The Decemberists have been ploughing their furrow of verbose prog-folk for over 15 years now, but this year’s ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’ saw them change things up, with a new producer, a truckload of synths and a highly refined songwriting approach. From the fizzing anger of ‘Severed’ to the macabre humour of ‘We All Die Young’, the five-piece stay on form even as they step away from the largesse of some of their early work. With the band currently on their first UK tour in over three years, frontman Colin Meloy chats with Dork about getting out of old habits, branching out into literature and what’s next for The Decemberists.
You've been out touring ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’ most of this year, how is it being back out on the road?
It's been great; we've just finished North America, which is kind of the meat of the touring. It was nice to be playing new songs.
It's the first tour since America went completely bonkers, has ‘Everything Is Awful’ been going down well with audiences?
I'm pretty bummed out about it, to be honest. I don't want to disparage the song from the record, but my relationship to the songs inevitably change every time. Something about going around even in an ironic way and proclaiming ‘everything is awful’ does an injustice to the fact that everything actually is awful, and it's not that funny. So we've actually stopped playing that song. I feel like the joke ran thin after a few months and everything remains awful. I guess it's just changed my opinion; I don't feel like joking about it anymore.
Your last few albums have dealt a lot more with personal topics than the fictional narratives from your earlier records?
I just hit a stride where I was feeling more comfortable writing about myself, and it felt more novel writing about myself. Whereas I feel like at the beginning of The Decemberists it felt novel to not include myself or to include myself only as an observer almost. There are certainly autobiographical songs in those early records; they don't get as much attention maybe because of the narrative stuff.
Was it ever hard adapting your writing and the band to that more economical songwriting?
It certainly simplifies things, you do have to look for ways where you don't have those weird instrumental licks that modulate two different parts of a song, you do have to think of ways of making things engaging and true. It's certainly simpler to work simpler. My songwriting, I just feel like I've become more economical whereas in the early days I think I was so, kind of just in the early flush of the career and wanted to get as much stuff down on paper. So I feel like there is always an extra verse that maybe didn't need to be there. Or some section that could have probably been taken out but I was too attached to do it. Now I'm less precious about the songs, so I'm more able to be comfortable being like, maybe the song is done, or actually editing cutting out verses that don't need to be there.
You've also been getting your narrative fix by writing books, does that change the way you wrote songs?
Inevitably, yeah. I was writing Wildwood while I was writing ‘The King Is Dead’, and that ended up being a very personal record. And I do attribute that to the fact I was spending so much time writing. They do tend to be more personal songs, I can only attribute that to spending time in a narrative headspace during the day, and that kind of sapped my need for writing stories. And all of a sudden the songs felt like good vehicles for everyday, personal meditations.
You didn't work with Tucker Martine (First Aid Kit, Laura Veirs) on the new record, was that hard given your long-term collaboration?
Yeah, it was difficult, and it was something we did not because we were ever dissatisfied with working with Tucker. Kind of the opposite is true; we had become so comfortable, become such an easy thing. The idea was to experiment with trying something different, creating an environment where we felt we had a license to experiment. One way to do that was to work with a different producer in a different studio. Tucker comes from a jazzy background and found his way into folk and country stuff. John comes from a more punk background, so he works very quickly, capturing spontaneity. I don't think either approach is better; they're just different.
Your love of British and Irish folk songs, is that borne out of your childhood?
I grew up in a family with campfire singalongs, American folk songs, but also some pride in our Irish heritage. I was attracted at an early age to those folk tales, and I don't know what necessarily to attribute that to. As I was getting into punk stuff in middle school, discovering things like The Pogues that married those two things was pretty exciting.
Where can you see your writing going in future?
I feel like it goes in patterns, in waves, in cycles. I feel myself being drawn back to writing more narrative stuff. ‘The Wild Rushes’, that song was the last song written for the new record, and I always find that the last song for the record will often nod to the direction of the next couple years. I have a feeling it might get back to more narrative stuff, but you never can tell. Concept records coming from unconventional places are the most interesting.
Your release and tour schedules have slowed down in the last few years, was it hard to adjust?
No, it was fantastic. The first ten years I feel like it was non stop. As soon as we got in a van in 2001, it just didn't stop until 2011 when we took a break. And then… I feel like you develop as a band, it doesn't make much sense to be constantly grinding it out. Not only is it not healthy for you, you all have families, and you're getting older. But also we'd been around long enough where constantly returning to cities just doesn't seem like it was necessary. It was a welcome thing to scale it back; I've never really been a fan of touring. I've never made that a secret. It's 22 hours of tedium for two hours of bliss; it can be really challenging.
At the moment I've got books, and going forward there are a few other things I might experiment with. I'm just sort of a compulsively creative person; I'm always trapped in new little projects that may or may not be within my wheelhouse, it's just exciting to try them.
Would you ever consider adapting any of your work for film or television?
I'd always consider it, but make sure it's been done with care. There's a stop-motion film adaptation of Wildwood in the works, and has been for seven years. The guys who did Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, they own the rights. We're carefully very slowly making time to do it properly.
Now you have young children, are there any darker songs from your past that give you pause? 'The Rake's Song' comes to mind.
I wrote 'The Rake's Song' when my son was a year and a half old, so I was well into fatherhood when I had written it. I do remember playing it for my wife at the kitchen table and her kind of blanching a little bit... but to me, all those things are pure fiction. Toying with the darkest and most evil parts of humanity in an effort to make sense of it. Peering at them, not in an ironic way but in a way that pokes holes in the horror of that. Obviously, I don't advocate child murder but having it done in such an over the top way, through such an unrepentant narrator is sort of funny and weird, and helps us makes sense of that horror in our day to day life.
People are accustomed to contemporary songwriting, being these plaintive and heartfelt personal monologues but it's also a great vehicle for fiction as well.
The Decemberists are currently on tour in the UK.