Listening to an album by The Decemberists is a bit like reading a good novel. Not only does frontman Colin Meloy continually challenge the listener with clever language and deft wordplay, but the songs often tell an involved story involving characters you can’t help but care about, especially on their last two highly-conceptual records, The Crane Wife and The Hazards Of Love. The band has intentionally scaled things back on their lovely new album, The King Is Dead, focusing instead on simple song structures and a more acoustic based sound akin to the work on their first two records. The songs are loose and jaunty, but still resonate strongly due to Meloy’s skillful songwriting as well as the estimable talents of the rest of the band, who have their spirited sound locked in right from the start. We were lucky enough to get to ask the Decemberists’ gifted multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee a few questions about how recording the new album at Pendarvis Farm came about, how Carson Ellis’ winsome artwork has helped successfully brand the band, and how awesome it was to record with Peter Buck.
First of all, congratulations on The King Is Dead. It really is a gorgeous record. From the cover art down to many of the lyrics themselves, it’s a very nature-based album. Was that an intentional theme present in the songs before heading in to the studio, or did those natural, bucolic subjects permeate the music simply through recording at Pendarvis Farm? And how did recording there come about?
We went into the recording of this record with the idea that it would be more stripped down and organic. We had also been talking about recording out in the country for a long time. The thought was to record in an environment that was more calm and had less distractions. We were also striving for a more rootsy/country sound that we thought might come about more naturally in a barn out in the country. One goal was to try and record in a large barn and record tracks live like the old country bands used to do. We did get a couple of takes that way, but the majority ended up being recorded with some overdubbing like most of our previous records.
These arrangements are rather unvarnished and quite organic sounding. Was that a conscious decision by the band to retreat from the Prog-based indulgence of The Hazards Of Love and return to the simplified sound structure found on your first few records?
Colin had a handful of these songs kicking about for quite a while, and the other songs that he started composing all seemed to have a similar structure and feel. A lot of them going back to his influences like REM and The Smiths. It was a very conscious decision Colin and the band made to strip the music down to it’s bare bones and adding only what seemed to be needed.
I was lucky to see Colin perform a stunning solo version of ‘January Hymn’ during your Minneapolis show last October. The version on The King Is Dead is remarkably similar to that stark performance. How much, or how little, did these songs evolve from your initial demos, and was it a deliberate effort on your behalf to not add too many extra musical layers on top of songs that didn’t really need or require it?
A lot of these songs sound very much like the demo’s we first received from Colin. A handful of them only required a few little bits here and there to flesh them out. They stand on their own very well.
How did Peter Buck get involved in the recording process, and how thrilling was it for all of you to get to record with someone I assume you admire greatly? How did his collaboration influence or affect the direction of your sound? I clearly get an early-R.E.M. vibe from ‘Down By The Water.’
I think Colin realised at the beginning of the recording process that at least two of the songs were very strongly influenced by R.E.M. We felt that we should just admit that we were taking many of their ideas and actually ask Peter to come play, and we were very happy that he agreed. He is a pleasure to work with and learned his parts very fast. It was quite impressive actually, he is a true professional. We were all very excited to be working with him.
The deluxe box-set for The King Is Dead is quite lavish to say the least. Do you feel that this type of extravagant release is a way for bands to finally make decent money from record sales? Giving fans something truly grand and tangible in addition to the music, which they can obviously find for free through devious means. I think Trent Reznor said he made more money through the sales of the deluxe version of Ghosts than he did through the sales of his last three records combined. Does this type of luxurious release represent a growing part of the future of the music industry for those of us that still buy music?
I think it will be common for many bands to start releasing this type of product. First of all with a download you get none of the artwork or the liner notes you get when purchasing the album. I guess mabye we overcompensated a bit for that, but Carson Ellis and Autumn DeWilde did such amazing art and photography for this we had to showcase it. We have always spent a lot of time and money into the creation of our album art and I think it was the right time to do a deluxe edition. I don’t think it is going to make us all the money that Trent Reznor’s did, but I think it gives the fans a look inside the process of how we do music and a chance to see the beautiful scenery that was surrounding us when we were making the record.
It seems that there has been an increasingly theatrical/visual side developing within and around your music lately; with the costuming and characters involved in Hazards and the animated film that was made to go along with it, as well as the Pendarvia short-film included with the new record, in addition to the beautiful photos by Autumn de Wilde and, of course, the always lovely illustrations by Carson Ellis. How important is it to you that you have some type of visual accompaniment to your music, and how do you think those elements inform your listeners while they engage with your songs?
I think Carson’s art has always been a great companion to our music. It has helped shape our image I guess, or brand us somewhat, in a good way. Since the music is more stripped down I have a feeling that the shows will have a similar feel. Autumn’s photos I think echo that simplicity. They are very spare and lo-fi, relying only on vintage polaroid cameras. I am not sure that we will be doing as much theatrical elements for this album since there is no overarching theme or continuous narrative.
The Decemberists new album The King Is Dead is available now via Rough Trade.