The Decemberists: As prog as they wanna be
The eccentric indie rock band comes to town behind the new The Hazards Of Love
Over the course of just five years, notoriously idiosyncratic alt-rock band The Decemberists went on a whirlwind run of four albums, a handful of EPs, a series of tours, and a jump to a major label. Then the group slowed down to make the new concept album The Hazards Of Love, which took three years to complete and is The Decemberists’ most ambitious, textured, dense project to date. In advance of the tour behind Hazards coming Friday to the Riverside Theater, frontman Colin Meloy talked to Decider about the project’s origins, the expectations and stereotypes facing his no-longer-indie “indie” band, and why the press just didn’t get Morrissey back in his salad days. (A longer version of this interview originally ran on The A.V. Club.)
Decider: How did The Hazards of Love first get started?
Colin Meloy: I remember a pinpoint—I had been working on doing my normal thing between records. Working on songs and assuming that once I had enough, it would be the usual thing where you go into the studio and record them and have a record, that kind of thing. But it happened that I was approached by a director and producer from New York about doing a musical, and at the same time, I was also starting to write this song called “The Hazards Of Love” that borrowed its title from the name of an Anne Briggs EP, her first. And the song was kind of tending toward the beginnings of a longer piece, and was basically kind of a mending together of a few recurring motifs from folk songs. And then I had this idea that’d I’d pitch as a musical this idea of creating a narrative out of these recurrent folk-song motifs, and see if that created a story that could be stageable, or in any way interesting.
And so it kind of moved along in that direction, and as I got further along, it became pretty apparent that whatever narrative was coming out was actually pretty obtuse in its simplicity. It was a little too abstract for staging, and it seemed to be working better in the context of a rock record, where you have a little more freedom. It was sort of this idea of a more abstract approach to narrative, so it seemed like I had a little more freedom if it was just a rock record instead of a musical. So that’s the way it stayed, in a nutshell. That’s the long-winded way of answering that. It’s a very large nutshell. Like a pecan as opposed to a pistachio.
D: What kind of relationship was there between the development of the storyline and the development of the songs? Which came first?
CM: Basically the idea was to take these motifs, which was characters and events that are archetypal in the folk-song world, and draw them out of their songs and fuse them into this one really long song, so the sort of packed baggage of their own internal narrative would create some sort of narrative without any invention of my own. And so it ended up being—I did have to push it along in a few areas, but for the most part, it’s just an assemblage of folk-song motifs in a sort of linear fashion, to create some semblance of a narrative. So writing it, all I did was create a list in my head of the motifs that I thought were interesting and recurrent, and then start writing songs based on those motifs.
D: How does that compare to the development of The Tain?
CM: Well, The Tain was from an actual story. The Táin, which is actually an Irish epic poem. And so that was just knowing the story and kind of writing a record. It was very loosely based on the source material. I think it was as much—these forays we’ve been taking into cyclical rock monoliths is a retelling of their story, but also a retelling of the time of monolithic rock records. So The Tain came about in a similar way, in that I remember reading The Táin, and I was working at this bookstore, and someone brought in a copy of Thomas Kinsella’s translation of it. I just kind of flipped through it and was like, “Wow, if I was in a metal band, I would totally make a concept record. Somebody should make a concept record based on The Táin.” And then I thought, “Well I’m in a rock band. Why can’t I make a record based on The Táin?”
I think that opened a lot of windows in my head, this idea of not feeling tied down to being an indie pop group that just writes little pop songs. Which was the direction we were headed. I think it was just an opportunity to fully break out of that mold and try something different. And I think The Tain and The Hazards Of Love take on a different meaning when it’s our band doing it. Context is everything. We’re not a bunch of hulking, denim-wearing dudes from the ’70s. We’re this band, formerly on an indie label but no longer, but we’re lumped within this world of indie-rock—it’s just kind of an interesting context to take these sorts of things on. Does that make sense?
D: Yes, but sounds like you’re talking about crafting an image for yourself. You’re seeking out these old stories not so much because you want to bring them to a new audience or because you’re inherently fascinated with them, but because you want to get out of the standard rock-band mode.
CM: I totally see how you could take that, and I think that’s a valid part of it. I think we’re messing with context, and it doesn’t have to do with image so much as it has to do with what’s allowed to you. I am fascinated with the story, and in a large part, the tackling of these folk-song motifs and sort of my initial agreement to try to do a musical stems from a love of musical theater, and a passing love of concept records. I don’t think that’s quite in my bones, but it’s mostly stemming from this idea of telling, of recreating a narrative into song. But I think that there’s another layer to that, in that I don’t think the project would be as interesting if we were a metal band. I think there is a certain amount of dynamism that is applied to it because of the context, just because of what kind of band we are.
D: When you say “it has to do with what’s allowed to you,” what do you mean? Do you feel there are limitations pressed on you because you get labeled as indie-rock?
CM: Well, I guess certain things are expected of us. I think initially… I don’t know. Who knows what’s expected of us? But I think it’s an opportunity to just move beyond or somehow kick out of the mold of being lumped in as an indie-rock band. And it sounds silly, because it implies that we’ve taken on that mantle, or it’s been applied to us, and it’s just the way it is. To a certain degree, it’s just an opportunity to expand our direction a little. And also, I think the whole is supposed to be kind of funny. It’s not a joke, but naturally, just considering the history of the bands that made these kinds of records in the past, and the fact that we’re making them now, through the lens…
Prog-rock and concept records and ambitious projects like this were kind of anathema post-punk. They were destroyed with the advent of punk rock. You don’t necessarily need to have a degree in music composition to play in a rock band anymore, which is a great thing. And that’s certainly the stock that I came from. Those were the bands I loved growing up, the ones that came post-punk, Hüsker Dü and The Replacements and The Smiths. So it’s interesting to me to try to write this. This is all that I mean, going back to the breaking-of-the-mold thing. It’s interesting to try to reclaim concept records. It’s interesting to revisit them through the lens of that influence. Does that make sense?
D: It does. So is it all about reclamation? There’s no sense of doing it ironically, for instance?
CM: No, I think there’s room for irony too. I don’t think it’s one way or the other. I don’t think it has to be exclusively serious or exclusively tongue-in-cheek. I think it can be both things. But it is, in some respects, an experiment. Given my love of the heyday of alternative college rock, like my major influences growing up, what is it then to take on something really ambitious and see what comes out?