Rock soars to new heights with Decemberists


June 4, 2004


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.


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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 short-story approach.

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 the lyrics.

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.