Colin Meloy of the Decemberists on the classic "Crane Wife": “Everything exists in wartime in our songs”

Portland indie hero talks about the 10th-anniversary deluxe box set of the Decemberists' breakthrough album

Published December 12, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

During a Oct. 29, 2006 show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy grabbed a digital camera from a fan at the lip of the stage. The band members were jamming on the angular lite-funk riff of “The Perfect Crime #2,” like theater kids re-creating a Quincy Jones soundtrack from the 1970s, while Meloy snapped portraits of the band: first a shot of the crowd and the cameraman, then guitarist Chris Funk and multi-instrumentalist Lisa Molinaro looking professionally intense, then Jenny Conlee wailing on the keyboard and finally the crowd itself, hundreds of Washington fans going wild.

A few moments later, Meloy politely returned the camera to the fan and finished out the final verses of the song, about a safe blowing, the thieves scattering with the loot and agents listening in on a wiretap. Strangely, Meloy never turned the camera on himself. This was 10 years ago, and the word “selfie” hadn’t yet been coined. Nor did the singer make a call or send a text or make a high-quality bootleg of the show. Phones and high-resolution cameras were still separate devices at the time. In fact, the first iPhone was still a few months away from the market.

The Decemberists were touring behind their fourth album and major-label debut, "The Crane Wife," which was released that very month. That album is now getting the deluxe box-set treatment in celebration of its diamond anniversary: the original release on colored vinyl, plus three and a half discs' worth of rarities, alternate takes and demos. There are new liner notes by Lin-Manuel Miranda and David Fricke, plus a Blu-ray disc of the 9:30 Club show.

That scene with Meloy and the digital camera should give a sense of how much time has passed since then. The record predates Barack Obama's term in the White House and the Kardashians on E!, the housing bubble and the bailouts, Lady Gaga and the first phase of the Marvel cinematic universe.

It’s strange to measure the passage of time against the activities of the Decemberists, as few bands of the 21st century exist so determinedly outside of their moment. They have, after all, a notorious penchant for sea shanties and mariner epics, and Meloy populates his songs with Dickensian chimbley sweeps, wandering Civil War soldiers and oddball characters who use antiquated terms like “charabanc” and “bombazine” in everyday conversation. His songs take place out of time, in some fantastical past somehow imported to the present moment.

The Decemberists, however, can be anchored in time and space. They formed in 2000, as one of the first big Portland acts of the new millennium, a troupe of local musicians to soundtrack the whims of Meloy, himself a transplant from Montana. After a string of highly imaginative indie rock records on local indie label Kill Rock Stars — records that introduced sea shanties to the semi-mainstream, combined "Rushmore"-style theatricality with the grim events of old English folk tunes and divided audiences and critics into loyal fans and vehement detractors — the Decemberists signed with Capitol Records and released "The Crane Wife."

A decade ago that album represented a significant refinement of the Decemberists' whimsy, the band honing its collective chops to lend Meloy’s songs a new gravity. The title comes from a Japanese folk tale about a fisherman and a magical crane, which inspired the three songs that form the skeleton of the album. Emotionally acute and musically graceful, the triptych then represented Meloy’s finest moment as a songwriter — and still does. Interspersed between these title tracks were ambitious tunes about a magical island, the siege of Leningrad and lovelorn gang members (less Bloods and Crips than "West Side Story"). If the Decemberists had occasionally lapsed into juvenilia before this, they sounded like grown-ups on "The Crane Wife."

Ten years later Meloy is even more grown up, with a family and a small farm just south of Portland, Oregon. The new edition of "The Crane Wife" provides an opportunity to look back on this pivotal moment in the band’s history. “I feel like this record, maybe more than other records of ours, tends to exist outside of its time,” he said in our conversation.

I was surprised to learn "The Crane Wife" is 10 years old. Does it feel that way for you?

For me it kind of telescopes. If it weren’t my record, maybe I would feel that way, but I spent so much time with those songs on a nightly basis that they never really went away for me. I look back at the photos of me, and Hank, my son, had just been born. So looking back to that time it does feel dated.

But the record itself . . . the thing about being a live band is that you never quite shed all your material. You have to constantly revisit it, so it never feels very far away. There are parts of it that probably feel very much of its era, but we were trying so hard not to be part of any era.

Do you remember if these songs were responding to anything specifically at the time? This would have been right in the middle of George W. Bush’s second term.

Commenting politically? Insofar that any of this stuff is political, there are a few songs in our catalog that tend to be more topical or politically charged. But I don’t think of "The Crane Wife" [as] being particularly full of those kinds of songs. The most political song on there probably would be “Sons and Daughters,” which to me was kind of a mantra or slogan about peace and camaraderie and coming together. Maybe that was in response to the years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which was starting to come to an end — well, sort of coming to an end.

With songs like “When the War Came” and “Yankee Bayonet” and “Shankill Butchers,” about the infamous gang of Ulster loyalists, "The Crane Wife" seems like the most violent Decemberists record.

It’s pretty bloody. They all tend to have varying degrees of violence, but there was a little bit more on here. There’s a lot of warring, but that’s the Decemberist MO. Everything exists in wartime in Decemberist songs. There’s always some distant battle happening.

Does that have anything to do with your interest in English folk music, which can be pretty grisly?

The record prior to this one, "Picaresque," was when I was really starting to discover the British folk revival, which became a fount of inspiration for me. "The Crane Wife" was definitely me in the thick of it. Having grown up loving traditional Irish music, I for some reason wasn’t hip to Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span. That felt like bell-bottom trousery music. It felt like my parents’ music, even though they didn’t really listen to that.

But I would see Robyn Hitchcock make reference to Steeleye Span, but it wasn’t until I discovered people like Nic Jones and Anne Briggs and Shirley Collins that I discovered just how rich that music was, particularly in the mid to late '60s and early '70s, before it got too shticky.

There is still some awesome music to be found in the shticky stuff, but there’s that moment between the Watersons and Fairport Convention in the early days when it felt like there were some new ideas coming out of this old music. And for me, as someone who always loved hearing music and writing music that has a strong narrative bent, the British folk revival stuff just hit me straight in the gullet. That was my music, and "The Crane Wife" was spun out of that stuff.

And it can be so violent. Shirley Collins’ new album, "Lodestar," for example, is a beautiful collection, but it’s extremely grim.

Oh, it’s super violent. I actually did a podcast with Bob Boilen where I was able to chat with Shirley. It’s funny that this really sweet grandmother would put out a record that is probably the bloodiest and most horrific record of 2016. That’s pretty amazing. There’s something about that drama that’s appealing and timeless. Those are pretty high stakes.

Death is always on the line because these songs exist in a time when people died all the time. It wasn’t an uncommon thing. It wasn’t the rarity that it potentially is today. I think we live in a world that is much less violent than it’s ever been, even though it might not seem that way.

You mentioned in the liner notes to the new set that you originally didn’t quite grasp the moral of the story behind the Japanese folk tale that inspired "The Crane Wife." Have 10 years afforded you new insights?

Maybe, but I never was very interested in the moral itself. I just liked the poetry of the story, and I feel like those songs abstract it so much. I mean, it certainly has a lot to do with greed and desire and subservience. The guy in the story is punished for that, so that’s probably the moral right there, if there is one: Don’t take advantage of people. Try to help. It’s a weird story. It’s a little lopsided, though.

The character is a charitable guy. He finds a wounded crane and nurses it back to health. Then this woman appears — but why does he demand that she weave this cloth? I think it just shows that we get overtaken by greed so easily that we can’t see beyond the fortunes we might have.

It’s open-ended in a useful way. You can read a lot into it. It might be a metaphor for the artist and his muse.

Definitely. That’s what I was hoping to do by setting that story to song. I didn’t want to have a faithful retelling of it, but something more like an expressionist retelling of it, so you could draw whatever conclusions you want.

You mentioned earlier that you never get too far from these songs. What’s it like to live with them night after night? Do they reveal any new facets or new meanings through repetition?

The characters in the songs have revealed themselves a little bit, but it’s not that often that you discover a new meaning inside a song. That might be giving the song a little too much credit. But I’m constantly rediscovering the characters and the moods of the song and I’m able to play around with that. In that sense I don’t completely get sick of playing these songs over and over again. There’s always space or a new voice inside them.

It almost sounds like an actorly pursuit, like you’re performing a part in a play.

That’s totally an accurate analogue. You do your lines, and hopefully there’s enough nuance in what you’re doing that you can shift things and try different things and change things and discover new things. It’s all about the performance not necessarily the content.

And we’re the sort of band that plays our songs fairly faithfully. Having loved going to shows since I was a kid, I always wanted to hear the song and not the slowed-down version of the song with a melody that’s different or unrecognizable. So I’m always keen to do a pretty faithful re-creation of the songs, and I don’t get bored doing that.

Occasionally we’ll mess with the arrangement, but we try to keep it true to the original. There are things that we play around with inside of the song. It takes a certain amount of skill to be able to pull that off convincingly and not sound overly dry or stuck in a rut. I feel like that’s my job. That’s the contract between performer and audience. I’m going to play the song and you’re going to hear it. If you want to sing along, I’m not going to mess with it too much. The band and I will meet you in the middle.

The Decemberists have always seemed like the hub of this music community in Portland, the center of this network of local musicians.

Other band members may be more involved. [Drummer] John [Moen] and Jenny and Chris make the scene more than I do. I’m a bit of a homebody. We have tons of friends who are musicians, and I feel like we’ve grown up inside the scene and watched Portland change quite a bit over the last 10 or 15 years.

We’re a Portland-born band, whereas a lot of the bands that were getting notoriety had moved there. Sleater-Kinney and Modest Mouse and the Shins had all moved to town, but we were this band that started out playing little clubs in town.

In that sense maybe we have some bona fides, but Portland is such a small town. I don’t think anybody moves here to get big. It’s not cutthroat. Nobody is saying, "I’m gonna make it big any way I can, so I’m moving to Portland!" Everybody who has moved here did it because making it big wasn’t a priority. Their priority was to live somewhere that’s affordable and easy and not too crazy and maybe they could get a show here or there.

There’s no infrastructure here for success. In that sense it’s still fairly tight-knit. But I’m glad I moved here when I did. It would be much harder to move to Portland now than it was 15 years ago.

We’ve been talking about the past. What's going on with the Decemberists in the near future?

We’ve been doing a little bit of music that’s not Decemberist related, but I don’t think I can talk about that. We do have some material that we’re going to start working on. I moved out to a farm south of town about three years ago, and the old machine shop was turned into a little studio and rehearsal spot.

We’re going to try to get together there for more regular jams, which means we’ll be able to work on material over a longer period of time, rather than learning everything really quickly and then going into the studio. We can work on things bit by bit.

We’re just taking this downtime and trying to do a little of everything: not just touring and playing but working on other things and raising our families — all those things that human beings need to do.

By Stephen Deusner

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