Not many rock bands can say the works of Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas, and the Revolutionary War are just as important an influence as the Smiths, the Replacements, and R.E.M., but not many bands are quite like Portland, Oregon's the Decemberists. Started as another creative outlet for prose enthusiast and creative writing major Colin Meloy, the Decemberists take the sounds of folk, Americana, and Britpop, and drape them in stories involving lowly chimney sweeps, injured war heroes, and weathered sea captains, to create one of the more intellectual catalogs in indie rock.
Main Decemberist Colin Meloy was born in Helena, Montana, the son of two forward thinking and highly educated parents. As a kid, Meloy became fascinated with British pop music, although access to his favorite artists proved to be a bit more of a challenge than those raised in larger cities. He told the website Citybeat.com, "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." This early interest in music was only matched by his love of prose, so it was only natural for him to combine the two when he began songwriting himself. In an interview with the Village Voice, Meloy said, "I've been writing music since I was a teenager, and it just stopped being very interesting to me to write about my own depressing love life. Aspects of that can be romantic and poetic, but I wanted to start exploring different forms of narrative." Before he could fully realize this vision, however, Meloy tried his hand at more traditional songwriting subjects as a member of Tarkio, the band he was in while studying creative writing and theatre at University of Montana in Missoula. Along with Gibson Hartwell on guitar, Louis Stein on bass and drummer Brian Collins, Tarkio released a full-length record, I Guess I Was Hoping for Something More (1998) and an EP, Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors (1999).
Following his completion of his studies at the University of Montana, that Meloy headed out to Portland, Oregon, to try his hand as a songwriter. Asked by Pitchforkmedia.com why he chose Portland instead of a more music-oriented city like Seattle, he said, "For me, Seattle had kind of a bad stigma attached to it for some reason. I knew a lot of people from my high school in Helena who had moved out there immediately after graduating, trying to ride out on the Seattle music boom, and they all ended up getting crappy restaurant jobs and developing drug addictions and things like that. Going to visit them, I had some bad associations with Seattle. It sort of depressed me. And it just seems like the music scene sort of flattened a little bit—like, it didn't seem as dynamic as what Portland had. Portland has a little bit of everything."
After moving to Portland, Meloy found that he had to essentially start over as a performer, and began playing solo at coffee shops around town. Eventually, he met the like-minded musicians that would help him form the Decemberists. He told Pitchforkmedia.com, "I met them all just by moving to Portland, playing open mics initially because all of the contacts I'd known from Missoula had totally ditched me. They wouldn't return my phone calls. It was awesome. So I basically had to start from absolute square one. I started playing in this singer/songwriter community, which was sort of creatively depressed, like not a whole lot of interesting and innovating stuff going on. It was driving me insane, until I met people who were involved in the more indie scene, and it just opened up a whole new world, and it's just like, I started meeting people after that, and started playing better shows, and it developed from there." The cast of characters Meloy met and started playing with were drummer Ezra Holbrook, pianist and accordion player Jenny Conlee, guitarist Chris Funk and bassist Nate Query, all whom played in other groups around town.
After rehearsing and writing, the group released the EP 5 Songs themselves, packaging everything by hand. After little to no label interest, Meloy decided that the band needed to record a proper album. So with his new band (including Holbrook's replacement, drummer Rachel Blumberg of the group Norfolk and Western), Meloy took to the studio to hash out their melodic and story-filled debut Castaways and Cutouts, paid for on the band's own dime. After some short jaunts on the road, the band was picked up by Portland micro-indie Hush Records, who re-released the 5 Songs EP, and in 2001, issued Castaways and Cutouts properly. Soon afterwards, Slim Moon, owner of Kill Rock Stars, caught a solo set by Meloy, and quickly signed the band, wanting to spread out and release more material by melodic outfits like the Decemberists. An odd pairing at first, the positive press response to the re-release of Castaways and Cutouts in 2002 drowned out any head scratching being done by Kill Rock Stars purists who prefer that the label release loud and edgy rock.
Describing the unique lyrical world and gentle folk of the group, Pitchforkmedia.com said, "The Decemberists' is a land of ghosts and petticoats, 'crooked French-Canadians' gut-shot while running gin, bedwetters and gentlemen suitors, abandoned wastrels and pickpockets. It's also a realm of bizarre historical dreamscapes and snazzy wordplay: 'And just to lie with you/ There's nothing that I wouldn't do/ Save lay my rifle down,' sings Meloy in the bittersweet hallucination 'Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect.' Time and again, these unhappy tales and fantastic allegories ring out over strangely soothing, rolling folk that seldom breaks from a dense, melancholy haze."
The positive reviews from places like Pitchfork soon set the Internet a-buzz, and anticipation for the Decemberists' next full-length record grew with every month that passed. The wait wasn't long, though, and in 2003, Her Majesty … the Decemberists was released on Kill Rock Stars. Containing an even more focused set of songs that dealt with old world characters, whose tails were spun against a backdrop of at times rollicking—and at others hushed—folk pop, the album catapulted the band onto the radar of independent music fans everywhere. The press reaction was again a positive one, as Meloy was painted as one of indie-rock's premier storytellers. Of this characteristic, Dustedmagazine.com said, "Meloy has said that he is tired of writing about the angsty lovelives of twentysomethings. Here he turns to tropes of exoticism and the past that are even more tried—like clipper ships scented with cardamom and myrrh, and the seduction of young men by attractive Japanese geishas—proving that what may be played out in the context of an 18th century adventure novel for young boys is startlingly fresh material for a rock song. Meloy freely adopts historical personae and locales for his songwriting, placing the Decemberists out at sea in one song and picking up the part of a young gymnast in another." To play up these scenarios, and perhaps to give a nod to Meloy's past as a theatre student, the band started to appear in press shots for their albums gussied up in costumes straight out of the Civil War or as pirates lost at sea, with members sporting fake handle-bar mustaches and form-fitting striped t-shirts.
It was now that the band had seemed accepted into the fold as one of indie-rock's bright new hopes, along with the Shins, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie. They hit the road to promote their latest album, and were selling out shows wherever they went. Once they returned home, an EP called The Tain, recorded with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla, was released on Italian indie label Acuarela in 2004. The album, one long song tied together by separate movements, was recorded before the actual release of Her Majesty, and featured a slight change in sound from the usually softer band. Featuring a repeating riff that echoed the heavier material by Iron Butterfly or Black Sabbath, the EP proved Meloy and company to be a quite versatile in the song-writing department.
For the Record …
Members include Jenny Conlee , piano, accordion; Chris Funk , guitar; Petra Haden (born on October 11, 1971, in New York, NY; joined group, 2005), violin; Ezra Holbrook , drums; Colin Meloy (born in Helena, MT), vocals; Nate Query , bass.
Group formed in Portland, OR, by Colin Meloy, 2000; toured in Pacific Northwest; recorded and self-released first songs, 2001; EP 5 Songs released by Hush Records, 2001; Kill Rock Stars label picked up group and released Castaways and Cutouts, 2002; released Her Majesty … The Decemberists, 2003; released EP The Tain on Italian label Acurela, 2004; released Picaresque on Kill Rock Stars, 2005.
Addresses: Management—Dawn Barger, 157 Chambers St. 12th Flr., New York, NY 10007, email: [email protected] Booking—Big Shot Touring, 45 W. 21st St. 5th Flr., New York, NY 10010, website: http://www.bigshottouring.com. Publicist—230 Publicity, 557 3rd St., Brooklyn, NY 11215, website: http://www.230publicity.com. Record company—Kill Rock Stars, PMB 418, 120 NE State, Olympia, WA 98501, website: http://www.killrockstars.com. Website—The Decemberists Official Website: http://www.decemberists.com.
Following the release of The Tain, more touring would ensue, but it wasn't before long that the prolific Meloy had a whole new set of songs ready for the band to rehearse and record. Again working with Walla at his Hall of Justice studios, the Decemberists put to tape their third album, Picaresque, which was released by Kill Rock Stars on March 22, 2005. Entertainment Weekly's Michael Small said, "Colin Meloy is so darn brilliant. On his Oregon quintet's third album, the singer's lyrics skip across history, from an ancient coronation to a Cold War spy story, and overflow with mellifluous rhymes. Though the music is equally eclectic, 'Sixteen Military Wives,' a wry satire of the Iraq invasion and the Oscars, is pure pop at its most winning. It should finally get the band airplay—or at least a MacArthur."
Following the release of the album, Blumberg left the group to pursue her work in Norfolk and Western; drummer John Moen took her place. Violinist and ex-That Dog member Petra Haden, who played on a number of tracks on Picaresque, also joined the Decemberists as a full-time member.
Five Songs (EP), Hush, 2001.
Castaways and Cutouts, Hush, 2001; rereleased, Kill Rock Stars, 2002.
Her Majesty … The Decemberists, Kill Rock Stars, 2003.
The Tain (EP), Acurela, 2004.
Picareque, Kill Rock Stars, 2005.
Entertainment Weekly, March 25, 2005.
Spin, April 2005.
"Castaways and Cutouts," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/d/decemberists/castawaysand-cutouts.shtml (August 1, 2005).
"Colin Meloy's Early Work to Be Released," Pitchforkmedia, http://pitchforkmedia.com/news/05-04/25.shtml (August 11, 2005).
"The Decemberists," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 12, 2005).
The Decemberists Official Website, http://www.decemberists.com/ (August 11, 2005).
"Her Majesty, The Decemberists," Dusted Magazine, http://www.dustedmagazine.com/reviews/1103 (August 11, 2005).
"Interview: The Decemberists," Pitchforkmedia, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/interviews/d/decemberists-03/ (August 2, 2005).
"Meant for the Stage," Village Voice, http://www.villagevoice.com/music/0517,fphillips,63365,22.html (August 11, 2005).
"Seasick Poet," Cincinnati CityBeat, http://www.citybeat.com/gbase/Tools/PrintFriendly?url=http%3A//citybeat.com/2005-05-11/music.shtml (August 11, 2005).
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