There doesn’t seem to be much room in indie rock these days for bands of the more literate nature. Take the success of dancey, post-punk inspired bands like Hot Hot Heat or the Rapture and their howl-on-the-dance-floor style. It seems most of a band’s song-crafting energy has become more squarely focused on snazzy, erratic bass thumps than deftly constructed lyrical offerings.
Yet, the recent clamor over Portland-based bands like the Shins and the Decemberists hint at an ever-so-slight change in the wind toward a musical aesthetic devoted to tingly, enchanting stories slipped inside pop songs. A Decemberist show just a few months back at the Spaceland venue in L.A. filled out roughly to half capacity but was bursting at the gut this last Friday when they revisited the City of Angels on a West Coast tour.
Some might be tempted to write off the Decemberists as a more cult-based novelty-type band, what with their songs more devoted to sea shanties and Turkish prostitutes than heartache over the cute girl at the coffee stand. Still, their most recent release, Her Majesty the Decemberists, has only picked up speed, as well as a devout following, over the past few months with its lush instrumentation (including a steel guitar and accordion among others), intricately laced melodies and the pitch-perfect delivery of lead singer-songwriter Colin Meloy. After taking in their electrically charged live show, Artsweek managed to corner Meloy and wrangle a few key insights into how a Montana-bred creative writing graduate ends up fronting one of the most adored indie bands of the moment.
Artsweek: So, have you felt the growing buzz circling the band of lately?
Colin Meloy: For about a year, people have said, “Oh, there’s such a buzz!”, but I don’t think we really saw it, relative to our own experience in that we were used to playing in town and maybe once in a while we’d have a good show, but it was just as likely that we’d play to 20 friends. After Kill Rock Stars signed us, we did see a marked change in the amount of people coming to shows and buying records, but right after the record came out in October, we’re having these shows where just tons and tons of people are coming. It’s feeling weirder and weirder.
How did the band come together?
The actual biography is really nothing special. I moved to Portland from Missoula, Mont., in 1999 and started playing solo in clubs around town and slowly just met people through the music scene, and that’s sort of how it fell together. It’s really nothing like we met at an ice cream shop while working there and we all got fired at the same time or stuff like that.
Can you tell me a bit about the much-acclaimed Portland music scene when you arrived?
I think it’s really changed a lot in the last year. A lot of people who we were sort of in the trenches with for a long time have all of a sudden started to get a lot of recognition and press and signed to good labels, but nothing like mass industry attacking a scene. When I moved here, everybody was really struggling. There was Quasi and Sleater-Kinney, and I think a lot of people were moving here because they’d heard it was kind of a bastion for live music and for indie music. But, all of sudden, there was this huge pool of bands and everybody was fighting for crowds and for press and it was just too many bands. Everyone you knew was in a band. I hear people talking about how Portland is this thriving, really exciting place all of a sudden and I don’t know when that happened or how it started but apparently it is.
What does it feel like to be part of the legendary Kill Rock Stars family?
Oh, it’s great. It was really flattering when [the label] approached us. In my experience, and I think, like a lot of people, [my knowledge of the label] has been mostly through Elliott Smith, with some of those compilations that came out in the early ’90s, so I didn’t have much of a grasp on the entire roster. I’ve since had a lot of it shoved down my throat (laughing) and some of it is OK, but a lot of it is really, really great. Of all the labels I feel like we’ve come to know since we started doing music more and more, [Kill Rock Stars] has the most eclectic and diverse and consistently good roster of bands even though there’s so much disparity between them. I mean, what we have to do with Bratmobile or Bikini Kill, I’ll never know, but it’s certainly nice to be on the same label as Deerhoof and Quixotic and Hella, which are these amazing, amazing bands. It’s really nice to be part of that family.
A lot of reviewers like to mention your creative writing degree. How do you feel about that inclusion?
It’s sort of part of it. I don’t resent the fact that I have a degree in creative writing. Sometimes I feel like my time in the Writing Dept. could’ve been better spent writing songs but at the time I had no idea I would be doing this and writing songs was purely a side thing. The Writing Dept. at University of Montana is sort of infamous in that it turns out a bunch of Western writers who would write these naturalist, quasi-nonfictional, fictional memoirs about their difficult lives in Montana. I like that, but it’s definitely not what I wanted to do, and I think when I got my degree and started writing more bizarre, absurd or fantastic songs, it was almost like a reaction against that.
One of Artsweek’s comrades saw you all perform up in San Luis Obispo a while back and said it was a really memorable show.
(Excitedly interjecting) Omigod. The pot pie restaurant? [We performed] at a pot pie chain restaurant that had all the look of a chain with the posters and such. They were trying. It was obvious there were some people sitting at a table drumming up ideas for a new chain restaurant and one yells, “pot pies!”, and that was their Eureka moment. There’s only two of them and they try to look as much like a chain as possible and, well, pot pies, they’re gross. I don’t like pot pies. And then Chris Funk, our guitar player, got sick. He ate too many of them. But, yeah, we played there.
Lots of reviewers seem to also enjoy categorizing the Decemberists as “pirate music.” How do you feel about the pirate connection?
Well, the thing is that I’ve never written a song about pirates. Pirates are all well and good but they’re a little hackneyed and I think that the characters people construe as being pirates are actually a lot more complex. It kind of annoys me when people say I write about pirates. I think people find it easier to say, “Oh, yeah! Pirates,” and pirates are sort of hot right now in pop culture and that’s exactly the sort of thing I’d like to steer away from. Pirates are very hot and I don’t like to write about hot things.
Though they may stray from all things deemed appropriately trendy, the Decemberists are hardly afraid of the waves they’ve been making throughout the independent music scene. The next few months will place them headlining at San Francisco’s Noise Pop festival in March and along a smattering of tour dates with the likes of the Walkmen. Artsweek’s words to the wise? If you know what’s good for you, throw down that pot pie, take a breather from the dance floor and relish the Decemberists for all their sweet, lyrical glory.
For more information on the Decemberists, visit www.thedecembrists.com, www.killrockstars.com or www.allmusic.com.