The Decemberists, 2006
By Mark Guarino
Bands fight, bands break up, bands litigate and then, a few years later, bands reunite to pay off the lawyers and ex-wives.
The cycle of rock ‘n’ roll acrimony seems an inevitable part of the life until you meet The Decemberists. After five years of making consistently charming folk pop masterpieces, the band remains in perfect harmony with one another, epitomizing the communal good cheer only the Partridge Family seemed to attain, even with future hell-raiser Danny Bonaduce on bass.
Ask the band their secret and they’ll give an answer that would make Shirley Jones shudder: age.
“You don’t make it to your mid-thirties in a band without learning people skills that enable you to work together,” said keyboardist Jenny Conlee, 34. “There’s a lot of respect.”
“We’re squared-away folks,” said multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, 34. “We’re older than a new band that goes out and gets wasted every night. No one has a drug problem. We all see each other as talented. There’s no ego struggle going on. I don’t have any ambition to be the frontman of the band. Everyone’s content.” “I guess that’s cool,” he laughs.
Maturity may keep the band from fighting over the tape player in the van but what helped groom a dedicated following for the first part of this decade is a whimsy and wonderment in songs best be described as childlike. Although singer and songwriter Colin Meloy, 31, says his primary influence is the boozy genius of The Replacements (“I’d be the first one to agree that in no way in any of our music can you hear The Replacements,” he said), The Decemberists forsake teenage agitation for strange but compelling narratives that draw from fairy tales, footnotes in arcane history books, Biblical allegories and all literature great and small. The band feeds these archetypes through every aspect of what they do — artwork, packaging, photo shoots and live performances that often incorporate costumes, props and the occasional fake beard. If life is high school, The Decemberists is the art project that never quits, a continuing work in progress that adds to its mythology with every new album.
They are a band that could only rise from the creative incubator called indie rock. So it came as a surprise when the band announced its next album, The Crane Wife would be released, not on Kill Rock Stars, their home since 2002, but Capitol Records, home to Radiohead, but also the neutered Liz Phair. The dustbin of music history is lined with bands cobbled by major labels known to bankrupt not just bank accounts, but creativity. The Decemberists — a band known to record a sea chantey a two — seems like a prime candidate to get a reality check the hard way.
“I had a lot of reservations,” said Conlee. “This is a band that people discover and find. It’s not like it’s on the cover Billboard. It’s great to get great press but I don’t want to get overexposed. We’re not Christina Aguilera, we’re The Decemberists.”
The Crane Wife came from humble origins: the children’s section of a Portland bookshop where Meloy and Conlee worked until two years ago. It was suggested to employees that during downtime they familiarize themselves with the children’s fare. Soon after Meloy discovered The Crane Wife, a Japanese folk tale about a peasant who rescues a wounded crane only to have it return to him as a woman. They marry. The woman makes the man promise never to spy on her while she weaves wonderful cloth he brings to market. Like many men he nods but doesn’t listen. After peeking into her room, he discovers she is the crane, a dealbreaker that makes her fly off, never to return.
The moral is greed (it’s bad), but that’s not necessarily what kept the story swimming in Meloy’s head, long after he put it down. “It had an ancient feel to it,” he said. “It obviously feels like the product of an oral tradition, the narrative arc is weird. It felt like nothing a contemporary or western imagination could have created.”
Meloy’s songs share a similarly unwieldy storytelling style, in which narratives do not lead to major epiphanies but instead deal out payoffs through magical revelations weaved into the
“I got disillusioned with the idea of being a writer,” he said. “That’s why when I finished school I explored writing these elaborate exotic and weird narratives in songs. It was a reaction against the four previous years of western writing.”
Instead of Annie Dillard or Raymond Carver (the two fiction writing totems of the Pacific Northwest), Meloy discovered he was more entranced by idiosyncratic songwriters like Robyn Hitchcock, Paul Westerberg, Morrissey and Bob Mould. Growing up in Helena, Mt. meant cultural isolation so it was due to an uncle who sent him mixed tapes that introduced Meloy to the previous decade of underground rock he never knew.
“That really changed everything. Suddenly, there was a whole new world,” he said.
Meloy was becoming such a rock stylist that by the time grunge swept the Pacific Northwest and his peers discovered Nirvana, he dismissed the trend as a rehash. “Ripping off The Replacements,” he remembers saying. Looking back today, he has nostalgia for the days where each cassette brought new mysteries that intoxicated his senses in a way that would have been lost by a Google search.
“It’s really funny watching what’s happened in music, how the Internet has completely revolutionized the entire process. Part of me may be an old fuddy-duddy but it’s sad that the challenge of discovering stuff is gone now. Going into Portland or Seattle and walking into a record store was like discovering the Library of Alexandria,” he said.
The Decemberists came together in Portland, a city attractive to musicians due to low rents and a healthy music scene.
“It’s small enough where you can throw a cup of espresso in any direction and hit someone who is in a band,” said Funk, a Chicago native.
All five bandmembers (John Moen is drummer number three) share idiosyncratic backgrounds that make them perfect foils for Meloy: bassist Nate Query has established jazz chops, Conlee is a classically trained pianist and Funk is a former hip-hop manager (The Coup, Lyrics Born) who easily transitions from guitar to Theremin to pedal steel to whatever else a song might call for.
“Colin had a vision of having a pedal steel in the band with accordion and upright bass. I think we were all the people he could find to go on this adventure with him,” Funk said with a laugh.
With Meloy as the ringleader, The Decemberists started out naturally following his cues. “I didn’t think I knew everybody well enough to turn everything over to them,” he said. As time went on, the group developed into more of a collective and the albums they made reflected the intersection of their individual sounds. They evolved from Meloy’s love of twee British folk to albums and EPs that incorporated the epic grandeur of 1970’s prog rock behemoths like Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd. Although they are frequently categorized with The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and other newcomers beloved for their wild orchestration, The Decemberists have a musical vocabulary that appears limitless and a restless theatrical imagination that is constantly shifting.
Their commitment to the band was solidified in the Fall 2003, the day Funk fell off a motorcycle, crippling his right leg. The band just released Her Majesty, their second album for Kill Rock Stars, and was gauging how much they wanted to commit to making music that seemed, at the time, a strange amalgam of styles and storytelling. “I remember Colin coming to me in the hospital and saying ‘do you want to tour still?’ And me high on morphine saying, ‘yeah, of course’,” Funk said.
The bike was stolen the day it crashed but it wasn’t missed. Although he was “drunk on OxyContin” and unable to walk, Funk joined the band on their first tour on the East Coast, playing pedal steel guitar balanced on top of his wheelchair.
That partnership was tested last year when news broke that The Decemberists fulfilled their contract with Kill Rock Stars and were available to explore other options. By then the band was an underground sensation, playing to thousands of fans on the festival circuit and lauded in 2005 for Picturesque, an album of brooding and romantic symphonic pop that appeared on many critics’ year-end lists.
Having built so much up in so short a time, the possibility of having it destroyed with one bad contract was troubling.
“There was hesitation from everyone,” said Funk. “It was like, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. On the business side of things, it was great. Kill Rock Stars is a great label. And it wasn’t like people weren’t coming to the shows.”
The debate was especially difficult for Conlee. “I loved the safety of an indie label. I’m a bit naïve but I wanted to keep it simple. I’ve always been afraid of big companies and what they represent,” she said.
Meloy figured some long-time fans would be disappointed (“that’s inevitable”) but he trusted the move to Capitol would help more than hinder since The Decemberists were being pursued because of what they do and that everyone involved in the negotiations realized that this wasn’t a band interested in sharing a Pepsi spot with The Black Eyed Peas. While a major label might cripple a baby band, insecure and just stretching its legs, it could help spread the word further for an established band like The Decemberists intent to make music on their own terms.
“It felt like the riskiest move,” Meloy said. “There are people who sign to a major and create their own imprint and create the illusion that they’re still indie. That was suggested to us but it felt disingenuous for some reason. That would be more of a sellout move because it pointed out that you were concerned about it. If you’re going to do it all, you should just do it and not try to mask it.”
The Crane Wife is certainly not an album that sounds targeted to Wal-Mart shoppers. Co-produced by Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie) and Tucker Martine (Laura Veirs), the album spans acoustic pop, orchestral drama, sparse rock and Celtic inflection with song themes as extreme as the Civil War and Russian botany (see sidebar).
Unlike their previous three albums, The Crane Wife is The Decemberists at their most collaborative. Meloy played the band his demos only days before recording. Immediately they began the process of fleshing them out, often sending the songs from their original form into more celestial orbits.
The centerpiece is “The Island,” a three-part, 12-minute sprawl that shifts from crunchy rock to the sound of finely picked nylon strings to twirling keyboard indulgence. It is the showcase for Conlee who, for the first time, got to create instrumental organ sections that exposed her lifelong love of 1970’s classical rock trio Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “I’m a huge fan. In the past people were like, ‘Jenny don’t talk about that, it’s not cool’,” she said. “But now, prog rock is back in style, right?”
Although the ideas for The Crane Wife were percolating well before the Capitol signing, Meloy freely admitted that he couldn’t help but wonder how this first album would be received. When it came time to play the new songs for Capitol, the band reserved “The Island” for last. But to Meloy’s surprise, that and the other more epic songs were the ones that got his new label reps most excited.
“It’s sort of funny,” he said. “We went with the most conventional major label that we were talking to and turned in our most uncharacteristic and weirdest record to date.”
By Mark Guarino
Day jobs in bookstores produce well-read musicians. Case in point: former book shelver Colin Meloy who forsakes obvious song themes for more literary fare. The Crane Wife was inspired by a children’s Japanese folk tale he read while on the job, but Shakespeare, the Civil War and botany also makes cameos. Here are a few songs to keep a generation of rock critics studying for years to come.
The third part of it, “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning,” while I think it’s misread as murder song, it’s really a monologue of a sailor telling one of the cabin boys that, in rough seas, he should just go to sleep and he won’t feel the drowning. And that’s taken directly from (British travel writer) Bruce Chatwin’s (1977) book, In Patagonia, where that scene is described.
“Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”
That was just born out of first two verses: “Heart-carved tree trunk/Yankee bayonet/a sweetheart left behind.” I had that verse sitting there untouched for probably a year or so, maybe even longer. I always knew it suggested a story, obviously suggesting a Civil War-era story, but I never had the guts to finish it. But I did and after doing it all myself (I realized) it’s almost a perfect dialogue between two people. It just made sense to divide it into two voices. On the demo, Carson sings the second part; she’s my girlfriend and the illustrator for the band.
That was intended to be a gangland Romeo and Juliet. Even though I never figured out whether Valencia was the place or a name (laughs)! I think it had such a nice cadence to it. It’s one in a long line of Decemberists star-crossed lover stories. Also, that (guitar) line is deliberately ripped off of (R.E.M.’s) “7 Chinese Bros.” In fact so much so that we talked to Peter Buck about it and he gave us the okay.
“When the War Came”
This was an actual incident during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. There was a botanical institute called Babylon. During the siege, everyone was starving but all the botanists vowed to save the collection of grains and seeds and plants that they had collected from all over the world. I had read that in a (2003) book by Elise Blackwell called Hunger, a fictional imagining of that time.
I wrote it while in Ireland, just touring around. I was reading a book and it made reference to an actual group of people in Ireland in the 1970’s. They were this group of crazed guys who would get wasted in bars and go out and commit horrific murders using only cleavers and knives. In one incident, they actually strung someone up and flayed him alive. It’s so horrific. A story like that you would assume could only happen in the 18th century but then you find out it happened in the 1970’s. In the book I read apparently mothers would tell children if they didn’t eat greens or go to bed at bedtime, the Shankill Butchers would get them. So it took on crazy fairy tale aspect.