Colin Meloy can find the epic in just about anything. As the lead singer and songwriter for the Portland, Oregon–based Decemberists, he writes sprawling period pieces about rogues and seafaring types. This could sound like a gimmick until you hear his songs; they’re terribly catchy, immediate, and emotionally loaded.
2003 saw the reissue of Castaways and Cutouts and the release of Her Majesty The Decemberists. Since then, Meloy has written The Replacements’ Let It Be—a 128-page nonfiction book about the seminal post-punk album of the same name (Continuum Publishing, 33 1/3 series); and the Decemberists just released The Tain EP, a blistering eighteen-minute interpretation of the eighth-century Celtic poem “Tain Bo Cuailinge.”
The interviewer cornered Meloy on the telephone, at home in Portland, just before the band left on their March 2004 “Never Send to Know with Whom the Van Rolls, It Rolls with Thee” Tour. A gracious man, Meloy patiently provided the lowdown on the misunderstood aspects of Morrissey; the role his writer sister, Maile Meloy (author of Half in Love and Liars and Saints), played in motivating the Decemberists to record the Castaways and Cutouts album; his contentious relationship with the dictionary; and his brilliant premise for the next Tony Hawk skateboarding video game.
I. “IF THE WORDS ARE REALLY HELPING OUT THE RHYTHM OF THE SONG THEN ALL THEY’RE GOING TO DO IS DRAW THE LISTENER IN EVEN MORE.”
THE BELIEVER: You are uncannily adept at spinning elaborate, emotional, and colorful tales in the context of infectious, melodic pop songs; you’re certainly one of the best I’ve ever heard. Meanwhile, your sister, Maile Meloy, is one badass fiction writer. I can’t get over how great her short-story collection, Half in Love, is! What were they feeding you two back home in Montana?
COLIN MELOY: Cream of the West, hamburgers from the Windbag Saloon, and coney dogs from Coney Island. That’s what I recall being fed, anyway. I’m not sure if my sister ate of this ambrosia.
BLVR: Do you show up in any of your sister’s stories—or does she show up in any of your songs, either literally or otherwise?
CM: The only song where she plays a cameo role is in “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” though that depiction of her is far from accurate. I show up briefly in one of the short stories in Half in Love in a description of a character’s son, who has supposedly squandered a college education by moving to Portland and playing in a band. It’s pretty peripheral.
BLVR: How have you influenced each other? I certainly see some brilliant similarities, but you are two very distinct artists.
CM: Not only do we work in completely different mediums, but our approaches are also radically different. Her style of prose is very economical; hers is a style that draws, I think, largely from Hemingway, Roth, and Carver. As a songwriter, I’ve really moved away from that style of writing. I’m a much more romantic, picaresque writer. There’s really no comparing the two of us; the massive differences between our styles and mediums have really allowed us, I think, to support each other wholeheartedly. She helped a lot in the editing process of a nonfiction book I just finished about the Replacements’ Let It Be album, and I think our sensibilities might’ve clashed a little bit in that process.
BLVR: My last record included songs I cowrote with both Denis Johnson and Rick Moody. In putting music to their lyrics, and ultimately singing the songs, I found that each had his own distinct rhythm and lyrical sensibility. Their lyrics were sometimes initially a little awkward in my hands and occasionally there might have been a word that didn’t seem terribly musical, though it might have fit perfectly in pentameter verse. Your songwriting and your literary sensibility are so intertwined and appear so effortless. It’s harder to mix than people might think; many have failed trying to mix narrative and music with thick literary overtones. Is it just accidental that these disciplines converge so naturally for you? Did you work at it?
CM: Well, I think it is accidental. It’s just something I started doing naturally and it had a lot to do with reading. I think that Dylan Thomas, his prose and poetry, was a big influence on me. Just his use of words… He would use so many odd words: like these three- and four-syllable words that you just don’t normally hear. And they’re not used in a manner that sets the text apart from the reader. Rather they’re drawing the reader in. It’s entirely based on the alliteration of the word itself—onomatopoeia and things like that. I feel like a lot of the words I use don’t stick out in the song because they keep the feel of the song in mind. The rhythm—that’s the primary thing. They’re put in there for rhythm and alliteration as much as they are for meaning. And as long as they are not used extraneously, they’re real lightning rods for people listening to the lyrics. If the words are really helping out the rhythm of the song then all they’re going to do is draw the listener in even more.
BLVR: Are you fully conscious of that process as you write songs?
CM: Well, the words just sort of pop out and a lot of times I’ll look back at lines and think, “Oh wow! I didn’t even realize that I’d written that,” and it just makes sense. A lot of the words will suggest themselves, and I will have heard them or read them and never have been totally aware of what they mean, and then I’ll go back to the dictionary and it’ll be, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant.” So there are a lot of happy accidents there.
Sometimes it’s just finishing up the end of a line, and there’s a place where the cadence of the line is suggesting a single word to bring it into the next line, something that would demand attention. And your mind just starts crunching vowels and crunching consonants and fitting them together, and then all of the sudden it spits out a word. [Laughs] And you think, “Does that work?” And a lot of times it does; it’s the word that you were looking for.
BLVR: I personally don’t have many of those words in my head, and most other songwriters probably don’t either. But the words that come spitting out of your brain fit rhythmically, they propel the song instead of distracting the listener, and they’re four-syllable words worthy of a trip to the dictionary!
CM: I don’t want to be the person who sends everyone to the dictionary when they’re listening to music, just because I think that pop music should be a populist thing. So it’s a fine line. I feel like the words themselves don’t require that you need to know them and that they work well as nonsense words. They work well simply as things to drive the meter of the verse—and the meaning is almost a peripheral thing.
II. “IT’S A CONTINUING CHALLENGE TO TRY AND FIND CHARACTERS THAT ARE WORTH A SONG.”
BLVR: As a creative-writing student turned musician/songwriter, why do you think so many otherwise brilliant artists fall flat on their faces when crossing over from one art form to another?
CM: Well, first of all, I don’t know how good of a “creative writer” I am. [Laughs] That was one of the reasons I moved away from creative writing. I think it was a natural change. I was getting really frustrated and disillusioned with writing prose. I might tend to overwrite when I’m writing in prose because I don’t have a structure there. I don’t know whether that’s what got me into writing in song: having this very specific structure.
Now that my creative-writing muscles have atrophied completely, I think it would be really difficult for me to go back to straight prose writing. Just because I’m so used to the structure that’s given to me through song. But I suppose there’s also a lot of freedom too. I have freedom to use words and rhythm and things like that that you just would not use in contemporary short-story fiction or nonfiction.
BLVR: That all makes sense. I know a lot of people who have dabbled in creative writing and music, and over time sorted it out in one direction or the other…
CM: It was just a medium that worked for me. I will go back to prose. I think about the Replacements book I just completed. That was one of the most difficult and challenging things that I have done in so long, mostly because, as I said before, those muscles had atrophied. I hadn’t used them in so long. I was so used to doing these short-form, rhythmic, alliterative… songs. And switching into an essay or nonfiction tone was a really, really hard switch.
BLVR: Did you participate in workshops when doing your creative-writing BA?
BLVR: Do you think that process is helpful? I know it’s the subject of much criticism.
CM: I became really disillusioned with the process. I think in a competitive program, one that has a rigorous admissions policy or audition process, workshopping can be a great tool. In the undergraduate program at the University of Montana, regardless of the fact that it had top-notch faculty members leading these workshops, there was no machine in place to weed out the hacks, so the pool of talent tended to be quite diluted.
BLVR: Any relationship between workshopping prose or poetry and your songs?
CM: Not really. The prose I was writing was very unlike what I write now. The little stuff that I produced out of poetry workshops might bear a closer resemblance to what I do now, but it’s still pretty far removed. All the poetry I was writing was very rhythmic, written in a very traditional meter, dealing with very romantic stuff. Most of it was not very good; I was basically aping the style and content of Yeats’s early and much-maligned verse: all heroes and queens and lolling about in verdant green fields.
BLVR: Are you ever frustrated that you cannot flesh out a character as well as your favorite novelist or movie director can, due maybe to the structure and time constraints of songwriting?
CM: I think it’s very delicate. Using characters in songs, in pop songs essentially, is a really, really delicate thing. You don’t want to be too overt. You don’t want to be too literal because then it comes across as being somewhat shticky because you’re writing in a medium that uses poesy as its main means of communication and so it has to be reliant on that. It has to be reliant on syntax and alliteration and consonance more than a short story would be. So it’s a fine balance between the two. You want the narrative to be there, and you want a fleshed-out character to be there, but you don’t want to spell it out in really dry sentences or dry verses like you would in a novel—especially not in the style that I’m most interested in, which is really elaborate and fanciful and playful.
That’s been really difficult. It’s a continuing challenge to try and find characters that are worth a song, and that won’t be treading old ground or reducing what we’ve done prior to the song into some kind of shtick or something like that. Or a novelty…
BLVR: Yeah. You guys do an amazing job of walking that line. You capture the tale and somehow it’s not shtick, even though in most anyone else’s hand it would have been. Instead, with the Decemberists, it’s often a profound emotional experience.
CM: Well, I think you just have to be prepared to be weirder and weirder. I follow the example of Robyn Hitchcock who, I think, has created a career out of this world he has constructed. It’s very much his world, and he continually builds upon it. I think he’s received criticism in the past along the lines of, “Oh, here’s another Robyn Hitchcock record about flesh and fish,” and things like that, but in fact if you really look at the songs, they’re just the building blocks for this very complex, very vibrant, and very real world that exists within his songwriting. So I look to him for inspiration.
III. “THERE’S NO REASON WHY YOU SHOULDN’T BE JUMPING AND HOLDING YOUR ARM IN THE AIR.”
BLVR: Some detect an English accent in your vocal delivery at times. I think your voice may hint at Victorian or proper English accents when it fits the song. Have you ever felt self-conscious about this?
CM: Bob Pollard defends his quasi-British inflection by saying that was how he learned to sing, by mimicking his Beatles and Kinks records. I agree, but I would take it a bit further. Whereas country music is an intrinsically American tradition, I feel that pop music as we know it is a British one. So just as there are certain melodies and chord progressions that help define country music as country music and pop music as pop music, so are there vocal inflections that aid in that definition. The Stones, Elvis Costello, and the Pogues are a just a few artists who have adapted their vocal inflection to add dimension to their music in relation to the style in which they were playing. It’s all about creating a character. I honestly don’t do it intentionally—I feel like it’s the songs that demand a stylized delivery.
BLVR: I noticed a Morrissey connection, and I know you’ve addressed it in interviews. I hear it in vocal inflections but it’s funny because, to me, your songwriting is nothing like Morrissey’s. He’s known for introspection and here you are writing these third-person narratives about Victorian rogues. Maybe you took that same urgency and desperation and applied it to these characters of yours?
CM: Absolutely. Morrissey has been a huge influence on me and I think he tends to get overlooked as a songwriter just because “Morrissey” as a character tends to outshine what he’s created. I think he is a phenomenal songwriter—an incredibly complex and incredibly intelligent songwriter. He’s writing songs that work on so many different levels. I continually go back to the Smiths and to some of his early solo work and find something new. Come at it from a different angle, from a different mode of experience and think, “OK, OK I think I get it!” So many layers of irony…
I think of his literary allusions, the flaws of his characters, his self-referential tone, and how well he treats that. That’s one of his strongest traits and it’s also what he gets a lot of criticism for: his being this sort of egomaniacal character in songs when in fact there’s heaps and heaps of irony there—I’m talking strata upon strata. Like there is that egoism, but it’s defending a very, very sincere fragility, but also poking fun at that at the same time—poking fun at shyness and extrovertedness.
There are so many different levels to him, and he’s just so funny and cutting and people don’t see how funny he is and what a sense of humor he has. They just see the surface. So, that’s definitely been the inspiration.
BLVR: Well his voice is incredibly distinct and his public persona so well-developed that people just…
CM: He’s easy to write off as “Morrissey,” but that’s an identity he’s created… it’s one of the facets of his persona. It’s really interesting.
BLVR: Have you created an identity?
CM: I don’t know. My stage identity is certainly different than who I am in real life. I think a lot of people who talk to me may expect to find somebody who speaks entirely in three-syllable words and allusions and quotes, but I’m actually a pretty normal person. I’m pretty shy and reclusive. But being on stage is a completely different thing… a completely energizing thing for me.
I feel like there’s a lot of playfulness that’s lost in a lot of indie rock, in live performances. I don’t think too many people spend enough time thinking about their live performances and so you get acts sort of looking down and staring at their feet. The music that we play lends itself to a more animated live show.
I mean, if you’re on stage and you’re playing in front of six hundred people, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be jumping and holding your arm in the air or pulling off some moves however clumsily you do them—and I do them very clumsily. But you are kind of wasting a moment if you don’t do that; it’s very therapeutic.
BLVR: When people talk of spiritual growth there’s such an emphasis on becoming more expansive as a person. But sometimes on stage it’s healthier and more cathartic to shut down parts of yourself. Too much self-awareness, neuroses, or even over-awareness of the crowd can get in the way of the music or stifle the energy of the performer. Have you noticed this playing out in your relationship with live performance?
CM: I think it’s a spiritual thing. Being on stage fulfills a very important part for some people and, as I said, can be very therapeutic. You know, whatever mood I’m in prior to going on stage—it can be panicked or sleepy or angry, all these different things—immediately, if everything is going smoothly, it’ll just be erased. It’ll be wiped clean… to the point where my onstage persona is completely separate from my offstage persona. And that can be an amazing thing. It removes your self from yourself in that moment. It’s really powerful and it’s done no end of good for me.
BLVR: Is music a religion?
CM: It’s my religion. I am staunchly agnostic when it comes to more traditional faiths. It’s something that is the closest thing to religion that I have. It’s something that is necessary, it’s something that drives me completely, and it’s something that I just cannot get away from… not only writing music but also listening to music. It’s a huge, huge thing for me.
IV. “MR. HAWK MUST SKATE HIS WAY THROUGH A LABYRINTH OF TIME PERIODS TO GET BACK TO GOOD OLD 2004.”
BLVR: One of the main reasons people go to music and literature is for, perhaps, relief from everyday life. As someone whose business is pleasure, I’m sure you need a break once in a while. How do you “get away” from music and literature?
CM: I’m pretty open to the video games that I play. It’s kind of my secret obsession. Well, not necessarily obsession… my secret addiction. Hush Records—like any other company might have a company car, or a company house in the Hamptons—well, Hush Records has a company Playstation. It gets passed from house to house. I have it now. I just finished the Replacements book and needed some downtime so I took over the Playstation. [Laughing hard] And I’m not picky really about what sort of video games I play. Though I must say that my strongest addiction is to the Tony Hawk franchise of video games.
BLVR: What is the single most important thing you want to see added or fixed for the next Tony Hawk PS2 game?
CM: My suggestion for Tony Hawk 5 is Tony Hawk Time Traveler. Tony Hawk comes across a time machine. Naturally, upon using the time machine in question, it goes haywire and Mr. Hawk must skate his way through a labyrinth of time periods to get back to good old 2004. The possibilities are practically endless: ancient Egypt, the Athens of Pericles, medieval Ireland, Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan and Victorian England—you name it. I think there’s a lovely Tony Hawk level in Industrial Revolution–era America.
V. “TOM STOPPARD SAID THAT MOST OF THE TRUE CREATIVE WORK IS DONE ACCIDENTALLY AND ISN’T REALIZED UNTIL AFTER THE FACT.”
BLVR: Of your two full-length records, Castaways and Cutouts strikes me as having a heavier vibe. You guys seemed a little more insulated and relaxed and maybe even depressed than on Her Majesty the Decemberists.
CM: I think it’s interesting that people say that. That’s an observation that people have about Castaways and Cutouts: that it has a cohesive feeling to it. Which is not really what happened. It was done with absolutely no expectations whatsoever for its release. At the time we went into the studio we had no label interest whatsoever. We were doing it all out of pocket. We were recording it primarily because we needed to record something. Like we felt like we were steadily losing momentum and, well, something needed to be done.
We recorded the Five Songs EP and that was just sitting around, and we were burning it for shows. Then I went traveling in Russia for a month and I remember talking to my sister when I was telling everyone that I was planning to go to Russia, and she was really sort of angry at me because she wanted me to be in the studio. I mean, she’s always been very supportive. And so that was one of the main things. I had to make a promise to her that as soon as I got back from Russia, from this sort of dalliant travel, that I would go into the studio. And so I did that to fulfill the promise. We had all these songs lying around that we had been playing for quite a while and felt like we needed to get them down on tape—or digital hard drive, as the case was.
So it it’s more of a flung-together thing than you would think. I think in the end the songs we picked to go on the record happened to have a strong cohesive nature. I think of that record and the through line, and the thing that keeps it hanging together is actually pretty accidental.
BLVR: Her Majesty the Decemberists, while also brilliant, seems to have more adrenaline and also seems to be slightly more song-oriented. That record just explodes in your head after a few listens. Some songs stand out immediately, but once the whole composition clicks, that record becomes addictive.
CM: It might be a little bit more of a difficult record. I think the songwriting is a little bit more involved, a bit more complex, than a lot of the more surface-level narratives in Castaways and Cutouts. With Her Majesty the Decemberists, which I’ve always thought to be the more cohesive record—which goes to show how little the artist typically knows—the songs were written more closely together in time, and I felt it was more cohesive going into it. The themes and characters may have been a little bit more disparate from one another: in different contexts and different settings and not so heavy on the Victorian characters. Coming out of it, however, I think it’s more of a collection of songs—a separate collection of songs—than Castaways and Cutouts was. It just sort of happens that way I guess. Tom Stoppard said that most of the true creative work is done accidentally and isn’t realized until after the fact.
BLVR: Right. I would thoroughly agree with that. Castaways and Cutouts, to me, didn’t necessarily sound more cohesive with respect to content, it just sounded like there was an aura over the sessions—like you as a band were more isolated and maybe had no expectations. The way you as musicians expressed yourselves sounded more desperate and lonely. This is how it strikes me. Whereas Her Majesty the Decemberists, while cohesive in its own way, strikes me as more focused and more self-aware.
CM: Right. Well, I think we were more sure of ourselves. The thing about Castaways and Cutouts is that it involved a lot of me sitting in the studio by myself with the engineer. Just because at the time there wasn’t any money and everybody had other things going on. It was hard to get everyone to commit time to being in the studio. So typically I was there and maybe one other person would come to hang out. And, you know, Chris Funk, who is now our guitar player, wasn’t even an official member of the band. He was still kind of guesting at the time. So I was doing all of the guitar work and spending a lot of time there myself, and it was difficult. There was a lot of… well, we weren’t very sure about what was going to happen. It wasn’t until after we had finished it pretty much that Hush Records, this small local label, agreed to release it. So it was running the risk of being lost completely, so maybe there was some desperation there: a feeling that we were recording it just for the sake of recording it. You know, at least you get it out there, so it won’t have a lonely grave.
Then with Her Majesty… everybody was much more inclined to be involved. It was more of a group effort. And maybe, it might be a little overzealous in places. I do think it is the stronger of the two records. They’re very different, very different, but I think there were heavy expectations for it. There was a lot of stress around the recording of it. I don’t know, maybe it might have been a bit more deliberate than Castaways and Cutouts. Where a lot of the stronger parts of Castaways and Cutouts happened accidentally, I think we really deliberated over Her Majesty the Decemberists.
BLVR: Hey—did you use a different acoustic guitar on the first record than on Her Majesty the Decemberists?
CM: Yeah. Yeah, I did.
BLVR: I ask because some of the drop-D stuff, like on “California One” for instance, sounds so unbelievably great. I remember hearing the album for the first time and thinking, “Damn, that acoustic-guitar sound is great.”
CM: I think a lot of that was the fact that it was recorded in a warehouse. That’s one of the things that gives Castaways and Cutouts a drearier feel, or more atmospheric feel: that we got a lot of room sound just from recording it in this big warehouse. And I think a lot of the drum sound and the guitar sound come from that. I mean the twelve-string I used on that recording—a twelve-string in drop-D naturally is going to sound pretty majestic no matter how you record it—was actually a cheap twelve-string that we borrowed from a guitar store. And then the six-string acoustic stuff was just an Alvarez that had been sitting around the studio. I didn’t feel like I had a good-enough guitar. I had an Ibanez at the time and it was terrible for recording so I used what was at the studio. Since then I’ve definitely upgraded. The acoustic six-string stuff that I do on Her Majesty the Decemberists was a Martin and the twelve-string was a little bit nicer [than the twelve-string on Castaways and Cutouts], but you know, sometimes it’s just the way you capture it.