The Decemberists - Biography
In December of 1825 a faction of liberal military officials staged a revolt against the conservative Tsar Nicholas I in the Senate Square of St. Petersburg, Russia. Although defeated by the Tsar’s army, the proto-communist group of dissenters is known to history as the Decembrists--named after the month of their heroic uprising.
In 1999, singer, songwriter, and guitarist Colin Meloy left his alt-country band Tarkio in Missoula, Montana for the soggy climes of Portland, Oregon. By 2000 he had assembled bassist Nate Query, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, guitarist Chris Funk, and drummer Ezra Holbrook into a musical collective named The Decemberists in reference to those rebels of 1825. Meloy added an “e,” possibly for the commercial purposes of ease of reading, or perhaps to signal that this musical group was not entirely a devoted homage to the Russian renegades. As Meloy is quoted in a June 17, 2004 article in the Tucson Weekly, the band’s name is also “an allusion to the month of December and imagining the drama and melancholy of winter."
Not to be defeated on their first attempt at cultural overthrow like their namesakes, The Decemberists self-released demo 5 Songs (2001/2003 reissued Hush Records) was successfully recorded against all odds. With no money to cover the cost of the recording studio, they played a fund-raising show the night before and were then able to knock out their EP in less than two studio hours. The songs are jangly with lots of alt-country atmosphere from Funk’s pedal steel guitar, but the lyrical style that would soon earn the band a reputation as the literati jokesters of the indie-rock scene is established in narrative, character-driven songs such as "My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist.”
The group’s demo attracted the attention of Portland based Hush Records and within the year, Castaways and Cutouts (2002 Hush Records/2003 Kill Rock Stars), was released. Meloy’s creative writing degree is certainly on display in The Decemberists first full-length album. Each song brims with characters straight out of swashbuckling penny dreadfuls and exoticised Victorian melodramas: gypsies, prostitutes, a laudanum-addicted legionnaire, the ghost of a little girl born in a ravine. In the tradition of Kurt Weill and (more recently) Nick Cave, the hard luck tales of marginal characters shift center stage and a bit of glamor is shed upon the tawdry. The instrumentation also excels to the high bar set by the narrative of the lyrics. Conlee's accordion and organ swell, lending sea shanty and klezmer tones to these quirky songs. Funk’s Theramin and Query’s upright bass add a colorful texture that was absent on their demo.
The haunting and nautical album art for Castaways and Cutouts was created by Meloy’s girlfriend (and later, wife) Carson Ellis. The whimsical (and at times obsessively detailed) work of Ellis can be seen on every Decemberists album to follow.
During the next year, Hush Records re-released 5 Songs. The re-release features a sixth track, the "Apology Song,” which was originally sung by Meloy into the answering machine of a friend of his who has lost his dear bike named Madeline.
Later in 2003, The Decemberists signed on with Kill Rock Stars Records and re-released Castaways and Cutouts. After replacing drummer Holbrook with multi-instrumentalist Rachel Blumberg, the band recorded their second full-length album, Her Majesty The Decemberists (2003 Kill Rock Stars). Continuing the precedent set by their first full-length album, Her Majesty is every inch literate and creative. Setting the bar so high can be dangerous ground in rock and roll, even if your brand of rock and roll runs from orchestral to music hall. Nonetheless, Her Majesty manages to maintain a level of cleverness without bottoming out into pretentiousness, which can be difficult to pull off amid songs referencing Marcel Duchamp or contemporary fiction author Myla Goldberg.
Proving that their literary ambitions and musical eclecticism know no bounds, The Decemberists released The Tain (2004 Acuarela Discos/2005 Kill Rock Stars) — an EP containing a five part, 18 ½ minute song-cycle based on the eighth-century, pre-Christian Celtic poem "Tain Bo Cuailinge" (often shortened to “The Tain”). Produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, The Tain is a dense and reverent nod towards the concept albums of the 70’s. Guitar riffs and drum rolls immerse the listener in the world of Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd. It’s hard to believe that a band who slathered on the sea shanties and accordions could revel in the dark arts of early heavy metal, but listening to The Tain reveals the interconnectedness of the musical universe. If it rocks, it rocks.
In 2005, their last album with Kill Rock Stars was released. Picaresque (2005 Kill Rock Stars) is just as aggressively cerebral and theatrical as their previous albums, but it became the band’s first mainstream hit. The Decemberists’ quirky, history-hoping narratives of Mariners and Infantas and their pop-meets-Weimar-cabaret sound gained wide ground with the masses. The album charted at 135 on the Billboard 200, five on the Top Heatseekers, and nine on the Top Independent Albums.
The commercial success of Picaresque led The Decemberists to a deal with Capitol Records. After replacing Bloomberg with drummer John Moen, the group released The Crane Wife (2006 Capitol), a collection of songs loosely based on a tragic Japanese folk tale that Meloy came across in the Children’s section of a Portland book store. Under the direction of Chris Walla and producer Tucker Martine (Mudhoney, Bill Frisell, Laura Veirs, and Jesse Sykes), The Crane Wife, like their other concept album The Tain, takes on a 70’s prog rock feel for many of the lengthier numbers (especially in the 12 minute, three part Jethro Tull-ish piece entitled “The Island”). Other songs run stylistically from delightfully poppy romantic romps ("O Valencia!") to eerie murder ballads ("Shankill Butchers"). The song cycle is eclectic nature is to be expected from the eccentric Decemberists, but The Crane Wife is a bold and dramatic move for any band’s first major label release.
The artistic risk paid off. The concept album inspired by Japanese legend hit number 35 on the Billboard 200, 47 on the Top Internet Albums chart, and the song “The Perfect Crime #2” placed at number three on the Hot Dance Singles. National Public Radio listeners voted The Crane Wife as the number one best album of 2006, alongside releases from the likes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
As a novel idea (Do The Decemberists have any other sorts of ideas?), the band filmed themselves performing “O Valencia!” in front of a green screen and asked their fans to create a music video from the footage. The “Re-Animate the Decemberists Contest” caught the attention of actor/satirical comedian/faux right wing pundit Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report as he had asked something similar of his audience — however Colbert was swinging a light saber in front of his green screen. Colbert, in mock outrage, accused The Decemberists of stealing his idea during the "Look Who's Riding on My Coattails Now" segment of his show. In response, Meloy published the following statement on The Decemberists’ website:
"…we'd like to announce the very first 'Decemberists vs Stephen Colbert Guitar Solo Challenge'. Put down the pen, Colbert, and pick up the axe! Let's see what kind of a man you really are-- let's SHRED. Let truth and good music prevail!!!"
On December 20, 2006, the guitar solo challenge took place on The Colbert Report with guitarist Funk representing the band. At the last minute, Colbert feigned an injury and had Peter Frampton stand in. Although Funk put up a good fight, the audience voted in favor of Frampton, who won the grand prize -- a copy of The Crane Wife.
After a year of touring (and canceling shows due to ill health) The Decemberists reappeared on May 18, 2008, performing in support of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at his rally in Portland, Oregon. In October of the same year, the band began releasing a series of singles called Always the Bridesmaid, Volumes I — III (2008 Capitol). One volume was released per month for three months, only in vinyl and digital formats. Their supporting "Bridesmaid Revisited” tour included an appearance on the television show Late Night With Conan O'Brien on the eve of the 2008 Presidential Election.