I am 38 years old, which means I'm seasoned enough to remember when there was a subterranean live music venue in Ballard called the Backstage


The Decemberists' Jenny Conlee-Drizos Returns to Her Roots With Calobo

I am 38 years old, which means I'm seasoned enough to remember when there was a subterranean live music venue in Ballard called the Backstage (it was subsequently--and ironically--transformed into a health club). Shortly after I turned 21, I saw Calobo and the Dave Matthews Band there in tight succession. For Matthews' gig, the crowd was mature and relatively mellow, and a steady haze of marijuana smoke filled the room. For the Calobo show, 11-ounce grenades of Lucky lager littered the floor as a throng of attractive twenty-somethings in pressed t-shirts danced as only drunk honkies can (spastically).

Can you guess which of these acts sold out the 300-capacity club?

* See also: The Decemberists' Pliant Assassin

This was the mid-'90s, and the Northwest's post-grunge music scene faced an identity crisis. Into the void stepped Portland-based Calobo, which rode a melange of jammy, lyrically uncomplicated tracks and a rabid collegiate following to a successful decade-long run as a regional touring sensation. Fronted by David Andrews, Michelle Van Kleef and Caleb Klauder, the band also included Jenny Conlee-Drizos (in the center of the above photo, with her Calobo bandmates) on keys and Nate Query on bass. This pair would, after Calobo called it quits in 2001, accept an invitation from Colin Meloy, then new to Portland, to join a band he was forming. That band became the Decemberists.

The Decemberists have reached heights Conlee-Drizos could have never imagined with Calobo. And stylistically, the two bands couldn't be more different. Turns out, Meloy had never listened to Calobo was when he asked Conlee-Drizos and Query to play in his band; he just knew they played the right instruments. Here, we catch up with Conlee-Drizos, who recently won a bout with breast cancer, as Calobo prepares to play a 20th anniversary show this Saturday, October 6, at the Neptune.

Reverb: Compare and contrast Portland's music scene now versus when Calobo formed in the '90s:

Conlee-Drizos: There were some pretty distinct music scenes in the '90s. Coming out of college, I was very into the roots music scene--Five Fingers of Funk. Then there were bands like the Dharma Bums and Hazel, music that I sort of missed that has more to do with the Decemberists than Calobo. The '90s had fun music--lots of positivity, solos. Practicing with Calobo, the sounds are very simple and folk-based, but we make them complicated with all these little changes and guitar solos.

Was it an easy decision for you to reunite with Calobo for this tour, especially considering how far the Decemberists' success has outstripped theirs?

It's been coming up for a long time. Last year would have been our 10th year from our last show and our 20 year reunion, but I wasn't feeling well. The year before, the owner of the Crystal Ballroom [in Portland], who was very supportive of us, wanted us to play the 15th anniversary of the venue. We talked it around, but there's so much conflict with schedules. Caleb Klauder is probably busier than me and Nate with how many gigs he played. I wasn't as interested in doing it then either. I didn't want the Decemberists to have much to do with it. The Decemberists are on a break right now, so there's no conflict. Calobo can have its day.

Calobo was very different stylistically than Tarkio (Meloy's previous Missoula-based band). How, then, did you, Colin, and Nate come to conclude that you'd jell as players in the same band?

I think that's synchronicity more than a choice. Nate had been recommended by a whom Colin had met at a bar. Colin was looking for an upright bass player. That's when [Meloy's friend] recommended Nate, and Colin was like, "sure, whatever." It wasn't really all that thought out. And then he was looking for an accordion player and was like "you play accordion, cool. You want to be in a band?" He'd never even heard me play. He saw Calobo play a reunion show and was like, "whoa, that's what you did?"

Do you think if the Decemberists were forming today and Calobo had remained active with you in it, that you'd still connect with Colin and joined his band?

It'd be different now because there were less people to choose from (back when the Decemberists formed). Nate and I both had 10 years of experience playing live music, and that was unique. We had the band van and the gear. We were good choices for bandmates. People come to Portland now thinking they're going to get famous. We didn't expect it.

Considering how different the bands are musically, is it tough to get back into the Calobo groove, or is it like getting back on a bike?

It's like getting back on a bike, but I've learned a lot about music in the last 12 years after Calobo, and I feel like I would have played a little differently had I had some more restraints. We all just played all the time; it's a very thick style.

Are you going to play differently now, or just do what you did?

I'll probably just do what I did, although I may be a little more tasteful at times. When we were practicing and I tried to show some restraint, the other guys were like 'hey, why didn't you play that fill like you usually do?'

As a listener, do your tastes run more toward soft Calobo jams or the more elaborate, thematic compositions of the Decemberists?

I've always been a much harder rocker than Calobo ever was. I've wanted to be in Rush, ideally, or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. But I like folk music too. I like it all.

Is there much crossover between Calobo fans and Decemberists fans?

There are a few out there that I've met, but it's funny: There are always Calobo fans that are out there. Even doing Portlandia, the guys and gals doing makeup and clothes were like, "When are you going to do a Calobo show?" They were so indie-rock cool and they liked Calobo, which I thought was cool.

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