For nearly two decades now the Decemberists have set their own quirky standard for folk and indie pop in Portland. On their latest album I’ll Be Your Girl however, the band shed many of their strings for synths and created a futuristic version of their usual voice. We caught up with singer Colin Meloy to discuss the band’s massive shift, their unique album creations and how Meloy wrote a song about Ben Franklin.
Northern Transmissions: Where did you guys get the idea for the pop-up book edition of the album and how did the design for that come together?
Colin Meloy: Over the last three records, our label has offered and we’ve had a lot of interest in putting together an incredible package. We’ve taken pride in our record design and we understand the value of that being vinyl festishists ourselves. We appreciate when a little extra creativity goes into a record design. Thankfully we have a label that’s interested in that too. Our last special edition was nominated for a Grammy so we sat down and thought about how we could outdo ourselves. Considering that the record was a little over-the-top it felt fitting to make a package that was similarly over-the-top.
NT: It’s always seemed like the band has taken very slow and methodical steps with your sound, so what prompted the jarring addition of electronics and synths as a whole this time around?
CM: It grew out of an interest in taking a step forward and continuing in our experimentation. We’ve never been happy to settle on what a Decemberists song should be like or sound like. Over the last couple records it settled into a groove a little bit, so the idea was really to upset that groove for better or for worst. We wanted to shift back to experimenting with the kind of music we were creating. Arrangement-wise that meant trying out more synthesizers and harkening back to an era of music we’ve really only alluded to in the past?
NT: I also heard that working on some books also forced you to edit your material a bit more this time, so how do you feel this shaped the album and was this also about escaping a comfort zone?
CM: We were being more circumspect with arrangements and with the song writing, while trying to be more economical. I have a tendency to over-write, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it was making things longer than they needed to be. Any opportunity to make more economical songs is really exciting to me right now.
NT: Was John Congleton a big part of this change and what else did he bring as a producer to the album?
CM: I think he really aided and abetted the change. John was happy with whatever mode we went into, and there was no discussion on what he thought we should do sound-wise. Working with John was an effort to create an environment where we felt free and had a license to experiment. Working with electronic music was definitely in his wheel-house, he’s done it before and he knows his way around modular synths. Mostly we wanted to work with him because we loved the records he’s done in the past and we felt like he was the biggest contrast to Tucker Martine who we’ve worked with for the past ten years.
NT: There’s a lot of chipper music about dark subjects and even children chanting about dying young on this record, was this reflecting the mix of despair and hope following the 2016 election?
CM: The marriage of dark subject matter with uplifting melodies is a tried and true tradition, and something that we’ve definitely traded in over the years. Maybe it’s a little more prevalent on this record. The current political climate definitely had a role in heightening those elements as well.
NT: Speaking of strange inspiration, I was interested to hear how you came up with Ben Franklin’s Song and how you got involved with ‘Hamilton’?
CM: Lin-Maneul Miranda reached out to me, he had some songs and the idea initially was to do another Hamilton mix-tape. He had written songs for Ben Franklin, but the character and the songs ended up on the cutting room floor because he probably figured the character didn’t have space within it. He had said he imagined the songs to be kind of Decemberists-y and he asked me to write music for this song and so I did.
NT: How did the Travelers’ Rest festival start and what was the biggest learning experience for you guys going from last year to this year?
CM: The reason we’d done it was that we’d been kicking around this idea for some time of hosting our own festival. Other artists had done it and we liked the idea of that. We couldn’t find a suitable space for it near Portland and then our promoter in Missoula, Montana (Colin grew up in Helena, Montana) suggested doing something around there. So we turned it into this two-night thing with a bunch of different artists. Growing up in Montana I was bemoaning the fact that many of the bands that I loved never came through Montana. So in my small way it was contributing to getting music there. We’re trying to find ways to make it good for the artists, because if it’s artist curated you would expect that part to be up to snuff.
Words by Owen Maxwell
May 22 – Red Rocks Amphitheatre – Morrison, CO +
May 23 – Uptown Theater – Kansas City, MO
May 25 – Hill Auditorium – Ann Arbor, MI
May 26 – Artpark – Lewiston, NY
May 27 – Boston Calling Festival – Boston, MA
May 28 – MTELUS – Montreal, QC
May 30 – Sony Centre for the Performing Arts – Toronto, ON
May 31 – Benedum Center – Pittsburgh, PA
June 2 – Murat Theatre at Old National Centre – Indianapolis, IN
June 5 – Iroquois Amphitheater – Louisville, KY
June 7 – Mann Center for the Performing Arts – Philadelphia, PA ^
June 8 – College Street Music Hall – New Haven, CT ^
June 9 – The Green at Shelburne Museum – Shelburne, VT ^
June 10 – State Theatre – Portland, ME ^
June 12 – Count Basie Theatre – Red Bank, NJ^
June 13 – BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival at Prospect Park Bandshell – Brooklyn, NY ^
June 15 – MASS MoCA – North Adams, MA
June 21 – Paramount Theatre – Seattle, WA ^
June 22-23 – Edgefield – Troutdale, OR ^
August 4-5 – Travelers’ Rest – Missoula, MT
^ with M. Ward
+ with Whitney