Colin Meloy, frontman for the Pacific northwest's indie-gone-bigtime band the Decemberists, talks about making music in the woods, collaborating on a book about a talking cat, and writing songs about dead babies

By David Greenwald
Updated July 16, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dove Shore/Getty Images

On the heels of the success of The Crane Wife, the Decemberists’ fourth studio album, the Portland-based band is bringing their brand of literary-leaning folk-rock on a six-date orchestra-backed tour. The band will perform tonight (July 16) at New York’s Central Park SummerStage, one of two shows sans orchestra. spoke with frontman Colin Meloy about making the next Decemberists’ album in a barn in the woods, writing a children’s book, and singing about dead babies.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The first time I saw the Decemberists, back in 2003, you were playing a pizza place with maybe 30 people in the room. Have you had to retool your sound or your stage act to play at big venues like SummerStage?
COLIN MELOY: No, it’s pretty much the same. We just get up there, drink a couple glasses of wine — that’s my thing — and get on stage and goof around and try not to take ourselves too seriously. I think that’s just been the M.O. of the band all along. There’s really nothing that you can do aside from, I don’t know, commissioning weird blow-up sculptures to explode and fly out into the audience.

Did some songs lend themselves better than others to the orchestral treatment?
The ones that seem to be really successful are some of the ones that didn’t have any string arrangements in the first place, like the song ”Odalisque,” from our first record, [Castaways and Cutouts]. I think I’d wanted to do strings on it but we just never had the time or the budget to do anything like that.

Is there going to be some kind of live album or DVD as a record of this?
No, just going out into the ether. To survive as little pockets of air until it dissipates.

You’re working on new material. What’s been inspiring you recently?
After spending two-and-a-half months in the studio and really putting together what to us felt like this massive record with lots of crazy arrangements and things, the idea has stuck of actually doing a folk record — like, holing up in the woods somewhere and all growing beards. Even Jenny [Conlee, the band’s keyboardist].

You’ve worked with some interesting collaborators in the past — Laura Veirs and Petra Haden come to mind. Is there anyone in particular you’d like to work with next?
Now that you mention it, if we were going to do a folk record of all of us sitting in a barn, if it’s just like the old Neil Young records, you would have the Nicolette Larson [singer] come in and do all of the duets and the backing vocals, kind of a Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris thing. Maybe we could invite Gillian Welch to come out.

Do you have any other projects lined up?
Carson [Ellis], my girlfriend, who does all the artwork for the band, [has] been doing children’s books lately, and we’re going to collaborate on a children’s book for HarperCollins. It’s about a talking cat in 1920s Butte, Montana.

I have to ask — are you a Harry Potter fan?
No, no, I haven’t read any of the books. Forever ago, my girlfriend and I were on a cross-country road trip and listened to the second book on tape, and it was kind of aggravating.

Your son, Hank, just turned a year old a few months ago. Does being a dad ever get in the way of being a rock star?
If anything, I think it all makes a little more sense with him around. It keeps me grounded.

Speaking of being a rock star, a lot of indie bands — or bands with indie associations — are doing really well now and selling hundreds of thousands of albums. Do you think there’s been a shift in popular taste?
I think we have been following in the path of the Shins and Death Cab [For Cutie] and Modest Mouse and I think that’s great. I never in a million years thought that we would crack the top 40 or sell as many records as we have. It’s a powerful thing. It [has] kind of marked a certain shift in the collective consciousness.

Sales are down overall, though, in the music industry. Especially now that you’re on Capitol, do you worry that the major labels are on their way out?
I do worry about that. I think that we’ll be fine whatever happens. But I do think the major-label system seems to be somewhat doomed and we’ll just kind of see how it plays out.

With that in mind, what were the reasons to sign to a major besides more money and more distribution?
Those are certainly some of the reasons. In some ways we felt, with [indie label] Kill Rock Stars, we’d tapped out their resources. We had become their biggest act, and felt like the opportunity was there to move to a major and take advantage of the resources they had. I think we’ve reached a wider audience than we ever would’ve on Kill Rock Stars.

Do you think there’s a limit to how big the band can get?
I don’t know. From day one I think it’s been a grand experiment. I think initially it was an experiment to see if I could play a song about legionnaires to a coffee shop or bar audience and not get drinks thrown at me. That was sort of the beginning, and I think every following level has been an experiment to see, Wow — what can people handle as far as their imaginations go? Have we gone so far in pop music that it is no longer okay to sing about murdered babies in a pop-song format? Is a major label, the label responsible for Coldplay, going to be complicit in putting that kind of music out? So it’s sort of exciting to see what people are going to do [Laughs].