We’ve Got A File On You: The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You: The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy

Shervin Lainez

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Colin Meloy is a raconteur. The music he’s made for over two decades as bandleader of the Decemberists has long been anchored by narrative-based songwriting, the subject matter of which can range from first-person accounts of a soldier in the French Foreign Legion to embarrassing moments in childhood competitive sports. Even as the group’s sound continued evolving from its origins as a tuneful indie-pop group into something more heavily influenced by progressive rock and eventually back toward more prominent hooks and concise songwriting, Meloy’s character-driven songwriting has been a constant, breathing life into each song through the lungs of its protagonist.

The Decemberists’ new album As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again feels, more than any other album, like a career summary of everything the Decemberists are and have been, juxtaposing stripped-down folk and buoyant pop songs against lengthy monoliths on a 68-minute double album that ends with a 20-minute retelling of the legend of Joan of Arc. Yet in the past decade, Meloy has also looked beyond music to flex his muscles as a storyteller, writing three children’s novels, which are being adapted into a feature film next year, as well as working on his debut adult novel, which will likewise see release in 2025.

In a lengthy Zoom call, I spoke to Meloy about the Decemberists’ latest album; his various fiction writing projects, including his upcoming novel Cascadia, as well as his children’s book series Wildwood with illustrations from Carson Ellis (who is also his spouse); appearing on sitcoms and late-night shows; Hüsker Dü and the Replacements; progressive rock; and more.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again (2024)

It’s been six years since the last album, 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl. That’s the longest interval between Decemberists albums to date. Obviously you’ve had a lot going on — what was the catalyst for getting back to work on a new album?

MELOY: I’ve been kind of collecting material over the course of those six years, and there’s some stuff that had been around since the last record. There’s always material hanging around. I often think that you don’t quite know — there’s always a last burst before you know you’re ready to make a record, and even a couple songs, like new songs, will suddenly cast light on stuff you’ve already done and give it context, and make it feel like it has a place. That’s sort of what happened here. We have these songs, and they all sort of felt like they’re floating in their own miasma, and then once there’s this blush of songwriting in late ’22, early ’23, I felt it was all making sense.

It’s a big album — a double album — and there’s a lot of material here. Did you imagine something this ambitious from the beginning?

MELOY: I didn’t really know. I had some core songs I thought were strong. And then started piecing together demos and stuff that I was collecting, and finishing things. And I mean, that’s often the case with how it works. Fragments of songs, at least for me, that just never felt right in their day when you kind of put pen to paper kind of feel more viable, or you need to step away from them for a while and then you’re easily able to finish them in a way you couldn’t before. In the early days of the Decemberists, it was just song-song-song, let’s make a record. Now there’s a lot of half-written songs between each of the album-making processes, and some of them turn into something. But it just feels like a very different songwriting process now than it was 20 years ago. We did end up having something like 22 demos that we were initially looking at. Then the first days of [producer] Tucker [Martine] and I working together, we managed to whittle it down to 15 that we should focus on.

It feels like each of the four sides has its own unique, separate character. Is that by design?

MELOY: That’s the design, yeah. It’s funny. I wanted to swing big and make something ambitious. It seemed like the right statement for us at this time, so making a proper double album, like 70 minutes, and it’s not a concept record by any stretch, but it does have a very deliberate structure. Part of that was the sequencing and designing it around the four sides of the LP. And for that reason, I think of my favorite double records of all time. One of them is Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü, and each of those sides has a distinct flavor. The first side is a kind of introductory palette, the second side is all anger and rage, and the third side is almost sort of folk-pop and then the fourth side gets really psychedelic. So that’s the model in a way.

The album ends with “Joan In The Garden” which is the longest song by the Decemberists yet. How did that come about?

MELOY: it goes back to just wanting to do something, not necessarily retelling the story of Joan of Arc, but finding things inside that story that are interesting and universal. And I had read Lidia Yuknavitch’s Book Of Joan, which is a totally batshit retelling of a kind of Joan of Arc story. But more like what about that story spoke to Lidia and what’s sort of universal about it. With this song, I knew it was going to be long, I don’t know how long, but it needed time to develop and breathe. The first two sections were the first ones that came, and I knew they wanted to be something longer, and then the last section is kind of based on the riff of the second and then while we were making it, I did feel like it needed something sizable. What I think we were trying to go for, is hallucinatory revelation and creating this kind of psychedelic sound bath, as a way to convey that feeling to the listener.

It’s kind of a return to the prog elements that have been a part of Decemberists albums in the past.

MELOY: It’s funny. We never set out to be a prog band, and for a moment I think that was maybe how we were identified, but I think of us as being more of a pop songcraft kind of band. But you know, I think our dabbles in genre led us pretty far afield at times. That’s what we like to do. The band is able to do it, I like writing in that style, why not go for it?

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” (2005)

This song became a big live favorite with fans over the years. You’ve performed the song with a big whale prop that ends up swallowing the band. How did this more elaborate staging of the performance come about?

MELOY: It was all really spontaneous. Nothing was deliberate. We had the song, this sort of theatrical 12-minute-long song, and had no idea it was going to work on stage or how people would respond. And I think the first couple performances, if you go back, are pretty straight. It’s just the song. But there was this moment where we had everyone in the studio screaming as they’re being swallowed, so we thought we should get the crowd to do that, and so we needed to signal the people, and we needed to set up the signal, and it just grew and became this beast that was a 20-minute thing, on any given night, and that we were expected to do every night. And we did for a time, but now less and less, for everyone’s sake. If you’re a Decembeirsts fan, you’ve probably heard that song more than you care to count.

It kind of took on a life of its own outside the band. There are a lot of fan videos on YouTube where people have made animations to go with the song. There’s even a cover of the song by a band at a Renaissance Faire.

MELOY: Oh, I can only imagine.

Have you seen any of them?

MELOY: I think I’ve seen some of the animation ones. I haven’t delved too deep.

Pre-Decemberists Band Tarkio (1996-1999)

Tarkio was the band you were in before starting up the Decemberists. And you were still in Montana at the time, if I’m not mistaken. This was well before moving to Portland?

MELOY: Yeah, I was just finishing up school at University of Montana and started that band, I want to say in 96, 97, and yeah, we were a local band. And we had designs, I think, to try to be a more national band. We toured regionally, played Seattle and Portland, but that’s as far as we got. As we made our record in Seattle and tried to get label interest, it was sort of no dice. I think there was this thought that maybe we could be a band out of Missoula. Like Built To Spill — they’re a Boise band. I don’t know what it is about Montana, but it’s hard. You’re so far away. Boise is a little closer to the major metropolitan areas. But in Missoula, it’s 10 hours to get to Seattle. It felt very isolated and everyone else was moving onto other things. There was a brief moment where I was trying to convince the whole band to move to San Francisco or Portland, and everyone demurred, so I was on my own.

Moving to Portland seems like it changed everything.

MELOY: Yeah, it was a big move. I needed to get out of Missoula. I didn’t feel like sticking with Tarkio in Missoula. I was either going to be a baker all my life or be in the academic world. Which I kind of felt like I was anyway, but in Portland I felt like maybe I still had a shot at a music career. Not that Portland was necessarily that much better, but it just felt like a bigger and more vibrant scene. More places to play, more musicians to collaborate with. It was a big shift, and I felt like I had made these connections from us playing in Portland and then hosting some of the bands we had met on tour in Missoula, but had a hard time getting people to return my phone calls once I was here. So I played open mics and it was really starting from scratch, and building from there. It was a whole lot of luck to get through that.

Colin Meloy Sings EPs: Morrissey (2005), Shirley Collins (2006), Sam Cooke (2008), and The Kinks (2013)

You’ve released four solo covers EPs since 2005, each focusing on a specific artist. Even though it began with Morrissey, did you have plans to do the others when it began?

MELOY: Those were born out of — I was doing a solo tour in 2005. My first solo tour, playing little teeny clubs and just getting out there is something I’ve always liked doing. And I felt like I needed something, some kind of merch item. A tour-only merch EP seemed like a cool thing to do, and something I was able to do very easily is to record a bunch of Morrissey covers at home. Those sold out and it was a neat package we did with Stumptown printers and Carson did the design for. So it just felt like it set a precedent, that each time I did a solo tour, I had to do a new EP of cover songs. So four solo tours, and each one had its own covers EP.

Wildwood (2011); Under Wildwood (2013); Wildwood Imperium (2015)

The first installment of the Wildwood children’s book series was released in 2011 and has since yielded two more books in the series. From the beginning, did you envision this as being as epic a series as it turned out to be?

MELOY: I knew it was going to be a really involved story, and it really grew out of this project that Carson and I had been working on together in 2001. Even though we didn’t have any prospects and we were working service industry jobs — I was doing open mics and she wasn’t really doing illustrations, she was painting. But we wanted to collaborate on something, so we developed this folkloric story ostensibly for children, but looking back, it’s totally inappropriate for kids. [Laughs] Then we put that away, Decemberists started taking off and she started her own career doing editorial and children’s books illustrations, so we thought, “Ah, now is the time we should do this.” So we went and looked back at that manuscript and even gave it to her agent and said, “What do you think?” And he was like, “I don’t think so, but I love the idea of you doing something together.” But the general concept of Wildwood came about and we ended up using a lot of the ideas and concepts of that initial project and turned them into this story. And it was always going to be pretty big in scope.

Did the success of it surprise you?

MELOY: Yeah, I continue to be surprised by it. Some of that initial buzz probably came out of a time when the Decemberists were enjoying that initial success and people were interested in what I’d do in that world, but I’m surprised that it does have that staying power. I suppose because books last. Records do too, but especially with kids’ books, there’s always a new generation of readers looking for books, and for librarians and parents to give them those books, it’s really neat.

It’s also been adapted into a movie, which is due for release in 2025. How much involvement did you have in the production?

MELOY: It’s actually been in development since before the books came out. It’s, I don’t even know how many years, 15 years, and we have been kept in the loop, certainly, all along and given opportunities to submit feedback and stuff. I’ve seen drafts of screenplays and given notes, and I’m even doing some music for it. I’m as involved in it as I’d like to be. I don’t want to micromanage them. It’s a Laika [Studios] movie, it’s not a Colin Meloy movie, and they need to tell the story that they need to tell. But it’s in good hands, so it’s nice to just stand back and let it be the thing it is. But I’m glad to be involved.

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33 ⅓ Book On The Replacements’ Let It Be (2004)

Your first published book was on The Replacements’ Let It Be, and was pretty early in the series. Did Continuum reach out to you about writing it?

MELOY: Yeah, I was asked to do it, and I thought, “Yeah, I can write 100 pages about the Replacements.” And then it turned out to be a lot more challenging than I thought. I don’t know that I’m a natural nonfiction storyteller. Fiction I could do all day long, but your job, for instance, I don’t know that I have the muscles for it. I tend to get stuck. That one was really challenging. So when I finished it, I just thought, “Oh my god.” I don’t want to disavow it, because people come up to me and say they enjoy it, but I don’t love it.

It was written in memoir style, and there have been a number of different approaches to each album in the series, but that felt like a unique take when it was released.

MELOY: Joe Pernice had done Meat Is Murder similarly, and that gave me the courage to do that. Initially I wrote it more straight-faced, and looking back I wish I had done a more historical approach, like maybe I could have possibly interviewed [Paul] Westerberg or [Tommy] Stinson or maybe get people involved. But that was super intimidating to me to do that work. It was more organic to talk about the record with my own experience with it rather than the creation of the record. It probably would have been better to do that, but alas.

Reading The Hüsker Dü Chapter For The Our Band Could Be Your Life Audiobook (2019)

You also read an audio chapter for Our Band Could Be Your Life — did Michael Azerrad personally ask you to contribute?

MELOY: Yeah, he hit me up to do that. That was really sweet. I don’t know if I was the right person for it. I do think of Hüsker Dü and Bob Mould being my principal influences, but I doubt you hear that in our music. But I was really honored to do that.

Bob Mould’s “I Don’t Know You Anymore” Video (2014)

Speaking of which, you were actually in a Bob Mould video, playing a kind of caricature of yourself.

MELOY: Yeah, that was fun. It was cool. Alicia Rose, who is a friend, was making the video and hit me up to be in it and make fun of myself. It was a good time. And Bob is so sweet. It was a very easy thing to do.

I take it the Decemberists’ own social media platform never got off the ground…

MELOY: Oh yeah, Blorp was it? (Laughs) Never officially happened.

Debut Adult Novel Cascadia (Due Out In 2025)

Next year you’ll be releasing your first novel written for adult readers, which you said on social media has swears in it!

MELOY: Yeah, it does! [Laughs] I was thinking about what makes an adult novel. Wildwood, the middle-grade novels, are read by adults. Grownups all the time come up to me with novels to sign and tell me they love the books, so I don’t think there should be any age limit. I think they put the readers at 8-12 on the book, but I think can it just be all ages? So I think the Wildwood books are easily enjoyed by adults as well. So what does set it apart? If you want to be cynical you can say it has more swearing and nudity, more violence. But I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. What’s cool about writing for adults is maybe there’s a level of complexity or sophistication or kind of experimentation with the writing you can do and know you’ll be able to carry adult readers with you. You have to be careful because you can’t really do that with kids’ books. It’s wiser to stay with the greater narrative. But you can mess with form a little bit.

Do you find yourself in a different headspace when you’re writing this kind of story than when you’re writing something like Wildwood?

MELOY: Um, yeah. I mean, I think Wildwood, because it’s meant to be this, a story that’s kind of like a bedtime story, it does want a sort of more standard fairytale folktale structure, so in that sense there’s a lot of plotting it out and hitting the beats. Whereas with this one, it’s a little bit more freeform and you can follow it a bit more. There’s a little more planning and layout, but I’m a little more willing to follow whims. Even though Wildwood got a little batshit in the third one. Looking back, I think maybe that one got a little strange.

“Made For TV Movie” (2018) And Starring In Return To Lonesome Dove TV mini-series (1993)

There’s a song that’s never officially been released that I believe is called “Made For TV Movie”, which you wrote about a real experience of being on Return To Lonesome Dove. And as far as I can tell it’s all a true story?

MELOY: That’s out there? You’ve heard it?

Yeah, there’s video evidence!

MELOY: You know, I think that song came about because I was listening to a song on a Shins record [“Mildenhall”] where James [Mercer] sings about going to see Jesus And Mary Chain. It’s this kind of autobiographical song, not even hidden in poetry. It’s like, “And then I did this and here’s what happened.” And it struck me: Why not try that as an experiment, recall a memory from childhood, an old memory, and just tell it? In a song with a melody and rhymes and a chord progression, things like that, but try and keep it as straight as possible. So that’s what came out of my singing about my experience acting in a made for TV movie. And it was really long, and at the end of the day it wasn’t something I wanted to spend any more time on. But maybe it’d end up as a curiosity to talk about in a Stereogum interview.

So, not to bury the lede here, but how did you end up in Return To Lonesome Dove?

MELOY: Well, living in Montana in the summer — particularly in the ’90s, but I’m sure it still happens — there’s film shoots there. It’s beautiful country to shoot your Western. There tends to be film stuff happening. Every summer there’s at least one or two things being shot in Montana. I was involved in this community theater, Grand Street Theater, and they set up a wing that was kind of an agency, kind of a go-between for casting agents who were looking for local people to cast. I don’t know why, it’s probably cheaper and maybe just easy to cast some smaller parts from local actors. You didn’t have to fly them up, and you probably didn’t have to put them up. Probably a lot of reasons to hire locals. So I tried out and initially I was hired on as one of these three Irish brothers, and it was going to be a big part and I was going to be working all summer. Then it turned out I had to do this crazy horse riding stuff which I didn’t know how to do, and they didn’t teach me how to do it. Which is kind of annoying because I think I was expected to learn on my own, even though I didn’t know I was supposed to. So they ended up kind of booting me down to a smaller part. And I had one line and that was it. It was a couple days on the set.

I take it the acting bug didn’t take?

MELOY: I liked it. And when I went to college and did a lot of theater there, I figured out it wasn’t really my bag. In the creative arts, being able to read what is and what is not your bag is a critical instinct. I feel like I was around a lot of people who thought it was their bag, and I don’t know if it is, but you’re about to invest a lot of your life into it, so best of luck. But I kind of read the room and thought, “I don’t know that this is for me.”

Singing YouTube Comments On Jimmy Kimmel Live (2015)

This was hilarious. Did you choose the YouTube comments that you sang?

MELOY: No, I think they gave us a bunch of things to choose from and we grabbed a bunch of them and we kind of made up the songs backstage. It was very spontaneous. I think they came to us that day. You’ve got a lot of downtime with those shows. You’ll show up in the morning and run your song a couple times and then you’re hanging out backstage until they start filming so we had enough time to come up with four or five songs based on these comments. That was really fun.

Playing the Pawnee-Eagleton Unity Concert On Parks & Recreation (2014)

MELOY: Yeah, that was a blast. That came about because I had this idea we should make the “Calamity Song” video and have it be a chapter from Infinite Jest, and I pitched it to Capitol Records, our label. And they said, “I don’t know, you’d have to find someone who’s interested in doing that and is into that material.” So we said we’ll reach out and see if we can find anyone. And it turned out [Parks & Recreation co-creator] Michael Schur not only was interested and knew the material but had the film rights I think? And is a total David Foster Wallace head. So it was a perfect meeting for us to get this video concept done but also for him to try out filming something from Infinite Jest. So they came up to Portland with the Parks & Rec film crew, and then the next year part of Parks & Rec was that they were doing this festival and asking bands to do it, and asked us. We showed up in LA and did our thing.

Were all the other bands there on the same day?

MELOY: Yeah, every other band was there. It was run very much like a festival. Everyone had their time. You only came out and did a song, but Jeff Tweedy was there and Yo La Tengo (as “Bobby Knight Ranger”), it was neat.

The Tain (2004)

This EP turns 20 this year, and it was kind of the beginning of the Decemberists dabbling in prog. When you released it, did you want to do something a little outside of what people expected from the band?

MELOY: We’ve always been a band that’s not afraid of being playful or disruptive. Disrupting expectations a little bit. We had these two records out on an indie label, and I’d been doing these kind of folk-pop songs, so I think it was an attempt to disrupt, as we were introducing ourselves, what the Decemberists were. I had this riff idea, and we just followed it where it went. It was a lot of fun piecing that together. It all came together very quickly. It really came out of a Spanish record label that did exclusive EPs of American indie bands. It’s called Acuraela, I don’t even know if it’s around anymore. [Note: It is!] And they asked us if we wanted to do an EP, and I knew other bands that did it and it seemed like a cool thing to do. So it was like no risk, it’ll be funny, this five-song suite based on this piece of Irish-celtic mythology, and do it as straight-faced as we can. It’s both dead serious and tongue-in-cheek. The first time we ever played it was at a house party at the Magic Marker house, this very twee label in Portland, with the Lucksmiths, a very twee, Belle And Sebastian-y band, and we played that and that was our set. That to me was really funny, and I overheard one of the Lucksmiths guys clowning us for it. And I thought, “That was successful.” If they’re making fun of us, that was successful.

The Hazards Of Love (2009)

It’s also the 15th anniversary of the narrative concept album The Hazards Of Love, which was sort of peak prog for the Decemberists.

MELOY: Yeah, I guess I was following my own desires and interests at that time. Taking what we had done with The Tain and the Island expanding it to record length seemed like a cool project. I think it was just where my headspace is. I love it, and I still love it, but at that point I was like, “I don’t know if I want to be a prog band.” All of a sudden that’s what we were getting attention for. And The King Is Dead is obviously a direct reaction to that. Like, let’s get back to making pretty songs you can sing along to.

Decemberists vs. Mastodon On Bumper Cars (2010)

In 2010 you made it known via Twitter that the Decemberists and Mastodon had a bumper cars battle. How did that end up happening?

MELOY: Yeah, we did! That was fun. We were playing the Big Day Out festival in Australia. We were part of the same package — all the bands kind of travel together from city to city as they do these festivals, so you end up on flights everyone. Like Mastodon and Peaches and Ludacris all on the same planes and in the same hotels with us. I feel like we would run into them all the time and they were super sweet guys, and we thought they were all so cool. I based Brendan from Wildwood on the guitar player.

Brent Hinds?

MELOY: Yeah, Brent. Brendan is based on Brent because he just seemed like a true soul. We did have a bumper car match. I don’t remember who came out on top. I’m sure they did.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is out 6/14 via Capitol.

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