Along with Death Cab For Cutie, The Shins, and Arcade Fire, The Decemberists are part of a wave of "yindie" bands that have recently parlayed strong underground followings into mainstream success. One of the most critically acclaimed bands of recent years, The Decemberists didn't make a Shins-sized splash on the charts with its latest album The Crane Wife. But the band's pop-culture prominence can't be denied after guitarist Chris Funk locked horns with Stephen Colbert in a well-publicized "guitarmageddon" on The Colbert Report in December. Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy recently spoke with The A.V. Club about whether success has changed his band. (The answer, of course, is yes.)
The A.V. Club: The transition from indie label Kill Rock Stars to Capitol Records appears to have been a smooth one for The Decemberists. Are major labels less evil than they used to be?
Colin Meloy: I think the evilness has been a little overstated. When I first started playing in a band everybody was sending out that Albini tirade about major labels—I was a student of Albini early on. But, in a pragmatic way, I figured out it really depends on your situation. There are a lot of perfectly mature, intelligent artists that have made the jump to a major label and had it work to their benefit. Early on I figured out if we signed to a major label it would have to be done on our own terms and at a point when we developed enough of a following that we would have leverage that they wouldn't want to mess with. We were signed by Capitol on the strength of what we had built on our own, so obviously it was in their best interest to let us continue doing what we were doing. I think the "indie music" term was outmoded a decade ago. Once Built To Spill signed to Warner Brothers and Matador was distributed by Atlantic, there were a lot of holes in that.
AVC: Is Capitol happy with the size of your audience?
CM: I'm pretty happy with it. The label, I think they're pretty happy with it. We're not selling a million records or anything, but I don't think anybody really anticipated that we would. I don't know that we ever are going to have the appeal of Justin Timberlake. The fact that we've sold as many records as we have is amazing to me. Personally, I'd rather have a strong career, playing and selling records to a loyal audience, then having one record that exploded. That would be devastating.
AVC: Has playing larger venues changed your approach to performing?
CM: Early on I was a lot more unsure of myself on stage. When we were getting bigger audiences I was more concerned about alienating them, so I wasn't as willing to take risks and do weird stuff on stage. But once you get more accustomed to it you tend to have more fun with it and not worry about being pilloried for acting out. Whenever you play in front of 400 or 500 more people than you're used to it's always a weird, transitional period. We got really comfortable playing to 600 to 800 people in big rock clubs. Taking the step to 1,000 or 2,000-seat venues, it's a big difference. Initially you feel a disconnect. But it's something you eventually get used to.
AVC: You recently became a father. How has having son affected your feelings about being in a successful band?
CM: I would say it's made touring harder, but touring was never really that easy for me. I'm a homebody. As much as I like performing, from our very, very first tour, touring has been a not-very-exciting thing for me. So initially I wondered if having a son would make it unbearable, but it's just added to my general disinterest in touring. [Laughs.] It's no less or more unbearable than it was before. The thing is you can take steps and make it work. He's actually coming out for a week and a half on this tour. That will be a good experience, I think.
AVC: The Decemberists are a really prolific band, releasing a CD a year since 2002. Do you see the band maintaining that pace?
CM: After this record we sat down with our management to figure out what the next year's schedule would be, and I assumed we would be back in the studio a year from now. And our manager was like, "Maybe you should take a little more time, it's fine." And that was the first time I thought, "Oh yeah, let's not put out another record. Let's let this record do it for a while and take a little more time." Looking back on our career thus far it's amazing to me the amount of work we have done, and I think it would be nice as an experiment to see what happens if we take a little more time between records.
AVC: Songwriters often start out writing a ton before slowing down later in life. Andy Partridge of XTC, for one, has said the creative process is finite.
CM: Andy Partridge said that? He of the Fuzzy Warbles? I think the reason is practical—you just don't have as much time as you used to. The first two records we did were populated entirely by songs that were written when I was working a day job and wasn't on the road five or six months out of the year. Music was a relief from day-to-day ennui. Now I have a different relationship with it—it's what I live and breathe. I'm finding I'm changing my work patterns a little bit. The Crane Wife was kind of an experiment in that sense because 80 percent of the record was written just a couple of months prior to the recording, which was a totally new thing for me. I have a feeling that that might be more how I work coming up. I'm at a very nascent point right now in the decision process for what direction this music will be taking. But I assume some time in the next eight to 10 months I'll want to carve out a chunk of time to really sit down and focus on writing songs.
AVC: You are known for writing novelistic lyrics about obscure historical figures. Have you ever been tempted to write about something more typical, like your girlfriend or something else in a personal vein?
CM: I do write songs about my girlfriend. They just come out in different ways. Specifically, once we had a fight and she drove all the way to Vancouver to get away for the weekend, and I sat down and was like, "I'm going to write as many songs for her as I possibly can." "Red Right Ankle" came out of that, which was probably more of your typical "write a song about your girlfriend" song. But also songs like "Odalisque," which is about a Turkish prostitute, and "The Bandit Queen," which is about a bandit queen, I had written those for her.
AVC: Do you have any desire to do a solo record?
CM: No. I did at one point, but I think I had been listening to Nebraska a little too much. I had these romantic ideas of being like Bruce and recording late at night in the basement with a bottle of whiskey. I thought, "Wow, that would be really fun, just to secretly make your own little record." But then I grew out of that phase.