Popular Indie Folk/Rock group The Decemberists believe that life as a musician means continual evolution and, over the course of a career, any band worth paying attention to will pursue a sound, a direction of great adventure. The Oregon-based group has spread from West Coast bars to packed theater-sized venues throughout the country. The band — whose recent LP, The King Is Dead, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart — has collaborated with members from My Morning Jacket, R.E.M. and even the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
CityBeat spoke with bassist Nate Query in advance of tonight's Decemberists' show at Riverbend's PNC Pavilion about the new album and tour, the upcoming break the band will be taking and where the band is headed. —-Read more about tonight's show here.
CityBeat: I’ve been listening to the new album The King Is Dead this week and I wanted to start with some questions about it and how you put it together. My favorite song was the “January Hymn” song, and I was just curious about the story behind that song.
Nate Query: Well, I’m a bass player, not the songwriter, so I won’t read too much into it. That song and “June Hymn” is Colin (Meloy, frontman and songwriter) kind of doing an ode to the seasons in Portland, especially in the part of Portland that he lives which is near a big park with a forest. A lot of the imagery is about painting a vivid picture of January in Oregon.
CB: Most of your songs contain very vivid storytelling. Does Colin write everything or do you ever write as a band?
NQ: Colin does all the songwriting and usually makes demo recordings and gives them to us and we take it from there as a group as far as recording together and arranging things. But he does all the songwriting on his own.
CB: Any good stories about working with Peter Buck of R.E.M. on the album?
NQ: He is really fun to work with. We had done some shows with him and met him a few times. He is one of those guys who obviously has been around and is an insanely successful musician. He is always game to jump on somebody’s record and play. He comes in and just plays through the song a couple times. He doesn’t even want us to tell him what the chords are or anything. He just sort of starts playing along and by the third time he says, “Let’s do it,” and flies through it. It’s pretty amazing.
He is an easy-going and fun guy to work with but also such an amazing musician, so fast at just getting his signature sound and playing the song perfectly right away. It’s pretty cool.
CB: You guys took quite a bit of time to put this record together and get it out. How do you as a band not get caught up in the record industry pressure to put out a new album every year and tour constantly?
NQ: Well, we haven’t really felt that much pressure to put albums out more often. I think from the beginning, we have done things our ways. When we signed with a major label (Capitol), we sort of made it clear that we are not going to change. We are not doing this to become a different band. We are going to keep being the same kind of band. We tour pretty reasonably and make records every couple years. I don’t know how many people put out records every year anymore. It seems like most bands, it takes a couple years. When you are touring on your record for a year or more, then you make your record, then it takes six months to come out. I feel like we have been working pretty steady. We don’t get a lot of pressure from the business people so much. It is usually up to us how we structure our schedule.
CB: How has your life changed since you guys were performing to 10 people in Portland when you were starting out to now playing in venues as big as the Hollywood Bowl, with full orchestras? How has your life changed from that beginning time period until now?
NQ: It’s funny because in some ways it’s still all the same. We still make records and we still make music, and we still play in small places at home with other bands. But then, the most obvious change is that it is easier. It's more comfortable. It's easier. We have nicer instruments.
CB: And a bus.
NQ: And a bus. But it's a lot more complicated because it is this big behemoth with so much momentum, whereas, back then, it was so spontaneous. We would jump in a van with no crew or anybody and just go and sometimes sleep on the floor. We have been on this tour with a couple friends from Portland bands who have been opening for us. It is kind of fun to see how much fun they are having being spontaneous and doing that type of touring. But they are also a lot younger than we are. I am definitely too old for that. I did a tour like that with my side project last year. I was definitely like, “Yeah, I can’t do this anymore.” It’s too exhausting.
The biggest change is that if you get a little more established and successful you're able to focus on the music-making part of your career in a more specific, more intense kind of way, like that's your job and that's what you are doing. You still have to pay attention to the business stuff and the other stuff, but you don’t waste as much energy dealing with details.
CB: You mentioned your side project. I know you have your bluegrass band, The Black Prairies, with some other bandmates. Will you be working on that in the fall when the summer tour is over?
NQ: Yeah. We have a lot of work to do with that. We are trying to write a new record and we are touring and a play, a stage production of this graphic novel. Chris and I have been working on it a little bit on the road but as soon as we get off the road we are going to kick butt into high gear. We have a lot of work to do. We agreed to do all this stuff and now we better get to work. It will be nice to have time (so) that our other projects can sort of rise.
CB: There have been other mixed reports that I have been reading that you guys may be taking a very long break. Is there any truth to that?
NQ: We're going to be taking a long break. We don’t have an end (to the hiatus) completely settled, but we were talking like three years or something like that, which is a pretty long time. Many bands take that long to put a record out, but we are making it kind of a break where we are not planning on doing shows together or anything. We are letting everybody focus on other stuff. We usually take a break in between records, but a lot of times we end up doing a few shows here or there in the summer. We're trying to make it more of a real hiatus and let everybody go to their own little corner and do their own stuff for a little bit.
CB: I know a few months ago your bandmate Jenny was diagnosed with breast cancer. How is she doing and how are you guys dealing with that as a band?
NQ: She is doing OK. She is going through chemo right now. Anybody that has gone through chemo knows it really sucks. She has a really good attitude and is being really strong. She is on a schedule where she feels terrible for a couple weeks then has a week where she feels pretty good and can be active. She's coming to Austin next week for a couple shows. She's also planning on doing the Portland shows at the end of the month. She tries to schedule her good weeks with lots of fun stuff. We have been kind of soldiering on without her. It’s a bummer. We miss her every day for sure.
CB: I assume that has been hard for you guys, as well.
NQ: It seems like it made more sense for us to power through and do these shows and have Jenny stay at home and get better then take our break in the fall as planned. But it is pretty brutal.
CB: What can we expect from the show when you guys get here?
NQ: We’re going to play a lot of our new record because that’s what we do. We have Sarah Watkins with us singing and playing fiddle. She’s playing a lot of the new record and some of Jenny’s keyboard parts too, but she isn’t a keyboard player. We have a really great band called The Head and The Heart opening up this trip. It should be a good one.
CB: I look forward to seeing it. I've been following you for several years and have always wondered where the name came from.
NQ: Originally, and this actually pre-dates anybody except for Colin, but when Colin first started the band, they called themselves the December Brides and (played their first show), which … once you do a show, you are stuck with the name. He was hanging with the band and some friends and everybody kind of agreed that it was a dumb name. So they were kind of brainstorming and somebody was like, “How about the Decemberists?" And it stuck.
CB: How do you define success?
NQ: I think it is being proud of what you are doing and having people you want to think so, think so. We are proud of what we are doing and we have the people that have been listening to us for a long time still coming and new people are coming as well. So we think we are successful on those terms. Way beyond what we imagined 10 years ago.