That’s a line that should be crossed. No law says we can’t cross high-minded figures into a style.
story by Matt Meisinger
The Decemberists play folk for people who prefer to take the road less traveled, with frequent stops along the way to smell the roses. Lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy paints vividly with his words, taking the listener into his mindset while jumping through time and adopting phrases and sayings from the past, like “pantaloons” for instance. Holding a creative writing degree from the University of Montana at Missoula, the 29-year-old could easily change careers as a poet or playwright. His clever wordplay dances along lush strings and acoustic guitars with just enough twang, making the Decemberists a perfect example of chamber pop.
2002′s Castaways and Cutouts featured subjects like ancient seafaring men, young ghosts and yearning to travel. “California One,” an epic, nearly 10-minute masterpiece about the meandering Pacific Coast Highway has many twists and turns along the way. He ends up crooning about a “youth and beauty brigade” with a clear head and a vision that comes to a weary traveler after a long drive.
Curt, short phrases used by Meloy could fill a book. He economically and carefully uses his words, doing a lot with little, never clouding the musical vision. His nasally tone has changed to more self-assured singing on their newest record, Her Majesty the Decemberists. Featuring a whole string section and more focused songwriting, the album could easily stand as a play, with strong character description and dialogue.
The album starts off with “Shanty for the Aretheusa,” an ode to salty scalawags and seaside towns of the past. Strings mimic the creaking of an old vessel, setting the stage for a port at the turn of the century. “We set to sail on a packet full of spice, rum and tea-leaves. We’ve emptied out all the bars and the bowery hotels,” Meloy groans as he begins the journey. The thoughtful lyricist later expresses a love/hate relationship with Los Angeles, an ode to writer Myla Goldberg and a Dickensian view of a ragamuffin in “The Chimbley Sweep”: “I am a chimbley, a chimbley sweep, no bed to lie, no shoes to hold my feet.”
Chicago Innerview spoke with Colin Meloy recently from his home in Portland (where he was getting ready to whip up some Indian food) about dinner plans, future writing plans and a really big addition to the band.
Chicago Innerview: Did you pursue your creative writing degree with the plan of becoming a singer/songwriter, or did that happen naturally?
Colin Meloy: That was natural, my time, I was intermittently writing songs to get way from stodgy aspects of fiction and prose. Songwriting was kind of a release. I was planning on taking few years off until grad school. My career just blossomed from there.
Chicago Innerview: Her Majesty is starkly different in the production. Songs sound more concise and polished. Can you comment on that?
Colin Meloy: Yeah, we went in to the studio to record, there was a real feel of devotion to the band, everyone was involved with the arranging written in smaller period of time. This album is much more orchestrated. We were crafting these deliberate little pop symphonies.
CI: Maritime subjects and an affinity for the past are prevalent in your work. Are you pointing to a specific period in history?
CM: Pretty general, like to spend as much time in each period, as body grows, not limited to 1850-1950, contemporary things like 16th and 17th century, little to do with time. It’s all about conveying believable characters in a believable setting.
CI: You seem to combine musical and literary influences at times, like if Charles Dickens played British pop music. Is there a line for you between them?
CM: That’s a line that should be crossed. No law says we can’t cross high-minded figures into a style.
CI: The string section gives the record a nostalgic, royal tone. Do you plan to use them live at all, or on future recordings?
CM: No, they were all members of Portland youth ensemble. Since they were all high school students at the time, they are probably all at their respective universities right now. Eventually, we would like to bring a section on the road when we can afford it, but right now it is insurmountable.
CI: “California One” from Castaways and Cutouts is an epic song in which you call for bedwetters and ambulance chasers to join, so is pretty much anyone welcome in the ‘youth and beauty brigade’?
CM: Pretty much (laughs). Once we played a show in Olympia, a guy wanted to join the club, which doesn’t exist in that capacity, so I had to explain that to him. Theoretically, one wouldn’t have to be youthful or beautiful to join, though, it’s all encompassing.
CI: What are your plans for the future of the Decemberists?
CM: Going to be recording new record in August, come out February or March in 2005. Another college tour this fall, then we will go over to Europe, there are other possibilities on horizons. I’ve been asked to write an off-Broadway musical. I want to start pushing out to narrative aspects of songs, writing more cohesive structures. I would love to write more theater and musical arrangements for theater.
The Decemberists will play at Metro June 4.