It is hard to imagine where modern American folk music would be without The Decemberists. The golden age of flower-child psychedelia died with Vietnam; the 1980s produced a brief, long forgotten ‘unplugged’ movement; the 1990s flickered away with the heartstrings of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Now, in 2011, the quintessential American indie sound is vibrant with traditional, old world textures – and the acts that have made the biggest commercial dent have worn their folk aesthetics with pride.
The Decemberists were among the first and, after a steady climb of six records, they look poised to finally smash into the unambiguous mainstream. musicOMH caught up with longtime member Jenny Conlee for some quickfire Q&A action about life in the band, their new album, and people smoking weed at their concerts…
musicOMH: The King Is Dead is a much more restrained album compared to the last few records. Why did you feel now was the time to scale back your sound?
Jenny Conlee: Well we’ve been talking about making this ‘country record’ or this ‘stripped down record’ for a long time, before The Hazards Of Love. It just seemed natural that after you go big you reel things back in.
OMH: Was it hard to reel yourself back in? Did you feel tempted to go big again?
JC: When we were making the record we listened to the demos which were just vocals and guitar, and said to ourselves, ‘Let’s just put on whatever the song needs and nothing else, let’s try to make this as spare and efficient as possible’. We weren’t thinking about string sections, we wanted to make it as stripped down as possible.
OMH: Do you go into making a record with a specific vision in mind?
JC: It seems like it, but The Crane Wife was a bit of an exception. We didn’t expect it to sound as proggy as it did. That one sounded like a more ambiguous record. I remember when we were recording the three song cycle The Island in the middle of it, we decided to change the key all over the place, and that was something that happened in the studio. That certainly wasn’t the case with the new album; we just rehearsed a few times and decided to keep it all straightforward. It was nice because we had everything mapped out by the time we got into the studio.
OMH: You recorded The King Is Dead at Pendarvis Farm, and the music has a certain pastoral texture to it. Do you think your physical surroundings impact the recording process?
JC: I think so. We were in this barn together, an art barn, not full of horses or anything, but it still had a rustic vibe to it. Between takes we were all outside jamming, playing banjos, listening to a lot of Harvest and Songs From the Big Pink – albums we thought had the aesthetic we were going for. We actually put on The Band before recording and wondered, ‘What’s that sound they’re getting there?’
OMH: Whose idea was it to go out to Pendarvis?
JC: We were looking for a place a little bit out of town so we weren’t distracted by our daily lives, someplace we could relax. We looked at a bunch of different places and studios with a big enough tracking room for all our members, and Colin (Meloy) had gotten married in Pendarvis two years ago, so we decided to check it out. The people in charge were very generous and welcoming, so it all worked out.
OMH: With how pretty it is up there, did it almost feel like a vacation with some of your friends rather than just recording?
JC: It did feel like that. I had a lot of time when I wasn’t playing to just sit around with friends, and doing a lot of walking around and camping was great.
OMH: It was a pretty ballsy move to open with Don’t Carry It All, and with that big blast of harmonica it sets the tone for the rest of the record. Was there any intention behind that, or did that song just seem to fit?
JC: That song just seemed like it popped, and it certainly does set the tone. There was definitely that intention behind it. Colin had fallen in love with the harmonica over the last break, and when I listened to the demos I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s the harmonica record!’
OMH: Peter Buck of R.E.M. plays on a few of the songs. How did that come about?
JC: When the songs were laid down, they were so obviously influenced by those early R.E.M. records like Murmur and Document. We decided to fully embrace it and see if he wanted to play on it, as it would give us more cred or more perspective on the songs. He was totally up for it which was really cool.
OMH: Had he heard you guys before?
JC: Yeah, he’s in this band with Robyn Hitchcock called The Venus 3, and we did a tour with them opening. He’s a part-time Portland resident, so we knew him from social circles in town, and we’ve played on The Minus 5, which is a band of his.
OMH: It must be interesting to write songs directly influenced by R.E.M., and then all of a sudden have the person responsible for some of those songs in the studio with you.
JC: We were lucky, but obviously felt a little funny about it too! Colin basically asked him, ‘Is this cool?’ and Peter said ‘I stole everything I know from The Byrds‘. He was really gracious about it.
OMH: Do you foresee this record getting comparisons with the first two albums Her Majesty The Decemberists and Castaways And Cutouts?
JC: Definitely, especially with Castaways with the pedal steel and accordion. To me that record is the closest to this new one, plus the more personal songs Colin wrote are being brought up again, which I’m happy about.
OMH: On the Hazards tour you were playing that album in its entirety before digging into some of the older songs. Are you excited to be writing different, less scripted set lists again?
JC: I actually never got sick of the Hazards tour. I come from a classical background, and I liked going out on stage, taking a deep breath, starting the piece and trying to play it the best you can, even though it’s already written. There’s a sense of performance, not having the crowd interact till the very end. I like that a lot, and the second half of the show was a lot more elaborate with the crowd. I’m curious to see how this tour goes because we haven’t done a straight-up show in a long time.
OMH: Did you notice a difference in the crowd on the Hazards tour?
JC: They were definitely more subdued. I think when people got to know the record better they started to get more into it, headbanging at the big moments, and I think this was the first tour where people were smoking pot during the shows. I remember saying ‘I think we made it!’ after that.
OMH: Your albums have been climbing the American charts pretty steadily since Picaresque. Hazards came in at 14, so do you feel like The Decemberists have crossed over from being a prominent indie act to being a popular rock band?
JC: I think we might with this record. We’re being played on big radio, and we’re going to take a single in Modern Rock which is different for us. I hope some of the older fans don’t shy away from us, but we’ll see.
OMH: There doesn’t seem to be a sense of you selling out at all.
JC: Yeah. We still have a lot of integrity, and we’re not singing about bubblegum stuff. I think we’ll always have the audience that we have. Kids love us, my parents love us – and it’s great to have such a wide fanbase. Hopefully that will just get bigger!
The Decemberists’ album The King Is Dead is out on 17th January 2011 through Rough Trade. More about the album and their upcoming tour can be found at their official website. Interview questions were posed by Luke Winkie.