“I wanted to focus on those and be a writer for a little bit. It was a matter of sowing other creative oats. We always knew that we would come back to it, eventually.”
It was extremely late in the game of 2014 when The Decemberists announced their imminent return after a lengthy period out in the proverbial wilderness.
They got in early for 2015 with the January release of their seventh studio album, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World. There may have been a degree of uncertainty among fans as to whether the Portland indie rockers’ break would extend into a permanent vacation, but they’re quick to put it to rest that such an idea was ever the case.
“We’d been going at it for 10 years or whatever, pretty consistently releasing records and touring,” elaborates Colin Meloy, the band’s lead singer, guitarist and chief songwriter. “It felt like a good time to slip away from it and focus on other projects. I had been working on these books, the Wildwood Chronicles, with my wife. I wanted to focus on those and be a writer for a little bit. It was a matter of sowing other creative oats. We always knew that we would come back to it, eventually.”
What A Terrible World sees the songwriting take a shift into the introspective, which is a world away – fittingly enough – from the band’s ‘normal’ subject matter of barrow boys, mariners, trapeze artists and architects. Was it a matter of Meloy quote-unquote ‘growing up’ in this sense? Or was it just down to the context in which the album was written? As it turns out, it’s a little from column A and a little from column B.
“I think that my interests and my fascinations shift and change over time,” he says. “Working on the books, oddly enough, seemed to satisfy my narrative urge. I noticed that the songs I was writing while I was writing the books tended to be less about an outside narrative and character-based stuff and more meditations on myself. If anything, writing the books kind of led me away from overtly narrative stuff. Then again, after I was done writing the books, the last two songs that I wrote for the record ended up being more narrative again. There might be a connection there, who knows?”
The Decemberists’ previous release came all the way back in 2011 with the album The King Is Dead. It too saw the band taking on a more realistic approach that served as a far cry from the hyper-literacy of earlier LPs such as Picaresque and The Crane Wife. “The King Is Dead was more or less a reaction to me having written The Hazards Of Love,” explains Meloy. “It was coming at a period of time when I was in somewhat of a darker mood, and when we were touring Hazards I began to get the inclination to start writing ‘pretty’ songs, for lack of a better term. Something a little more simple, something to sing along to.”
Would Meloy consider, then, that What A Terrible Word was written in reaction to The King Is Dead? “Not quite,” he says. “There’s probably more in common than you’d think.”
Fans were alerted to the band’s return with the release of the single, Make You Better, which was coupled with an exceptional music video starring the wonderful Nick Offerman – better known to the world as Pawnee native Ron Swanson – doing a fake accent. “We were invited to be on the season finale of Parks And Recreation,” Meloy says. “We had connections with Parks And Rec because Michael Schur, the show’s creator, and his crew were actually behind our video for Calamity Song. We met Nick through doing that, and I think we were kindred spirits. I’ve been a long-time admirer of his work, so I called him up and asked how good his German accent was. He responded, ‘That’s a very personal question’. VeryNick, right?”
Touring is very much underway for What A Terrible World, and it looks set to take The Decemberists all across the world in support of it – including, yes, Down Under. Meloy warns, however, that their arrival may take a little longer than some fans had hoped for. “I think we’re talking about putting something together for early next year,” he says. “It may well be in the works now.”
No Decemberists until 2016? This is an outrage! “Sorry!” he replies. “At the very least, it’ll be summertime by the time we get there.”
Talk turns to the last time the band came out to Australia, in support of The Hazards Of Love. “My memory of the last time we were in Australia was constantly following Passion Pit at the Big Day Out,” he says. “Passion Pit were massive at the time, and they had these massive crowds of people pumping their fists, girls getting on their boyfriends’ shoulders, hands in the air, just raving away. We’d be psyched by that, thinking we’d have the same sort of thing… and then we’d have maybe 10 people in front of our side of the stage.”
Still, it’s not as if The Decemberists were ever hoping to fit into the festival realm – let’s not forget that half of the band’s 40-minute set in Sydney was taken up by the epic 18-minute single The Tain. “Wait, wait, wait…” Meloy interrupts. There’s a beat, before he asks in bewilderment: “We played The Tain?”