Music: Seasick Poet

Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy discusses the band's latest literate foray, Picaresque

Alicia J. Rose

Front and center: Colin Meloy's nuanced period pieces are perfectly complemented by lush instrumentation from his khaki-clad clan of Decemberists.

Colin Meloy's imagination is as vast as his home state of Montana. Growing up in Helena, the young Meloy dreamed of being a Rock star when he didn't have his nose stuck in a book. Twenty years on, his dream is coming to fruition, not an easy feat for a guy who's more Victorian novelist than typical Rock & Roll frontman.

His band, The Decemberists, is the perfect vehicle for Meloy's unique vision. The Portland, Ore.-based fivesome released not one but two stellar albums in 2003, Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists. The rare double-dip is a memorable career-opening salvo featuring eccentric, highly literate period pieces about chimney sweeps, seasick vagabonds and Myla Goldberg, set to catchy melodies and lush instrumentation, and always delivered with emotional complexity.

Their latest, the big-sounding Picaresque (again on Kill Rock Stars), gallops out of the gate with "The Infanta," the epic tale of a princess "on the back of an elephant on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk." It's typical Meloy, complete with barons, camels and concubines set amid a "sky ablaze with cannon fire."

CityBeat recently spoke to the frontman via phone at his Portland home.

CityBeat: What was it like growing up a music fan in Helena?

Colin Meloy: Obviously my experience growing up was dramatically different. In one way, it would have been amazing having access to everything. But in another way, I kind of appreciate having that mythology built around finding an early Morrissey single. It put the onus on me to seek out certain things. And it also made — if I happened to be in a city like Portland or Seattle — going to a record store a reverential experience. I remember poring over Robyn Hitchcock 12-inch singles and New Order 12-inch singles and all the obscure import stuff that you could never find in Helena.

CB: You seem to have a keen awareness of who your fans are, the sociology of your audience. Most every interview ...

CM: Well, that's not necessarily my doing. But, yeah, there's a certain call to arms in the songs, this idea that if you feel alienated or feel like you don't fit in, come along with us. I think part of that is true. I do feel like we're championing an ideal that is kind of rare in modern Rock music — we don't want to be swaggery and full of machismo. We do want to champion the maybe more introverted, shy people. But then again, I also think there's a lot of people who write that only people of a certain level of education come to our shows. The myth that we don't want jocks at our shows is bullshit.

CB: I have a friend in Portland who remembers seeing you guys very early on. She said even then there was a distinct difference in how you carried yourself onstage. Can you talk about about that duality?

CM: Yes, it's there. I'm a pretty reserved person in real life. I have a background in theater, so I have great respect for the art of performing and have an understanding of what it takes to make a real connection with the audience. I find performing an energizing experience. Hopefully that comes across in our live show.

CB: You've talked about music being a form of religion for you. In what sense?

CM: It's one of the most powerful forces in my life. I was raised in a secular household, so I grew up kind of agnostic. But I'm a person of deep faith. What I have faith in is love, art, music.

CB: Your songs are incredibly detailed, almost like short stories. Tell me about your songwriting process.

CM: It is an attempt to create something universal and, by its nature, a song or character that people can find sympathetic. There's really no one way about it. Sometimes an idea will come to me, sometimes it's a general attitude or character or setting. But just as often it will start with a melody and a chord progression.

CB: In listening to the new record, "16 Military Wives" jumps out as an immediate departure. Why did you want to write such an overtly political song?

CM: I don't know. It just sort came out. I think of it not so much as a protest song as an ironic look at what the world around us is seeing in America these days. And, to my horror, I think that what the outside world sees is this gung-ho, good ol' boy mentality that's being pushed on the rest of the world. It's something in fellow human beings that I find disgusting. So it was my attempt to try to make sense of what it is to be living in the midst of something like that.

CB: The band's profile has grown immensely in the last year. How do you think that will affect you moving forward?

CM: There's so many more pressures on me now than there ever were. But I kind of have to accept it as a fun part. I think of someone like Morrissey who started out writing songs from his own perspective or using that kind of Morrissey narrator about being a poor teenager. And now he's transitioned to writing songs about having fame and what fame does to you and having wealth and what wealth does to you. It's all part of the creative process.

THE DECEMBERISTS perform Sunday at the Southgate House with special guest Rebecca Gates (of The Spinanes).

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