. Do you remember that show?

CM: I do.

WW: In a positive way?

CM: It was a fun show, although I remember the promoter was a total dick. We sold out the show, but he was telling us we weren’t, even though I’d been sitting in the van reading a book when I saw one of the promoters put a “Sold Out” sign on the door and start turning people away. So we have actually really bad memories of the Larimer Lounge.

Note: After being told about Meloy’s recollections, AEG Live’s Scott Campbell sent the following statement via e-mail:

The Decemberists story at Larimer was correct. We screwed up their bonus structure to the tune of approx $350. But the next morning, the mistake was identified and the money was sent to their agent that day. I regret that it happened, I learned from it and Larimer hasn’t screwed up a settlement like that since.

WW: I’m sorry to hear that – but I have good memories of the interview. And during that conversation, one of the things you said was, “Frankly, I’d rather see a smaller audience – an audience that’s more attuned to the music – than a huge audience made up of moderately interested people.” Is that a sentiment you still agree with, even after signing with a big record label and playing at much larger venues.

CM: Yes, I do. I’d always prefer a smaller audience of more rapt people. But the momentum has inevitably carried us in a different direction, and I can imagine on the last couple of Decemberists tours, there were probably some ambivalent people there – people who were kind of just showing up because of whatever reason. Maybe they’re being dragged there by their friends. But I’ve learned a lot since then. I’ve learned what it is to play in front of a larger crowd and how to try to make the show reach everybody – as many people as possible.

WW: Some people might interpret you deciding to go out on these solo tours as a bit of a reaction against the momentum you were talking about – an opportunity to get back to the smaller shows with the more devoted following. Is there any truth to that?

CM: Yeah, there’s probably something to that. When I first started doing them in 2005, I did a two-week tour playing in really small places, places that would hold 150 people. And I’m playing bigger places now, but it’s still the same vibe. A smaller percentage of the Decemberists crowd is coming out, but they’re appreciably more devout, or into the music.

WW: When you signed your contract with Capitol, did you want to make sure you could release albums like your latest one for Kill Rock Stars?

CM: Yeah, that was always worked into the deal.

WW: How does Capitol feel about you going out with something like this? Are they okay with it? Or would they rather have a new Decemberists disc?

CM: I have no idea. That label is crumbling at its foundations. I think they could actually care less about what I’m doing. There are some sweet people there, but there’s also people – and I think this is industry wide – who are fearing for their jobs. They certainly haven’t said anything against it, and we’re not EMI’s cash cow by any stretch.

WW: They have other things on their minds now…

CM: Yeah.

WW: Kill Rock Stars seems like it’s still very much a hands-on operation. The website page about your new release says that it “comes with a one-of-a-kind bookmark and a free poster until we run out.” Is that kind of marketing more appealing in some ways than the big machine being rolled out on your behalf.

CM: It’s two different schools of thought. The Kill Rock Stars one is about appealing to the base, to make sure they’re happy, whereas the marketing machine of a major label is really all about reaching as many people as you possibly can, and they both have their merits.

WW: For you, is it nice to be able to go into both those areas and feel comfortable rather than being limited to one or the other?

CM: Yeah. It’s a little weird to go back to being on Kill Rock Stars, but it’s pleasant in its own way.

WW: You’ve put out a couple of tour-only EPs, one devoted to Morrissey and the other devoted to Shirley Collins. Why did you decide to make this one available at retail outlets?

CM: The previous ones were just cover EPs, just five songs I was covering. This was more of a proper record, so it made sense to roll it out like a traditional record.

WW: On the disc, even though it’s made up of by and large original material, you interpolate some songs by other artists, including “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. Does that band perhaps not get the critical recognition it deserves because it was so incredibly popular?

CM: I’m a staunch defender of all things Fleetwood Mac. I count Tusk as being one of the records that changed my life, along with [Hüsker Dü’s] Zen Arcade. I will defend them to my dying day.

WW: Also on the disc is a song from one of your earlier bands, Tarkio. When we spoke a few years ago, you talked about that band as being alienating in terms of the crowd that it attracted. You said it drew some of the “frattier elements.” But do you feel the music you did for that band still holds up?

CM: Yeah. I guess I’ve lost some of that perspective that I had then. Just like anybody, as their work progresses, you have a certain fondness for things you wrote a long time ago. Sometimes you think that they’ve held up just as well and you could have written them today. Sometimes not, but I still like playing some of it.

WW: And “Devil’s Elbow” is one you have a particular fondness for?

CM: Yeah, definitely. That was one of the last Tarkio songs. I think under different circumstances, it might have been Decemberists song.

WW: It feels like a transitional song to you?

CM: Yeah, definitely.

WW: Also included is “Dracula’s Daughter,” which you describe as the worst song you ever wrote, but it clearly gets one of the biggest reactions from the crowd. Is that amusing to you or a little frightening?

CM: Of course it’s amusing. It’s intended to be that way. It’s just kind of poking fun at what it is to be a writer of songs and a performer of songs. The idea that somebody would actually get up and showcase the worst song they ever wrote.

WW: What amount of time did you devote to that song? Was it a matter of hours that you went from the hope that it would turn into something good to the horror that it hadn’t?

CM: Oh, I think it was a matter of minutes – fifteen minutes or something like that. Maybe the germ of the idea started a couple of days earlier, but once I applied pen to paper and started working on it, it probably didn’t last very long.

WW: Are there are a lot of songs you’ve started and stopped over the years? Or do you tend to take them to completion?

CM: Oh yeah, there are songs with just one line written. Some with just a verse. Some with just a verse and a chorus. I’ve even written whole songs. I have a song I wrote – the entire thing is written, and the last line of the song is “This song is terrible,” or something to that effect. So I’ve even gotten to the point of trying to eke all the life out of it that I can.

WW: Will that one ever be heard in a public venue?

CM: No, I think I’ll just stick with “Dracula’s Daughter” as my showcase of bad songwriting.

WW: In the introduction to that song, I think, you say, “It makes one want to retire and be a college professor or something.” That’s not the standard rock-star fantasy. But does that appeal to you – the idea that you might someday stop touring and take a comfortable academic position somewhere?

CM: I don’t know how good I would be at it. Actually, standing up in front of a classroom and teaching some sort of prepared lecture sounds more intimidating to me than performing music. Much more intimidating.

WW: There’s quite a preparation aspect to planning a concert, and typically they’re longer than a class…

CM: Yeah, I don’t know. Having never done it, it seems kind of horrific to me. I actually have a hard time speaking in front of large crowds if I’m not onstage performing. There’s something about being in a show and stepping onstage and getting ready to perform that allows me to get beyond some stage fright.

WW: Is there a difference for you going up there by yourself versus being with a band? Is the solo spotlight harder?

CM: In some ways, it’s easier. I feel like it’s a lot looser. I feel like I can be freer with the set list, be freer with the banter and stuff. In some ways, it seems a lot more calming, a lot more relaxed.

WW: There were some tour dates canceled late this last year, and your website said someone was ill – and I never heard the whole story. What happened?

CM: That’s something that we’re – I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. It was something that happened and we’re moving on. Everybody’s happy and healthy now.

WW: Do you have plans for a future Decemberists recording coming up?

CM: Yeah, we’re going to go into the studio in the summer and spend a couple of months – and hopefully have a new record by next year.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts