Vintage Q&A With the Decemberists' Colin Meloy

At this writing, Colin Meloy, leader of the Decemberists, is on a solo tour; he appears at the Boulder Theater on Saturday, April 26, with singer-songwriter Laura Gibson opening. A recent Q&A is accessible here – but an interview conducted for a March 11, 2004 Decemberists profile provides additional context, as well as extra pleasure. As you’ll see, the conversation is among the most literate to ever grace this space.

At the time, the band had not yet signed with Capitol Records or made anything but the most modest amount of noise from a commercial standpoint: Meloy and company were touring behind Her Majesty, the Decemberists, a 2003 release on the Kill Rock Stars imprint. Moreover, Meloy talks near the beginning of the chat about the advantages of having a smaller audience, as opposed to a massive throng of followers who might or might not be truly into the music. Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and other literary figures are mentioned as well, and so are reflections about growing up in Montana – among the least likely locales for someone with his sensibilities to have come of age.

Then again, there’s plenty of unlikely things about Meloy – and that’s what makes him interesting.

Westword (Michael Roberts): You’ve said that a lot of Her Majesty is directly cribbed from Dylan Thomas. There are certain folks who, when reading something like that, will be immediately interested, while others will be horrified and run, screaming, in the opposite direction. Do you fear those kinds of literary references will cause some people to tune you out even before giving the music a chance?

Colin Meloy: Yeah, well, I think it’s definitely a delicate thing. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s a good way to sort of weed out the sort of people who aren’t going to be interested in the music. What we’ve always done, or what I’ve always tried to do as far as songwriting goes, is to do everything doggedly on my own terms, and to not be afraid of what the public will think of it. And I think that, naturally, I’m fully aware that some of the literary references and some of the stranger subject matter is definitely going to frighten some people away. But it will also bring along some people who are interested, and it brings them a little bit closer, I think.

WW: It sounds as if you’re not bothered if certain people stay away…

CM: Absolutely. I think there’s no reason why they should become Decemberists fans unless they’re fully prepared. Frankly, I’d rather see a smaller audience, but an audience that is more attuned to the music, and more in love with the music, than a huge audience made up of mostly slightly or moderately interested people.

WW: That’s an unusual viewpoint.

CM: Like I said, I just try to do it all on my own terms and it’s really paid off. I feel like the fan base we’ve developed so far is slavishly loyal. Not only that, but also, just a really sweet group of people. The same kind of people that I would relate to if I was in junior high or high school. It’s my kind of people, which I’m really grateful for. Because I played in a band before [Tarkio] and had the experience of looking out in the audience and seeing a lot of people who I couldn’t have a five-minute conversation with without feeling weird or intimidated or uninterested. It was definitely a more populist feel to the music, and it was attracting, dare I say, some of the frattier elements, and it got really discouraging to me at a point where I would look out at the audience and see these people. I don’t want that to sound snobby, but to actually see people that probably wouldn’t have given me the time of day in high school – that crowd of people that I’ve never related to, and never really wanted to relate to, and here they are, sort of, you know, somehow condoning the music. And it made me sort of reflect a lot – like, “What am I doing?” I think from that, I got progressively stranger, and discovered that it really separated the wheat from the chaff. And not to say that those people are chaff. It’s just that, I don’t know, my taste has always differed, and I wanted to make that come through in the music.

WW: How would you describe the average Decemberists fan?

CM: I think sort of semi-reclusive, shy, bookish types. I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone here, but maybe not the most socially graceful people – people who might spend the weekend reading a book instead of going out and getting crazy.

WW: Would you describe yourself the same way?

CM: Oh yeah, for sure.

WW: As for your music, you’ve described it using words like “Victorian” and “Dickensian” – again, not the most obviously rock and roll terms. What is it about those periods that appeal to you most?

CM: Well, I think that particularly attraction that I’ve had to things Victorian or Dickensian are sort of on the wane. I’d apply those words mostly to our first record, Castaways & Cutouts. The next record, Her Majesty, is a little more varied in its characters. But as far as that, there’s just a wealth of material there that I think was used a lot by the writers. If you think of Thomas Hardy and Dickens and all that group. The late 19th century. There was a lot of delving into things exotic, there was a penchant for East Indian themes and Turkish themes, that was popping up a lot in the literature. And I think there’s sort of a timeless exoticness to that, and I’ve always kind of been attracted to it.

WW: So you like the period as well as the subject matter?

CM: I think it’s both. I think I’m interested in the subject matter because of the subject matter itself, but I also think I’m interested because of the mythology that’s been created around it, because of Dickens and Hardy and people like that. It’s as much a true-to-form, deliberate use of those subject matters as it is a sort of homage to the writers themselves.

WW: What’s behind your decision to sort of veer away from these influences?

CM: It’s not that I’m making a deliberate attempt to broaden my horizons or create something more varied. I think Castaways just caught me at a time when I was interested in those sorts of things, so that really comes out in the record, and that happens to be our introduction to the world. But I think I’ve always moved around as far as my fascinations for subject matter. One of my major interests is in folk music and folklore, so that pops up a lot in the songs. Sort of Appalachian gothic and murder ballads and things like that. And the line between that sort of subject matter, more Anglophile, Victorian subject matter, is very thin. A lot of the Irish and English folk songs from the 19th and 18th centuries became the Appalachian folk songs that we know. There’s a lot of transference there. I kind of move around using that as the foundation, and a lot of my interest in that sort of music is how those songs sort of exploit the use of character and aren’t necessarily afraid to put characters into a song and not be a first-person narrative – to actually have it be a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

WW: I understand you have a degree in creative writing. From what school?

CM: From the University of Montana. I sort of, I became a little disillusioned with writing prose after school, just out of a reaction to the program – professors like William Kittredge and Kevin Canty and the whole Western writers school. And it wasn’t appealing to me, and that was definitely a specialty of the program. And so I kind of have moved away from writing prose, although I just finished this short book about the Replacements [about the album Let It Be], which was such a challenge. I was so used to writing these three and a half minute, four minute long pop songs that have narrative and require that sort of attention to detail but aren’t so involved as writing a non-fiction piece about a band.

WW: How would you describe the book?

CM: It’s a memoir. It’s about growing up in Helena, Montana, and being thirteen years old and trying to figure out your road in life, but it was really difficult. I hadn’t done that kind of writing in a long time. I think my muscles had atrophied a bit.

WW: You’ve gotten used to working in shorter forms…

CM: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a lot more entry and exit points in songs. It’s a perfect summation – it’s like creating a miniature world without having to go into so much description and background. 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 a full fifty pages of background on a room. It’s a different medium, completely, so it’s hard to compare the two. My sister, who’s a novelist, says she doesn’t know how I write these songs. And I’m like, I don’t know how you spend your days writing and rewriting and writing and rewriting these novels.

WW: What’s your sister’s name?

CM: Maile Meloy. Liars and Saints was her most recent book.

WW: You’ve mentioned Robyn Hitchcock’s work as an influence on yours, and a while back, I had a chance to interview him – and I asked him about whether he’d ever thought about writing novels. Here’s what he said to me: “I’m not very linear. I specialize in creating and destroying miniature worlds with extreme speed.” Is that one of the appeals of songwriting for you? That you can come up with a scenario, and with the use of a relatively small number of lines, you can create a narrative that has the power to affect people?

CM: Oh, absolutely. With a song, sometimes you need to puzzle over it, but other times, you need to go through it with as much speed as possible. Sometimes I think writing songs is like handling meat. The longer you touch it, the worse it becomes. They recommend that you handle the meat as little as possible, and with songs, if it’s not happening, it’s not happening, and the more you puzzle over it, the more it’s just going to potentially ruin it. So a lot of times it’s better to just let it sit and then come back to it. A lot of times it’s the best songs you write in fifteen minutes, and a lot of people will do that – the things should just sort of issue from you. They’re typically the most lasting.

WW: In rock music, there’s often a certain bias in favor of confessional or very personal songwriting – and as a result, writers who create characters and tell stories that aren’t drawn directly from their own lives tend to be underappreciated. To me, Ray Davies of the Kinks is an example of that. What’s your point of view about that? Do you feel it’d be boring if you had to talk about your innermost feelings and personal experiences in all your songs?

CM: I think it is. I do use a lot of first-person narrative, like “The Legionnaire’s Lament” is a first-person narrative. Actually quite a few of them are first-person narratives. But rather than treading over the same ground of subject matter that’s used in a lot of indie pop, indie rock – monologues, confessionals – to really sort of experiment with the form. Like, if I’m going to do this in the first person, why not create a character who’s interesting. I can say, “I’m a legionnaire” or “I’m an architect.” And that sort of opens up a world right there.

WW: Does that approach make the song more accessible, too?

CM: Oh absolutely. I think it’s more universal. I think people can relate to it more. I think people are kind of sick of hearing first-person monologues going on about relationship issues where there’s like kind of a – there’s a meta-narrative in using a different character, or maybe using a character from World War I or something like that. Not only do you have the character itself, and it can be enjoyed on that level, but there’s another level, too, that I think speaks to more contemporary issues and experiences.

WW: Wow. I think you’re the first musician I’ve ever interviewed who used the term “meta-narrative.”

CM: (Laughs.) I’m sorry. Sometimes I feel like I get too academic talking about songs. But I think it’s fair, and I think there’s a lot of truth to it.

WW: I understand that you used to be involved in theater, which is another form rock music is conflicted about. Was that important in the development of your storytelling style?

CM: Oh yeah, absolutely. Theater for me when I was younger was a really important outlet and was really the first thing I discovered that gave me a community of friends and peers doing something expressive. It was an alternative to doing sports and things like that, and 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 in that sense, theater has always been really important to me, and I’ve always enjoyed musicals and straight theater as well. I think it’s fun to experiment infusing music, which is another onstage performance.

WW: Do you see your songs as part of that tradition in a way?

CM: Well, the songs themselves, I think a lot of them are written from a musical-theater standpoint. I think “A Cautionary Song” from Castaways is a musical. It was sort of intended initially to be part of a bigger whole of a musical, an imaginary musical. Onstage, it’s hard to say, we’re a theatrical band, but we don’t go completely out of our way, dressing up in costumes. We’re pretty playful onstage, but mostly I think the elements of musical theater that have influenced me come across mostly in the songwriting.

WW: You grew up in Montana, which doesn’t seem to have a lot of connection with the music you make. But is there an aspect of Montana music or culture that’s a big part of your work, and that outsiders might not notice?

CM: Oh absolutely. Montana history is really, really fascinating. It was such a rogue territory for such a long time. The stories that come out of it are really fascinating. A lot of the things that was happening in the 19th century just prior to statehood, the first territorial governor, if you really go into Montana history, they are amazing, amazing stories. I think that rubbed off on me a little bit.

WW: When you were growing up, did you spend a lot of time in your own world, rather than the one everyone around you was living in?

CM: I don’t know. I spent a lot of my time as an adolescent in Montana 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. It was really hard to get hold of a lot of the records. I’m thinking of Hüsker Dü and the Smiths and the Replacements.

WW: Today, it’s hard to imagine how hard it was for people outside of big cities to find those kinds of things.

CM: Definitely. Oh yeah. This was also pre-Internet. I think my life in Montana would have been profoundly different had I had access to the Internet. And what information I did get about these bands was really difficult to come by. Luckily, my uncle Paul was in school in Eugene, and he’d send me these tapes of Robyn Hitchcock and Camper Van Beethoven and stuff like that. That was a really important influence. But also, I spent a lot of time out of doors, just camping and hiking and things like that. Montana is so beautiful that I have to think that a lot of that open space has to be some sort of influence on me.

WW: Do you appreciate things about Montana now that you never really thought about when you were growing up?

CM: Oh yeah. And I think that’s a pretty common experience. I think you kind of hate at the time and think about afterwards, have to reassess. I’d love to live in Montana again.

WW: Are there things about the state you think you’d rediscover if you spent a lot of time there?

CM: Well, I don’t know. We’ve only played there a few times. We played in Helena, which is my hometown, and that was mostly to family, friends and their kids and things like that. And then we played in Missoula, and that was one of the most drunken romps I’ve had in a long time. I kind of forgot what it was like to play in Missoula. It’s such a crazy drinking town that we sort of swore not to play there ever again. There are other kind of people there, too. I mean, I went to school in Missoula, and I know there are people in the art community, younger people. I know it’s there. But I don’t necessarily need to go back and rediscover it.

WW: Your style definitely doesn’t have a lot of corollaries in modern rock right now. Is that something you take pride in?

CM: I think we definitely take pride in it. I think we’ve made a point of setting ourselves apart, but still we feel like we’re part of the Northwest music community. We know people in other bands that are enjoying some success right now. So we’re enjoying the community, but that’s sort of what Portland is like. There’s tons of those bands right now that are enjoying quite a bit of success in their own circle and have very disparate sounds. So you can sort of maintain this community and not be all gravitating toward one sound. As far as the greater indie rock, I’ve never really felt like we’ve fit in much in that community, but I’m really happy to have been embraced by it.

WW: What are some of the bands from there that you’re friendly with?

CM: The Thermals and the Shins, naturally, folks like that. And others in Seattle as well, we feel part of that community. We all show up at each other’s shows, run into them going out to shows, so there’s a connection there.

WW: One of the things that sets your music apart is its size. For an independent group, you’ve got a really big sound.

CM: I think all along it’s been our goal to just make bigger and bigger music. And I think that’s just something I will never be able to let go. I think that as a kid listening to music, I was into some of the aesthetics of the big-music movement. You think of U2 and the Waterboys and World Party. That production aesthetic has always appealed to me, and has always come out in my recordings. I’ve always tried to get bigger and bigger and bigger. And each time you get a little closer to it. A little bit more time, a little more money, a little bit more freedom to mess around with it. So I think we’ll be able to tackle some of the ideas we had with previous recordings but didn’t have the money or the time to do.

WW: Do you think that’ll help you reach a bigger audience – or at least more people who you could connect with, and could connect with you?

CM: I know that there are people out there, little pockets still waiting to be turned onto the music. I think that we’re playing music for a particular sort of set, but there are those kinds of people in every place and every environment. We’re definitely becoming more populist in that approach. We’re reaching out to the drama fags and the bookworms of the world.

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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

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