Colin Meloy of The Decemberists Talks About Creating "Conscious Obstacles" on Their New Album, I'll Be Your Girl

Interviews
03/27/2018
Owen Murphy
photo by Holly Andres
Transcription by Emily Harrop

KEXP loves us some Decemberists. The first time they were played on the air here was April 25th of 2002, and the last time was... well, today. It certainly grabbed our attention when they moved away from their traditional sound for a more synth-driven one with their eighth studio album I'll Be Your Girl. It’s a really interesting, engaging listen that challenges while also living in a familiar, unique, literary space. The new direction appears to be fueled by this strange social-political climate we find ourselves in, in 2018. Singer/songwriter Colin Meloy was kind enough to visit the KEXP studios in February and we started the interview, as all interviews should start, with a quote from the late David Bowie.


KEXP: This is a quote from David Bowie, mid-'90s, in which he is asked for advice regarding making music if you're a newer artist. He says: “… if you feel safe in the area that you're working in, you're not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you're capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don't feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you're just about in the right place to do something exciting."

Colin Meloy: Yeah, I've heard that interview before.

It feels to me (that) you're pushing yourself, the band is pushing itself. Specifically, this new song "Severed."

Well, I mean, I think what Bowie is saying is pretty universal. I think it's something that everybody should try to keep their eye on, the best they can. I think with "Severed" and with a lot of stuff on this record, it came from a place of wanting to find our way out of our comfort zone. To find our way kind-of deeper into the water. And it's a scary thing to do. And certainly, once you have something that's been successful, it's fairly easy to say, "Well, this is where we belong." And that's easy for me because the decisions that I make will feel pretty familiar going forward if we keep doing what we've been doing. And I think that lasted for a little bit. I think that I started to recognize patterns in my own songwriting and the way that we were working in the studio and arranging that felt suddenly felt too familiar.

And so it's really a question of, how do you get yourself out of that? You're living inside your work, it's hard to step outside of it and say, "Well, it should go in this direction, this is what it should be." So, I feel like we made some kind of conscious obstacles. One being working in a different studio, another being working with a different producer, and creating those obstacles necessarily would send us in different directions. So it's something positive about setting obstacles for yourself. And then similarly, I was sort-of inspecting what I was doing when I was writing a little bit closely, and feeling like, "Well, that feels like something I would have done, or that feels too familiar, it feels too comfortable, try something that doesn't feel comfortable, something coming more from the subconscious and see where that will take you." And often it takes you in terrible places, but occasionally something that you can kind of rally around.

There must be moments where you went somewhere unexpected, you didn't like what you had done previously, it was too familiar, as you said. And on this new record, you found yourself in really exciting territory. Are there a few moments that you can pinpoint that comes to mind as being, "Wow! This is something as a listener, you should listen for that moment right there."

Well, there's a bunch of them that kind of popped up, and I don't want to throw our last couple of records under the bus or anything. I don't think of these sort-of habits that were forming as necessarily bad habits. They were just familiar, and I think there will be plenty of people who are fans of ours who will long for that familiarity, which is maybe not there, and I just hope that people go along with us and trust us.

But as far as moments where that occurred, I think there's a couple. I mean, the first song on the record called "Once in My Life", we had been playing it live for a while, and it sort of developed its own arrangement and we kind of figured it out. It felt very sort-of early Decemberists, and we knew that we needed to do something different with it. Jenny [Conlee, co-founding band member] brought in the synthesizer and just laid down this obliterative of synth patch that felt so right for the sentiment of the song, for the drive, and the feel of the song. It felt so out of what we would typically do, but everybody immediately embraced it. So, I think that was a moment. I think another moment was another song we'd been playing live that had devolved into sort-of a blues jam. We were playing it in the studio and it just felt so soulless. It was called "We All Die Young", and all of a sudden it occurred to us to try to turn it into a "jock jam." The idea of, you know... played in like a sports arena somewhere, and sort of imagining ourselves as early '70s glam stars. And it really took a completely different direction. All of a sudden the song felt totally different.

That's been a device that artists have used. Bowie's Ziggy Stardust or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. You must have at different times throughout your songwriting career used other characters -- clearly, you have -- to inspire what you do. Why is it making a choice like that, "We're going to be a glam band." What's inspiring about that?

So often in my head, it's all about putting a target on the wall that you're throwing your dart at. Invariably you're going to miss it because if you did hit it dead on, you're just a cover band, or you're somebody who does incredible impressions of bands. But for us, we aren't that. At least from my perspective, I'm not a good enough musician to really nail that. So if I say, "I want to be Roxy Music on this record, or on this song." Invariably, I will be wide off that mark, but that dart will land somewhere fairly interesting. That's my take on it and we've done it in the past. I feel like with Offa Rex, the sort-of folk project we did with Olivia Chaney, it was putting a Pentangle record on the wall and like, wildly throwing darts at it and arriving somewhere completely different.

How does it feel to you to have this out now in the world?

I think it feels really great. I think we are sort-of reticent. I think, initially, "Severed" being the first song out there, it felt like maybe more of a statement than we were comfortable with. Because we knew when we were making it with that opening, with that arpeggio, like a synth arpeggio, it would be brand new color to what to what we'd done. Even though I feel like the synth thing is always -- you know, going back to, I think it was either Hazards of Love or Crane Wife and we were writing e-mails or letters to Wendy Carlos (legendary electronic musician and composer) to see if we could convince her to write some stuff for Hazards of Love. So we're all fans of vintage synth stuff and it pops in certainly in Crane Wife, here's a lot of Moog-y moments. But I guess this sort of aspect of synth world is fairly new to us even though having grown up listening to Depeche Mode, and Scritti Politi, and New Order, it feels second nature to me. I think it just really smacks you in the face.

If you were going to make a synth playlist of favorite songs what would that look like? Like top five songs, like a Depeche Mode song, New Order song, Maybe a Kraftwerk. If you don't have an answer, if it's too hard to remember stuff, don't sweat it.

Yeah, like making a playlist off the top of your head. I mean, half of Scritti Politi, Cupid & Psyche 85. You know, Some Great Reward, probably A Question of Time by Depeche Mode. There's some great Yaz stuff, Vince Clarke, early Erasure, early New Order. "Blue Monday" and "Temptation", things like that.

We've been rediscovering on the station early Ministry.

Oh, early Ministry is great! Their first single -- what was it called?

"I Wanted to Tell Her", or was it "Effigy"?

No, it's their very first single. It's not "Every Day is Halloween", it's -- that is a great synth tune. Can I just look it up? Because it's driving me crazy. [ pulls out phone ] All right. Here it is. It's called "Same Old Madness".

I don't know this one!

Oh, it's so good!

I wish he didn't hate his old music.

Yeah, I mean I was a fan of Ministry in high school, like The Land of Rape and Honey and that era Ministry. But I came around to the synth stuff later. Yeah, like Front 242, stuff like that. That was ever present as a kid.

How do you feel about your singing voice? I love it, but your voice is unique. And I'm hearing myself talk right now on this microphone and I sound like Ray Romano or Kermit the Frog, and I can't stand it. Do you like your singing voice? "How do you feel about it," I guess, is the better question.

Well, it's the voice I have, it's the voice I began singing with. I've heard it described in very positive tones. I've also heard it described as a donkey bray. In fact, the very first in-print review that we ever had might have been for Her Majesty the Decemberists when it first came out, and it was in a big magazine, I can't remember, in Spin maybe. And I remember going to Powell's and being so excited knowing this review was going to happen, and I'd probably cut it out and send a copy to my mom. And I opened it up and they described my voice as a donkey bray, and I've never forgotten that.

I'm glad I could bring that up for you. You're welcome.

Yeah, thanks for dredging up that old memory. No, I mean, I think my voice is... I don't know if my voice is good or bad. I enjoy doing it. You know, the act of singing and people either like it or don't. And I wish I had the perspective to -- you know, it's like that thing, would I like my own band? If I were a kid, would I be a Decemberists fan? And that's this weird unknowable thing. It's like looking at the back of your head. You'll never be able to do it.

If I were a kid, would I be a Decemberists fan? And that's this weird unknowable thing. It's like looking at the back of your head.

You wrote a song that is entitled "Everything is Awful", but to my ears it's fun-sounding. "Fun" may not be the right word, but it's up.

Yeah, well, that's an old trick, isn't it? Kind of marrying either the sort-of dour music with uplifting lyrics or, more often than not, sort-of upbeat melody with really dour lyrics. It's something that we've traded in since the beginning of our career. And it's supposed to be overly sweet. It'll give you a stomachache a little bit but that's what everybody feels like right now. And I was just talking about this idea of looking at the apocalypse and laughing. And I was reminded recently that there were a couple of guys in Hawaii who were there when the alert accidentally went out about the ballistic missile incoming, and they were on a golf course, they were golfing. And I think at that very moment, they went through exactly what they could do. I mean, I think in that circumstance, I think they were pragmatic in realizing the amount of time that you would have to actually try to get to loved ones, to family, to your kids in school, or even getting to shelter. That it was impossible. And so they just kept playing golf. And I think that sort of speaks to where we're at right now. We're all watching the ballistic missile coming in and the only thing we can do is keep playing through.

How does the world feel to you right now in this current political climate?

Oh, well, it's awful. I'm baffled, I'm angry, I'm confused, I'm cynical. I'm hoping that there are hopeful things, there are inevitable corrections. We just keep going back and forth, and hopefully, we will eventually find our way to middle. If we don't kill ourselves beforehand.

How old are your children?

5 and 12.

I'm a father as well. What is talking to them about how the world is now socially, politically, racially, etc. -- what is that like for you?

Well, I feel like the little one is too young and mostly keen on Batman and Spiderman, and lives in a very pleasant bubble. The older one is super hyper-aware of what's going on, and we worry that him carrying that stuff with him is only going to increase anxiety. But I feel like, in so many ways, he's sort-of more prepared for disaster than anybody. In fact, leading up to the election, he was really, really anxious about Trump. I think he had been hearing everything on the radio, the way my wife and I were -- just the way people were talking. Just hearing reports and people speaking in hyperbole in a way that -- he's autistic, too -- but in a way that an autistic 11-year-old wouldn't necessarily parse. Like, well, the apocalypse will happen and to him, it's like, is that literal? Or seeing books about Trump and being drawn to that. Anyway, he kind of developed this anxiety about it and constantly being like, "Is Trump going to win?" And I would be saying, "No! There's nothing that indicates that he will." So we're all going along, being like, "This is just a sideshow. Eventually, all of this will be over. President Clinton will carry us forward."

And so, of course, when the results actually came through, and he had gone to sleep, the first thing I was thinking was, "How am I going to be able to tell my kid -- who I've been telling over and over for the last however many months, that this is not going to happen -- that I was wrong? That this is actually happening?" And he came in in the morning and he asked what the results were and I said, "I'm sorry. Trump did win." And he said, "I told you so." And so while everybody else was tearing their hair out in disbelief, he was like, "Well, I told you I was going to happen." In some ways, so much more prepared than anybody else I knew was.


KEXP & STG present The Decemberists on Thursday, June 21st at the Paramount Theatre. I'll Be Your Girl is out now via Capitol Records/Rough Trade.

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