|TALKING DIRTY WITH THE DECEMBERISTS.|
|The summer of 2003 started with shock and awe, detoured to Mars for a bit, and then darkened the whole northeast for a day. But through all the weirdness, the Decemberists' first LP Castaways and|
|Cutouts was at home in
the stereo. Something about the cymbals in "July! July!" crashed
in a comforting way.
If The Black Table dares to think of spring, summer can't be too far behind. The Decemberists are taking a roadtrip in honor of the band's second full-length, Her Majesty the Decemberists, released in May 2003 on Kill Rock Stars, the label whose cynical name screams, "We are so indie rock, we don't want to be profitable." But, goddam, the Decemberists should be rock stars.
Both albums sport sexy songs, sexy in the way the soundtrack at Disneyworld would be if Disney moved to Williamsburg. Each track is a strongly-threaded narrative ripped from a dark and pornographic Brothers Grimm collection, backed with vibrant acoustic guitar, accordion, upright bass, and a variety of organ-like instruments of which only organ geeks know the brand and/or model number. Colin Meloy's stunning, bittersweet vocals are a major part of what makes his
songs from the brothel world so compelling.
The Black Table tried to take the boy out of the brothel for a bit and asked Meloy about Morrissey, hookers, obstetrics, and card games. Just the sort of things we've been mulling over.
BT: Though asking bands about groupies always makes for good copy, Decemberists' songs focus on mothers who are prostitutes and babies who grow up in brothel. That's much better.
CM: Absolutely. I don't think you would have a lot of luck with the groupie-angle of thing anyways. We are all very shy. We don't get a lot of groupie action.
BT: So talk to me about prostitutes and whorish-mothers.
CM: That's where our sexuality usually tends to crop up. The more seedy, the more dramatic. Also, it is so anathema to deal with really crude sexual themes in pop music that to do it is ... umm a lot of fun? It makes it interesting. Especially using prostitutes and things like that because not only does it create this sort of violent sexual tension, but also these characters evoke centuries of history. There is a lot that is packed into these characters.
BT: But what about all the birth? Babies aren't sexy.
CM: Yeah, a lot of birth and death. That is also drawing from the long tradition in folk music involving the death of babies and the birth of babies. When more traditional folk songs were being written and developed, the birth and death of babies was a situation that was sort of synonymous. It was such a huge experience [for a woman] - to birth a baby - to survive it. The survival of the baby itself was an amazing feat in and of itself. The drama behind that and the amazement of that process - the sadness of it and of the inevitable death. It's the tension of that, put into song.
BT: Do you get tired of constantly being compared to Neutral Milk Hotel?
CM: No ... it is sort of silly at times. I don't want to say it is bad journalism. I don't think it is; in any bit of music journalism, I look for those flag points myself. There could be worse flag points for our band.
BT: Such as?
CM: Well, White Snake? Or some [band] like that. I don't know if that is possible. I like Neutral Milk Hotel and I think Jeff Magnum is a phenomenal songwriter. I don't necessarily see where the correlation is. We both draw from really similar influences. When I first heard NMH, I related to it because he was drawing from the same things I draw from - Robyn Hitchcock, REM, Camper Van Beethoven. Things like that.
BT: Tell me about the band. Who else is in it?
CM: We are a five piece. Rachel [Blumberg] plays drums. Jenny [Conlee] plays keyboards and accordion. Nate [Query] plays upright bass. Chris [Funk] plays pedal steel and electric guitar. And I play guitar. And I also sing.
BT: How old are you? What were you doing before the Decemberists?
CM: I am 28. I was at school, getting my degree in creative writing at the University of Montana. And then I moved to Portland. I had spent about a year after I graduated trying to do music in Missoula, thinking it would be such an ideal thing to live in Missoula, Montana, one of the most gorgeous places on earth, be able to be a musician. But that is sort of an impossibility. So we moved out to Portland where there was a scene more conducive to what I was trying to do.
BT: Have you ever been completely obsessed with a band?
CM: Oh yeah. Many times.
BT: What bands?
CM: Oh ... lets go way back. My biggest obsession was probably Morrissey. I was collecting all of the singles that he released, which amounts to something like 20, not including the LPs. It's been this life-long quest I thought I had grown out of like five or six years ago. But I actually just bought another single about six months ago. So I haven't completely schlepped off that obsession. But any band I really liked, I've developed an obsession over - Robyn Hitchcock I'm still pretty much obsessed with. Once I'm attached to a band, I basically have to get everything that they have.
BT: Is it strange to think of people having a similar experience with the Decemberists?
CM: It is certainly sweet. That is how I've always approached music that I love. I've never been the sort of fly-by-night, peripheral music listener. It's always been something that's taken a very central role in my life and so if people are finding that the Decemberists are playing that role, I'm flattered. I'm super happy it is reaching the right people.
BT: In the song "My Mother was a Chinese Trapaze Artists," a child's parents lose him in a canasta bet. What's the most you've ever lost in a bet?
CM: In a poker game or in a bet in general?
BT: In any game.
CM: I've lost $30 in a hand of poker. I'm not much of a betting person. If I bet anything, I'll bet like 5 dollars. I haven't made any massive bets.
Month By Month, With the Decemberists
The Decemberists are pretty obsessed with months. The Black Table put Colin Meloy to the test and asked him to pick something -- a movie, a book, a record, a food -- that goes perfectly with each month.
BT: Do you even know how to play canasta? I don't even know what canasta is.
CM: No, I don't actually. I only know what it implies... this bizarre, anachronistic, old-people's game. Not to put down canasta players. It's just sort of lost its edge over the years. But I would love to play.
BT: It seems like a game that could easily incorporate drinking and/or stripping.
CM: Exactly! But you don't here about a lot of people playing strip canasta. I would be curious.
BT: Your songs have a sense of antiquity about them. Do you ever feel like you would belong better in some other time?
CM: I'm always sort of in and out of that. When I was a little kid,
I desperately wanted to be an elf. I think I've gone through many periods of wishing I was anywhere but where I am. I have a very active imagination so as a kid I was constantly living in this [alternate] world.... be it, like middle-earth or some apocalyptic wasteland.
These days I'm more realistic about where I'd like to escape to. I think that I'd like to escape to ... the 19th-century-thing is sort of the obvious choice. But I'm not one of those diehard Civil War reenactment fans.
BT: So how do you explain wearing Civil War outfits in your press photos?
CM: OK. I guess a little bit. But not to the point that I'm actually doing it. I have certain fascinations. Like, early 20th century ... maybe in Austria? Something like that.
BT: The really unique thing about a lot of the Decemberists' songs is that they are such beautiful, picturesque stories. When you go to write songs, is it narrative driven or character driven?
CM: I think it depends - the song dictates where that comes from. I've come to a point where it is difficult to write anything that isn't narrative driven. That is where my mind sort of automatically goes to. Whether it is more character or more narrative driven.... it just depends on the songs. I'd like to think the songs all have strong characters and that necessarily requires a strong narrative. So, a little bit of both.
BT: What's the sexiest song ever?
CM: Oh gosh. I was actually just thinking of that. "Time of the Season" by The Zombies.
BT: And the sexiest Morrissey song?
CM: That's easy. Skin Storm... a rare b-side to the "My Love Life" single, which was never actually released on a record. "We shelter in our skin storm..."
BT: Cool. I'll have to download it.
CM: Yeah, if you can find it
[Found it no problem ... it is indeed a motherfucking sexy song]
BT: So what's been your experience playing live?
CM: Our live shows are sort of falling apart at the seams. It seems like the instrumentation on stage is so .... some of the stuff is so old that inevitability, something is going to break at some point. You always have to be prepared.
BT: Like for when your Theremin craps out?
CM: Actually, we have a Theremin on the first record but we decided not to make it a constant part of the band. Just because it is a little hackneyed, a little overdone. We are striving for different.
BT: What is the first album you ever owned?
CM: Oh geez. I remember getting Chicago 16 for my birthday. But I think I was, like, in first grade. The very first record I discovered and bought for myself was Scritti Politti's "Cupid & Psyche 85." Classic synth- pop, British- pop.
BT: So is synth-pop is what puts you in the mood?
CM: Is this another "sexy" question?
CM: I would have to say Atlantic rhythm and blues. Sam and Dave. Aretha Franklin. Roberta Flack. Oh, and Leonard Cohen, he puts me in the mood. Scrap that other stuff. Chelsea Hotel. That is one of the sexiest songs ever.