The Decemberists aren't trying to tear the whole indie thing down. Just open it up. They want to help people realize it's OK to play around inside their own heads, no matter how ridiculous it looks or sounds. They're slavishly bookish, coy, self-deprecating and, most of all, strenuously inclusive (things indie often tries so hard not to be). It comes from a belief that making music should always be inventive, experimental and fun. They play a variety of obscure instruments and sing about folklore's greatest adventurers, gigolos, soldiers and princesses while drawing influence from a cross-section of our century's catchiest, most melodic bands.
It sounds goofy as hell, I know -- goofier than it is. And Colin Meloy, the band's songwriter, insists it's all part of a serious effort to reclaim the vast expanses of language, form and style that pop and indie tend to neglect.
"[Pop is] really a medium that is intended to be pushed around," says Meloy, "It's very elastic."
Not everyone agrees. Though the band's second album, 2003's Her Majesty The Decemberists, was generally well received (it certainly sold well), the criticism that came was withering. Blender Magazine, an indie touchstone for years, dismissed their entire project as "smarty-pants pop," saying the "album staggers under the unbearable preciousness of donkey-voiced singer Colin Meloy."
While preciousness is something many fans will even concede to Meloy doesn't believe the band is any of those things. It's just smart pop, in his mind, and those elements others find precious, he holds dear. He believes that folk archetypes should become part of the public domain -- or rather, that they are already part of the public domain. But in Meloy's view, people in general -- and overwrought, self-conscious indie kids in particular -- don't utilize what he calls the "collective imagination" nearly enough.
That's not to disparage the straiter-laced amongst us, though. Meloy bought into straight-ahead pop for a while, too, until a confluence of issues boiled over and left his inner folklorist clawing at the fetters of pop's canonical formula.
In Missoula, during college, Meloy played in a band called Tarkio and studied English with an emphasis on creative writing. Tarkio was very much in keeping with the mid-'90s status quo, an alt-countryish band that gradually evolved a more introspective pop sound as time went on. His schooling, too, was properly doctrinaire, in keeping with the University of Montana's reputation as a good place for writers. As he told The Stranger in March, "[U of M] teaches you a kind of dogmatic approach to writing that's really terse, non-fiction-like ... the Western style of writing" -- nothing like what Meloy's style would become. Meloy felt hampered by that. Meanwhile, he also felt himself growing away from Tarkio's aesthetic.
The breaking point, however, came on a trip with his family. "My dad and my uncle fought the whole way, and my uncle sort of barbed my dad by using my sister and me as ammo. And at the same time, I was trying to get my dad to help me pay for my student loans, which were out of control. Then my dad had heat stroke. It was this super, super-intense, three-day river trip where we were all just stuck together, and it was all just like one constant fight."
Any other University of Montana bred writer would have sat down and worked out (in lugubrious, self-reflective detail) all the vast and entangled elements that tore the family apart on that river that weekend. Speaking on Sunday, though, Meloy said that was exactly the opposite of what he needed -- not to immerse himself in his family, but to escape them. "It was about wishing my family was something else and really needing a moment of escapism," says Meloy. So, like a good fabulist, he says, "I just completely re-imagined the history of my family." And then wrote a song about it.
It's called "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist," and it would form the rough-hewn foundation from which the Decemberists -- Meloy's temple to lore and language -- would rise.
"It's kind of an amalgam of all these different fascinations I have and have had," he says. His interest in communists (and fascists), brothels, punk, slums, gambling, naval lore, plantations and Russian culture is all there, disarmingly upfront.
"I think of it as a watershed moment for me to have written that song," Meloy says, still sounding a little surprised it happened. "And honestly, when I wrote it, I didn't think it was for public consumption. I thought it was kind of self-indulgent and weird -- too weird for people to actually enjoy. But then we were playing it for some people, and they were really excited about it."
That was enough, Meloy recalls. "It opened some doors for me to realize that you can take these risks and have them pay off. And you don't have to follow any accepted structure of pop songwriting."
He's taken liberties with pop ever since, experimenting with songwriting and musical forms, steeping the Decemberists in bizarre, anachronistic subjects and instruments. "Playing ['My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist'] now," Meloy says, reflecting on a narrative that meanders frenetically, even by the Decemberists' standards, "it seems like kind of a crash course in Decemberists ideology."
That ideology, in a sense, involves the conspicuous lack of one. Meloy hints the Decemberists aren't interested in codifying their style. Meloy's not even interested in researching their arcane and historical topics. And though you (meaning I, we) might find Colin Meloy's imagination dauntingly huge -- his encyclopedic knowledge of everything from palanquins to legionnaires -- you (I, we) shouldn't. He's got a big vocabulary, yeah, but most everything else is made up. Seriously. Made up big time.
That massive debutante procession that opens Picaresque, for example, is "totally invented," Meloy says. "It's intended to be as exotic and over-the-top as possible." The song "The Infanta" is supposed to be about a Spanish princess, but Meloy just threw in whatever he felt like. "She's riding an elephant, there's a coach and fours, the King of Moors. There are barons and baronesses that really wouldn't fit in [a Spanish procession]. There are Persian elements as well. It's just [a] mash of cultures and identities." He challenged me to research Spanish processions, saying that it would be almost totally wrong. I did. It was completely wrong.
You'd be mistaken, though, if you thought there was some great populist thesis, some overarching we-are-the-world solidarity, to the culture mashing. "I just think that it's interesting and funny," says Meloy, laughing quietly. Then trailing off, he adds, a bit self-consciously, "and pretty."
The success of Picaresque has created a blizzard of gigs and promotion, several cover stories and no shortage of hoity-toity critical assessment. I asked him what the press got wrong most often. "One," he said, "that it's out of the ordinary to use relatively obscure or kind of ornamental language in pop songs and somehow that that's strange. You should have at your disposal the entire length and breadth of the English language, if you want to write good verse." Later he returned to this point, expounding upon both the importance of language and stressing his belief that music can also be literature. "This language isn't obsolete. I think, if you saw it in a book, you'd understand it. If you didn't know the word, you would understand it through context."
He's got another complaint, and you can tell by the tone of his voice that it annoys him far more than any jab at his vocabulary. "People think we sing songs about pirates, but we do not," he says. "There is not a single song that involves a pirate. I am completely not into pirates. I have no interest in them." Later, though, he admitted, "[I sing about] a privateer at one point, but that's really not the same as a pirate."
For the record: a privateer is, basically, the same as a pirate. Both sacked other ships and were bankrolled by the loot they stole. The only thing separating the two was that various governments sanctioned privateers to loot the ships of their enemies -- making them, essentially, pirates who took sides. From the perspective of the vessel being fired on, privateers and pirates were indistinguishable.
That's the perfect way to illustrate where Meloy's allegiances lie: with the characters, certainly, but more so with the cultural archetypes. While they are historically interchangeable, privateers were beloved by the country that sponsored them, lionized in song. Privateers assumed a place of honor in folk traditions, whereas pirates were just the bad guys in The Swiss Family Robinson.
It's that "collective imagination" that Meloy is so fascinated with -- those things that, even when mashed up into an indistinguishable cultural milieu, are still immediately recognizable. They are the things that link us as peoples and that drive our imaginations. They're the very things, Meloy believes, that make us human.