For nearly two decades, the building blocks of The Decemberists’ reputation have been pretty consistent: strummy folk rock, old-fashioned words, historical tales and elegant melodies delivered via frontman Colin Meloy’s distinctive voice.
That reputation was established mostly on the backs of the Portland band’s excellent first four albums, from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts through 2006’s The Crane Wife. And while it’s not inaccurate, it also paints an incomplete picture of a band that has been tinkering with its sound off and on for years.
There’s 2004’s The Tain EP, which consists of a single eighteen-minute track. There’s 2009’s prog-rock workout The Hazards of Love. And 2011’s The King Is Dead strips the band’s sound down to its rootsiest elements.
The Decemberists’ latest zigzag is their eighth full-length album, I’ll Be Your Girl, released in March. While making it, Meloy and his bandmates decided they needed to wriggle out of their routines, so they explored their shared interest in glam and new wave by adding more synths to their songs, and they hired a producer — John Congleton, best known for his work with St. Vincent — who helped them try out arrangements they might not have otherwise tried. The result is an album streaked with a dark, politically charged electro vibe. Stylistically, it’s the most mishmashed work of the Decemberists’ career.
Ahead of the band’s headlining show at Red Rocks, Westword caught up with Meloy to talk about keeping things fresh in a band that’s nearly twenty years old. Here’s that conversation:
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Westword: The narrative around I’ll Be Your Girl is that you all decided you needed to get out of your comfort zone and try something different. Was there any thought or discussion about how your fans might react?
Colin Meloy: There’s a thought to that, but the odd thing is that we’re at a point now in our career where even though we’ve taken several different 90-degree turns in our approach to "What is Decemberists' music? ... You get to a certain point where it ceases to be framed as experimentation and all of a sudden it becomes reinvention. Which is unfortunate, because from the outset we’ve established ourselves as a band that does like to take certain risks and likes to experiment with what’s expected of us. I think that the last couple of records hit a kind of a cruising altitude, so as a consequence, this 90-degree turn feels like a little bit more contrast.
To my mind, it’s just an extension of getting back to earlier experimentation we have maybe cooled out on the last couple of records.
Is taking a critical look at the songs and trying to find ways to mix things up something that comes easily for you or any of your band mates? Or is that something you all have to keep front of mind to ensure it happens?
I think it’s kind of easy to coast. I think that’s what I was discovering. I don’t know that I can speak to the rest of the band, but it was probably a general sense...where we were discovering ourselves making very familiar choices and in some ways going, “That’s worked for us all these times before. Why shouldn’t it now?” I feel like on [2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World], there was a lot of feeling like, “Oh, well, this is how this arrangement will go.” Everything felt like it fell into place — which is a comfortable thing, but there’s a certain point where you’re like, is it too comfortable? Is this coming too easy? As a consequence, I think you go back and look at that stuff, and while I’m fond of it, there’s certain songs where I [think] we probably could’ve lost that [song] or tried something different on this one.
There just became familiar patterns. But it’s hard to avoid that, you know? Being in a band for eighteen years and writing however many hundred-plus songs and arranging them, it just becomes a feat of human imagination to make something refreshing or something new every time.
For years, you all have been able to record a Decemberists album, tour behind it, and then take a break and go off and do your own things before coming back together to do it all again. Is it getting harder to come back together as the years go on?
I feel like it gets easier. It’s less fraught, as you become more comfortable in your job and you come to it with your own anticipations and expectations — or lack thereof. Like all of a sudden, there is no drama in getting back together. You’re not re-litigating issues you may have had on the last tour. You’re just getting together to do your fuckin’ job. Which is kind of nice, because I feel like in the early days...those moments could be particularly fraught. Not to say there’s not pressure now, but I feel like us getting together more and more feels comfortable.
I guess I was thinking less about getting together (and getting along) with your bandmates, and more about whether — after some time away from the band doing other stuff — you ever think, “Do I want to go back and keep making Decemberists music?”
That’s something I feel after every record, to be perfectly frank. I’m constantly in a tussle of this sort of love/hate relationship with my career. I do have a streak of self-sabotaging. There’s a reason why The King Is Dead is called that, I think, and on the last record, “Anti-Summersong” is not only a dig at my own songwriting, but also a suggestion that I’m done. But then you keep going.
I just watched that Garry Shandling documentary [The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling], and it was really interesting seeing another artist creating something that was very fulfilling to him in the midst of this internal dilemma of whether or not just to tear it all down. I think that that’s something that I’ve grappled with since...we achieved some kind of success. All of a sudden, the pressure of it — the expectation of not only the audience, but also being responsible for the employment of not only other bandmembers, but also agents and managers and crew and things like that — it becomes kind of terrifying. You get a little bit of vertigo.
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It’s easy to forget that being a successful working musician is still a real job with pressures and frustrations and mundanities just like any other job.
I never in a million years as a kid imagined that this would be my life. To my thirteen-year-old self, I am living my perfect life. So then you have to grapple with, “Well, wait a second...what if there are days that I hate my perfect life?” And am I not being grateful enough for this incredible gift that I’ve been given? Those are things that you have to tussle with as well, and the pressure of that alone could make you just want to...let it all sink. Not that I particularly want to do that.
But I think that’s also an important part of the creative process, this desire to tear everything down and start afresh at every turn. Sometimes I look at people who have done that and I’m sort of like, “Wow, they did it right.” Like Hüsker Dü or the Replacements — they tore it all down and have this sort of succinct body of work that’s very approachable and great from start to finish. But I also think it’s a good impulse to just channel that and use that into what’s going to drive your next decisions.
The Decemberists, with Whitney, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494, $45-$75, all ages.