Colin Meloy: "Out came the dirtiest Decemberists song ever written"

EXCLUSIVE: Meloy opens up on the brilliant new Decemberists album, its innocent ode to oral sex, and life at No. 1

Published January 18, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Colin Meloy          (AP/Don Ryan)
Colin Meloy (AP/Don Ryan)

For some of us, this coming Tuesday feels a little bit like the best day of the 1990s or the early 2000s: It's release day for the first albums in many years by Belle & Sebastian, Sleater-Kinney and the Decemberists. If the fortysomethings in the office all arrive with ear buds and the volume turned up just slightly louder than tasteful, well, maybe everyone was cranking the Belle & Sebastian too loud on the F train from Brooklyn. Middle-age, wasted on the middle-aged and all.

Sleater-Kinney's return might have the loudest buzz, but the Decemberists are following up a No. 1 album. They took a multi-year hiatus after the triumphant "The King Is Dead," and "What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World" is the Portland collective's first since 2011. Colin Meloy and his wife Carson Ellis had a second son during that hiatus, and also added second and third books to their popular young-adult fantasy series, Wildwood.

Though Meloy clearly didn't rest much, this was his first extended break from the band in a decade -- and perhaps with the books to feed the wild narrative side of his brain, the side that has delighted in sea shanties and historical odes and proggy concept albums, let alone the most literary set of characters and rhymes in indie-rock -- the new album feels as direct, personal and tuneful as anything he's done.

Salon caught up with Meloy late last month to talk about the terrific new album, indie nostalgia, pop songs about oral sex, and being 17 and terminally fey.

So there’s a break of several years after “The King Is Dead.” You go off and write young-adult novels and have another child -- and you return with side one, track one -- “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” and sing “We know you built your lives around us. And would we change? We had to change some.” How tongue in cheek are we to take this ? Or is this a statement from Colin Meloy?

This is a real statement. (laughs) It can be both things. And to be honest, I had kind of written it intending it to be. I mean, of course, it is a reflection of my trying to make sense of the relationship between singers or entertainers and their audience, but also I wanted to try and write in the voice of what I imagined was, like, the lead singer of a boy band who was just trying to figure it all out -- who had never known any other life other than being onstage and being the sort of property of a fan base. How would they sort of view their lives and live their lives? But then, you know, of course its populated with my own weird ideas about what that relationship is. But in the end, it’s a different character as opposed to myself, and it’s an exploration of the loneliness of the singer, and why did they do this in the first place -- sacrifice or give themselves up to the needs and the expectations of people who don’t know them, complete strangers -- and construct their lives and the decisions they make creatively around what those expectations might be. And in the end, they do belong to them-- it’s kind of this idea of possessiveness. They don't necessarily belong to themselves. But the reason the singer was even doing it in the first place was just really like the refrain in the end: “to belong, to belong.”

Had you felt that paradox when The Decemberists would change -- and there were lots of changes over the years, from 17-minute songs to prog-rock concept albums and then jangle-rock perfection -- that there was resistance from people who wanted you to keep you writing the same kinds of songs on “Castaways and Cutouts”? And that you had found a way to belong, but also had to change?

Right. I don't know that I was very much aware of it. I think I was just kind of following whims. Maybe it would’ve behooved me to pay a little bit more attention to what people wanted of me.

You really should’ve spent more time in those old AOL Decemberists chat rooms, or on the indie-pop list.

I know. If only I had spent more time hearing criticism! I think also I have a weird thing about kicking against expectations in a sometimes self-destructive way. (laughs) I guess I myself am trying to figure out where I exist between those two ideas -- between satisfying my own creative needs and the creative needs of others. Kind of like a sexual thing. (laughs)

We'll get back to the sexual thing! But there’s also a funny line in this song about selling your songs for advertisements: “When your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe Shampoo, you know we did it for you.” Have you heard from the fine folks at Axe yet? Can they spin this into viral gold?

Well, I don't know that they would. It’s really not a positive spin.

And people might look at photos of The Decemberists in those Pacific Northwest outfits and think, “Maybe that’s not who we want shilling our sweet-smelling teen body wash.” 

(laughs) Right. Right. Exactly.

One of the other centerpieces, the song which gives the album its title, is the Sandy Hook song, “12/17/12.” It sounds like a truly personal reaction, as if you wrote this as an emotional pouring-out, trying to make sense of this at a time when children were on your mind.

Yeah. Hank was a first-grader, so he was the same age as those kids. And there was even one kid who was an autistic kid, and Hank is autistic. The closer you can map your own life onto these things -- is that what makes them real? There’s something really superficial about that.

So I'm hesitant to say that this is any kind of centerpiece because I don't think it is. And in fact, I didn't initially want to put too much of a point on the fact that it was written about that incident because I didn't feel as if I could really communicate what was happening. I don't know that I have any place trying to write a song that’s directly about what happened. I don't think it’s in my powers. I don't think I’m good enough.

I think that that was just what a lot of people did at that time, and I think it wasn’t until hearing the names read... It took several days to process. I feel like when the names were read at that press conference, suddenly I was able to start processing it in a way that I think was helpful, in that I think a lot of people were taking stock of their own surroundings in their own world. I was doing that and wanting to bring my family closer to me and bring in the protective embrace -- but then also feeling sort of unmoored from what that pain must be for someone else.

It almost seems staggering the first songs have arrived, and that the responses from artists and from the culture, these two years later, are faster than the political responses -- which have been next to none, really.

Yeah. And even maybe moving in the other direction, I think that the other side has been so entrenched. That’s another story all together. It’s been really frustrating.

I’m going to make the world’s most awful segue and shift from that song to “Philomena,” which appears to be the Decemberists’ ode to oral sex. “Open up your linen lap and let me go down.” I wasn’t an English major, but I think I might know what that means. Your attempt at an AC/DC song?

(laughs) You are not mistaken. I think this is my attempt of making a portrait -- a bundling idea of what human sexuality is and could be. It started out as this very innocent chord progression and a melody that was so pristine and ‘50s innocent that it felt like it needed to be dirtied up significantly, and out came the dirtiest Decemberists song ever written.

It just might be. I mean, “I’ll be your lashing loop of leatherette”?

I know.

Bawdy stuff, Colin Meloy.

Bawdy stuff through like, the eyes of a 12-year-old, discovering what it is to be a sexual person.

But 12-year-olds are not opening linen laps. How did you personally discover those terms in song? I think back to camp counselors playing AC/DC songs in the summer of 1980. But then there’s Quiet Riot, and we totally sang that in the backseat of the car somehow without knowing exactly what it meant. It’s still horrifying to think about it.  Did you have a similar experience?

Yeah, AC/DC, definitely, I felt like you could laugh at it. It was kind of like a dirty joke. I felt like listening to Depeche Mode was kind of eye opening.

“Master and Servant.”

Yeah, “Master and Servant,” but then also also the stuff on “Speak & Spell” was so sort of like amazingly gay -- and trying to make sense of that as an 11- or 12-year-old kid. That was where I started to kind of recognize sexuality. But you know, it’s all over the radio. “Sexual Healing.” You learn about it so much earlier than you would when you actually hear about the organic functions of these things.

A lot of the new songs, especially right in the middle of the album, feel like they are conjuring up that teenage world and teenage moment. I think of “Lake Song” and the line “Come to me now and on this station wagon window set the ghosts of your two footprints that they might haunt me when you’re gone.” Was something about that era was particularly on your mind as you were writing these songs?

Yeah. There’s a lot of nostalgia. It finds its way in. I think maybe I came off of a time-- the initial 10 years of The Decemberists were such a blur. It occurred at a time when my head was down and I was just so taken up by writing music for the band and having it be received by an appreciative public, and being on the road. I felt like I was managing adulthood at the same time that I was managing this career that sometimes feels very adolescent. I think when we took the break, those four years were an opportunity for a lot of looking back for whatever reason, prior to all that stuff happening. I think I was trying to recast memories of an anonymous and heart-broken childhood and teenage-hood through the songs.

There’s such naked longing and yearning in that line about being 17 and terminally fey. It stops me cold every time I hear it. 

I think we can all see that in ourselves, or maybe some of us can. I think there’s a lot of shared experience of outsiders ... The funny thing is being terminally fey -- it’s almost as if you're putting this on yourself, and I feel like I did that to belong and to make sense of my place in the world. Defining myself in opposition to other things was not a great way to go about being a human being but it was the way I did it.

Well, the ‘80s forced that stance upon us in some ways. The world felt pretty closed off if you lived in a small town, didn’t buy into the Reagan years, or Madonna or hair-metal, and maybe liked Morrissey a little too much. It wasn’t easy to find your people, or to find what you needed to feed your head...

Yeah. I mean, there was a tribe that subscribed to that way of thinking and once you found those people--.It was just funny because, anytime that there’s a band of outsiders, those two things that are contradictory in their own way.

Yes. And then people end up making up their own rules and scenes and excluding other people.

You run into issues.

Then the band of outsiders lands a No. 1 record like you did, and that’s amazing and weird all at the same time. Did that just make the mind completely reel?

It did. I think the fact that we sold that many records was astounding and I still don't know exactly how it happened. It’s certainly a different playing field. It’s weird.

Number one is number one, even if it’s fewer copies than it used to be. 

I know. But it really depends on who your audience is, and I think were lucky to have an audience who still considers buying records and feels as if that’s part of the exchange between the audience and the band. I’m thankful to our fan base for still holding that agreement sacred.

I also wanted to ask about “Make You Better,” which just has such an irresistible and world-beating hook in the chorus. Crafting one of those must be one of the great parts of your job.

The choral lift! It’s part of the puzzle that is writing a song, and you want to make it kind of commensurate with the rest of the song so it doesn't leap out too much, but feels a piece of the song. It’s sneaky, you know, until you get the whole arrangement together, you don't really see how it’s working out. You're still always unsatisfied. I think that when you're going for a triumphal hook in a chorus, it’s never as triumphal as the one in your brain. (laughs) You know, or that one moment when you first wrote it and you’re like, “Oh shit. That! That. That. That’s what it should do.” And then, you know, it never quite reaches that level. No matter how many strings you might layer on top of it. The thing in your head. It’s like that with any creative work. The thing in your head.

It’s like a half-life you can’t reach.

Physics doesn’t allow it.

That rhyme as well -- “we’re not so starry-eyed anymore/like the perfect paramour/you were in your letters.” Anymore and paramour, the third line which drives home the nostalgic feel with a reference to old romantic letters. It feels like a complicated structure to hit upon.

No. It kind of just came. It made sense. The idea of “Make You Better,” and this idea of people defining themselves by relationships and seeking to be made better or made whole through a relationship is kind of the over-riding idea, and so the “Make You Better” hook was there. So it just followed, you know, “perfect paramour you were in your letters” was just a good line. Not so starry-eyed. Just me reflecting on myself and the letters I wrote, you know, and how well they reflected my true self.

Did the break that the band took -- and having a different outlet with books -- contribute to the more personal approach on some of these songs?

Well, I did find that while I was working on the books, the songs that I wrote tended to be more first-person reflections, like you know, “12-17-12.” But also like “Anti-Summer Song.” “The Singer Addresses the Audience” is one of the earlier ones. There’s other ones about the creative process I think I was writing just because I was free to do it, you know? I didn’t expect that they would make very good songs but they were kind of a way of processing the 10 years from before. But each one seemed to have a lot of first-person pronouns. And then, interestingly enough, maybe as you would expect, once the books were finished, you start to see a little but more outside narrative come back in with “Carolina Low” and “‘Till the Water Is All Long Gone,” which were the last couple songs to be written for the record. I feel like the books were satisfying whatever narrative needs I had. Or maybe I was just burnt out on writing about other people and getting in the heads of other people, and that writing songs was a respite from that.

Do you think “indie” is even a word that matters anymore? For all that it mattered to us 30 years ago, does the concept still have any meaning now?

I don’t know. It’s sort of strange to me. You know, I think I’m listening to stuff that in some ways reminds me of music that I kind of sloughed off a long time ago. Over the last four years, Sky Ferreira and Jesse Ware -- these records that are so unapologetically pop but also kind of harkening back to a top-40 pop that I remember reacting against.

At times it’s weird. It’s a little weird. I don’t know. Indie is something that was created because it was defining and, you know, it had its spark at a time when people were railing against the status quo and the top 40 with something to work against, and that you defined yourself in opposition to it, and I definitely came from that school of thought. And so, in that sense, maybe our music is sort of out of place in today’s kind-of pop world. I’ve always worked in the fringe a little bit.

What kind of things did you slough off? 

I never went too deep into pop stuff. You know, being into Depeche Mode, Scritti Politti, I come back to them. I think it was just stuff that was on the radio that you reacted against. But I’ve come back to that too with a new appreciation for that. So, I mean, I think it’s sort of opened my eyes as well.

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

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