The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy
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When The A.V. Club last spoke to Colin Meloy, singer-songwriter-frontman of the notoriously idiosyncratic alt-rock band The Decemberists, he was musing over his group’s whirlwind run of four albums, a handful of EPs, a series of tours, and a jump to a major label, all in just five years. He thought it might be time to take a break and spend more time on a single project. Sure enough, the concept album The Hazards Of Love—which comes with an expansive fairy-tale storyline and guest “characters”—took three years to complete, but it’s The Decemberists’ most ambitious, textured, dense project to date. Preparatory to touring behind Hazards, Meloy talked to The A.V. Club about the project’s origins, the expectations and stereotypes facing his no-longer-indie “indie” band, and why the press just didn’t get Morrissey back in his salad days.
The A.V. Club: How did The Hazards of Love first get started?
Colin Meloy: I remember a pinpoint—I had been working on doing my normal thing between records. Working on songs and assuming that once I had enough, it would be the usual thing where you go into the studio and record them and have a record, that kind of thing. But it happened that I was approached by a director and producer from New York about doing a musical, and at the same time, I was also starting to write this song called “The Hazards Of Love” that borrowed its title from the name of an Anne Briggs EP, her first. And the song was kind of tending toward the beginnings of a longer piece, and was basically kind of a mending together of a few recurring motifs from folk songs. And then I had this idea that’d I’d pitch as a musical this idea of creating a narrative out of these recurrent folk-song motifs, and see if that created a story that could be stageable, or in any way interesting.
And so it kind of moved along in that direction, and as I got further along, it became pretty apparent that whatever narrative was coming out was actually pretty obtuse in its simplicity. It was a little too abstract for staging, and it seemed to be working better in the context of a rock record, where you have a little more freedom. It was sort of this idea of a more abstract approach to narrative, so it seemed like I had a little more freedom if it was just a rock record instead of a musical. So that’s the way it stayed, in a nutshell. That’s the long-winded way of answering that. It’s a very large nutshell. Like a pecan as opposed to a pistachio.
AVC: What kind of relationship was there between the development of the storyline and the development of the songs? Which came first?
CM: Basically the idea was to take these motifs, which was characters and events that are archetypal in the folk-song world, and draw them out of their songs and fuse them into this one really long song, so the sort of packed baggage of their own internal narrative would create some sort of narrative without any invention of my own. And so it ended up being—I did have to push it along in a few areas, but for the most part, it’s just an assemblage of folk-song motifs in a sort of linear fashion, to create some semblance of a narrative. So writing it, all I did was create a list in my head of the motifs that I thought were interesting and recurrent, and then start writing songs based on those motifs.
AVC: How does that compare to the development of The Tain?
CM: Well, The Tain was from an actual story. The Táin, which is actually an Irish epic poem. And so that was just knowing the story and kind of writing a record. It was very loosely based on the source material. I think it was as much—these forays we’ve been taking into cyclical rock monoliths is a retelling of their story, but also a retelling of the time of monolithic rock records. So The Tain came about in a similar way, in that I remember reading The Táin, and I was working at this bookstore, and someone brought in a copy of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of it. I just kind of flipped through it and was like, “Wow, if I was in a metal band, I would totally make a concept record. Somebody should make a concept record based on The Táin.” And then I thought, “Well I’m in a rock band. Why can’t I make a record based on The Táin?”
I think that opened a lot of windows in my head, this idea of not feeling tied down to being an indie pop group that just writes little pop songs. Which was the direction we were headed. I think it was just an opportunity to fully break out of that mold and try something different. And I think The Tainand The Hazards Of Love take on a different meaning when it’s our band doing it. Context is everything. We’re not a bunch of hulking, denim-wearing dudes from the ’70s. We’re this band, formerly on an indie label but no longer, but we’re lumped within this world of indie-rock—it’s just kind of an interesting context to take these sorts of things on. Does that make sense?
AVC: Yes, but sounds like you’re talking about crafting an image for yourself. You’re seeking out these old stories not so much because you want to bring them to a new audience or because you’re inherently fascinated with them, but because you want to get out of the standard rock-band mode.
CM: I totally see how you could take that, and I think that’s a valid part of it. I think we’re messing with context, and it doesn’t have to do with image so much as it has to do with what’s allowed to you. I am fascinated with the story, and in a large part, the tackling of these folk-song motifs and sort of my initial agreement to try to do a musical stems from a love of musical theater, and a passing love of concept records. I don’t think that’s quite in my bones, but it’s mostly stemming from this idea of telling, of recreating a narrative into song. But I think that there’s another layer to that, in that I don’t think the project would be as interesting if we were a metal band. I think there is a certain amount of dynamism that is applied to it because of the context, just because of what kind of band we are.
AVC: When you say “it has to do with what’s allowed to you,” what do you mean? Do you feel there are limitations pressed on you because you get labeled as indie-rock?
CM: Well, I guess certain things are expected of us. I think initially… I don’t know. Who knows what’s expected of us? But I think it’s an opportunity to just move beyond or somehow kick out of the mold of being lumped in as an indie-rock band. And it sounds silly, because it implies that we’ve taken on that mantle, or it’s been applied to us, and it’s just the way it is. To a certain degree, it’s just an opportunity to expand our direction a little. And also, I think the whole is supposed to be kind of funny. It’s not a joke, but naturally, just considering the history of the bands that made these kinds of records in the past, and the fact that we’re making them now, through the lens…
Prog-rock and concept records and ambitious projects like this were kind of anathema post-punk. They were destroyed with the advent of punk rock. You don’t necessarily need to have a degree in music composition to play in a rock band anymore, which is a great thing. And that’s certainly the stock that I came from. Those were the bands I loved growing up, the ones that came post-punk, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and The Smiths. So it’s interesting to me to try to write this. This is all that I mean, going back to the breaking-of-the-mold thing. It’s interesting to try to reclaim concept records. It’s interesting to revisit them through the lens of that influence. Does that make sense?
AVC: It does. So is it all about reclamation? There’s no sense of doing it ironically, for instance?
CM: No, I think there’s room for irony too. I don’t think it’s one way or the other. I don’t think it has to be exclusively serious or exclusively tongue-in-cheek. I think it can be both things. But it is, in some respects, an experiment. Given my love of the heyday of alternative college rock, like my major influences growing up, what is it then to take on something really ambitious and see what comes out?
AVC: That kind of ambition and desire to stand out cuts you both ways. You have a devoted fandom that loves you because you write these complicated, lyrically dense things that tap into old myths, but you also have detractors who inevitably think you’re being pretentious. Does that bother you?
CM: I don’t know. I mean, nobody likes being called names, but I guess it’s a good thing, in that at least we’re raising some people’s hackles. It’s not totally milquetoast stuff. We have people who really love us, so naturally, of course, people are going to hate us. A band that has bookish tendencies and writes fake musicals about ancient folk-song characters is totally going to get shit on somewhere. And I’m totally aware of that. But in my defense, I remember having a slavish love for Morrisseyin the time when he had his most detractors. I think post-Smiths, those first couple records, Viva Hate and Kill Uncle, you were most likely to read snarky comments about Morrissey in the press. And it was always interesting to me—you have an opportunity to be like, “They don’t have any clue how funny he is. They’re just kind of taking it all at face value.” That was the beauty of Morrissey. The thing about him I always loved is that there were certain songs that could be taken either way. They could be serious in this kind of maudlin narcissism, or he was being funny, and poking fun at himself. And either way, you could relate to it: You could either bask in that glow of fatalistic narcissism, or you could think it was funny. I always thought that was an interesting dynamic in his songwriting, and I can only aspire to have that kind of dynamic in my songs.
AVC: When you recorded your EP Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey, did you have any intention of removing them from the Morrissey character to see whether they leaned one way or the other in a new context?
CM: To be honest, I was really just singing songs I liked. I didn’t really have any thoughts that they’d—I do think it’s an interesting experience to see how the songs would hold up in a folky, stripped-down acoustic version, but I don’t think it was ever that thought-out. I think it was just mostly, I wanted to dig in and tackle these Morrissey songs that I really love.
AVC: Do you have an artist in mind for your next Colin Meloy Sings EP?
CM: I kind of pushed around—every once in a while, an idea will pop up for the next time around, but it’s probably going to be a while before I do another solo tour. I do have this idea of tackling a classic synth-pop record and doing the whole thing as close to the original arrangements as possible, kind of like what Gus Van Sant did with Psycho, but I would recreate Some Great Reward by Depeche Mode note for note. I think it would be an interesting exercise, if nothing else.
AVC: When you did your solo tour last year, you previewed some songs from Hazards Of Love, describing the setting and the characters in novelistic detail before each song. It seemed like you had a lot of story in your head that wasn’t in the songs. Is it a problem if people don’t place or understand the songs within the context they have in your imagination?
CM: No, not at all. I’m hoping that people listen to it and just kinda create their own environment, I guess. I think it’s totally sort of a hack job at writing a real story. And I think that is also one of the reasons it would have made a pretty bad musical. It’s kind of weird and not very interesting, and there’s certain leaps of logic required. So yeah, I think it’s just intended to be taken at face value, and I’m hoping that people will be able to bridge those gaps using their own imaginations. I’m hoping where the lyrics are failing you, the music will help. I think it’s implying that there’s something more aggressive there than what the words may indicate. Similarly, I think there’s this sort of—the characters have their own voices, there are musical tones behind them. The queen’s songs are very heavy and expansive. And a lot of William’s songs are kind of pretty and melodic. Similarly with Margaret. So hopefully the music does add its own dimension to the narrative.
AVC: The storyline has a bunch of themes that come up a lot in your songs, particularly abduction, rape, and murder. Does that just come out of your interest in folk-song motifs, or do you have a particular interest in those kinds of stories?
CM: I do think I have a particular interest in those tragedies for some reason. But I also felt vindicated and not so much like a sicko when I dug into a lot of the bigwigs of the British folk revival. People like Anne Briggs and Nic Jones and Sandy Denny and June Tabor, Maddy Prior. When you dig into their material, you see that there’s kind of a common fascination—a lot of the folk revivalists in England particularly are really into the darker material. And oddly enough, I think there’s something to be said to a lot of the women singers who are focused on the darker-bodied material. A lot of scary misogyny was present in a lot of early folk songs. And I think there’s an empowering sense, this idea of revisiting these songs in a contemporary context is a way of not only highlighting what it was to be a woman in the 16th, 17th century, but also how those sorts of scary, violent events were omnipresent in these folksongs as well.
AVC: Speaking of woman singers, how did Becky Stark and Shara Worden get involved in The Hazards Of Love?
CM: From my initial conversations with the director and producer for the potential musical, just talking about approaches. I thought it would be kind of interesting if we were to do a musical, a classic Broadway musical, to cast our peers and contemporaries in underground music, or just people we had played with and liked. And Shara Worden and Becky Stark immediately sprung to mind just because I think of both of them as phenomenal singers, and kind of having a theatrical bent in their music and their stage performances. So from the very beginning, they were two people I thought would be awesome if we started doing a show, and I think as I was writing, they just ended up staying in my mind.
AVC: Were you actually writing for their range, for their voices, at that time?
CM: Well, I didn’t know their ranges well enough, and having never written for women before, it was all really guesswork, just assuming they were gonna have a far superior range than mine. So the two songs Becky sings, I actually wrote in my own range, because I was still writing for myself. But once I heard Shara sing, I was really intent on having them sing those songs, so I started writing out of my range, which was sort of a weird experience. And thankfully they were both willing and able to do the songs afterward. I don’t know what we would’ve done otherwise, because I couldn’t sing the songs.
AVC: Were recording sessions with the guest singers particularly different for you?
CM: Yeah, definitely. Working with the girls was kind of a huge question mark from the beginning. I don’t think we had a real strong idea about how it was gonna sound, or even if—I think Becky, when we sent over the song, said “Oh yeah, I can do that.” And we thought “Okay,” just assuming she could, but there were some notes that were super-high, and at some point before she flew out, just to make sure, we had to take out a Lavender Diamond record and look for the highest note we could find her singing, just to make sure she would be able to do it. And we discovered that she could, no problem. That was definitely a challenge. There was also the question of whether all the songs would go together. Creating the transitions was really hard, and the little musical motifs that pop up throughout. So for the first month or so we were working on it, the entire thing was just cut up in these little bits. And some were as long as 15 seconds. And so it got really, really confusing. On top of that, none of the songs have catchy choruses or anything, so there was no title. Something as basic as creating a working title was really challenging, and the titles were always weird and amorphous. Even if it was a lyric from a song, it was hard to figure out which song we were referring to, so that was a little confusing.
AVC: The plan for the Hazards tour is to perform the entire album as a first act, and then older songs as the second act. Are Becky and Shara going to come on the tour to do their parts?
CM: Yeah, definitely. They’re coming out for the first part, and maybe we can rope them into helping out with some of the other songs, too.
AVC: Given the problems you had last year with illness in the band and the last Decemberists tour falling apart, is it a concern that now you’re going out on tour with even more people, including guests who aren’t necessarily as invested in the band?
CM: No. I have faith that it will not go bad.
AVC: The last time we talked to you was a few years back, and you talked about how you’re a homebody who’s never been comfortable with the touring lifestyle. Does doing a solo tour make things any easier or harder than doing a big group thing?
CM: I guess it’s a little bit more mellow. There’s a little less pressure, in some ways a simpler setup. A little bit more relaxed. But then also there’s also—doing the big tours is exciting, because you get to put on the big show and everything. But I don’t know if I would prefer one over the other. I guess it’s no secret that I just don’t like touring in general, but it’s sort of the reality of the business these days.
AVC: What about the songs themselves? On your solo tours, you strip down songs you originally recorded as huge symphonic numbers. Are there Decemberists songs you’re more comfortable with as solo numbers, or any you don’t like as much in acoustic form, but feel required to play?
CM: I guess the true form of any of the songs is what we’ve done with the band. I think it’s just fun for me to kind of break things up a bit and go out and play them as they were originally written, which is just me and a guitar sitting on a couch. In that respect, it’s fun, and I think a certain small percentage of our fan base is interested in hearing that as well. So they come out to the shows, but I tend to think of the songs as really intended for the band from the beginning, from their nascence. There is an attachment that I have for songs when they’re just little babies, when they’re originally written. But in the end, I think they were always intended to be band songs.
AVC: So are there no songs that you wrote specifically for solo tours?
CM: Yeah. Even the songs on Decemberists records that don’t have anyone else playing them, I still think of them as Decemberists songs.
AVC: A lot’s been written lately about how in the mp3 age, the album is dead, that people just aren’t interested in full albums anymore. Did you hear any of that from Capitol Records as you were planning an experimental concept album?
CM: They’ve actually been really supportive, though we didn’t really tell them what we were doing until about halfway through the recording process, when the A&R people came in to listen. I think we initially thought some people would not be happy with it, but for the most part, they’ve been really supportive. We’re a band that doesn’t necessarily bring in a whole lot of money, but we don’t really cost that much money, either. I think they’re just happy to have us, for whatever reason, and they’ve really allowed us to do whatever we’ve wanted.
AVC: It’s entertainingly contradictory that you’re going directly from releasing a series of singles to a full concept-album. Was there any calculation or particular intention behind that?
CM: No, it’s just how it happened. I don’t know if there was anything contradictory. I mean, I guess that’s sort of going back to feeling penned in by what you’re sort of expected to do. I don’t know why we would be married to this idea of creating four-minute songs all the time.
AVC: The Decemberists have been associated with a lot of entertaining videos, particularly of The Tain. As you were writing or recording The Hazards Of Love, did you ever think about how the story might be told visually?
CM: No. Actually, once we got over the idea of it being a stage musical, I really jumped into it with the idea that there wouldn’t be any literal treatment in animation of a video or anything like that. I didn’t think about that at all. I really liked the idea that it would exist purely as something you would just listen to, like a radio play. Necessarily, we’ll probably do a video for one of the songs, but I don’t think it will be any kind of literal retelling of the narrative of the song itself. I think I wanna try to keep the kind of orbiting things, the content you create around a record, as being inspired and influenced by the aesthetic of the vibe of the record, rather than any kind of literal retelling of the story.
AVC: What’s the status of the children’s book you were writing with your wife?
CM: Everyone asks me about that. I think it’s so funny. Is it a Wikipedia thing or something?
AVC: You discussed it in another interview I read. Maybe it’s just that people are constantly describing your songwriting as “literary,” and they’ve been expecting you to write a book for a while now, and this is the closest they’ve come.
CM: Yeah, I guess so. It’s happening, but it’s really on the back burner. Sort of on the furthest back burner. Imagine sort of a six-burner stove, and it’s in the farthest corner. I think Carson just got busy doing other kids-book projects that she was really excited about, and it just kind of—I mean, we’re contracted, and we’ve already taken part of the advance, so it is definitely an eventuality, I just don’t quite know when.
AVC: Have you thought about doing books in general, as a side project?
CM: Yeah, definitely. I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it, is the thing. I’ve been approached a lot about doing that. Maybe people do insist from the songwriting thing that I have a book in me. But I don’t know if I’d be actually any good at it. I’ve been a little reticent to dive into it, just for fear of failure, to be honest. But I’d like to. The intention is there, I just don’t know if I’ve got the goods.
AVC: What kind of fiction do you read for fun?
CM: All sorts of stuff. I just started reading Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, which is really good, but that’s not to say that I read entirely period fiction. I just finished The White Tiger, which is really great. I read all sorts of stuff.
AVC: You just brought that book up on Twitter—your comment was, “WT was totes rad btw.” Which seems hilarious, given your high-flown lyrical style.
CM: [Laughs.] I know what’s expected of me, I guess.
AVC: Where’s the pleasure for you in these terse little communiqués?
CM: Well, I don’t know. Yet again, I guess that’s coming back to what’s expected of one. I guess people, just from what they read, think that I exclusively read Thomas Hardy novels over and over again. I’m a normal person, and I’m not a Luddite. I think there’s a place for emoticons in the world. I’m not really a grammar stickler. I think it’s fun to make fun of grammar sticklers. I think you’ve got 140 characters in a Tweet, and it’s all about e-conomy.
AVC: There’s a perception out there that you cultivate obscurity for obscurity’s sake, both in your subject matter and in some of the things you do. Bringing out little found-art objects and introducing them by name on your solo tours, for instance.
CM: I guess I’m not really aware of that. I think that’s—I like that when other people do it. I think cultivating obscurity can be a good source of comedy, but also mystery. I think one of the awesome things about Belle & Sebastian initially was the weird shroud of mystery surrounding them, but I don’t know that it was anything engineered. I think it was really coming from the way they were as people. But as a music fan, in a world where you were starting to see bands more heavily marketed, to have a band that just didn’t feel comfortable posing in their own photographs, so they would dress up or get their friends to join in, suddenly felt like a breath of fresh air. It was mysterious, in some ways it was cultivating the obscure, but also there was something kind of refreshing about it as well, and funny.
AVC: In the same sense as asking about Twitter—given the density of your music and all the $5 words, why is “I’m Sticking With You” such an appealing song to you that you’d re-record it and release it as part of your singles collection?
CM: I don’t know. I know it sounds ridiculous to people, but it’s always been one of my favorite Velvet Underground songs. I love Moe Tucker singing and then going into that duet. It’s such a short, simple song, but it does so much. And then that beautiful outro where the band comes in, what I think is the quintessential Velvet Underground moment. Just the simple, driving beat and the repeated guitar refrain. It’s just a really well-written little song, and so since we have a girl in the band, I thought it’d be a good idea to actually tackle it.
AVC: Again, when we last talked to you, you suggested that you were going to slow down The Decemberists’ pace after four albums and a handful of EPs in five years. Sure enough, it’s been three years between The Crane Wife and The Hazards Of Love. After that much of a break, do you want to get back up to speed? Or do you like taking this much time for a project?
CM: I think I really like taking the time. It was three years, but it feels like it’s really sped by. And I know that a lot of my friends in bands, if you really want to do it right, you need to be a lot more aggressive than we’ve been, but I think there was kind of a fork in the road at some point where we see it laid out before you, the opportunities. You can either choose to sort of invest more of your life and drive yourself super hard and maybe become more successful or maybe not, but we sort of chose the other route, which is I think better, at least for me. To spend more time in what is, to me, the more interesting aspects of it, the creating and the writing and recording aspect, rather than the slog of the media blitz and the promo tour. So that’s where I feel most comfortable and I’m sure that’s how we’ll continue from here on out.