Colin Meloy on the 2000s, TikTok, and The Decemberists' Great New Album

Colin Meloy on the 2000s, TikTok, and The Decemberists' Great New Album
Photo by Shervin Lainez

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers get a paid-only Baker's Dozen every week featuring music I've been listening to and some critical observations around it. I'm running a 30% off sale for annual subscriptions, which you can grab here while it lasts.

I've been a longtime fan of the Decemberists, whether or not it's been fashionable to be—but even by my metric, their latest record As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is the band's best in a minute or two, locating the je ne sais quoi that has made this band special to so many people for such a long time. I've interviewed bandleader Colin Meloy a few times across my career thus far, and I was happy to have him on the newsletter to talk about his band's latest achievement and a host of other topics...

This new record is really good. Tell me about how it came together.
It really started in 2022. We went on that twice-postponed tour that was initially going to be a 20th anniversary tour. After a couple of cancellations and postponements because of COVID, it just became a tour. We had a couple of songs that we were playing on that tour, and I thought it'd be a good idea to go into the studio and just record them. We didn't really have any designs on making a record. We just wanted to see if we could just get these songs down.

We were also experimenting with different fragments of songs, and that experience...I don't think I'm the kind of songwriter that can make a record out of just pulling stuff out of my journal. Also, we get pretty quickly off-track if we don't have a producer—so I walked away from that session feeling a little frustrated. But then we had amassed all this music, and I had a better idea of how to make a Decemberists record coming out of that session. So we started started working in earnest in July of last year.

Tell me about what a "Decemberists record" means to you. You guys have covered more ground, sonically, across your career than some would think—but, also, I think you do have a distinct sound.
You know, I feel like I've spent the last 10 years struggling with this idea of what a Decemberists record is. I think it's led to a lot of unnecessary dead ends. Of course, when you're a band that's been around for 20 years, you're gonna struggle with that. It's so much easier early on in your career. You're being introduced to people, and what you have is what you are. Once you've developed an audience, there are certain expectations, and things that have written about you that decide what you are, and where you fit. You have to understand where people see you—how you're perceived. But then it's very easy to get too in your head.

All this is to say is that I think this record was me throwing up my hands, to a certain degree—being like, "I can't pretend to know what a Decemberists record is and isn't." These are the songs that I've written, and here they are all together on a record.

I mean, I feel like this is probably the most Decemberists-y record I've heard from you guys in quite a bit of time.
Well, there you go. If I just try not to make a Decemberists record, I end up making a Decemberists record. If I just keep my hands off the wheel a little bit, that's probably the best way to go about it.

The last couple records—particularly the last record—there's a lot of hand-wringing about defying or upending expectations. And I think that there's good to be pulled out of that. Of course, you should be challenging yourself and pushing against type. But if you're forever doing that, you're only going to be an obstacle to yourself. This record is the end result of me having a little bit of a breakthrough, or at least sloughing off some of those hang-ups.

You guys have been a band for quite a while. For some bands, there are points where, for whatever reason, there are moments of great difficulty in terms of being in a band. Tell me about those moments in yours and the Decemberists' career thus far.
I am blessed, thank God, with bandmates who are incredibly flexible, understanding, and gracious. I'm probably the problem child of us all. I struggle the most. The process of writing songs, making a record, mixing, mastering, doing the promo, and then touring, it's just...there's been many, many times where I've struggled with being in the band, which mostly has to do with my own shit and so little to do with any kind of interpersonal relationships with the bandmates. Part of the decision-making process that brought us all together is that we were all kind of sane adults.

You worked with Tucker Martine again after taking a break from that working relationship on I'll Be Your Girl. Tell me about that.
Not working with Tucker [on I'll Be Your Girl] was an effort to change things up. When we worked with John Congleton, we'd reached a point where you start to lapse into familiar patterns that I started recognizing and wanted to break out of. There are small and big ways to try to do that, and one of them was, "Let's just get a different person in the control booth mixing it." That made a huge difference. Stuff John did, we would never in a million years have done with another producer, and it's because John, for one thing, has a really distinct personality in his production and his mixes, which was really great.

As we started producing [this new album] ourselves, it made me really aware of how much I missed having a trusted partner in the control room—a sixth member to oversee things and give their unvarnished opinion about stuff. It really has to be somebody whose opinion you trust. It was sort of awkward—we were renting Tucker's studio during those first sessions, and he was there letting us in. But by the end of the week, I was like, "I just want you here." I think I was etting go of some of those hang-ups and being like, "This works." We've both taken quite a journey in the 10 years since we'd last worked together, and it made sense to come back and see what we had both learned in those intervening years.

What would you say he brings to the table that's different from other producers?
How do you answer that without disparaging other producers? [Laughs] I would say he's very thoughtful, but the producers that we've worked with are, for the most part, very thoughtful and care about their craft. I can certainly compare between John and Tucker. I think John comes from a bit more of a punk rock background—a "Let's put up mics and get a first-thought-best-thought" attitude. There's a lot of really great stuff that can come out of that. Tucker is more like, "Let's take a lot of time with this," which could be great. You can certainly get a great performance out of that. Sometimes, you run the risk of running it into the ground if you're not careful.

Tucker is very demanding in a way John wasn't. After working with Tucker early in our career, I was like, "Can I even sing or do a full take on my own?" because he was so exacting. Working with John, I'd do a scratch pass on a vocal, and he'd be like, "That sounded great." [Laughs] It's different levels of how exacting you want to be, and there's no right or wrong to that. They're totally valid both ways.

Tell me more about being challenged creatively and the push-and-pull of working in a more exacting environment.
Well, performance-wise is where Tucker really shines. He isn't easily fatigued. When you're five weeks into tracking and you just want to get a thing done, it's easy to be like, "That'll work." But I've seen him at the 12th hour be like, "Now, I think we can get one more out of that." That takes a lot of endurance, and a kind of constitution.

This new album features R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, which means that you're 2/3 of the way towards having all the band's surviving members on Decemberists records. 
[Laughs] I don't know how we got them on our records, it's just worked out that way. They're gracious guys who are happy to contribute and don't have much ego about them. When we first started working with [Peter Buck] on The King Is Dead, I'd basically written, to my ears, an ersatz Peter Buck riff. [Laughs] I remember trying to sit him down and teach it to him, and it wasn't totally natural to him, which is funny. Your own interpretation of what an easy Peter Buck riff is, is very different from what it actually is. I was quite a bit off the mark.

What's your favorite R.E.M. record?
Maybe I think it's Reckoning, or Life's Great Pageant.

James Mercer's on this record too, and he sounds so at home on your music. I see you guys as contemporaries, coming up and kind of gaining greater publicity prominence around a similar time. Tell me about the relationship you've had with him over the years.
I've known him since Oh, Inverted World, which was such a huge record. I was so enamored with his songwriting. I remember being really nervous the first time I ran into him, but since then, he's been just a really sweet guy—very self-effacing, again, no ego.

We had this song that has a Beach Boys-y vocal part to it, and we were thinking of somebody with a distinctive voice to carry that other part, and his name came up. I texted him, and it happened that he was in town and could come in the next day, and he did—and he just knocked it out of the park. In some ways, that song lives in the Shins' world, a little bit—that '60s bubblegum pop-adjacent kind of music—so he found his own way in it pretty quickly.

Yeah, the first time I put on this record, before I even looked at the liner notes, I heard that song and was like, "Wow, this sounds a lot like Oh, Inverted World."
In the early aughts, I remember being like, "God, everybody's trying to remake Pet Sounds." At the time, it got to be a little much, of course. The Shins, I don't know you could say that they were trying to do that, but they were doing it in a way that no one else was. It really felt like their own sound.

Let's talk more about the 2000s. I've been following your career as a fan since the beginning, so I'm very aware of the general ascent the Decemberists took at that time. Tell me about what that was like.
I don't know how to account for it. I think there was a certain amount of music coming out of the Pacific Northwest at that time that had a certain aesthetic. I don't know that we necessarily matched with it, but I think there was a "rising tide raises all boats" sort of thing, and we were carried along with that.

I don't know what the formula was, because I just don't feel like we were really following the formula. To my mind, what we were making was in the model of Belle & Sebastian. When I was in college and I first heard If You're Feeling Sinister, I tried to read about them where you could, but it was so hard to find anything about them. They were so mysterious. That's what I wanted to create—a world that existed on its own. Partially irreverent, very handmade, smart, but also a little bit funny.

Funnily enough, I feel like you guys really found your core audience in the 2010s.
I mean, that is also a mystery. Inevitably, we changed, transformed, and adapted. At that point, we were no longer little indie kids anymore. There was a definite shift between 2005 and 2006. When The Hazards of Love came out, there was an energy in the crowd that changed and became something different. I remember early Decemberists shows as being, like, riotous affairs—but we grew up, and our audience grew up, and that's just inevitable. I think if we hadn't grown up, we would've gotten a lot of people scratching their heads at us, and if our audience hadn't grown up, we would've lost a lot of people.

I saw you guys play Webster Hall in 2005, and you joked from the stage that there were some major label people hanging around in the VIP balcony section. This was a few years before you guys moved moved over to Capitol. Tell me about the band's time on a major.
I felt like I was following in the mode of the bands that I loved. R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements all recognized when they had an opportunity to cross over into a more mainstream audience. They waited until they had a pretty sizable fan base so that switching to a major label wouldn't affect what they did. There were certainly major labels sniffing around after Her Majesty, and it wasn't until after Picaresque that we made that move. We wanted to make sure that we were at a point where we could live on our own without a major label, too.

I think we had a lot of champions at the label, even though there were so many changes. The Capitol that put out I'll Be Your Girl would not be recognizable to the one that put out The Crane Wife. Everybody had changed over at that point. But, for whatever reason, we'd managed to survive and were always allowed to do whatever we wanted. They'd send A&R guys to come hang out in the sessions, but they'd just sit back and not say anything. For whatever reason, we were given carte blanche to do whatever we wanted.

How have you seen the industry change through your point of view over the last decade?
I've stayed blessedly ignorant of a lot of that stuff. I've been allowed to be pretty insulated—not only from the label but from our management, who does a lot of the communication and figuring out what the label's expectations are for us. I don't know that there were that many big expectations. Maybe if there had been, we would've sold more records. [Laughs]

I do know that the TikTok-ification of the industry has really transformed things. Time was, there were other ways of getting viral attention. We came up in the NPR music boom, which was probably a big part of our ascent. Those little short clips that you see on Instagram or TikTok or, I don't even know how to navigate that.

I mean, Pavement charted off of TikTok. It could happen to anyone now.
Oh, right. I was wondering about that, because we were playing the Chicago Theater in 2022, and I was like, "Oh, Pavement's playing. Oh, they're playing two nights. Wow, what happened?" I know Steve, and I know that the first iteration of that Pavement tour, it wasn't like it was gangbusters or anything—but suddenly, there was this explosion. Chris Funk explained to me that there was a weird TikTok phenomena over a B-side from Brighten the Corners. Which, I mean, what can you do? You have no control over that.

Honestly, I think there's a lot bad that's obviously going on in the music industry, as well as the world, but I also find it really inspiring that 16-year-olds are, like, suddenly listening to Duster because of TikTok. Despite the algorithm being thrown around as a buzzword, somehow discovery still happens. That's kind of hopeful, to me.
It feels so random, though, which is the scary thing. But, I mean, maybe it was random when some gatekeeper DJ decided to champion your band too. Who can say.

This new record's your first self-released effort for the band. Tell me about what goes into that for the Decemberists.
We're partnered with Thirty Tigers, which is the backbone of it—so it's not like we we're entirely doing this on our own. They create the infrastructure for it. It felt like, if we were ever going to do this, now would be the time. Arguably, we should've maybe done it sooner. Also, in this day and age, people are probably paying less attention to what sticker is on the center of their vinyl LP. Not being an up-and-coming band, I don't know how much we needed that seal of approval.

We have our audience, and these days you control your own avenues of marketing and outreach to your fans so much more. It just seemed like a no-brainer—and, to be honest, the process has not been that different from working with Capitol. Honestly, I think it would've been the same—we would've just made a lot less money. [Laughs]

Let's talk about your newsletter. Obviously, there's been plenty of examples in which musicians have explored other creative avenues over the last several years.
I was a little leery when I started doing it, initially. I thought I'd run out of steam pretty quickly. I don't think of myself as somebody who excels at writing non-fiction or journalism. I'm so impressed by people who are able to do that. I know what it is to feel like you have a head of steam and can just write something. I can see it in other people's writing, and for me, it's a daily challenge—but it's a rewarding challenge. I feel like I write fiction a lot easier than i do non-fiction, and trying to find a way to to reconcile those two things is also interesting.

I'm drawn to write less about my own music and more about my experiences around being a fan of music, or as being an artist and a songwriter and sort of my experience in the world. I don't want it to be just a repository for Decemberists ephemera—which, initially, I was like, "Well, that's all it'll be and it'll kind of do itself."But more and more, I feel like it should be something else.

You mentioned earlier about how expectations are developed when certain things are written about your art. Do you feel like you've faced any misconceptions as an artist?
I mean, the Decemberists have been, like, famously pigeonholed. I think we set ourselves up for it, you know? You write a song about a chimney sweep, you're bound to be pigeonholed for something. In some ways, of course it's sort of irritating to have your your work distilled down to one simple idea which you feel is just a facet of it. In other ways, it's good to have a shorthand, and I think that's part of the reason that we were successful. There is a very easy label to put on us that people could see and be like, "I'm curious about that." As much as I hate it and rail against it and feel like it's oversimplifying, I'm also kind of at peace with it.

What other people think of you is none of your business. I can only write the music that i write. What they want to put into that is out of my control. And maybe the distilled version is more the truth than I know, just because I'm living inside of it, and here's people absorbing and consuming it from outside.

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Jamie Larson