The Decemberists - Colin Meloy on “I’ll Be Your Girl” and Living the Farm Life

It's All Coming Undone

May 14, 2018 Photography by Holly Andres Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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A little ways south of his longtime home of Portland, OR, Colin Meloy has spent the past four years living on a five acre farmstead with his wife and two sons. Listed on the historic registry, the property dates all the way back to the mid-19th century. Outside, roaming in their respective enclosures, live the farm's resident livestock: two pygmy goats, nine chickens, a sheep, and two llamas ("Llamas are actually great guard animals," The Decemberists frontman quips. "A llama can really fuck somebody up if they really wanted to."). Meloy, though just having finished lunch, is already thinking ahead to dinner, prepping a mound of dough for a night of homemade pizza with his family.       

Listening to Meloy discuss the comfortable charm of his home and simple pleasures of his familial tasks, it becomes difficult to bridge this engaging, amiable version of him with the celebratory nihilist inhabiting and guiding his band's eighth LP, I'll Be Your Girl. "I might have those sort of negative qualities that you normally don't ascribe to a real positive human," he says. "I think of myself as being a kind and generous person, but I also am deeply angry and deeply cynical. I think it's hard to be a modern person and not be a little cynical."

From the refraining lines of the album's opening track "Once In My Life," where Meloy issues a pleading mantra of despair for "something to go right," to the self-explanatory content found within the titled tracks "Everything Is Awful," "Sucker's Prayer," and "We All Die Young," Meloy and his longtime bandmates Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen draw out a jovial, dark misanthropy from what he refers to in conversation as "our current predicament."

In a comparison of the album's through-the-looking-glass, upside down tension, Meloy relates an anecdote connected to one of the year's more alarming news stories: "I heard some interviews with people who were in Hawaii who received that mistaken alert that a ballistic missile was incoming. There were two guys on a golf course, and both got the alert at the same time. I think these were reasonable, pragmatic guys realizing that there was literally nothing they could do to try to get to their families, try to get to friends, try to get to shelter, in a real circumstance where a missile would be on the way. You wouldn't be able to do any of those things. And so they just kept playing golf. If they were going to die they were going to die during a perfectly pleasant golf game."

For all of I'll Be Your Girl's allusionary absurdism, Meloy says he had never been more thoughtful and cognizant when looking at himself and his traditional approach to writing songs. "I think that during a lot of the writing and recording of the last two records, even though I was feeling there were some novel and exciting things we were working on, the end product felt very familiar to me. I don't give myself a ton of credit, but I know that there's something deeper down there. There's more to be excavated. And it's just a question of finding it. So as I was writing for this new record, it was just being in that headspace where I was looking for the uncommon thing or explore things that I probably would have discarded."

Recording I'll Be Your Girl The Decemberists deliberately leaned away from things that felt intuitive or comfortable. "The phrase you'll hear from Colin is 'bad habits,'" says Funk. "That was kind of our theme. How do we break bad habits? Being a band for 17 years, how do you that? We've become well-oiled. It's habitualin a good way. So it's like, 'Where are we going to take this to? How far are we going to take this song?' using our mechanics of the well-oiled machine."

The resulting sonic palette is unlike anything the band has produced before, incorporating the use of synths, distorted vocal effects, and stylistic flourishes that feel completely incongruous with the band's early conceptual folk anthems (though the record does feature at least one narrative epic, based on the lore of Russian mermaids).

Ultimately, as woeful or bewildered as Meloy may be towards life outside his quiet, rural sanctuary, the veteran songwriter can still always rely on putting things in context with his longtime band, and find something new in the process. "I feel like the seal is broken a little bit," says Meloy on the band's new willingness to experiment. "It suddenly feels like there's a new road open. I feel like a good deal of risk really paid off."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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