The Decemberists: From Rock Opera To A Band In A Barn Throughout the past decade, the band has crafted elaborate, hyperliterate song cycles, culminating in a 2009 rock opera. But the band's new album, The King Is Dead, is a simpler, more straightforward affair.

The Decemberists: From Rock Opera To A Band In A Barn

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GUY RAZ, host:

Throughout the last decade, The Decemberists, a band out of Portland, crafted elaborate, hyperliterate song cycles, songs steeped in British folk tales and Dickensian character studies. They hit their majestic pinnacle two years ago with "The Hazards of Love," a 17-part rock opera.


THE DECEMBERISTS (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

RAZ: And fans wondered: How could they follow that? Well, they broke it all down and started over again.


RAZ: Simple, straightforward, acoustic instruments recorded in a barn. This is the latest album from The Decemberists, and the title might be a clue about their formerly legal sound. It's called "The King Is Dead."


THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Here we come to a turning of the season. Witness to the arc towards the sun.

RAZ: Colin Meloy is the frontman for The Decemberists, and he joins me from KOPB in Portland, Oregon.

Colin, welcome to the program.

Mr. COLIN MELOY (Musician): Thanks for having me.

RAZ: So this song that we're hearing, it's called "Don't Carry it All." It has a very Americana sound. And even though The Decemberists is an American band, of course, for so long you guys have been associated with a British folk tradition. What brought about the change on this record?

Mr. MELOY: I feel like I've spent the last four years sort of steeped in the British folk revival of the '60s and '70s, music which was relatively new to me.

RAZ: Like Fairport Convention and stuff like that.

Mr. MELOY: But I was sort of poring over it and almost like you would come to a music you've discovered as an adult as opposed to being a kid. So I kind of had this sort of academic approach to it, and how it was sort of reflected in the music we were making felt very cerebral and academic.

And I think I reached the sort of the apotheosis of the possibilities of what I was doing. And it was really a time to kind of pull it back a little bit and sort of rediscover the music that I sort of have in my bones from being a kid and music that got me playing music to begin with.


THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) And nobody, nobody knows. Let the yoke fall from our shoulders. Don't carry it all, don't carry it all.

Mr. MELOY: I just - it was just sort of what I was feeling. And I feel like on every record, I've inevitably kind of followed my creative whim, I think for better or worse, and this time around, that whim was to make something simpler, just to write pretty songs. That was really the core intention behind a lot of the songwriting was just to write sweet, pretty songs.

RAZ: Let's hear another track from the new album. This one's called "Calamity Song."


Mr. MELOY: Had a dream, you and me and the war of the end-times.

RAZ: (Singing) Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.


RAZ: I have read that in this song, you were trying to write an homage to REM, particularly early REM, from the mid-'80s, the "Reckoning" era, which is a brilliant album. And that jangly, slightly Southern sound, I hear it so clearly. It is such sort of a nice homage to that. And what it is about that time and what REM was producing back then that you wanted to capture?

Mr. MELOY: For me, you know, hearing that era, '84 to '86....

RAZ: You were young. I mean, you were a kid.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. And I lived - I grew up in Helena, Montana, and so it was really hard to get a hold of music. But I had an uncle who was going to school at the University of Oregon, and he would send me mix tapes of all the music that he was discovering.

And he would send them, and, I mean, it was just eye-opening for somebody, you know, who lived in a town where the only record store was the Pegasus Records, and, you know, in the mall. And you - if it wasn't on a major label, you wouldn't be able to find it.

And so that music has always really stuck with me. And I think that REM's music, particularly from that era, has informed everything that I've done. I feel like I've been making fake REM songs from the very outset of my songwriting.

And so I think with this record, it was an attempt to try to rediscover that because I feel like I had moved away from that.

RAZ: One of the, sort of the signatures of REM, have been kind of impenetrable lyrics. Yours have been described as literary. And I'm wondering if you can sort of help me work some of them out.

Hetty Green, queen of supply-side, bonhomie, bone drab. Know what I mean?


THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) ...bonhomie, bone drab. Know what I mean? On the road it's well advised that you follow your own bag.

RAZ: In the year of the chewable Ambien tab.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. Well, it's nonsense, isn't it? You know: Know what I mean? I guess, that's the punchline. In the year of the chewable Ambien tab, I had been reading David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest."

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Mr. MELOY: And in his future, time has been subsidized by corporations. So you get the Year of Glad or the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarments. So that was my own idea of what a year would be subsidized as.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Colin Meloy of the band The Decemberists. Their new album is called "The King is Dead."

The songs on this record, I read, were recorded in a barn. I hope that it was at least a comfortable barn.

Mr. MELOY: Gosh, I wish it was. It was comfortable in that the owners of the barn were incredibly hospitable. But there was no heat, and there was no plumbing. We'd scheduled it. We were, like, well, if we make a record in a barn, we should do it, you know, when the rainy season ends.

RAZ: And this is in Oregon. You had a view of Mount Hood out of this barn, right?

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. But for whatever reason, winter extended well into June this last year, and it was freezing cold. So we had space heaters going the whole time. And anytime that you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to, you know, put your wellies on and go tromp through the mud to the outhouse. So it was kind of unpleasant.

RAZ: Did anybody in the band say, okay, enough with this principled idea, inspiration and all this nature of recording, but let's get to a studio in the city.

Mr. MELOY: You know, no. Nobody ever really questioned it. I think everybody was game. I think the more that nature threw at us, the more we were determined to soldier on.

(Soundbite of song. "This is Why We Fight")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) And this is why, this is why we fight.

RAZ: You have two tracks, toward the end of the album, about - I'm assuming about war. And I want to ask you about the song "Dear Avery" with Gillian Welch. Can you tell me how this song came about?

Mr. MELOY: It was shortly after my son had been born. You know, while I never thought that that event would really change the way I wrote songs, but it definitely changes the way you view the world. And I think I've been reading a lot about soldiers in one of the wars that we are now embroiled in and imagining what it would be like to be a parent and thinking of your kid sort of in a harm's way that way. And where, you know, I think one of the impulses as a new parent, I mean, what you're constantly doing is sort of pulling your kid out of danger, you know, always on guard, especially when they're toddlers, at a moment's notice to (unintelligible).

RAZ: You just worry about them all the time, don't you?

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. And it's really a physical thing.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. MELOY: You know, if you see they're about to fall, you just pull them away.

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. MELOY: And I would think that that impulse would never leave you. And so I think that song is sort of a letter from a mother or father to a son.


THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) There are times life will rattle your bones. And will bend your limbs. You're still far away the boy you've ever been. So you bend back and shake at the frame of the frame you made. But don't you shake alone. Please Avery, come home.

RAZ: That's Colin Meloy. He's the frontman for the band The Decemberists. Their new record is called "The King is Dead."

Colin Meloy, thank you so much.

Mr. MELOY: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

RAZ: And if you'd like to hear a few tracks from the record, go to our website, that's


RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our new podcast, Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great week.

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