The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy on laughing at mortality, writing for kids, and what he learned from the Replacements

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The Decemberists: This is fine. Holly Andres

The Decemberists are in an experimental mood.

I’ll Be Your Girl, the Portland-based indie rock act’s eighth studio album, showcases a kaleidoscopic range of sounds. The 11 tracks acts as a sonic rebellion against the habitual music-making process the band has formed during its 17-year history. While frontman Colin Meloy’s songwriting remains as morbidly madcap as usual, instrumentally the album is synth-heavy, busy, and cacophonous. Standouts on the album include “Once In My Life,” a sad delight reminiscent of the Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” the ironically upbeat “Everything Is Awful,” and the gender-bending title track that takes a jab at male-centric rock culture.

We spoke to Meloy ahead of the Decemberists’ two-night stand at the Palace Theatre this weekend.

City Pages: Every interviewer asks about the synth on your new album, but the guitars are pretty wild as well. Talk about what’s going on there instrumentally.

Colin Meloy: The electric guitars are the work of Chris Funk, for the most part, and he’s a tinkerer in the studio and is sort of a hard guy to batten down on any particular approach or sound. I don’t know what to attribute that to. I think with the kind of environment that we had set up, this feeling that everyone had license to try something new, try something different, I think he took that to heart and brought in a lot of weird gear and things that made some very strange sounds that we eventually got into some kind of listenable shape.

CP: On the song “Sucker’s Prayer,” it sounds like the singer struggles with suicidal urges. Where did that song come from?

CM: It’s sort of about a hapless person who can’t even manage to kill themselves. To me, it’s meant to be light-hearted and funny and kind of poking fun at the idea of mortality and depression which, despite the seriousness of those things, I think is a healthy thing to do.

CP: “Everything is Awful” was written in a post-election depression. What was happening at the time you wrote it?

CM: I think it was just shortly after the election and we were starting to hear about what sort of people we were expecting to populate the cabinet and it seemed that everything was really, truly terrible. So “Everything is Awful” was this recurring thing popping into head and I decided it would make a pretty good refrain for a chipper song. It’s a weird way of looking at the catastrophe and laughing at the absurdity of it.

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CP: The album artwork is pretty trippy. Who designed it and how did you decide on the concept?

CM: It was illustrated and designed by the person who’s done all of our artwork and that’s Carson Ellis, my wife. She and I tend to collaborate on album design usually while we’re still in the process of making a record. This one, we were trying to figure out what it should be like and I went back to a photo of a butcher paper tablecloth that we laid down for our Thanksgiving parties that we had right after the election. We had a bunch of friends over and everybody got kind of loaded and just drew on this butcher paper all over the table. It was this massive, vomit-like explosion of color and Donald Trumps and Bart Simpsons and Garfields and Darth Vaders all coming together. That was sort of the mood board for this.

CP: You’ve also written children’s books. What are the challenges of that kind of storytelling compared to the kind of storytelling you do in songwriting?

CM: They’re very different. Ostensibly they come from the same place but require very different ways of getting to that end. I feel like writing songs tends to be a little bit more elusive, kind of catch-as-catch-can, whereas writing a book really requires having a practice and getting a certain word count done every day toward a goal.

CP: You’ll be in St. Paul for shows on Friday and Saturday. What do you plan to do with the downtime between shows?

CM: That is a good question. I have no idea. Typically, on a day in a city, I’ll get up, find some breakfast, and then I’ll go find a bookstore. I sort of wander the city. I don’t know that we’ve done two nights in Minneapolis or St. Paul in a while, so I don’t have a go-to thing that I do.

CP: You were one of the Replacements’ “super fans” interviewed in the documentary Color Me Obsessed. How did that band influence your development as a musician?

CM: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, those two bands loomed really large for me as a kid. One thing I think I drew from the Replacements is they were not precious about their performances. There was a certain chaos to what they did, a certain amount of their presence onstage and their delivery and their performance, the fact that anything could happen at any moment. They really did their shows on their own terms and that was always very exciting to me. I think that has influenced the way I approach the performance aspect.

CP: Do you anticipate the Decemberists enduring for your entire adulthood?

CM: I have been doing this for 17 years. I expect it to continue. It’s a career. I like playing with these people.

CP: If you were to form a supergroup, who would you want as your other members?

CM: Donald Fagen, Scott McCaughey, and Serge Gainsbourg.

The Decemberists
With: Gaelynn Lea
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Fri. Apr. 6 and Sat. Apr. 7
Tickets: $39.50; more info here


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