Colin Meloy Interview Transcript

by Luke Baumgarten & r & Wherein the goodly Mr Meloy talks about books, pop's musical vocabulary, takes mild offense to my calling his concerts vaudevillian, and does math for our enjoyment. Luke Baumgarten

What are the big things writers get wrong about your work? & r & I think a couple things. One, that it's out of the ordinary to use relatively obscure or kind of ornamental language in pop songs and somehow that that's strange, but in fact. I'm writing verse, and you should have at your disposal the entire length and breadth of the English language, if you want to write good verse. And secondly: that we sing songs about pirates, which we do not. There is not a single song that involves a pirate.

Any plans to write one? & r & No, no, no. [laughs] I am completely not into pirates. Pirates are Halloween costumes. I have no interest in them.

I know you hate the comparisons that get made between you guys and Neutral Milk Hotel, but you're into archetypes and collective mythos, so it's gotta be flattering to be compared to somebody have such a . . . massive footprint in the hipster consciousness. [Jeff] Mangum is like some magnificent, absentee indie God. & r & I'm totally flattered, I'm not angry about it. I think it tends to be, -- it ends up being a sign of lazy journalism. Letting other people do the work for you. I would be lying to say that I wasn't in some way influenced by Neutral Milk Hotel.

What about being called Magic Realist? & r & I don't know if I would be a Magic Realist. Maybe a spiritualist in some sense. But in the kind of Latin American sense - which is what I kind of equate with Magic Realism - I don't really feel like I ascribe to those sets of rules. The rules I follow are more like those of North American [and] European Mythology and folklore.

But in the sense that there are fantastic things happening, but they're just part of the day to day experience for the characters. & r & I guess I always associated Magic Realism with kind of inventing new forms of the supernatural and the unreal, whereas I'm dealing with archetypes. To a certain degree, yeah, I guess you could label the music as magic realism. It just depends on what base you're working from.

A lot of people have done a lot of talking about how Picaresque is the culmination of everything you guys have been working towards. Were you actively working for that? & r & I definitely think that was something we set out to do. I think that we had - on the two previous records we were working with really limited resources and really limited budgets. The first one [Castaways and Cutouts] was done completely out of pocket. The second was done, by our standards - by what we need to make a record - it was done on kind of a shoestring, even though that was a big budget for Kill Rock Stars at the time. So there were compromises that we had to make, corners we had to cut. But with Picaresque, we set out to really take our time with it and really avoid making compromises. Being able to really follow any whim. And I think to a certain degree we were able to do that.

Was recording in a church one of those whims? & r & All instruments sound fantastic in a church. That's kinda what they're designed for. And also to get out of the studio. I think the performances in Her Majesty the Decemberists may have hampered a bit by the constraints of the studio.

It seems like you've been trying to bring everything in since the very beginning, with "My Mother was a Chinese Trapeze Artist." How do you regard that song now? & r & I think of it as being a watershed moment for me to have written that song. And honestly, when I wrote it, I didn't think it was for public consumption. I thought it was kinda self indulgent and weird -- too weird for people to actually enjoy. But then we were playing it for some people and they were really excited about it. And it kind of opened some doors for me to realize that you can take these risks and have them pay off. And you don't have to follow any accepted structure of pop songwriting. [Pop] is really a medium that is intended to be pushed around. It's very elastic.

Did it do what you were trying to do? & r & I think of it as a starting point. And it is kind of an amalgam of all these different fascinations I have and have had. And, playing it now, it seems like kind of a crash course in Decemberists ideology.

And it was based on a bad weekend with your family? & r & Oh yeah. Not really based on it. It was about wishing my family was something else and really needing a moment of escapism. So I just completely reimagined the history of my family.

So then where does the world you write from exist? & r & I don't know. It crosses all eras and geographical boundaries. I really tend to Mash a lot of different accepted literary genres and literary geography from fairy tales of Northern Europe to middle eastern fairytales to north American folklore and mash it together in a lot of places.

I've read things, people talking about accessing Colin Meloy's works, while you yourself talk about "folktale archetypes," and how these are things people intuitively know. & r & Yeah, it should become the public domain.

But if there is that first impression, do you think the average listener's experience might be somewhere between the two? & r & It think it should be recognizable. I mean that's what makes people relate to the characters. The characters themselves need to have some sort of universal quality. That's the door people enter. But then, it should be novel, or new enough to not just be treading over the same ground. So I hope that it would be a balance between the two.

You told the Stranger there's a conspicuous lack of research in your songs. & r & [laughs] Yeah.

So you're telling me that you sat down one day and the Infanta's entire procession, all the minute details and elaborate imagery of that song, just spilled out on the page? & r & Yeah, it's totally invented. And I doubt if you were to do any research - I mean it's intended to be as exotic and over the top as possible - and that's another one that tends to mash a lot of cultures and genres.

Riding an elephant isn't very Spanish . . . & r & She's riding an elephant, there's a coach and fours, the King of Moors. There are barons and baronesses that really wouldn't fit in. I foresaw it as a Spanish procession, but then there are Persian elements as well. So it's just another mash of cultures and identities.

Is there a greater thesis behind the mashing? & r & No, I just think that it's interesting . . . and funny [laughs] . . . and pretty.

Is that what a lot of people don't get? That [the songs are] funny? & r & A lot of them are intended to be funny. There's a good deal of irony. A lot of them are secretly making fun of themselves.

How much of Colin Meloy is to be found in these songs about princesses and brigands? But not pirates. & r & Not pirates. There's a privateer at one point, but that's really [laughs] not the same as a pirate. I guess there's a little [Colin Meloy] in them. Some more than others. I don't think that anyone can escape having a bit of their identity in their songs.

Are there characters you relate to more than others? & r & No. Not necessarily. I kind of related to them all equally, just as characters that I invented, I guess.

So you don't do research, but are there particular books or works -- like the Tain, obviously -- that inspired Decemberists songs? & r & Oh. Yeah. Some of it comes from - it's not like I set out to write a song about a legionnaire so I should sit down and read Beau Jest [12:43 is that right?] or something. It just exists in the collective imagination already. But then there are things that just from reading inspire me. Like for example the Tain. Or, the Soldiering Life, which is definitely influenced by reading The Great War In Modern Memory and wanting to write a song about the relationship between two men in the trenches in WWI. It's always the book that comes first. I never have the idea then just find the need to research it.

Where there any others that were formative for you? & r & Undue Milkwood, informs a lot of HMTD. Dylan Thomas. In the Tain there's also a lot of the poet Geoffrey Hill. He has a series of poems called the Mercian Hymns. There's a lot of that that pops up in the Tain. The Infanta is definitely drawn from an Oscar Wilde Short story about an Infanta. So it comes from all sorts of places.

What's the hardest part of writing a song? & r & Making it good [laughs]. Honestly, that's the hardest part. A lot of things fall by the wayside because sometimes you're just not able to . . . and I've grown more and more critical of my own work, which is good. It helps. The chaff kind of falls off a little earlier. You're not struggling with it. I can recognize at an earlier stage when something's just not going anywhere and it's going to be a bad song.

So for every thirteen songs that make an album, how many get cut? & r & Probably another thirteen -- I mean, that don't even make it past the first verse. [laughs] Some don't even get on the paper.

Picaresque seems to tackle contemporary issues more openly -- or directly -- than any other album, is that a fair assessment? & r & Sort of. Probably because of 16 Military Wives, and then there's On the Bus Mall. But then there are those songs you know, like Los Angeles, I'm Yours and I Was Meant for the Stage that I think of as being more contemporary. Maybe it's a little more blatant on Picaresque.

Sixteen Military Wives . . . are the numbers in that song arbitrary, or are you hatching like some crazy Wu-Tang numerology? & r & No, they're totally arbitrary. The first verse isn't entirely arbitrary. There's sixteen military wives . . . so that makes - well there's 18 company men. So two are unmarried. And only 12 will make it back again. So that means that there's four, four, fiv - no because there are 17 company men, so there's only one unmarried one. And only twelve will make it back again, so that's five wives who are informed about their dead husbands. So then there are 10 little eyes. So it's all just, . . . basic math.

Are any of your songs just an excuse to string together bizarre, obsolete words? & r & No, that's another thing people get wrong, going back to your first question. I think a lot of this language isn't obsolete. Not at all. I think, if you saw it in a book, you'd understand it. If you didn't know the word you would understand it through context. I don't find it unusual. I mean: I love these words. The words are beautiful. I don't think they're strange. I'm not writing them to prove what sort of vocabulary I have. It's writing verse; it's writing poetry; it's using the entire English language, in all of its beauty.

And English gives you a lot to work with, the Latin and Germanic influences. . . & r & Totally, I think it's a beautiful language.

One of our writers just saw you guys in Austin and said you had this whole vaudevillian routine worked out. I saw you at the Crocodile in Seattle around the time of The Tain, and it was a pretty standard show. Have you been dying to implement those kinds of theatrics? & r & I don't know what your friend saw; I don't know if I'd call it vaudevillian. We've gotten more comfortable on stage. A lot of what has influenced my approach to being onstage is like the Young Fresh Fellows and the Replacements. Kind of a no-rules approach. Anybody can do anything at any time. So there are things we like to do over the course of a tour that are fun, tricks to play on the audience. I wouldn't necessarily call it vaudevillian.

How does the audience react to that? & r & Some people don't like that fourth wall broken. I think for the most part we've found that people are really receptive to it, otherwise we wouldn't do it. We aren't really setting out to make people uncomfortable. It's just having fun.

What happened in the planning process that brought you to Spokane? & r & Uh, [laughs] our booking agent told us we should go there. But we haven't played Spokane before. I spent a lot of time in Spokane as a youngster.

You're from Helena, right? & r & I'm from Helena. My dad used to own racing horses, so we'd go to Spokane for horse races. Then I also remember going up to - did you grow up in Spokane?

I did yeah. & r & There was a comic book shop . . . Merlyn's?

Oh yeah, Merlyn's. & r & I used to go there every time we went to town. I kind of have a fond association with Spokane.