Colin Meloy was a creative-writing major with an alt-country hobby when he scrapped his extant artistic ambitions to form The Decemberists, a whimsical folk-pop outfit deeply indebted to the hummable melodies and gently twisted storytelling of Robyn Hitchcock and Belle And Sebastian. The band's 2002 debut, Castaways And Cutouts, impressed enough of the right people to get a 2003 reissue on the respected indie label Kill Rock Stars, which also put out the follow-up Her Majesty The Decemberists the same year. Even rock fans inclined to like Meloy's brand of bright, imaginative music have been amazed by The Decemberists' rapid progression from likeable imitators to true originals. The band's most recent two releaseslast year's EP The Tain and the stunning new album Picaresquehave found Meloy discovering the contemporary relevance in ancient epic poems and campfire tales, while losing none of the catchiness that first endeared The Decemberists to scenesters. Meloy spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his steady improvement and how long he thinks the run can last.
The Onion: On Castaways And Cutouts, The Decemberists already sounded fully realized. Was that because you'd been playing with other bands for a while?
Colin Meloy: I think that had a lot to do with it. I felt like I'd already explored a lot of directions and trimmed off the excess a little bit, and honed in on what sort of music I was most interested in making. In that sense, it was sort of easy to hit the ground running. But there was still some unknown there, given that we started as an acoustic guitar, upright bass, accordion, and drums combo. [Laughs.]
O: How did you come up with the concept for The Decemberists, given that you'd been writing and performing alt-country?
CM: Well there's an element of country I'll always lovelargely its ties to traditional American, British, and Irish folk music. But I wanted to remove myself from that thing the late-'90s alt-country scene seemed to run into the ground: this kind of sentimental nostalgia for things rural. Having grown up in a rural community, it smacked of being a little hollow. And I just thought there were more interesting, vital things being done in pop music. Morrissey and Robyn Hitchcock having been my idols growing up, I wanted to try to create something that emulated what they were doing, but also infuse it with the storytelling nature of folk music.
O: Do you still do other kinds of writing, like short stories or poems?
CM: I haven't really had time. I did a book about The Replacements' Let It Be last year for the 33 1/3 series, but that was such a huge challenge, I don't know that I'll do it again any time soon. I still do little projects here and there when I can. Carson Ellis, my girlfriend and the illustrator who does our album covers and T-shirts and stuff, she and I have been collaborating on a ghost story that I wrote a while back, and we also have a kids' book on the back burner.
O: Back when you wrote a lot of short fiction, was it much like the songs you're writing now?
CM: When I was a kid it was, but once I got funneled into the creative-writing program, they try to get the fantastic stuff out of you. At least at University Of Montana. It's a school that really champions that western style of writing: really stoic non-fiction. So it was kind of beat out of me a little bit. I guess I felt obligated, like, "I'm mature, I'm a college student, I shouldn't be writing about weird, exotic things. I should be trying to get into the human spirit." But once I got out of school, I was so disillusioned that The Decemberists' songs were kind of a reaction against that.
O: How far can you go with that kind of subject matter? Can you imagine a point where it no longer interests you?
CM: Potentially. I don't want to rule out anything. I just want to keep working on projects that challenge me. If it gets to the point where this sort of style stops challenging me, I'll stop. But I really think it's built into my bones a little bit. There will always be a certain element of using archetypal characters or archetypal narratives.
O: Do you ever worry that you might be trapping yourself?
CM: Yeah, it's a delicate thing, and I knew that from the outset when I first threw a dead baby girl into a song. [Laughs.] You have to be really careful. It's a process of weighing what works and what doesn't work. At first, it was really easy, because I didn't have anything in my body of work that even remotely resembled what I was about to do. I felt like I was constantly treading new ground. Now it's more of a challenge, and I think the songs are better for it, because I'm really forcing myself to explore different aspects of narrative and different aspects of storytelling.
O: How do you usually feel when you finish a song or a record? Are you satisfied, or nagged by what you didn't accomplish?
CM: I feel totally nagged. It haunts me for weeks. Especially something like Picaresque, where we had six weeks to do it, and we really used every last minute to make it happen, and I think we still had to cut some corners. And because it took such a long time to do, there was a real attachment to it, a reluctance to let it go out into the world as it is. There was a little bit of separation anxiety. [Laughs.] And the inevitable sort of nitpicking for the next two months. Once I got past that, I'm really happy with it. I'm proud of it now.
O: How would you describe your working habits? Are you an organized workaholic type, or are you more scattered?
CM: It's changing. I go in and out. Now that we're touring more and keeping more busy, I'm finding time to write the songs before running off to work, which was a process I'd really gotten used to ever since I basically started writing songs. I really feel like there's a change coming on. Now I'm working on things in sort of bits and pieces. I'm curious to try attacking new material all at once before the rehearsal process or even in the studio, just to try out different work patterns.
O: If you could make a Decemberists album that recreates the feel of one album in pop history, which album would it be?
CM: Oh... There's one that pops immediately into my head, and I guess I shouldn't second-guess it. Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison, is as close to a perfect record as you can get, as far as it being absolutely evocative. It really carries you throughout the whole record, and it feels so effortless. It's just gorgeous. I guess all our records have been an attempt at that in some weird way.