The Decemberists on The Decemberists: Seven Outtakes from Paste‘s May Cover StoryMusic Lists the decemberists
After Paste‘s not-really-in-the-woods cover shoot with The Decemberists in early February, the band and I walked from the photo studio to the Lucky Labrador Brew Pub a few blocks away for a really late lunch. Over BLTs, we talked about everything from the writing and recording process of their new album, The Hazards of Love, to whether or not the cannibalism in the longtime fan-favorite tune “16 Military Wives” was metaphorical or literal. (For the record, frontman Colin Meloy says, “I don’t know if you could figuratively feed people to cannibals.” I agree.) The band is a funny bunch, and the insights of our hour-and-a-half long conversation are interspersed with bursts of laughter and telling asides. It wouldn’t all work for the story, of course, but here are seven of my favorite moments that I just couldn’t squeeze in.
1. On manipulating the Anne Briggs vinyl market
Colin Meloy: I think honestly, to be totally honest, having watched the Anne Briggs market through eBay and Popsike over the last three years, I think I was personally responsible for a spike in the market [everyone laughs, Funk claps] right around 2006, 2007… I swear to God, I bought The Hazards of Love [Briggs’ debut LP, after which the new Decemberists’ album is named] and then all these people put their copies of Hazards of Love on to eBay to try to—because all of a sudden it was, like, “Okay, now’s the time to sell!” And then that sort of went on for a while, and since then I haven’t seen an Anne Briggs record pop up on eBay in probably, like, six to eight months.
John Moen: All the new owners of the record are deep in hiding.
Meloy: But it was interesting, there was this, like, crazy flurry of activity, of which I know I was a big part of…
Paste: And now, of course, there’s going to be all the devoted Decemberists completist collection people who will go to find a copy…
Meloy: This is all just to raise the prices again so I can get mine back on eBay.
Moen: Sell, sell!
2. On embracing unexpected narratives
Chris Funk: People always mistake music for being, like, someone’s voice, but you take this to film and it’s yesterday’s news. There’s horror, this whole catalog of horror, that teenagers watch and it’s okay. I liken [The Decemberists’ narrative songs] to that—that it’s part of a film, it’s part of an obvious story, part of a narrative piece. It isn’t Colin speaking, and people cannot get it through heads, and it baffles me.
Meloy: It’s a custom among our peers to listen to music that’s an abstract monologue of their lives, and that’s what we tend to think of as being the norm for this kind of music. And so narrative stuff outside of the scope of the person who’s singing it seems sort of weird. And I think I had as much issue getting my head around like, “The Legionnaire’s Lament,” off our first record, as this one. Because it’s like, “What the fuck am I doing? I wrote a fucking song about like a legionnaire?” And playing it, of course, at the time, in little coffeehouses and stuff like that, it was just…
Moen: You also rhymed “Frigidaire.”
Meloy: I was also expecting—I’d be like, “Everyone, this is really dumb, but I’m just going to play it anyway.” But then that was rewarding to have done that.
3. On tackling “The Rake’s Song”
Paste: Tucker [Martine, who produced The Hazards of Love] told me that you considered cutting the part of [of “Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”] with the kids. But that was actually when it really clicked for me.
Meloy: That’s one of the most flagrant narrative pieces. That really is a flag letting you know what’s happening. I think that was the issue—was it too narrative? Was it too obvious?
Moen: I thought it was necessary because “The Rake’s Song” was really hard for me, and I thought that it really sort of, in the arc of everything, makes “The Rake’s Song” okay, because we this lighthearted moment with ghosty kids and stuff. And so I thought, “Okay, for me, that can make doing this a little easier.”
Meloy: It’s a nice pressure valve for “The Rake’s Song,” which is good.
Paste: And Nate, these were your neighbors?
Nate Query: Yeah, my neighbors across the street. I hang out with them all the time, and two of the kids were in choir, and we were doing recordings in March and needed a group vocal thing… So they came in and did it and were great.
Paste: Was it made obvious to their parents, “So your kids are going to be singing this part…”
Query: No, I’m good friends with their parents, and gave…
Paste: “Mr. Nate’s friend Colin is a little weird…”
Query: I gave them the lyrics first and gave them the story-line and said, you know, “They’re dead kids singing about being killed by their father, but it’s a fairy-tale,” and [their parents] were like, “Oh yeah, whatever.”
Meloy: These kids were all raised on Lemony Snicket. Dead children is whatever.
Query: They were totally cool with it. I was more worried than they were.
4. On taking risks (and skiing)
Meloy: There’s some discordant bits [on the new album] for sure, stylistically.
Moen: I think that if you keep an open mind and it sounds great—going back to the song-writing thing of second guessing yourself, and not allowing yourself to do that one weird thing—there’s so many fine lines in all of that, it’s hard to know.
Meloy: And you’ll often fall on your face and it’ll sound ridiculous, but at least you tried it. It’s the old adage that, “The more you wipe out when you’re skiing, the better you’re doing, because you’re trying.” I don’t know if that—
Moen: That’s almost a sports analogy!
Meloy: A sports analogy!
[Laughter, Funk claps]
Moen: I love it!
Query: Alright, alright…
Meloy: When you’re doing the giant slalom—heh. But no, I think it’s true. We’re taking risks, there are a lot of risks. But I think there’s a precedent, too. We’re constantly mining the collective entirety of our record collections, and we’re music nerds enough that it’s always kind of a reference to something.
5. On balancing side-projects
Paste: How do you make time for all your other musical things?
Funk: Just start ’em and never finish ’em.
Funk: They’re all just for fun. I think of them as just for fun, things to do to learn to record better and be social. I have a kid now, so it’s an excuse to leave the house.
Jenny Conlee: You make a priority list, that’s what I do. Decemberists #1, and down the row.
Query: The Decemberists, when we work, we work a lot for a chunk of time and then we’ll have a chunk of time off. So during that time, there’s a lot of great musicians in Portland and it’s fun to play with your friends and stuff. So sometimes it turns into something, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Meloy: It’s nice to take a break from one another and work with other people or work by yourself.
Funk: And I do a lot of things, but none of them are, like, The Postal Service—not like you’re expected to go tour now or something… I would kill myself if I had to go do that, I think. So they’re just to keep—I feel like it keeps you musical. I have friends in bands who come home from tour and they go to the bar and they’re, like, rockers, you know. But this is the time in my life when I’m supposed to call myself a musician, and I should, I guess, be one. Colin writes and is active all the time. It’s not like we come home and put it down. I think we’re all trying to keep progressing in music on some level or another, writing songs or producing songs or just being active. And I think it serves the band really well. When we come to the studio we’re all sharp from writing and recording at home…
Moen: Just play with somebody different, who you haven’t played with before, and you always learn something, even if it’s a negative, like, “Oh, I’d never wanna do that again.” Whatever it is, you kinda are always gathering. It’s hard to resist, I think, when you come home and you have a chunk of time—it’s hard to resist trying to explore a little bit of something.
Funk: You also realize how good [our] band is… It’s like, “Wow, everybody can play anything in this band, anything in the pop and rock idiom, and classical too.”
6. On living in an indie rock Mecca
Moen: As long as I’ve been interested in music, there’s always been some town where everybody talked about. There was Minneapolis, the Twin Tone years [where it] was, like, The Replacements and Soul Asylum and all those bands. And then there was Athens, Ga.—R.E.M. and all the bands that went along with that. I think there’s always a place where people kind of, maybe, on a national level, look towards, like, “That’s where it’s really happenin’, man.” And I think it’s a really fleeting thing, for the most part. Although Portland’s been attracting people for a long time.
Funk: I just think it’s really mellow to live here. You can rent a house, have a rehearsal space in the basement. That’s changing quite a bit, but it’s just a small city, easy to get around. Used to be that you could get a job here pretty easily, but that’s kind of evaporating with the economy. Things have definitely changed… Portland’s, like, a blue collar version of a music scene exploding. People move here to work and live and enjoy themselves, as opposed to go to Portland to “make it”…
Meloy: John has issues with Portland stories, because he thinks the town is a little too proud of himself, and I kind of agree.
Query: I agree, too.
Moen: Checkin’ itself in the mirror a little bit much lately…
Meloy: Yeah, it really has been.
Moen: But that’s alright.
Meloy: [The Sam Adams scandal] could take it down a few notches. It’s like, “Hey, we’ve got the first gay mayor of a major city—ohh, he might be kind of technically a pedophile!”
Conlee: There’s not very many jobs.
Query: I’ve always been really proud of Portland. I’ve always been accused of being too proud of it, but I like it a lot.
Moen: Yeah, I’ve never wanted to live in any other town.
Conlee: The food’s gotten a lot better.
Query and Funk: The food is awesome.
7. On being cool (or not)
Paste: Do you guys feel like you’re kind of, uh, not cool?
[Pause, then laughter]
Query: [Laughing] Hey, what are you saying?
Meloy: Yeah, I’ve maintained from the very beginning that we are not cool. Oh, a cool rock band? No, at every turn, in the situations where we have been somehow considered cool, I’ve been surprised. I’ve been flattered and amazed. I think from the outset, though, I come from uncool stock. That’s my people. So that’s where I come from.
Funk: I was looking at those photo shoots we did today, and, like, the people who dressed us look better in the photo than I do. I’m always like, “Oh God, you should be in a band, bro. Not me.”
Moen: We just don’t fit the model all that well.
Meloy: But I also grew up listening to music like The Replacements, who, if you look at their photos, just did not look cool. They look wasted, they’re wearing plaid.
Moen: But that was kind of cool then, though.
Meloy: Was that cool?
Moen: I wanted to look like them.
Funk: Westerberg was pretty cool, had that rock ‘n roll hair and stuff.
Meloy: But, like, The Feelies—The Feelies just did not look cool. I loved bands, looking at their photos, if they did not look cool, I kind of dug them more. Like the drummer in Young Fresh Fellows was always my favorite because he looked like a Young Republican.
Moen: Yeah, he was one of my first drum idols, too. But Cheap Trick, you know, they used to put two of those guys on the back of the record cover. What if all of us were relegated to the back of our own record? The uncool guys on the back. But there’s a lot of freedom in not having to worry about that part.
Query: Yeah, it’s a lot easier to not be cool.
Meloy: If you put that same question to Kings of Leon, I don’t know how they would respond.
Moen: They look pretty cool.
Funk: That would be a great question for them, “Do you guys feel cool?”
Query: It’s better to ask, “Do you feel not cool?”
Funk: Then get punched.