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Interview: Colin Meloy of The Decemberists

"I don’t think people will play this album in shuffle mode.”

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Interview: Colin Meloy of The Decemberists

Colin Meloy, center

The Decemberists were formed by songsmith Colin Meloy in Portland, Oregon, in 2000. Across five albums of rattling folk-rock and whimsical lyricism, Meloy has fashioned The Decemberists in a particular, idiosyncratic style, culminating in 2009's The Hazards of Love, an album built around a singular narrative.

Interview: 6 March 2009

Is The Hazards of Love a rock-opera?
“I’m fluctuating between fake-musical and folk-opera, but you’re free to call it whatever you like.”

A folk-opera? Even though it, y'know, rocks?
“It definitely does have more rock elements than we’ve ever had, but the germ of the record grew more from folk traditions than rock traditions.”

Was that germinating seed really Anne Briggs?
“Her first 45 was The Hazards of Love, four traditional songs, all unaccompanied voice, but none actually called 'The Hazards of Love.’ A title which, I then figured, was fair game. It seemed, to me, to illustrate the themes of much of the music arranged in the folk-revival of the ’60s, and the younger generation’s attraction to romantic songs tinged with darkness and violence.”

How did a title turn into an hour-long concept album?
“I started with a song called ‘The Hazards of Love,’ 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.”

Was writing this, as whole work, almost similar to The Tain?
“Almost. It also came about as an idea first: this rock reinterpretation of an old Irish epic poem. 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.”

Has the specter of ’70s prog dissuaded bands from making mythically-based works?
“Sure, but now we’re 30 years removed from that era. Quoting ambitious ’70s rock in 2009, there’s something interesting there. I must confess I’m not a student of metal or prog-rock at all. I’m looking at this through the filter of what I loved growing up: The Smiths, REM, Hüsker Dü. At that time, it was totally anathema to even consider concept records. Rock-operas were so uncool.”

Wasn't (Hüsker Dü’s) Zen Arcade a concept record?
“That’s the one exception! It was actually a model for working on this record. It’s one of my favourite records of all time, because it introduced the expediency and economy of punk to the grandeur and ambition of a sustained narrative.”

What did you want your concept record to articulate?
“I guess I was trying to hue as closely to the spirit of these old folk-songs as possible, whilst making them feel like my own. After a while, the narrative took on a life of its own, and dictated what I was doing.”

Did fashioning a whole story-arc allow you to approach songwriting in a more literary way?
“Well, if you're equating 'literary' to storytelling, then writing one sustained narrative obviously allows you to think of things as a grander work; a novel as opposed to short stories. But, I'd always guessed that when people said ‘literary,’ they meant it literally, like referencing books in songs, which I’ve definitely done before. That descriptor gets bandied about a lot, and I never know exactly what it means.”

It sure beats the descriptor ‘literate,’ which I always thought meant ‘able to read and write.’
“We get that, too. I feel proud that people are able to recognize my skills of basic literacy.”

Is The Hazards of Love a rebellion against the single-track downloading era?
“I don't know. We get told that the album is dead, and it’s an exciting thing to talk about, but I think people still listen to records, still like to hear songs in a collective context, where there’s a through-line that unites a body of work. I don’t think people will play this in shuffle mode.”

Does this album, like a novel or a film, need to be experienced as linear work?
“Not necessarily. Going back to Zen Arcade, the most rewarding way to listen to it was from start to finish. But, y’know, Side 3 held its own on its own if that’s all you had time to listen to. Hopefully, somebody will read this interview and think: ‘that’s an interesting idea, sitting down in front of your speakers and devoting a whole hour to listening to an album from start to finish.’ But, if you want to play it while you’re doing the dishes, I can't stop you.”

Don't shows where you play the entire album in order suggest you're demanding the narrative be respected?
“I think it suggests that I like it best that way. And, with Shara and Becky coming on tour with us, I think it’ll be a cool way of experiencing this music.”

Are you going play up the ‘fake-musical’ credentials? Make it a little more stagey?
“No! I hope that people just see it as a play for voices. It’s something to be listened to, and don’t pay any attention to the people behind the scenes. The onus will be on the audience to create their own theatrics in their heads.”

What do you think of the new Morrissey record?
“I think, as with the last three records, the lyrics and the melodies are so great, but I just wish that he would try something else out, production-wise. He’s been in one solid mode since Maladjusted, I’d like to see him try something different.”

Are you still influenced by hearing new records?
“Absolutely. Being a professional musician hasn’t killed my love of music, yet. A big recent influence is Black Mountain. I got into them a couple of years ago, and they became part of my love for newer metal. I love their approach to psychedelic mysticism.”

So, you’re into newer metal? The Hazards of Love isn’t out to reference Queen II or Led Zeppelin IV?
“I think it goes like this: we’re referencing Black Mountain, but they’re referencing Led Zeppelin.”

When you go out on tour, will you feel self-conscious ‘metalling out’ on stage?
“No! It’ll be totally balls-out; I’ve got an Orange 4-10 cab just begging for it. I’m really excited: I’ve never rocked out before! All my youth was full of lots of jangling. I was into these bands where rocking wasn’t cool, where guitar solos weren’t cool. This will be my belated metal phase.”

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