As songwriter for Portland pop band the Decemberists, Colin Meloy has spent the last five years writing twisted Victorian tales about drunken mariners, prostituted mothers, and promiscuous chimney sweeps set to jarring pop orchestrations. After Kill Rock Stars released Castaways and Cutouts in 2002, the Decemberists found themselves with a devout fan base and an unfairly pretentious tag: literary pop. But long before he penned his first tall tale, the 30-year-old Meloy grew up in Helena, Mont., spending his formative years writing plays and listening to mixtapes his uncle Paul brought him when visiting from the University of Oregon, as recorded in detail by Meloy in his book about the Replacements' Let It Be (released last year as part of Continuum's "33 1/3" series). Meloy quickly cut his music snob teeth and found a home for his Chicago and Robert Palmer tapes in the trash can.
On March 22, Kill Rock Stars will release Picaresque, the Decemberists' third album, which sheds much of the band's curious whimsy for a darker humor. Songs like "The Engine Driver" and "Of Angels and Angles" show Meloy as a heartbreaking balladeer, while the lyrical wit of "Sixteen Military Wives" puts him in company with his hero Robyn Hitchcock. Also, his band gets compared to Neutral Milk Hotel. A lot. The Jukebox took place on the sunny all-season porch of Meloy's Portland home.
R.E.M.: "Voice of Harold" (1984) from Dead Letter Office (I.R.S.)
Colin Meloy: "Voice of Harold." I love this song.
Seattle Weekly: You were a big R.E.M. fan, and your first band, Happy Cactus, used to cover them. . . .
Meloy: Yeah, that band was all about late-'80s ecologically minded college rock like R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, and other things like that. It worked in some places and didn't work in others.
SW: Do you look on your time in that band fondly?
Meloy: It's a little painful. It's not something that I would want to put out into the world again. If you listen to it, it's obviously just me trying to get my footing. It was the first time I was doing any real songwriting. I was, like, 15 years old.
SW: When you first started writing songs, was it difficult?
Meloy: It came pretty naturally. My first attempts at it seemed kind of difficult, but when I started to get more playful with it, things started to work a little bit better. I think that being able to approach songwriting with a sense of humor makes it easier.
SW: Does everyone in the band share that approach?
Meloy: Well, I tend to hang out with people who have an ironic sensibility. But we did have a guitar player once who didn't quite get it. I remember showing up for a show and Carson [Ellis, who illustrates the band's albums] had painted a little ship on my guitar. I was so excited about it. I showed it to the guitar player and was like, "Don't you think this is cool?" He was like, "I think that's cheesy." And then he was like, "But, then again, I don't know what's cool anymore," and I was just like, "You are such a loser." He left the group shortly after that. Anybody who's offended that I painted a boat on my guitar is not going to fit in with us.
Waterboys: "Church Not Made With Hands" (1984) from A Pagan Place (Island)
Meloy: This is the Waterboys. Which album?
SW: A Pagan Place.
Meloy: I don't have this album. I don't know why I haven't heard this. But I don't have [any Waterboys] until the mid-'80s or so.
SW: The Big Music movement that Mike Scott started sits comfortably beside the Decemberists' music. He really knew how to throw together an ensemble with the fanfares and the pop orchestration a lot like you do.
Meloy: To be honest, some of this doesn't really hold up very well. I play some of the early stuff for my girlfriend and she despises it. Some of it's a little over the top, with the saxophones. But for all of his missteps, there's such a truth and earnestness to Mike Scott's singing and songwriting that you can't fault him. He approaches music in a very spiritual way, and even though my approach to music is very secular, you can't not recognize the emphaticness and the passion in this music and [not] be moved by that.
SW: Do you feel like you're able to do that with your music without the spiritual aspect?
Meloy: I might be too much of a cynic to really have all of that good stuff. I really feel the need to weigh all my heightened transcendental moments with low, dirty ones.
Cheap Trick: "Southern Girls" (1977) from In Color (Epic/Legacy)
Meloy: Oh wow. I haven't heard this in so long. Can I see [the lyric sheet]? I probably get all the lyrics wrong.
SW: You cover this song fairly often. Why?
Meloy: 'Cause it's great. It's just an awesome song. The lyrics are completely vapid.
SW: Well, it is a Cheap Trick song.
Meloy: Yeah, but they mastered the art of creating something meaningful out of nothing. Like, what does that mean, "Ooh baby, need some brand-new shoes"? Maybe it's just like he needs some new shoes to impress the girl or whatever. I think I just sat down one day, and I really wasn't that big a Cheap Trick fan, but you can't help but know this song. And I played it, and when you're playing a song on guitar, it always takes on a bit of a melancholy air. So I sang it as a country ballad, and it seemed to work pretty well.
SW: In concert it completely transfixes the audience.
Meloy: Well, everybody loves "Southern Girls," and by doing it slow and kind of mournful, it really puts a completely different spin on it. When it says, "I need some brand-new shoes," you feel sorry for the guy.
The Hold Steady: "Certain Songs" (2004) from The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me (Frenchkiss)
Meloy: Who is this?
SW: The Hold Steady, from Brooklyn. The lead singer once told me that he found it almost impossible to tell a true story in a song. Do you feel that way when you write?
Meloy: I think one of the most impressive mantras I ever took from my time in a creative writing workshop is that when you're reading a story about someone's mother, you don't really care about their mother or their relationship to their mother, you care about your relationship to your mother. So even though that lesson was from a creative nonfiction class at the University of Montana, which is so far from what I am doing now, I think there is so much truth in that. Like, "Billy Liar" [from 2004's Her Majesty, the Decemberists] is a total invention about this imaginary adolescence, but it's very important that everyone be able to see something about their own adolescence. By pulling it out of myself, the potential for making it universal is a lot bigger.
Robyn Hitchcock: "The Man Who Invented Himself" (1981) from Black Snake Diamond Role (Rhino)
Meloy: The first solo Robyn Hitchcock album. I always thought that this song sounded like the theme song to some sort of really bizarre, depraved sitcom that I really think needs to be developed at some point.
SW: Why is he, as a songwriter, so important to your life?
Meloy: He sets up a vernacular that is totally unique to his songwriting world. He really has created a world, and with each one of his songs he adds onto it, even though the songs aren't connected thematically, but they all make sense together. Like, "Please don't call me Reg, it's not my name." There is this sense of humor that is in all his songs. He's not a chameleon. Even though he switches his style, he stays doggedly true to his approach. He's one of the only true originals in music today.
Bright Eyes: "Lua" (2005) from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (Saddle Creek)
Meloy: Who is this?
SW: Bright Eyes.
Meloy: I have one record by him that I would have traded in years ago, but I started a new thing before I bought it that I wouldn't sell any more records back. So, I bought one of his records, Fevers & Mirrors. I listened to half of two songs and put it away immediately and haven't listened to it since. His voice and his writing are just so irritating.
SW: Why do you think he's so popular?
Meloy: Because he's really hot. I mean, I think there's definitely something in this that you can relate to, but it is so easy to swallow it and imagine yourself in poor Conor Oberst's shoes. You know, everybody wants to be in that bedroom. But it does seem a little shallow and emotionally and creatively corrupt.
SW: When he played in Portland last month, he came out in a 10-year-old's raincoat, and when he got excited, he clapped like a hand puppet.
Meloy: They call it indie autism, and he's the poster child for it. Seriously, can we stop this?
Morrissey: "America Is Not the World" (2004) from You Are the Quarry (Attack)
Meloy: Ah. The new Morrissey.
SW: This song has a lot of the same sentiment as "Sixteen Military Wives" on Picaresque.
Meloy: Well, both songs address that bullying that I hated in high school and junior high growing up, and you immediately recognize it. It's that captain-of-the-football-team attitude towards the rest of the world. To have that be representative of who I am, it's just really hard to swallow that and be comfortable with it. And celebrities think that they can somehow cure these things, which is really offensive as well.
SW: "Sixteen Military Wives" is an interesting song, because you are trying to say something about the pomposity of both the nation and the creative class. But you are a musician, a part of the creative class.
Meloy: That's why the cannibals, in the end, consume everybody, including myself.
The Replacements: "I Will Dare" (1984) from Let It Be (Twin/Tone)
SW: Have you listened to this since you wrote the book?
Meloy: I don't think I have. No. I listened to it so much while I was writing the book that I couldn't listen to it anymore.
SW: Do you miss it?
Meloy: I do. It's nice to listen to, actually.
SW: Your book isn't really about the Replacements so much as it uses them as a jumping-off point to talk about coming of age in Helena, where you obviously had a number of musical influences. So why the Replacements?
Meloy: The Replacements taught me a lot about how to approach music with a sense of humor. They really embodied that whole drunken "We don't give a fuck" approach to music, which I really respected and thought was pretty powerful if done right. And I think the Replacements proved that audiences like to be abused a little bit. To their detriment, I think that's what Replacements shows became. But at first, like, when they showed up at CBGBs and the place was filled with industry people from labels, they got too drunk to play. You kind of have to hand it to them; that's pretty amazing. Most bands would be all scared shitless and freaked out and try to play the best show they could. You have to hand it to them that they, like Robyn Hitchcock, stayed totally true to what they wanted to do. I hope that there is an aspect of that in my music, although I'm too much of a pussy to do that. If I were playing for a house of industry people and didn't have a label, I would never do that.
Neutral Milk Hotel: "King of Carrot Flowers Pt. One" (1998) from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge)
Meloy: Get out of my house [laughs].
SW: When was the first time that someone said you sound like Neutral Milk Hotel?
Meloy: Someone said that to me when I was in Tarkio [Meloy's band prior to the formation of the Decemberists]. I have a similar voice [to Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum], and I've always had a voice that is kind of reedy and nasally. It's just the way I sing—I try to sing like Michael Stipe. And obviously, he's been influenced by R.E.M. And the songwriting approach—when I first heard this, I immediately thought of Robyn Hitchcock. Whatever. I just think it's lazy journalism when I get pegged with that. But it's my cross to bear, I guess.
The Decemberists play the Showbox with Okkervil River at 8 p.m. Fri., March 18. $12 adv./$14.