When The Decemberists went on hiatus in 2011, none of us were sure when it might end. Guitarist and singer Colin Meloy was working on a series of children’s books; instrumentalists Jenny Conlee, Chris Funk, John Moen and Nate Query were focused on side-project Black Prairie, an experimental bluegrass band. Four years later, the Portland indie folk band has returned with What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, the band’s seventh studio album. We spoke with Meloy about the writing process behind the album and his thoughts on being in the spotlight.
Tuesday (January 20) is The Decemberists Day in Portland. Is it kind of surreal to have your own holiday?
Yeah, it is sort of surreal. I’m not exactly sure what will happen that day or how you’ll be expected to commemorate it, but it will be interesting.
You’ve written a lot from the point of view of different characters. A lot of modern songwriters seem to be focused on a first person, real-life kind of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think some of the magic of songs as stories can be lost. How much do you feel like you write about your own life versus writing as a character?
I think it ends up being what the song calls for, which is this weird elusive thing. I don’t really have any way of knowing what leads me in that direction, whether it be a narrative song about somebody else or something about myself. I think the less I have to do anything with it, the better. I feel like writing songs is like handling meat or hamburger. You don’t want to touch it too much or you’ll mess with it. There’s a certain amount of staying hands-off so you can let the thing become itself. For that reason, I can’t really get into why I write certain songs one way. The process of writing songs is still fairly a mystery to me. I could never be a Tin Pan Alley guy writing songs to order, like, “Let’s write a hit for this person!” Because I really, honestly, don’t have that much of a clue how it happens.
What’s your writing process?
It’s mostly me sitting in a quiet space where nobody has to listen to my wailings and I can sit and strum at the guitar and work through some chord progressions. Often a chord progression will suggest a melody, and a melody will suggest a voice for the song and tell me who is singing it. Is this my story? Is it somebody else’s? I think those three parts end up informing themselves, but it is a lot of shooting in the dark and a lot of finding dead ends. Or thinking, “This is the one!” and getting stuck on a verse and having to give up. My notebook is littered with half-attempts at songs, which sometimes become songs later on. It’s a messy process. Not very clean.
In “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” you kind of take on the idea of musicians as idols that fans try to emulate. Can you talk a little bit about what you were thinking when you wrote it?
I’m sort of sheepish to say that that’s me in that song because in my mind it isn’t me. I feel like I’m writing from the perspective of someone who isn’t me, but maybe a bolder version of myself. In my head, it was the singer of a boy band who has only ever known celebrity. How do you square with your relationship with your audience? There is kind of a weird captive ownership. Everything you do, really, you have to do in the name of your audience. I feel like that’s a relationship that every musician or performer has with their audience, but I think in that case it’s one that has gone too far and he feels like he’s too much in the ownership of his audience. And yet that’s all he ever wanted, was to belong to somebody. I feel like he’s sort of a tragic character.
It seems like often times fans can get upset if an artist changes too much. Do you feel like fans sometimes expect more from an artist than someone is capable of giving?
I think if you end up thinking too much about your audience, you get yourself into trouble. Hopefully whatever you’re doing is coming from a very genuine place and not this expectation that you need to please or pacify an audience. But as you get on, you can’t help but think about that. How long will people be buying our records? How long will people keep inviting me into their iPhones? That’s sort of the unknowable thing, and I don’t want to ingratiate myself and be that person constantly knocking on people’s doors. But you also don’t want to be abandoned either.
What is your favorite track on the album?
I like how “Till The Water’s All Long Gone” turned out. That was a fun song to write and to record. That might be among my favorites.
You described the album as “blessedly free of concept” in that you didn’t try to adhere to any guidelines when you were making it. Was that something you had always done in the past when you were creating albums? Having an idea of something you’re working towards instead of taking a step back and letting it be what it’s going to be?
I think the last couple records have been conceptual. I think Picaresque was sort of conceptual in that we rented out a church and recorded it there and the sounds have a lot of space to them, and a lot of the songs are very narrative. Hazards of Love is obviously conceptual because it is a concept record. On The King Is Dead, while the songs aren’t connected in any conceptual way, I do think of it as being conceptual in that we came into it being like, “We want to make a really simple record. Really stripped down. We’re going to record it in a barn. We’re doing everything we can to give it some earth, give some dirt to it.” So coming into this one, since we had so much time, we were talking to Tucker Martine, the producer, and we decided to just let the songs dictate the concept and not try to force any concept on them and see what happens. So in some respects it was sort of an experiment for us.
Do you think taking a hiatus and freeing yourself from the tour-write-record-tour vortex had any impact on that?
Oh, absolutely. One of the main reasons for the break was to kind of snap out of that routine and see what happens when you have a little bit of downtime. I was working on other things, and the band was working on other projects, and all of a sudden the songs I was working on were like songs I was working on before the band even started, when I was writing songs between my shifts at a pizza place. It was kind of nice to go back to that a little.
Is there an easiness that comes to making a new record when you’ve been a band for so long or do you still go through the same squabbles each go-round, in terms of how things should go and what things need to sound like?
I think we know where we work best, what our roles are. I think it makes for a pretty seamless work process. Nobody’s egos are really on the line and everybody knows what they do and what they do well and are ready to bring that to the studio. It’s very low-drama. Sometimes I wonder, “Oh, if we just fought a little bit more, maybe we might make better music. Maybe people would have to prove themselves.” But for the time being, this is how we are. We’re very amicable.
Do you ever do any collaborative writing where all of you write together, or is it mostly just you writing songs and bringing them in?
It’s mostly just me and that’s just the way it’s always worked out. I think some of the bandmates prefer the setup as being sort of a benevolent dictatorship, with me doing the songwriting and overseeing the arrangement and production. It just makes it so there aren’t too many cooks in the kitchen. The band also has a songwriting outlet in their other projects, so I think everyone is pretty satisfied with the arrangement.
Do you have a song of yours that you’re most proud of?
The song “I Was Meant For The Stage,” which was on our second record. It’s kind of a statement to the world. I think it worked well. It was such a funny song to play live when we were playing little clubs. There was an irony to it that now is almost completely lost. Once you start playing big theaters, the tragedy of it flips and suddenly it loses some of its shimmer. I still love that song a lot, but I loved it most in 2004 or 2005.