Hazardous territory – Interview with the Decemberists

A swooning maiden; a murderous rake; a magical shape-shifter — the cast of characters in The Hazards of Love is about as removed from rock convention as it gets. The fifth full-length album from Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists, who will be headlining the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Friday night, Hazards is the band’s most ambitious work by far. Consisting of a single narrative built from the archetypes of British folk tales, Hazards has been billed as a “fake musical” and a “folk opera,” though frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy is evasive when asked what distinguishes those terms from the usual concept album.

“It’s equal parts concept record, rock opera, folk opera [and] burnt toast,” he says with a hint of fatigue. “People just desperately need to describe music as being something and not something else, so I’ve just tried to help in that process.”

Musically, Hazards is a significant departure from the upbeat pop and acoustic ballads that have largely characterized The Decemberists’ output since the band’s 2003 debut. The folk influences are still there, but they’ve been augmented with hard-rock muscle and a refined version of the prog tendencies that the band first showed on its 2004 The Tain single.

Lyrically, though, the album is a natural culmination of Meloy’s fascination with storytelling in song. He structures the album as a play, writing from the perspective of the various characters and casting ringers like Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden to deliver their parts.

His reluctance to pin down his latest creation might have something to do with the album’s origins. Originally intending to write a “real” musical, Meloy found that Hazards’ story just wouldn’t fit the demands of the stage. While pop music’s rigid formulas hardly seem like an easier venue for storytelling — the increasingly prevalent and increasingly overwrought concept albums of the ’70s played a huge role in spurring the punk rebellion, after all — Meloy actually found the structure helpful.

“What’s interesting and challenging about pop music is that it’s such a kind of blueprint that you need to follow,” he says. “Nobody would want to play a Scrabble game if there were no borders and you could have as many letters as you like, and each letter gave you 10 points, and any words were acceptable. It’d be a boring game.”

“I think in creating songs, in any genre, in any medium, there are rules you need to follow that make for a more interesting creative process,” he continues. “And [it makes] for a more interesting listening process, because the people who listen to it are aware of the rules and aware of the structures. That’s why Phish — that band, Phish — are not interesting to me. It’s like watching a Scrabble game being played with no rules.”

That sense of structure is also present in the band itself. The line between Meloy and The Decemberists is a hard one to distinguish. From the literary ambitions of his lyrics to his fondness for nautical imagery and historical trappings, Meloy’s idiosyncrasies define the band. Where most bands try to present themselves as a united front, Meloy and The Decemberists have found the opposite approach to be more practical.

“I think that we’re all in agreement that true democracy is a challenging thing to have in a band dynamic, so it’s better to have a sort of benevolent dictatorship,” the singer says. “And that’s the political system that we live under. So, as the benevolent dictator myself, I feel free to make some wild decisions that involve just randomly veering off into different directions — and I think typically it ends up being good for the creative force of the band.”

Being the dictator also means perpetually standing in the spotlight, but Meloy seems comfortable with his public persona. Despite being a self-described homebody and misanthrope, he keeps in touch with fans through a Twitter page (twitter.com/Colinmeloy) that has collected over 600,000 followers — a milestone self-deprecatingly commemorated by posting “Cracked 600K followers! Thank you, roaming scavenger e-bots.” He also tours solo on occasion and has accompanied each of his solo ventures with a release in the Colin Meloy Sings series of EPs, which pays tribute to artists he admires, like British folk singer Shirley Collins and soul pioneer Sam Cooke.

It makes for an interesting contradiction. While Meloy makes the effort to avoid the “ivory tower” dynamic that often marks the relationship between a musician and his fans, he also shares very little of himself in his music. Unlike most lyricists, his songs almost entirely eschew autobiography, maintaining a constant amount of narrative detachment. In Meloy’s view, though, that dramatic distance isn’t a barrier between him and his audience.

“It’s sort of a middle ground,” he explains. “Whereas more non-fiction or memoirist monologues about yourself require the audience to paste their experiences onto yours, [by] creating an outside character and witnessing their tragedies and victories, I think it’s actually easier for an audience to relate to those characters.”

Even as he says it, though, it’s clear Meloy is getting tired of explaining himself. For the songwriter whom many consider the intellectual face of pop music, questions about terminology and structure and historical significance all seem beside the point.

“I don’t know,” he says with a sigh. “It’s just writing music and making songs.”

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