In the first episode of the new Independent Film Channel series Portlandia, the main character (played by Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen) suggests that "Portland is where young people go to retire." As anyone who has traveled to the northwest metro can confirm, this is amusingly true.
"It's so true, and it's been that way for a long time," says Nate Query, bassist for the Portland-based Decemberists. "And it's partly why the music scene is so good here. People are happy to get by working part-time at a coffee shop and then focus all of their energy on their music and stuff. So people end up being really creative."
Luckily for fans of the Decemberists, they've decided that retirement is not in their immediate future. With the release of their sixth studio album, The King Is Dead, the band has now officially been crowned an indie-rock household name. "To a certain degree it just sort of happened gradually over the 10 years that we've been a band, and you get a little extra bump with each record," reflects Query. "But when The Crane Wife came out, we probably had more publicity than we had before. That felt like sort of a big jump, and then Colbert paid attention to us, that was sort of the first time we hit the mainstream. In a lot of ways, if you're a band long enough and each record gets new fans, you just kind of eventually become kind of a household name."
Having spent the past year of their careers writing, recording, and enjoying some quality time in their native Portland, the Decemberists are ready to hit to road again in support of their new album—but are they really ready? "We didn't tour much this year, and we go on tour this Sunday, and we're going to be busy this year. Having our record come out, and getting lots of good reviews and stuff, is kind of only the beginning, I mean, it's time to get back to the bus and get to work."
From Query's perspective, it sounds as though embarking on the band's first tour in almost a year is a bit overwhelming. When I caught up with him for our phone interview, he was only four days away from heading out on the road. "This is sort of just the beginning of the next stage. I'm excited, but I don't think I'm necessarily too wrapped up in it either," he says. "There's always a lot to think about when you go on tour, but especially if it's the first tour you've been on in a little while. Just thinking about what to pack, I'm like, shit, I don't even know what I'm going to wear this tour [laughing]. Last tour I wore just a black suit and tie every day at the show. This tour we're planning something different. I call it rock-casual...I want to wear my good jeans! That's Portland's way to dress up, wear nice jeans."
With the Decemberists' use of catchy hooks embedded in miniature history lessons, they put their Liberal Arts degrees to good use and attract a similarly respectful, mature fan base. It's a formula that has kept reeling in positive reviews for the band, and has helped them build an unwavering following and achieve the type of success most indie bands can only hope for these days. "At this point, the way the music industry has changed, we still appeal to people that still buy records," Query reflects. "Like NPR listeners and adults. And yeah, kids are into it too, but they steal music, so.... [laughing] It's a brave new world out there."
The King Is Dead finds the band moving in a new direction, thanks in part to the involvement of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck; Buck's experienced guitar rhythms are heard throughout a majority of the songs, as are alt-country singer Gillian Welch's backing vocals.
"We tend to go off on sort of a tangent and just assume that the fans will come if they want, and we don't worry too much about whether or not they're going to be surprised or if they like it or whatever," Query says, when asked about their new album's distinctive and novel approach. "I think, generally, our listeners like to be challenged, so we're not afraid to throw a few curve balls out there."
Maybe they wanted to give us something to remember them by, something like a bittersweet departing letter, written in cursive and sealed with a wax stamp. It is rumored that the Decemberists will be taking a hiatus after this tour so that Colin Meloy can concentrate on his endeavors as an editor and a writer; don't fear, however—the Decemberists still have quite a busy schedule throughout the summer, not to mention their show in town this weekend.
THE DECEMBERISTS play on SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6, at the STATE THEATRE; 612.339.7007