Colin Meloy: '10-Dollar Words' For A Cause The hyper-literate indie quartet The Decemberists has been touring college campuses to help get out the vote next week. Lead singer Colin Meloy spoke to Fresh Air in 2007.
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Colin Meloy: '10-Dollar Words' For A Cause

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Colin Meloy: '10-Dollar Words' For A Cause

Colin Meloy: '10-Dollar Words' For A Cause

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This is Fresh Air. I am David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. The Decemberists started out as an indie rock band from Portland, Oregon with a notable interest in both politics and history. Their songs are inspired by real-life events that are decades and centuries old and by words and musical forms even older than that. Yet, they're involved in the current political scene, too, staging a college bowl contest for voter registration. The school that gets the highest percentage of students to register to vote this fall will get a free concert on campus. And they have a new single. It's called "Valerie Plame."

(Soundbite of song "Valerie Plame")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Oh, Valerie Plame, if that really is your name. I would just shout the same to the world. Dear Valerie Plame, Ao they made a wreck of you, but give me the rest of you, And I'll give the world. But you were just some silly girl Taking in the sights of your empire's colony. So I took you into my confidence Without a thought of consequence to my heart or to my mind. But Valerie Plame if that really is your name, I would just shout the same to the world. La da da de da la de da da, La de da da da da dada da. Oh Valerie Plame, if that really is your name.

BIANCULLI: That's "Valerie Plame," the new single from the Decemberists, who have just started a month-long American tour. Our guest is the band's singer and songwriter, Colin Meloy. Terry Gross spoke with Meloy in 2007 after their album "The Crane Wife" was released. She started by asking Meloy about the story the lyrics tell in his song "O Valencia!".

Mr. COLIN MELOY (Singer, Songwriter, The Decemberists): Well, I guess it's basically your traditional star-crossed lover theme about a guy and a girl who belong to two warring gangs or families and who are in love and are trying to kind of escape together, though it ends badly. The brother of the girl who has kind of a vendetta against the protagonist goes after him with a gun. The girl runs into his arms to try to save him, and the bullet that's intended for the guy, the hero, in fact kills the girl, and the song ends with them lying on the pavement, him holding her in his arms.

(Soundbite of song "O Valencia!")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) You belong to the gang, and you say you can't break away, but I'm here with my hands on my heart. Our families can't agree. I'm your brother's sworn enemy, but I'll shout out my love to the stars. So wait for the stone on your window, your window. Wait by the car, and we'll go, we'll go. When first we laid eyes, I swore to no compromise 'Til I felt my caress on your skin. Well, how soon we were betrayed. Your sister gave us away, and your father came all unhinged. So wait for the stone on your window, your window. Wait by the car, and we'll go, we'll go. Oh, Valencia, with blood still warm on the ground. Valencia, And I swear to the stars, I'll burn this whole city down.


That's the Decemberists from their CD "The Crane Wife." You've written a lot of songs that are very connected in one way or another to folk music ballads but yet aren't quite folk. What got you heading in that direction?

Mr. MELOY: It's hard to say. I think, when I was a kid, I was always really fascinated with folk music and folk tales and fairytales and have always just kind of harbored this fascination with them. It's just the fact that they are so gruesome and violent in some ways and really have this kind of beautiful span and all these uses of different characters and places, and it's always this the kind of mode of writing that seemed most interesting to me, I guess.

GROSS: You sometimes use language in your songs that is more flowery and old fashioned, almost 19th century.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah.

GROSS: Where does that come from?

Mr. MELOY: I don't know. I think that I've always had also a love of language. I mean, I - obviously, that's what drew me to songwriting and writing in general. And really, when you're writing songs, the English language is your tool, your kind of - your paintbrush, and I feel like - or your paint, I guess it would be. But I think to try not to - or to limit yourself in the sort of vocabulary or syntax and the songs would be kind of somehow limiting your palette too much. And it's exciting to me to use more, you know, pretty words that have a lot of nice alliterative and consonant qualities to them.

GROSS: Yeah. We are not going to hear the song, but quote off the first few lines from "The Landlord's Daughter," and people will get a sense of the kind of language we're talking about here.

Mr. MELOY: Oh, it goes, when I was a ramble down by the water, I spied in sable the landlord's daughter.

GROSS: And then I produced my pistol, and then saber.

Mr. MELOY: I produced my pistol and then my saber, gosh, I don't know where it goes.

GROSS: Said make no whistle or thou will be murdered.

Mr. MELOY: Thank you.

GROSS: So do you find it a stretch to use thous and, you know, a ramble and spied and sable the landlord's daughter. It's not - it's not exactly contemporary, and it's certainly not rock language.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. Well, I think that song in particular was me really trying to literally write in the old folk song mode, and, I mean, that song of - I think more than any of our other songs really borrows from that tradition, and in the storyline, as well as the language and just felt fitting, just amazing.

GROSS: Sometimes in your songs, you take language that seems to come from another era, another century or, you know, from folk ballads and mix it with a kind of contemporary subject or a contemporary feeling, like in you song "Los Angeles." Can you talk about that?

Mr. MELOY: Oh, yeah. Well, I think, in my opinion, really successful pop-song writing does a lot playful balancing between disparate or opposite ideas. I think, for example, you know, writing, you know, dour or morose lyrics and pairing it with like an upbeat melody is kind of a tried and true pop formula, you know, from the Beatles and before.

So that "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" is my effort to do a similar thing, to write using this sort of really robust language or articulate or intricate language and then also balancing that with kind of, you know, gross body humor, essentially, you know, talking about vomiting and things like that. And for some reason, that tension between those two modes, those two ideas, is interesting to me.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." This is The Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "Los Angeles, I'm Yours")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) There is a city by the sea. A gentle company, I don't suppose you want to, And as it tells its sorry tale In harrowing detail. Its hollowness will haunt you. Its streets and boulevards, Orphans and oligarchs It hears. A plaintive melody truncated symphony, An ocean's garbled vomit on the shore, Los Angeles, I'm yours.

BIANCULLI: That's "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" from Her Majesty, The Decemberists. We'll hear more of Terry's 2007 interview with singer/songwriter Colin Meloy after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with Colin Meloy, singer and songwriter for The Decemberists.

GROSS: Now, I want to play another track from your latest CD, "The Crane Wife," and this is called the "Shankhill Butchers." And the song sounds like it's based on a real story or real legend. What is the story?

Mr. MELOY: Well, in the 1970s, there was a group of Protestants in Belfast who targeted the Catholics in the city, actually chose to use, as weapons, butcher knives and cleavers. Really, they weren't necessarily, you know, obviously, political or religious activists. They were really, you know, cold-blooded murders, really. And they would go out at night killing Catholics essentially and, you know, gruesomely filet them alive and things like that. And I had come across it, even though I had read quite a bit, I think, in the past about the troubles in Ireland, I had never come across a mention of the Shankhill butchers.

And I was finally reading this biography of Van Morrison, and it made mention of it. And there was a chapter on it. And the author, Johnny Rogan, described the events. The parents at the time would actually use it as a cautionary tale and would tell children, you know, if they didn't do what they were told, the Shankill butchers would come and get them. And it just seemed so bizarre and so horrific to me that it almost - it's one of those moments in history when, you know, human events actually take on the scope of fairytale, and I thought it would - so the song is essentially me imagining what sort of dialogue that would be, the mother telling the child to go to sleep or the Shankill butchers would come and get them.

GROSS: It's a great track. Let's hear it. This is "The Shankill Butchers" and this is the Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "Shankill Butchers")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) The Shankill Butchers ride tonight. You better shut your windows tight. They're sharpening their cleavers and their knives. And taking all their whiskey by the pint. Cuz everybody knows If you don't mind your mother's words, A wicked wind will blow your ribbons from your curls. Everybody moan, everybody shake. The Shankill Butchers wanna catch you, awake.

GROSS: That's the "Shankill Butchers" from the Decemberists' CD "The Crane Wife." And my guest is the lead singer, Colin Meloy, who writes the songs for the band. This is a track that opens your new CD, it's called the "Crane Wife Number Three." And I want you to tell the story of the Japanese folktale that this song comes from.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. It's a story about a peasant in rural Japan who finds a wounded crane on an evening walk. There's an arrow in its wing. He revives the crane, and the crane flies away. And a couple days later, a mysterious woman shows up at his door, and he takes her in. And eventually, they fallen in love and get married, but they're very poor, so she suggests that she start weaving this cloth, which she can, in turn, sell it at the market.

The condition being that, when she's weaving it, she has to do it behind closed doors, and he can't look in. So, this goes on for a while, and they actually become kind of wealthy, but eventually the - his curiosity gets the best of him, and he looks in at her while she's weaving. It turns out she is a crane, and she's been pulling feathers from her wings and putting it into the cloth, which is what it makes it so beautiful. But him having seen her breaks the spell, and she turns back into a crane and flies away, and that's the end.

GROSS: Well, let's hear your song this is - you have a few Crane Wife songs. This is the one that leads the CD "The Crane Wife," and this is the Decemberists.

(Soundbite of song "The Crane Wife")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Each feather, it fell from skin. 'Til thread bare and she grew thin. How were my eyes so blinded? Each feather it fell from skin. And I will hang my head, hang my head low. And I will hang my head, hang my head low.

GROSS: I have to say, I really like your voice a lot. How did you start singing?

Mr. MELOY: I really started singing, I think, doing musical theater when I was in high school. I felt - I think I felt really uncomfortable with my singing voice prior to that, until I was thrown on the stage, and I knew then. I think it was in "The Music Man." I was Salesman Number 14, and I was forced to sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELOY: And, you know, they always taught, I was always taught to, you know, to project and sing to the back of the room, and as a consequence, I think I have one of the loudest voices of anyone I've ever met. And I always have to warn people of that if I'm in a small room with them and I'm about to sing.

GROSS: Was being in musicals considered cool when you were in high school?

Mr. MELOY: No. I grew up, you know, I grew up in Helena, Montana, so, you know, the popular kids in schools were - in the school were typically, you know, football players and, you know, sons and daughters of ranchers, and I didn't really fit in to either of those categories and - but, you know, I had a group of friends who are all involved. And there was a community theater there in Helena that I was involved in, and it was a nice pocket of, you know, artiness, I guess.

GROSS: Who were you the son of?

Mr. MELOY: I was the son of an attorney and a public health employee.

GROSS: So, when did you kind of cross the line from singing in musicals in school to being in a rock band?

Mr. MELOY: Well, I had always had a, you know, love of pop and rock music at that time. And, you know, I remember going to cast parties, and, you know, there is always the lone guy with the acoustic guitars sitting at the top of the stairs with the circle of girls around him, you know, and playing some Guns and Roses ballad or something like that. And, you know, of course, that sounded interesting to me. So, I started taking guitar lessons and started, you know, dabbling in writing songs.

GROSS: Since I have chosen the tracks so far, I'm going to give you the chance to choose what we're going to close with. What would you like to play?

Mr. MELOY: Oh, I think I'd close with the last song on "The Crane Wife," which is called "Sons and Daughters."

GROSS: And why are you choosing it?

Mr. MELOY: Well, you know, I think it's one of the first songs in a long time that I've written that really ends on a kind of a happy, hopeful, and redemptive note. And I think it was one of - I think it's my favorite closer of any record that we've done.

GROSS: I like it, too. So, let's hear it. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah, thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Sons and Daughters")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) When we arrive Sons and daughters. We'll make our homes on the water. We'll build our walls aluminum. We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon now. When we arrive Sons and daughters. We'll make our homes on the water. We'll build our walls aluminum. We'll fill our mouths with cinnamon now. We'll build our walls aluminum. We'll fill our mouths with...

BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke with Colin Meloy in 2007. His group, The Decemberists, is on tour next month, and their latest single is called "Valerie Plame." Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Changeling." This is Fresh Air.

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