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The Decemberists - Artist Profile

Sailing the Seas of Whimsy

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The Decemberists

The Decemberists

Wendy Lynch
Core Members: Colin Meloy, Nate Query, Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk
Formed in: 2000, Portland, Oregon
Key Albums: Her Majesty the Decemberists (2003), The Crane Wife (2006), The Hazards of Love (2009)

The Decemberists are a folk-influenced indie-pop band based around the songwriting of Colin Meloy. Heavily indebted to both Morrissey and Victorian literature, Meloy's songs avoid the usual rock confessionals for bright, theatrical narratives populated with ridiculous caricatures. "As far as the lyrics go, they’re just a channel for my weird fascinations," Meloy has said.

Background

Meloy (born October 5, 1974) grew up in Helena, Montana. Harboring childhood dreams of being a songwriter, Meloy was a huge fan of REM, The Smiths, The Replacements, and Robyn Hitchcock. But he found his performative streak on stage in school productions. "I was always a really introverted kid," Meloy told the Portland Mercury. "I was always really nerdy and had a hard time making friends. [Drama] marked this remarkable sea change in me."

Moving on to the University of Montana's creative writing program, Meloy studied literature by day and, by night, fronted the band Tarkio. They would disband when Meloy, a year after graduation, moved from Missoula to Portland, in 1999; shortly after Tarkio had released an EP, Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors, that hinted at his future direction.

Relocated to Portland, playing open mic nights and shows in front of disinterested spectators, Meloy sought to reinvent his music, changing songwriting tack, heading towards the course that The Decemberists would sail.

"I’m not really into communicating feelings. I think that’s a naive way to go about it," Meloy explained, of his songwriting process, to OEbase. "I’m more interested in creating a believable narrative, a narrative that you can get lost in."

"Trying to create a narrative, you have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end," said Meloy, in a 2003 Pitchfork interview. "A song should follow the same pattern as a short story, or a novel, in microcosm. So having a good strong character and a good strong storyline is what can make a good song."

Beginnings

Upon relocating to Portland, Meloy soon met accordionist Jenny Conlee and stand-up bassist Nate Query, who'd go on to form the backbone of his new project, The Decemberists. Taking their name from 19th Ukrainian insurgents, the combo set out to make "big" music with a folkie edge, with Meloy's whimsical storytelling set to the fore.

Their debut album, Castaways and Cutouts was initially released by Hush Records in 2002, before being reissued by Kill Rock Stars. The set's songs were united by nautical imagery and seafarin' themes, introducing the band as a bonafide 'album' act. "When I moved to Portland, and it being by the ocean, it was all of the sudden, 'Ocean! Ocean! Ocean! Ships! Ships!'" Meloy joked.

Their second album, 2003's Her Majesty The Decemberists, served as their breakout work; with Meloy in command of an array of lurid caricatures and witty lyrical quips. Though copping continuing comparisons to Hitchcock and Neutral Milk Hotel, The Decemberists were nevertheless anointed as critical darlings.

The 2004 EP The Tain marked The Decemberists' first stab at genuine concept-record territory. "It came about as an idea first: this rock reinterpretation of an old Irish epic poem," Meloy told me. "When I came across it, I thought: 'if I was in a metal band, I'd make a concept record based on The Táin!' And then I realized: 'hey, I am in a band!' That sparked my relationship with over-the-top concepts.”

Arrival

2005's Picaresque introduced The Decemberists to a broader audience, buoyed by the snappy single Sixteen Military Wives. But it was 2006's The Crane Wife that really cemented their reputation. Their first recording for Capitol Records, the album was intensely conceptual, based on a Japanese folk tale about a crane. Peaking at #35 on the Billboard chart, and voted album of the year by NPR listeners, it marked easily the most successful record of The Decemberists' career to that point.

Meloy had once off-handedly claimed that he started The Decemberists to play at "socialist benefits in Portland," but in 2008 his political leanings became far more apparent. In May, The Decemberists performed in support of Barack Obama, then Democratic presidential candidate, at a rally in Portland.

2008 also found The Decemberists clearling out their back-catalogue: releasing a series of 12-inch singles known, collectively, as Always the Bridesmaid, with Meloy also offering up a live solo album wittily titled Colin Meloy Sings Live!.

Developments

in 2009 The Decemberists would unveil a grand concept album named The Hazards of Love. Sustaining a single narrative for over an hour, this stage-musical-esque set evoked both heavy-metal and the folk-revival in its whimsical rock-opera. "I started with a song called 'The Hazards of Love,'" Meloy explained, "in which I stole the genesis motif of innumerable folk-songs: a woman going out into the wild to pull flowers, and, thus, the adventure begins. By the time I got to the end of the song, the story felt like it was only just beginning."

The Decemberists would support The Hazards of Love with a tour that found them playing the album in its sequential entirety at each show.

In 2011, the sixth Decemberists album, The King is Dead, served as their coronation as humungous success story. A straight-forward folk-rock record involving bluegrass balladeer Gillian Welch and REM's Peter Buck, the LP surprised many by debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts.

In contrast to highly-conceptual longplaying works like The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, The King is Dead had absolutely no thematic through-line. "I was trying to free my mind from more academic music interests I had over the last four or five years, and trying or reconnect with some of the music that initially got me playing guitar and writing songs in the first place," Meloy said, to Billboard.

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