Rock hasn't heard an album
like "Her Majesty," the second full release by the Portland quintet the
Decemberists, since the psychedelic heyday of the late '60s, when bands such
as the Zombies and the Pretty Things built on the innovations of the Beatles
to craft fanciful, lushly orchestrated concept albums that recaptured an era
that was both lost to the passage of time and oddly timeless.
On sweeping tunes such as "Song for Myla Goldberg" (an homage to the
author of Bee Season), "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" and "The Soldiering
Life," bandleader, acoustic guitarist and songwriter Colin Meloy tells
witty, literate tales of Chinese bazaars, Los Angeles poseurs and the
camaraderie of World War I soldiers in Belgium, while the band creates
beautiful, intricately arranged pop music that is symphonic in its ambitions
and cinematic in its scope.
THE LONG WINTERS, THE PLACES, HEAD OF FEMUR
*Metro, 3730 N. Clark St
I spoke with Meloy from his home in Portland as he was loading his iPod
and stocking up on beef jerky in preparation for a four-and-a-half-week tour
that brings his band to Metro tonight.
Q. Tell me about the differences between making your second
album and the first.
A. It was kind of a different beast altogether. "Castaways and
Cutouts," our first record, was an amalgam of material that I'd been
collecting over a two- or three-year period, and also it was recorded at a
time when we just didn't have any money or label interest. Our drummer was
friends with the guy who ran the studio, so we were getting a cut rate. With
this one, there were more expectations; we knew that it was going to be our
first record with Kill Rock Stars, and we knew we'd reach a bigger audience.
We had more time, more money, and everybody was much more invested in it.
With "Castaways and Cutouts," everybody was juggling their day jobs and
maybe weren't so willing to spend day upon day in the studio, whereas with
this one, the outcome was a little bit brighter. A lot of the new songs were
written shortly after "Castaways and Cutouts" had been recorded, and they
were coming out of the same spell of productivity, rather than several
spells of productivity like the previous record had. In my mind, there was a
more cohesive feel to it, but in retrospect, they seem to be more individual
songs rather than they are of a whole. I think of "Her Majesty" as being a
collection of songs, whereas with "Castaways and Cutouts," we had so much to
choose from that we really tailored it a bit. There was a stronger
through-line, whereas I think there's a little bit more of a dynamic with
"Her Majesty," and a more diverse collection of characters.
Q. Is it important to you to craft an album that tells a story?
A. No. That may have been the mindset for "Castaways and Cutouts,"
but for "Her Majesty," the songs I felt were strong enough on their own that
there really didn't need to be any sort of strong through line. Even though
I think there is, there isn't as strong a meta-narrative or over-narrative
to the whole thing.
Q. Take me through the history of the band. How did you
guys come together?
A. I moved from Montana to Portland in 1999 and just started
playing in clubs and coffee houses as a solo act. Then I slowly met people
through the music scene. I met [keyboard and accordion player] Jenny [Conlee]
and [bassist] Nate [Query] initially, and then [guitarist] Chris [Funk] and
[drummer] Rachel [Blumberg], who's our most recent addition. It was a slow
and gradual process of bringing together these different musicians.
Q. What was your goal in forming the Decemberists?
A. It was to put flesh on the bones of the songs that I had been
writing. Initially, I think I wanted to be a solo performer, but then I just
felt like I was writing songs that required arrangements with band members,
and I think that's how I work most comfortably. We wanted to have it be sort
of unconventional, since the songs--at least the earlier songs--were pretty
conventional pop songs, usually straight 4/4, mid-tempo pop songs. Nate and
Jenny, the initial members, were pretty varied in their musical abilities,
so we decided to have upright bass and accordion be some of the main
instruments. Now, we also incorporate electric bass, Hammond organ and
keyboards, electric guitar, synth, pedal steel and drums and percussion,
glockenspiel and gong.
Q. Do you feel any connection to the "ork-pop" or "chamber pop"
movement--what bands like Yum-Yum, Cardinal and Lambchop were doing a few
years ago, or what the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and Belle and Sebastian
are doing now?
A. I don't know if we've ever been labeled that before. So much
attention gets put on the lyrical content--the songs themselves--that people
don't pay as close attention to the arrangements, which is something we're
trying to change. I think that the last album, and especially the EP "The
Tain," is sort of an exercise in arrangement, and we really are trying to
work on more innovative arrangements. I think the orchestral side--the
cinematic side of the music--is going to come through more and more.
Q. You mentioned the attention paid to your writing. What are
you trying to do with the lyrics?
A. I don't know that I have any particular goal in mind; it's not
like I'm trying to mine history of all of its anachronistic, archetypal
characters. My goal is just to create songs that have a solid beginning,
middle and end and a believable character. I guess I take sort of a
Q. There is this historical, nostalgic bent that reminds me of
"Odyssey and Oracle" by the Zombies or "SF Sorrow" by the Pretty
Things--that era in the late '60s when you had psychedelic rock branching
out to use the instruments of the orchestra and trying to tell a story in
A. What I liked about the era of psychedelic rock, especially in
Britain, is the idea of the exotic, or rock incorporating sounds that were
Arabian or Middle Eastern, which I attach to kind of a nascent Victorian
thing. That's what we subscribe to a little bit, but also the music, as far
as orchestral pop goes, I think we try to point to a lot of the "big music"
movement of the '80s, like U2 and Big Country and the Waterboys. I don't
think the Waterboys really get their due; granted, they took some turns that
maybe don't have much of a shelf life, but I think that what Mike Scott was
going for, his whole idea of "the big music," was almost this
quasi-spiritual thing, and that's always been really exciting to me.