Interview: The Decemberists

Earlier this month, I caught up with Jenny Conlee, keyboardist of The Decemberists, whilst the band were in the midst of their Popes of Pendarvia World Tour, for Epigram

Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Looking at The Decemberists, you would think they belong in a high school staff room rather than at the top of the US album chart. But that’s where they found themselves back in February when their latest album, The King Is Dead, exceeded sales expectations, shifting 94,000 copies in the first week of release.  “None of us were expecting this record to be as successful as it has become,” says Jenny Conlee, the band’s keyboardist. “It feels a bit strange because we are going about making music in the same way as we ever have. I guess it was just the right time to release this kind of record.”

The album marries the band’s distinctive folk-rock style, laced with rich vocabulary, to a more country sound than heard on previous albums. Lead singer and principal songwriter Colin Meloy has made no secret of the fact he wanted to make an album that sounded like R.E.M.’s early work. But rather than try and imitate records such as  Reckoning, the band invited R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to collaborate on the album. “Peter’s guitar work has been a big influence to all of us and a lot of the playing on this record reflects that,” says Conlee, something that can certainly be heard on tracks such as ‘Down by the Water’.

Another significant contributor to the album was country singer Gillian Welch, whose tones blend perfectly with Meloy’s to create a wholesome Americana vibe, so it is surprising to learn that Welch’s parts were recorded in Los Angeles, nearly 1000 miles away from the band, who recorded the album in a barn just outside Portland, Oregon. Both guests clearly made a significant impact on the album, as Conlee is keen to relate. “We were definitely looking for their personalities when we decided to have them record with us. Gillian has a very distinct voice that we thought would sound great in a duet with Colin. We did get a chance to play one of the songs with her at a television appearance and it was wonderful.”

Following the example of musicians The Decemberists love, such as The Rolling Stones, the band removed themselves from the hustle and bustle of Portland to a barn on Pendarvis Farm, in the appropriately named Happy Valley, half an hour from the city. Conlee believes that the rural setting was great for focusing on the project and helped set the mood for the record, but “the biggest reason we wanted to record in a barn was that the space was large enough for us to all set up in one room and play together.”

This was not the first time the band had recorded in an unorthodox location; their third album,  Picaresque, was conceived in a former Baptist church, and, as the haunting environment of that location influenced  Picaresque, so too did the bucolic surroundings of Pendarvis Farm help the band realise their country-influenced sound.

In the past, Meloy’s songwriting style has been noted for its dense vocabulary and dark narrative themes, but Conlee is quick to defend Meloy’s lyrics. “Colin is a person with a great vocabulary and to him the words are not obscure. I think it is wonderful that he is exposing these words to a wider audience. Maybe it will help counteract the loss of our proper vocabulary that is happening with texting and other media.”

Speaking to Conlee, it is not surprising that so much of The Decemberists’ work has an archaic feel to it; the band seem to hold a slight disdain for modern society, and are trying to buck the trend by reintroducing complex language to popular music whilst linking their music to traditional works – ‘Rox in the Box’, for example, features the traditional tune of ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’. Past albums were clearly inspired by the British folk revival too, such as  The Hazards of Love, named after an Anne Briggs EP – so can we expect an album of traditional folk songs? “A folk song album is a great idea, but it has not come up yet in conversation. Colin has so many great songs of his own that we can’t help but record them,” says Conlee, although she promises they won’t be rejecting their folk base to work with the likes of Kanye West, as Bon Iver has done on Kanye’s latest album. “I don’t think any hip-hop is in the future for The Decemberists, it is just not where our influences are.”

So who does influence the band? Aside from the impact R.E.M.’s back catalogue had on the album, Neil Young is also a clear favourite, as one could predict from the howling harmonicas that feature on The King Is Dead. The album title itself is a nod towards The Smiths, another rather obvious influence for such a literary band. In terms of Conlee’s own personal preferences, she is moved by sounds and sights of the past. “I love Ireland and Scotland and England very much and I love going there. I love seeing the history in all of these places; just looking at the architecture is an inspiration.” Attached to this is her love of simple, uncomplicated music such as Mountain Man, who supported the band on their US tour, “I really enjoy their music; they are three women who sing mostly traditional style songs with beautiful, eerie harmonies.” Perhaps it is this taste for darkness, from tales of prostitution to unfulfilled love, that binds the band together – does this reflect on the band member’s troubled inner souls? “I think that anyone who is into our music realises that these are stories of fiction and not a firstperson point of view. When you think of the violence in most movies, you realise how tame our lyrics are.”

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Filed under Epigram, Interviews, Music

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