Dreams start young. For the Decemberists' frontman Colin Meloy, they began when he was 6 years old. "The first thing I ever wanted to be when I grew up was a singer in a rock band," Meloy says, speaking from a tour stop outside of Philadelphia. "Then that seemed like it might be too much of a pipe dream, so I decided I wanted to be a writer instead."
Meloy, who has a degree in creative writing, managed to succeed on both counts. Not only has the Portland, Ore., quintet's bustling, baroque pop captured enough attention to secure a major-label deal, but Meloy's become equally well-known for his florid narrative style. It reaches an apogee with the band's Capitol debut, The Crane Wife, a song cycle based around an old Japanese story.
In the story, a poor man nurses a sick crane back to life. After releasing it, he meets a woman who becomes his wife. She weaves fine silk clothes that they sell at the market, until the husband peeks in on her one day and finds his wife is actually the crane, weaving the clothes from feathers she plucks from her own body. The crane wife flies away, never to return.
"One of the things that I like about it is that it is so open-ended morally. It didn't really try to give you any kind of cut-and-dried lesson that I could discern," Meloy says of the tale.
The Crane Wife was inspired partly by the Decemberists' 2004 EP The Tain, another epic song cycle, about a violent cattle raid in Ireland. Though it came out before 2005's Picaresque, it was written more recently.
"We started rehearsing all these songs that would eventually be on Picaresque, but we liked the songs so much we decided that we would wait for a record and we should do something else entirely [for the EP]. I was like, 'Well, I kind of have an idea for this big, long, prog-metal suite,' and everybody was, 'Yeah, that sounds great,'" Meloy recalls.
As an old-time punk rocker who counts the Replacements' Let It Be as his favorite album, undertaking a prog epic is not done without trepidation.
"It's delicate territory because the accepted approach, the accepted idea of that music is it's the music that punk rock tore down," Meloy says. "That doesn't mean to say that ELP putting classical flourishes into their songs is bad – I think it was a noble and vital experiment at the time – it was just the context. They were kind of victims of their context."
With four full-length albums under their belt, the Decemberists are comfortable with each other, and able to explore more of the musical universe. The Crane Wife, because of the tight time deadline they were under, was the most collaborative of their efforts to date and gave the band a chance to really dig into its influences, according to Meloy.
"We're a record-collectors band. We're kind of music academics in a weird way," he says. "One of the great things about being in a band with a bunch of people who are not only amazing players but also really well-versed in the history of music, you can really touch on any era that you want to, and do it pretty soundly. That just opens up a lot of the opportunity."
Meloy has no problem copping to these influences. He readily admits that R.E.M.'s "Seven Chinese Brothers," was a major inspiration for the single "O Valencia!"
"It needed a hook and an opening, so we actually put it on and figured out what they were doing and did a variation on that," Meloy reports. "The drum beat is actually directly pulled from 'Seven Chinese Brothers' and the guitar line is vaguely drawing from it. It's its own version of the guitar line. We actually checked it out with Pete Buck later, and he seemed to be fine with it."
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