The Decemberists – Phases and stages
When Meloy returned to Missoula to finish his degree at the University of Montana, he switched his focus from the thespian arts to writing, but theater still plays a prominent role in his aesthetic today. At a recent benefit for 826 Seattle (a not-for-profit organization that helps young people improve their language arts skills), he joined author/radio commentator Sarah Vowell and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie onstage to act out all the parts in a hilarious, autobiographical three-act play presented by author Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket. And one of the best-loved songs in the Decemberists repertoire is titled “I Was Meant For The Stage”.
But his experiences treading the boards run deeper than just the ease with which Meloy conducts himself before audiences. “I grew up listening to Godspell, Guys & Dolls, The Music Man, and a lot of Sondheim,” he says. “I still like to listen to a Sondheim musical now and then.”
This element would come to the fore in the Decemberists. “In some of my songs, I am drawing on the musicals I grew up listening to,” he says. “There are different characters, and voices, and conflicts there, that were probably influenced by my theater background.”
Studying literature and writing also influenced his evolving voice as a musician. “While it may not directly inform what I do in my songwriting, it certainly gave me a chance…to just be immersed in words and writing,” he explains. “I got to pick, and figure out my voice and my aesthetic, and how I liked words to be strung together.”
Despite his academic credentials, in the end Meloy opted to become neither actor nor writer. Instead, he packed up and headed west, to Portland.
Jenny Conlee was meant for the stage, too. Or rather, the concert hall. She holds a B.A. in piano performance. Sometimes her conservatory training proves an asset to the Decemberists. If they bring in guest players, she can write out charts for them, and she has a lexicon of harmonic tricks at her disposal to suggest when a song requires a specific type of transitional passage.
There are other instances, however, when she wishes she knew a little less music theory. “Colin will play these chords, and I’ll go, ‘What is that?'” she admits, sounding a bit exasperated. “I’ll want to categorize what he’s playing.” Is it a Franco-Prussian 6th chord? A major-minor 13th? No. “I write down all the notes, and it’s just…a Colin Meloy chord.”
What’s the line about defining good art? You know it when you encounter it. That was Conlee’s reaction when a friend took her to see a Meloy solo show in 2000. “I’d never heard Tarkio before,” she says. “But some of his music…it was great.” After the gig, they were introduced. Conlee mentioned her accordion skills. They began working together almost immediately.
Chris Funk had a similar lightbulb moment. He was an aspiring booking agent, and had heard Tarkio’s I Guess I Was Hoping For Something More. One night, he walked into a venue and immediately recognized the voice onstage: “That’s Tarkio boy!”
It would be awhile before Funk officially joined the Decemberists, but in the interim, he did his best to spread the gospel of their music. “I actually remember sending a Decemberists record to the A&R person who eventually signed us to Capitol,” he says; at the time, they passed.
After playing as a guest on the first two Decemberists records, Funk finally became a full-time band member. Meloy knew better than to let a reliable pedal steel player get away.
The Decemberists may not have sprung forth fully formed from the noggin of a great Greek god, but their sound was firmly in place on their self-released debut EP 5 Songs in 2001. Compare the disc’s version of “My Mother Was A Chinese Acrobat Artist” to the one on the 1999 Tarkio EP Sea Songs For Landlocked Sailors. The muscular electric guitar of the latter is gone, and Meloy sings with a flair and vigor previously suppressed. Accordion and steel guitar phrases illuminate his images of romance and espionage in prewar Paris.
The Decemberists were no ordinary indie band. In cleverly orchestrated press shots, they looked more like Civil War reenactment buffs than Death Cab For Cutie or Bright Eyes. But they faced the same obstacles. Members came and went; Query left when his wife went off to med school in the Bay Area, then rejoined the fold — commuting between cities for rehearsals — when his replacement, Jesse Emerson, departed after Her Majesty, The Decemberists. Coming back from tour with enough money to make rent was always cause for celebration.
“Every success, every early victory, was the smallest thing, but it had a lot of weight,” Meloy says. “Like when we just had the 5 Songs EP, and I would burn copies on my computer. If somebody would write in from L.A. or New York to order the record, that was a huge deal. Those are the things that propel you along.”
With each tour, each record, the triumphs gradually escalated. The band had its detractors — some found them overly theatrical on cuts such as the robust “Billy Liar” — but their supporters were far more enthusiastic, smitten with the quintet’s mixture of antiquated musical styles, articulate lyrics, and craftsmanship.
Creations such as “A Cautionary Song” — wherein a young mother beds her child, then whores herself out to sailors in order to feed her offspring, pranced a fine line between the black humor of an Edward Gorey cartoon and a Victorian novel — mainlined into fans’ memories via melodies as evergreen as any saloon sing-along. And it was easy to love a band that credited guest performances on Chromatic Harmonica and Blood Curdling Scream.
The climax of this epoch arrived in 2005 with Picaresque. From the insert photos of the band dressed to illustrate the various songs (including a hilarious one of Funk and Query as rouged rent boys plying their trade “On The Bus Mall”), to the seafaring epic “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, all their established trademarks were on display. There were poetic turns of phrase — “From all atop the parapets/A multitude of coronets/Melodies rhapsodical and fair” (“The Infanta”) — and gripping vignettes about street vendors, secret agents, and failed athletes. It was the quintessential Decemberists album, and very deliberately so.