Catching Up With... Colin Meloy
As soon as I hit the button, I knew I’d done something horribly wrong. I’d just spent 20 minutes speaking on the phone with Colin Meloy about his latest projects: A live album (Colin Meloy Sings Live!), a limited-edition Sam Cooke covers EP and an upcoming solo tour. But with one misdirected jab of my finger, all audio evidence of the conversation was lost.
There goes 20 minutes the Decemberists’ frontman might have spent doing anything else, like playing with his two-year-old son or recording a fourth homage EP to a favorite songwriter (in addition to Cooke, he’s covered Morrissey and Shirley Collins) or scrounging about for a new obscure folktale to pen a 20-minute, bouzouki-tinged rock song about—you know, the usual things one imagines Meloy doing on a Friday morning when he’s not conducting endless strings of phone interviews with jittery and irresponsible young journalists who don’t know their REC PAUSE from their REC STOP.
Fortunately, he was willing to carve out a bit of time for a brief rematch. Taking a titular cue from the man himself, here’s Catching Up With Colin Meloy, Pt. 2.
Paste: Thanks so much for letting me redo this.
Meloy: I’m sorry, that sucks.
Paste: No, it’s totally my fault. Pretend like I’ve never asked these questions before and that they’re all new and exciting.
Meloy: Okay, I’ll give totally different answers.
Paste: You recorded all these live tracks two years ago. Why did you decide to release them now?
Meloy: It was just a question of—to be honest, and this probably seems wonkish, if "wonkish" is the right word. Anyway, it might seem wonkish to say this, but it was just a matter of finding the right sized hole in the Decemberists’ schedule for it to happen. This [spring] was going to be kind of a protracted time off anyway, so it seemed like a good time to put out the record before it got too far away from the original shows.
Paste: That’s not too wonkish.
Meloy: No, that’s not wonkish.
Paste: The Decemberists are on Capitol now. Why is this release on Kill Rock Stars?
Meloy: It was actually negotiated into our contract when we signed with Capitol that we’d have the freedom to release this record with Kill Rock Stars.
Paste: So much time has passed since then and so much has happened for your band. Is it nostalgic to look back on these recordings?
Meloy: Yeah, I guess. It’s funny to look at what life was like, for one thing, before we signed. I think the ink was barely dry on our deal with Capitol. And also, it was just before my son was born—so there’s a sprightliness in my voice that has been extinguished.
Paste: (laughs) Oh, no!
Meloy: (laughs) I was probably getting a lot of sleep then. I was about to go through a time where I would not be getting much sleep.
Paste: Is “Wonder” about your son?
Meloy: Yeah. It’s more about being pregnant—or, you know, Carson [Ellis, Meloy’s longtime girlfriend and Decemberists’ illustrator] being pregnant. Not so much my experience, but my way of digesting what was pretty earth shattering—in a positive way.
Paste: Have there been more songs written about the more harsh realities of parenthood?
Meloy: No, no, no, no, no. Occasionally, I’ll write songs on the spot about, you know, “Eat your steamed carrots.” Or, “Don’t mess with dad’s record player.” Those sorts of songs. But they’re spontaneous, they exist for a moment as an instructional piece, and then disappear into the ether.
Paste: So the next EP won’t be Colin Meloy Sings Cautionary Parenting Tales?
Meloy: (laughs) No, no.
Paste: That’s probably best. What’s it like playing Decemberists’ songs without the rest of the band?
Meloy: Initially, it always feels a little liberating, at least on last few tours, because I can kind of start and stop songs, I can screw up without throwing everybody off, I can talk as much as I like without worrying about people getting antsy to move on to the next song. I guess those are the more obvious differences. But then it always gets a little lonely after I’ve done a handful of shows. I’m sure by the end of this tour I’ll be ready to get everybody on stage again with me.
Paste: Do you just travel around by yourself? Do you drive your own van?
Meloy: The last few [solo tours] were shorter—they were only a couple weeks—and both times I flew everywhere. I think the first time it was just me and Carson going everywhere, and then the second time was just me and the sound engineer, Rich, flying everywhere. But this time it’s a little bit more of an ordeal. It’s a longer tour. We’re going to be on a bus, and Hank and Carson—my son’s name is Hank—are coming along for the whole tour. We have a nanny, we have a tour manager and a sound engineer, and the opener is traveling with us.
Paste: Is that Laura Gibson?
Meloy: Yes, it is.
Paste: And she collaborated with you on the Sam Cooke EP, is that right?
Meloy: Yeah, she sings harmonies.
Paste: “Dracula’s Daughter” [introduced as “the worst song I ever wrote” on Sings Live!] became “O Valencia!” [the first single from the Decemberists’ 2006 Crane Wife]. How often do horrible songs become good songs, or do they mostly just stay horrible forever?
Meloy: (laughs) Oh, I remember this..
Paste: Yeah, we talked about meat [in the first interview]
Meloy: Oh, right, right, right. The handling meat analogy—my famous analogy
Meloy: ...Which is probably an ill-advised analogy, but I’ll use it again. So, “Dracula’s Daughter”—I was just kind of playing around. I actually got the idea from a Marcel Dzama drawing, and it turned out—it was funny because I read Daniel Handler’s book Adverbs and he made mention of somebody writing a story called “Dracula’s Daughter,” so it was a weird coincidence that’s not connected. Anyway, I wanted to write a song about Dracula’s daughter and make it a loping, swingy, back-and-forth chord progression. I started writing it, finished the middle eight, and I was like, “No, there is no way I will ever play this in public.” I kind of put it away and then eventually came back to it, came back to the chord progression and played that around with a different rhythm and came up with the idea of “O Valencia!” And I think the meat analogy comes in because you asked if that happens often, and I’ll respond to that by saying it doesn’t typically, because usually I’ll write a song and if it’s bad I just leave it be. It’s like handling meat in that you don’t want to touch it too much, to keep the freshness. Songs that you kind of blaze through and be done with them—I think they tend to be better than the ones you’re constantly coming back to, trying to fix and change, trying a new verse or a middle eight or a different chorus.
Paste: In real life, do you literally handle meat a lot?
Meloy: I eat meat, so I do handle meat from time to time. The sexual connotation
Paste: (laughs) Oh no. I felt as soon as I asked that. Oh God, this is so inappropriate.
Meloy: (laughs) This is a family magazine
Paste: Sorry, sorry.
Meloy: I know from working in the service industry, and also being—I like cooking. I like watching cooking shows—well, I don’t know if I like watching cooking shows, but I’m a sort of a collector of recipe books, and one of the main things they always say is, when you’re handling meat, don’t touch it too much.
Paste: I just prefer not to touch it because I’m afraid that I will become instantly poisoned.
Meloy: Yeah, see, that’s the thing, man. I think that America—you know in Europe, people let their fowl, their beef, sit out on the porch for weeks on end. We’re an over-refrigerated culture. I think everybody’s so panicked about e. coli and salmonella that people get panicked about dealing with meat. (laughs) And I don’t know how we got on this subject
Paste: (laughs) I don’t know. I’m so sorry that it’s taken this turn.
Meloy: (laughs) It’s awesome. It’s different, it’s nice to talk about it. Granted, that’s how you avoid getting e. coli from a hamburger in Budapest, which happened to me once.
Meloy: Yeah, it was really gnarly. I got so sick. So, you know, there are downsides and there are upsides to being overly paranoid about food contamination. But I do think—for the record, I’ll just say that I think Americans are a little too paranoid about meat.
Meloy: There, I’ve said it. That can be your headline.
Paste: Okay, that’s great. Hopefully we won’t have any angry vegetarians reading this that just become so upset
Meloy: Oh, God.
Paste: Let’s not think about that. Before I
run out of time, what are your plans after the solo tour? Are you going
to start a cooking show?
Meloy: Uh, no. After the solo tour, we’re going to come home and actually go to France for a month. We’ve rented a house in the south of France, and we’re going to hang out there for a month and do nothing but cook and read and write songs. And then I’m gonna come back and get married. And then right after I get married, [the Decemberists] are going to go into the studio for two months and record a new record.
Paste: Oh wow, that sounds like an exciting post-tour.
Meloy: It’s going to be an exciting spring and summer.
Paste: Do you have any idea right now if there’s any direction that the new album is taking? Or has it just not sprouted yet?
Meloy: It has, but I’m instructed not to say anything. It’s going to be kind of wild and crazy and nothing we’ve really ever done before, but there’s still negotiations and plans being hatched and it would be premature to really go into details.
Paste: That’s understandable. Well, I guess that’s all—somehow I managed to fit this in half as much time as last time.
Meloy: Yeah, every time you lose stuff and come back to it, you always work more efficiently.
Paste: Yeah, I think last time I asked you
something about politics and you said you were supporting Obama, and I
was afraid to say anything to skew my interview one way or the other so
I was silent for a long time.
Meloy: Are you not into Obama?
Paste: Oh, no, I totally am. I just didn’t want to get too excited, so I overcompensated.
Meloy: Oh, right. No, I’m in total, full support. You know, our boy’s still in the lead. It bums me out. This is exactly what’s happening with this protracted primary—I have a feeling that Obama supporters like myself are just becoming more and more attached to him and more and more aggressive, and I think Clinton’s supporters are as well. So I’m afraid that if it starts getting more negative—like it seems to be skewing now that Hilary seems to have all of her whole approach, her whole, new, more aggressive approach—that it’s going to skew that way, and it’s going to make the individual camps more attached to their candidate and less likely to codify around one candidate when the primaries are actually over. That’s what worries me. And I just think that Clinton’s been scurrilous in her approach as well as her campaign guy, Mark Penn, who I think is a douchebag—and you can quote me on that.
Paste: (laughs) Okay, this is gonna make people angry, all this meat and politics.
Meloy: (laughs) Meat and politics! Talkin’ meat and politics with Colin Meloy.