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After only four records in as many years - all incorporating thought-provoking
storytelling with indelible indie-pop hooks and lush productions utilizing
non-traditional rock instrumentation, such as accordion and upright bass - it seems
the Portland, OR indie-rock collective The Decemberists are poised to break through
to a much larger audience.
Despite leaving their previous indie label Kill Rock Stars for a more lucrative deal with major label Capitol Records, it appears with their most creative work to date (2006's The Crane Wife) that they've made the leap without sacrificing the artistic freedom they had on a smaller label.
Livewire's Tony Bonyata spoke with the band's front man and creative fountainhead, Colin Meloy, just prior to their aggressive Spring 2007 tour, where the singer spoke of inspirations, talking cats, touring and what he'd be doing if he weren't a Decemberist.
Livewire: You signed with Capitol Records last year. What are some of the biggest advantages of going from an indie label to a major label?
Colin: Well, obviously we had a bigger budget to work with when we were doing our recording. That was really great. And they just have a lot stronger marketing power and I think the potential to reach a wider audience is a lot greater with a major.
Livewire: Any disadvantages?
Colin: No, I don't think there have been any so far. It's different, though, you know. You can't just call and get the CEO on the phone, but that's not how they're set up. Our manager tends to do a lot more work just being our proxy of communicating with the label, but that also lets us focus on doing more of the creative work and not so much on the business side of things.
Livewire: What was the inspiration behind The Crane Wife?
Colin: All sorts of inspirations, really. Poignantly, from a musical perspective, I was into a lot of records from the British folk revival of the '50s, '60s and '70s, like Steeleye Span, June Tabor, Anne Briggs and Fairport Convention. That stuff really, in a weird way, informed what we were doing.
Livewire: Along with folk, you've incorporated elements such as prog and classic '70s rock into the mix as well. Did you go into the creation of some of these songs saying I want this to sound like Yes or Steely Dan?
Colin: I think some of that came out because we're a band full of record collectors and music obsessives. So I think that the potential is there to draw from a real myriad of influences. So, yeah, it was fun to use that kind of music as touchstones for some of the songs.
Livewire: To me the record actually sounds like the biggest departure thus far from your previous records. Do you feel this is really different and possibly grander than your previous efforts?
Colin: Yeah, I think it is a change from what our previous records have been. I think it's more of a cohesive record. A lot of the songs were written just prior to recording, so to me there's more of immediacy to the songs. I'm really happy with it.
Livewire: Your girlfriend, Carson, has illustrated quite a few of your album covers, including The Crane Wife, which are all beautiful.
Colin: All of them, yeah.
Livewire: I actually associate Carson's art immediately with your music and vice versa. They seem to compliment each other extremely well.
Livewire: I understand that the two of you are working on a children's book together.
Colin: Yeah, we're both really busy now with other stuff, so it's continually falling to the back burner. But we have a contract with HarperCollins and eventually I'm sure they'll start bugging us for a manuscript. We've worked on it here and there, but it might be awhile before it comes out.
Livewire: Is there any premise you can share with us?
Colin: It's about a talking cat living in 1920s Butte, Montana.
Livewire: And the inspiration for that?
Colin: I think it just came out of Carson being approached by the editor at HarperCollins asking her if she could do a kid's book. I think she immediately said 'yes' and we went out to dinner that night and just sat down and made up a kid's book story. We both have a real love for Montana, and Butte in particular. And we just decided to put our cat, Albert, in the story and it just went from there.
Livewire: I understand you and Carson have a son.
Colin: Yeah, he just turned one a couple of weeks ago.
Livewire: Do you find it more difficult leaving home to tour now?
Colin: Yeah, it's hard to leave him. I think we knew what we were getting into, obviously, when we made the decision. But we were also prepared to integrate him into our professional lives. So, yeah, it's hard sometimes, but we're making it work. He's actually coming out with us for about a week or week-and-a-half on this coming tour, so I'll see a little bit of him.
Livewire: You've got a pretty aggressive tour schedule for the next couple of months. What are some of the things that keep you sane while on the road for long stretches at a time?
Colin: Having the force of mind to make sure that you get some private time. I think that's really important to have a quiet, calm time, because so much of it is just rushing around and maintaining a crazy schedule. That is what's really the most important thing for me, I think.
Livewire: So you're able to always find or make that time from city to city?
Colin: Yeah, typically.
Livewire: I see you're also performing at Coachella this year. Have you played this before?
Colin: No, this'll be our first time.
Livewire: But you have played a few large festivals before haven't you? Didn't you do Lollapalooza last year?
Colin: We didn't... but we did Vegoose, ACL [Austin City Limits] and Sasquatch.
Livewire: I didn't see you on the SXSW bill in Austin this year.
Colin: No, we've kind of sworn not to do that. [laughs]
Livewire: Because it's a swarming cesspool of...
Colin: Yeah, it's a swarming cesspool and they want to pay you $100 or something like that. It's really for up-and-coming bands bands that really need or want to do a showcase. I'd just as soon wait and got through Austin on tour and do it then.
Livewire: Do you prefer performing at large festivals or more intimate theaters and clubs?
Colin: You know, they all have their advantages and disadvantages, so I really couldn't say. Performing is performing. Sometimes it's nice to play in front of massive crowds - there's a nice epic feel to that, but there's also moments that I really enjoy playing to smaller crowds and really connecting with the audience.
Livewire: mtvU just ran a contest for fans to reanimate your "O' Valencia" video. I just saw the winning video and have to say the whole girl / TV set love affair is pretty cool, if not a bit tragic at the end.
Colin: Yeah, he [Kurt Nishimura] did a really great job.
Livewire: Were you personally involved in choosing this video as the winner?
Colin: Yeah, we were. We picked them. I think we were sent like the top fifteen entries and we went through those and picked the best one. There were some really great ones out of the fifteen we viewed. It's really amazing to see what people can do.
Livewire: Is there any new music from your contemporaries that you admire?
Colin: I'm listening to the new Arcade Fire right now. What I can only hear peripherally sounds pretty good. The new Shins record is really great. There's a band called Midlake that I really like and the band Land of Talk put out an EP that's really good.
Livewire: Any ideas as to what you might be doing if you weren't in a rock band?
Colin: Oh gosh... I think I'd probably be teaching English somewhere to be honest.
Livewire: If you could live in any time and place throughout history when and where would it be?
Colin: I would live in 1920s Butte, Montana.
Livewire: So it's full circle to you living in your own children's story.
|The Decemberists on tour now|
04/01 Norfolk, VA
04/03 Raleigh, NC
04/04 Knoxville, TN
04/05 Nashville, TN
04/06 Atlanta, GA
04/08 Orlando, FL
04/09 Tallahassee, FL
04/10 Birmingham, AL
04/11 Memphis, TN
04/13 Louisville, KY
04/14 Saint Louis, MO
04/15 Urbana, IL
04/16 Milwaukee, WI
04/18 Chicago, IL
04/19 Chicago, IL
04/20 Madison, WI
04/21 Kansas City, MO
04/22 Denver, CO
04/25 San Francisco, CA
04/26 San Francisco, CA
04/27 Las Vegas, NV
04/28 Indio, CA
05/03 Eugene, OR
05/04 Seattle, WA
05/05 Bellingham, WA
06/17 Manchester, TN
07/07 Los Angeles, CA
07/16 New York, NY
07/22 Troutdale, OR