The Decemberists give the drummer some
By Andrea Warner
Hyper-literate indie-rock isn’t the easiest way to make a name for oneself in the music business — unless you’re the Decemberists. The Portland, Oregon-based outfit has five albums to its credit, having built a loyal and ever-growing fanbase on a bedrock of epic lyrical concepts, cleverness, and achingly morose-bittersweet-funny lyrics, all stitched together by the nasal-voiced and wacked-out imagination of the band’s perennial man-child, singer-songwriter Colin Meloy.
Also featuring Chris Funk (lead guitar), Jenny Conlee (keyboards), Nate Query (bass), and John Moen (drums), the Decemberists have been together almost 10 years, coming of age alongside indie-pop, folk, and rock peers like Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley. And while all three bands share a penchant for wordplay, it’s only the Decemberists who have made successful albums off such far-flung ideas, including Picaresque (Spanish satire about roguish scoundrels), The Crane Wife (Japanese folklore), and their latest album, The Hazards of Love, a vast rock opera that borrows heavily from English mythology and features baby-killing philanderers and other soothing images.
WE spoke with Moen over the phone in anticipation of the Decemberists’ two-night stand at the Vogue on July 21 and 22.
You’re playing two shows here. How will the nights differ from each other?
Moen: You know, I’m not entirely sure. I just talked to someone who led me to believe we’re maybe doing an all-request night or something like that, but I don’t know if that’s true.
Just a rumour?
It could well. I know we’ve talked about it in the past, not doing the same show both nights in certain places where we’re doing two shows. But I’m not sure that’s actually happening. Typically, I have no valuable information for you. How do you like them apples?
You show up, you do your job, they tell you what to play, and you go home.
It’s embarrassingly more true than you would like to know. I think I try to put as much into those performances as I can, but I really don’t always know what the next thing is.
How did everything come together with The Hazards of Love?
Mostly it’s Colin’s baby. We’ll kind of conceptualize together, [like] “Wouldn’t it be fun if we played a country record in a barn?” We’ll talk about atmosphere — we’re all fans of music and music history to a degree. We all romanticize the making of music a little bit with each other. It’ll kind of whet [Colin’s] appetite a little bit, one way or another; this one was mostly him listening to too much British folk music. That inspired him to put some of those elements together in what seems like a story format, and see how it all kind of laid out. It was leaving a lot up to chance, really. He identified elements from old folk songs that were recurring themes. The character Margaret, and shape shifting beasts...
A little murder...
Right. All these things... He kind of made a list of these things and started writing around that idea with a lot of dropped-D chords — as far as the key went — and just kind of kept building around that, and wrote the songs in the order they appeared. I think we shifted the order of two things in the recording, but mostly he came to us with a good map and demos of all of these songs, and we sort of put it together.
Some critics have knocked Hazards for being a rock opera, too grandiose. Do you care at all what people have to say when it comes to that?
I didn’t know anyone was knocking us until you told me that.
I’ve just crushed you?
Yeah. I’ll probably be sitting in the basement in a corner, rocking back and forth, weeping. I don’t know. I’m sensitive about people’s opinions; I’m less sensitive as the drummer in the band, because so many of the choices aren’t my choices. I fill my role and I try to do as much as I can to be a part of it, but as a drummer, sometimes you’re just playing the drums. But it’s part of the gig — I just stay away from it all, honestly. And the thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter. Enough people are buying the record to keep things interesting. It’s certainly not Beyoncé or something of that calibre, but it’s doing well enough; people are coming to the shows and having a really good time.
You’ve worked with a pretty wide array of musicians. What’s been a couple of the highlights of your different collaborations with different people?
Gosh. I got to play live with Elliott Smith on Saturday Night Live — that was really exciting. It was also followed quickly by me being kind of fired from his touring band, so that kind of soured the experience a little bit. But music’s like that; it’s fine. There’s lots of opportunities. As exciting as that moment was, I’ve had as much fun playing here with a buddy of mine named Pete Crebbs, who’s had bands for years: Hazel, back in the ’80s, [and] Golden Delicious in the early ’90s. His bands lately have been more on the local level, but we used to go play cover songs, and I had so much fun doing that. I muscled my way into Stephen Malkmus’s Jicks.
What’s next for the Decemberists?
Funny you should ask. We just had a meeting the other day about getting the next thing going, but it’s top secret. [Laughs] No, it’s not. I don’t really know how much I can divulge, but we’re definitely really fired up right now. I think feeling the love of music, there’s another record we’re going to try to record maybe [next] spring, so it won’t be a real long wait for another thing, for sure, should you be somebody anticipating the release of an album from the Decemberists.