While their fourth album, ‘The Crane Wife’, emerged back in 2006, it does seem like only yesterday that The Decemberists were bounced from cult college favourites to a worldwide indie success story with their first major-label available release.
Now, on the eve of the release of their complex fifth album ‘The Hazards Of Love’ – one that has had fans asking whether or not it’s really a rock opera – Clash catches up with the Portland group’s leading songsmith, Colin Meloy, to get the lowdown on the group’s latest LP, Obama and writing novels.
- - -
You’re releasing your new album later this month. Having so far used narratives on each release, can you explain what inspired the story behind the ‘Hazards Of Love’?
The new album is a sort of fake musical – a folk opera, I’m calling it. The story was built entirely on motifs that appear in old folk songs. So the idea was to piece these motifs that are recurrent throughout these songs together, and have them kinda create their own story. With a little invention of my own.
The title was taken from an Anne Briggs album of the same name – is British folk something you have been drawn towards recently?
Yeah. I think over the last four or five years I’ve been heavily steeped in the British folk revival. I’ve always been a big fan, since I was a kid. But maybe when we Americans hear folk music the American folk revival is what comes to mind – Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie – and while I like the American folk revival it wasn’t until I heard the British stuff that was happening that I really found stuff that I loved. A lot of the American folk is taking this and pushing it into protest songs, but the British revival was just about reviving these old songs and staying true to that. I discovered Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins.
You’ve got (My Morning Jacket’s) Jim James and Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) on this album as a series of characters…
Becky voices all of the character Margaret’s parts. Jim did a lot of choral parts; he didn’t actually sing as a character. Then we’ve got Sarah Worden from My Brightest Diamond who voices other female characters. I sing the majority of the songs.
You’ve referred to the album as more of a stage piece. Can you expand on this?
Yeah… Well, initially it was supposed to be staged. We got approached by a director from New York to do a musical, so I was fishing around for writing a musical, which initially it was slated to be. But as the story progressed I envisaged it worked better as a record. It was too abstract; it would have been really difficult to keep the story in any literal way.
So will the stage piece be reflected when you come to play it live?
Really it’s intended to be a kind of a play for voices, if I can borrow the phrase from Dylan Thomas. This idea that it’s sort of a radio play that you can listen to, and absorb and take in the narrative that way. But it’s not supposed to be acted out.
So can you explain the story behind Margaret and William?
Well, Margaret and William are the two names that pop up throughout folk – sort of the John and Jane Doe of folk songs. So while they are different in that they do different things, they’re always the same sort of characters. Margaret is innocent, William almost monomaniacal in his quest for love or the thing that he most desires. So really it’s based on them being together and experiencing different events as they would.
People are calling ‘The Hazards Of Love’ a ‘rock opera’ – is that something you’d agree with?
Yes. It’s a kind of homage to the golden era of rock opera. Like ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ meets ‘Tommy’, I guess – the heyday of the ‘70s. I would call it a folk opera though, as it has folk influences instead of rock, but then you get into trouble from the Broadway musical traditionalists. I guess it means different things to different people.
This album has taken you the longest to write – were you consciously taking your time with this one?
We were doing a lot of touring after ‘The Crane Wife’, so I didn’t have a lot of time or opportunities to work. When I did I was just writing typical songs that weren’t necessarily connected to one another. Then it had been about a year and a half after ‘The Crane Wife’ was release and I decided to scrap everything I had been working on up to that point. So I started from scratch and made a whole new record.
Do you think fans will be surprised by the new direction? Is it really a mix between Electric Wizard and Pentangle?
That’s about as good as we can come up with. I’m sure there’s a lot of folk or metal purists who would disagree, but it sounds good (laughs). We’ve messed around with metal and prog before, but I don’t think anything’s totally leftfield [on the LP]. There’s enough there that people who have been listening to us for a while might find new or different. But I don’t think it’s that weird.
You obviously have a very active imagination regarding storytelling. Have you ever considered writing a novel?
I may do something like that eventually. I’m a little intimidated, because I’m so into the luxury of writing three-minute pop songs. I’m kind of a lazy person, so pop song writing is ideal for people like me. You get all of the joy from writing a pop song that you can do in fifteen minutes, rather than spending eight hours a day on a novel.
You have writers in your family – do you think this filters into the stories you write for The Decemberists?
I think what my sister does is totally different to what I do. Her stuff is a lot more founded in reality. But you know, there’s something in our genes, evidently, that makes us love what we do.
You recently played at a Barack Obama rally in Portland, how was that?
That was incredible. It was his first really big crowd before it became more common in the lead up to him winning the election. At the time it was pretty astounding, 75,000 people and us representing our city. I’d lived with the idea that we had a President that didn’t share any of my core values, and to have such an amazing outpouring of passion for someone that did share my values, and to be on the stage, was a really exciting time.
How did you feel after the election outcome?
Elated. I mean, everything was totally fucked up after eight years of Bush policies. But there’s a lot of excitement now, and a lot of shit that has to be taken care of before they can start moving the country in a progressive direction. But I’m hoping that will happen soon.
Is the scene in Portland still as close-knit?
Yeah, I love being in Portland. Over the last couple of years it’s been getting a lot of attention for the music and arts scene, and its restaurants. It’s maybe developed the sheen of a city that’s a little too proud of itself, but it’s still a fantastic city. I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
- - -
The Decemberists’ new album ‘The Hazards Of Love’ is released on March 23, and the band tour the US throughout May and June. Find the band online HERE.
Listen to their new track 'The Rakes' below and download it HERE.