In the past few years, Portland, Oregon’s the Decemberists have, on the strength of their interminably weird, but consistently catchy and addictive folk-pop, become the toast of the indie rock world. And now that they’ve signed to a major label (Capitol Records) to release The Crane Wife, they’re only growing more popular, playing one of the biggest shows at this year’s CMJ. Interestingly, their music has gotten even weirder. Frontman Colin Meloy took some time to chat with us before heading out on tour.
The L Magazine: I know you guys have played CMJ a bunch of times in the past, but I wanted to talk to you about the fact that yours is being billed as one of the biggest shows there this year. How have your experiences with CMJ changed over the years? Colin Meloy: I actually had no idea that it was a CMJ show. I think we just happened to be playing at the same time, and they set aside something like 50 passes for CMJ pass-holders. I hope that people don’t get the idea that it’s open to anyone at CMJ because I think it’s already sold out. I think CMJ just kind of took it over for some reason. Not that we don’t love CMJ, but I just had no idea that it was happening. And I hope that it’s not misleading to people who want to come to the shows, and then get all the way across town and realize they can’t get in.
The L: What were your previous experiences like at CMJ? CM: We played the first time at a Kill Rock Stars showcase at some place in Brooklyn, and then we played a show at the Bowery. And it’s always kind of a jumble-fuck. That’s what all those festivals are like. I don’t want to bad mouth CMJ because I think it’s great, and it’s a great opportunity for people to get out there and have people from the college industry check them out. But I think it’s just another one of those jumble-fucks — showcase festivals where bands don’t get paid shit.
The L: There seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of the press you’ve received for the new record, even in a review we published here at The L — that there’s no sign whatsoever of you guys making a conscious effort to dumb things down for your first major label release, and that, in fact, it’s probably your most challenging record to date. Was this something you thought about, or did you try to keep it out of your head as much as possible? CM: Yeah, definitely. It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. It required a lot of thought. It was probably a year and a half worth of consideration before we finally decided to sign.
The L: More so than the business aspect, I was wondering if it affected your writing process at all. CM: Oh, right… Yes and no. This is the record we would have done regardless. I don’t think the label had any influence at all. If anything, we’d been wanting to be more confident and more assured of our voice, just to dispel any thoughts that we might be deliberately trying to make something more accessible in order to appeal to a mainstream audience, even though that, I think, is a little shallow. We just wanted to make sure we put out a confident record so that people knew we were still doing these records on our own terms.
The L: It’s interesting, actually. You’re right that it’s sort of presumptuous and almost insulting and condescending to assume that it’s something that would have crossed your mind. It’s almost as if people are acting like they’re surprised that you didn’t go out and make a very different kind of record. CM: I guess, considering the track record of what it is to have your major label debut. I mean, it’s probably more practical to make a really accessible record, and that’s probably the smartest thing to do: to make a radio hit and rest on your laurels for the rest of your days, even if you get critically despised. But I don’t think that’s anything a) we were comfortable doing, and b) I don’t think it’s anything we were able to do. I don’t think I’m much of a radio hit writer. So I just kind of write the songs I write and that’s it.
The L: Going back to what you started talking about before, I did want to talk to you about the business aspect of the record deal. We’ve traditionally heard so much about people warning against the major label thing, but it’s something that’s happening with a bit more frequency now. Do you think anything has changed over the years? Were bands just doing stupid things and getting fucked by labels, or have the times changed so that people at labels are different? Are bands just being a bit smarter in the decision making process and asking for the proper amount of freedom? CM: Well, there are still tons of bands who are getting fucked over and making bad decisions. And I do think that Steve Albini’s essay is still really important. [If you’re not familiar with the essay, Google “The Problem With Music” – Ed.] Mostly, I think if you’re a brand new band, and maybe you have a single or something, and all of a sudden you get all this major label interest — I do think in that situation it’s a much better idea to sign to an indie label, because you have no one in your corner. You don’t have a fan base to potentially use as leverage, essentially. I think when we signed, we were kind of untouchable because we did have a fanbase, and we could continue to do this; it wasn’t like we needed Capitol Records in order to continue. It was something we could have done ourselves, and I think Capitol recognized that. And that’s one of the main reasons they wanted to be involved. They would have stopped us if we had made a record full of fart noises, but I think any indie label would have taken issue with that.
The L: Do you think you’ve seen anything change because of how much attention people are paying to things like blogs and online marketing tools. CM: Well yeah, it’s certainly given a lot of power to the music-snob world. All of a sudden rock snobs are more in power than ever, and I think it has a profound influence on the way the industry runs. They see a single person’s opinion and if he happens to be in a position of blog power, he’s somebody you have to cater to, whereas they probably wouldn’t have thought twice about that person five years ago.
The L: Where did the well-documented prog influences come from on the new album? Was it something that came out more when you had more time in the studio? CM: Yeah. All the songs were written from my perspective, being influenced by bands like Pentangle, but once I’d hand them off to Jenny Conlee, who has a really strong background in prog, like Jethro Tull and ELP, she kind of ran with it, and as a consequence, you have more traditional prog elements.
The L: How long were you guys in the studio for the new record? CM: About two and a half months.
The L: I know that you recently became a father for the first time, and I wanted to know if it’s changed the way you’ve thought about being in a band and following this line of work as opposed to another that might be more stable, and, not to mention, keep you at home a bit more. CM: This band is actually remarkably stable as far as a career goes. I guess it’s not the same as working for a mutual fund or something like that, but that’s the nature of rock and roll. But also, it was something Carson [girlfriend] and I had been intent on, the fact that I was going to be on the road a lot definitely played into the decision-making process. And I think part of me is just excited to have him grow up in this environment. We spend a lot of time with profoundly creatively people who are doing exactly the thing they want to do in life, and that’s a pretty powerful role model for kids.
The L: Do you think you’ll be taking the whole family out on tour? CM: Definitely. Once he gets a little bit older and isn’t as susceptible to weird sleep schedules and colds and the like. I don’t think a bus is a very healthy place for a baby. But as soon as he gets a little bit older, I think it would be an awesome place for him to be. (The Decemberists play Hammerstein Ballroom on November 3.)