A Cynic Exclusive With The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy

Colin Meloy, lead singer and songwriter of the Portland based band The Decemberists, is an angelic embodiment of the indie-rocker stereotype. He wears nerdy glasses, a vintage shirt and a grandpa v-neck sweater. He drops names like Ira Glass of NPR fame and goof-ball popsters Deerhoof, and cites Hemingway as his favorite writer. He crosses his legs and folds his hands, squints when thinking hard, and blushes endearingly. We had the opportunity to talk with him before the Thursday show at Club Metronome, also featuring Norfolk and Western from the Kill Rock Stars label along with Tom Heinl.

VC: How do you like working out of Portland?

CM: I love Portland because it’s a great city and there’s lots of fantastic things happening there. There’s a thriving music scene. When I first moved there, there was a lot of great stuff- Quasi and Slater Kinney were there, so there was sort of an old guard that was in place. Now there’s like this boom- The Shins just moved there, The Thermals and the Source Project. We’re in good company. We’re actually all friends. We all live in the same neighborhood- all of us bands, actually. It’s really nice- we just had a barbecue. The Thermals actually life downstairs, they practice in my basement.

VC: That must be great- who are some of your favorite contemporaries?

CM: The Shins are great, and I really like Joanna Newsome and Cass Mccombs and Deerhoof, those are some bands.

After some nonsensical digression not worth reproducing on these pages, we chat about Burlington and the prevalence of four-legged friends down town. Meloy reluctantly reveals that due to “dog trauma” at a young age, he is unable to appreciate these to the extent that local residents seem to.

CM: In Missoula, Montana where I grew up there were just dogs everywhere. When you’d go out at night to a bar people would bring their dogs, there were just dogs everywhere. I had dog trauma as a child- I had to walk home from school, probably a mile long walk. The last ten blocks were like a gauntlet of dogs in various states of containment and there was always one that was out, and you never knew which one. That was the worst part- you never knew. I got chased by dogs a lot. [Meloy is, in fact, a cat lover, and saw it important to impress that fact upon me.]

VC: In regards to your music, your lyrics have often been described as esoteric, academic, and This kind of style seems really unusual today in music- do you think that’s something that is lacking in rock or do you consciously go beyond what’s expected?

CM: I don’t think it’s for everyone. I don’t think that using multiple multi-syllabic words in a Strokes song would make any sense. There’s rock music and then pop music and there’s a certain way of going about it and I think that a lot of the sort of music I play lends itself to a lot of toying around with consonants… A lot of songwriters aren’t willing to do that because it’s not really cool to know the big words. People aren’t willing to wear that style on their sleeve like I do.

VC: The themes of your songs are pretty academic as well. Why?

CM: The characters we use [i.e. pirates, legionaries, and chimney sweeps] are anachronistic and kind of universal characters. They’re not necessarily accurate, but they’re characters that sort of run in everybody’s mind that tap into the collective unconscious… It’s funny the way people already have these images of what marauding sailors and dead baby girls and things like that. People have these ghost stories in their mind so they are immediately on the same footing… It’s easier to mess around with those archetypes.

We were abruptly interrupted by Colin’s cell phone ringing. It was his mother calling, and because he is actually the sensitive, loving crooner we imagine him to be, he had to take the call, thus ending our conversation.

The Decemberists went on to play a fantastic show. Each member of the six-person band demonstrated a level of enthusiasm unequaled by most jaded bands of the indie persuasion. Their next album comes out in March on the Kill Rock Stars label.