Members of the indie-rock band The Decemberists are known for writing epic tunes about everything from sea battles to historical events. Yet on the band’s newest album — “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” — the music has evolved noticeably. The band’s songs now deal with more personal issues.
The Decemberists' Colin Meloy spoke with The Frame's host, John Horn, about how the audience has affect the band's songwriting process, how he started to sing more about his sons, and why he's tired of playing "The Mariner's Revenge Song" live.
Your last album, "The King Is Dead," came out very strongly in 2011, and then you took a pretty long break before "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World." What happened in those intervening years? Did the events of that time period affect the creative process for this new album?
Well, in those intervening years, songwriting became a hobby again. So in some ways it was hearkening back to when I had a day job and I was writing songs between shifts, and in that sense it was fairly freeing.
At a certain point, even as you're writing songs for your new album, do you find yourself thinking about what the audience expects you to do, and whether you're going to meet those expectations?
Well, yeah, we're not working in a vacuum any more. We have fans and we have people come out to our shows, so you can't help but be mindful of that. I wish I could lie and say that I don't ever take those things into consideration, and maybe I would be a truer artist if I didn't, but it's also important to keep in mind the road you've already traveled.
There's a desire, especially 15 years and seven records into a music career, to avoid repeating yourself. You want to be constantly refreshing and creating something new, but without losing or somehow pushing away an audience that's come to expect a certain thing from you. I'm clearly over-thinking this, but I think it's an important part of being an artist.
Is it a compliment to the way you write songs if people might be looking at the lyrics with a thesaurus or dictionary beside them?
That's one thing that's so funny and I hear it a lot: Oh, it's another Decemberists record, time to bust out your dictionary. And while I know that rock music is supposed to be a populist medium that's easily digested, it has its roots in verse-storytelling and poetry.
Nobody would ever say, "Oh, there's a new Philip Larkin collection of poems, better get out your dictionary." It's a weird double standard for something that's basically the same thing: writing stories in verse.
You're also the father of two boys, Henry and Milo. How has being a father changed the way you see songwriting and the message you want to send out as someone who's both a parent and a creative person?
I think it affected me more than I initially thought. I'd never wanted to be the sort of person who started singing about my family all the time once I had kids. [laughs]
Sometimes it's more interesting than your love life!
Maybe it is. I think that's one of the other reasons I'd initially been writing so many songs about people outside of myself and outside of my own time. I didn't find my own life particularly interesting, and I think once I had kids they started to find their way in. My mind is constantly thinking about them, my hopes for them, and my protectiveness of them. It just became this really important part of the fabric of my life.
But initially I think I was fighting against that: "The Rake's Song," on "Hazards of Love" is basically about infanticide, and my first son was about a year old when I wrote that. I remember playing it for Carson, my wife, and her jaw dropping.
Was that basically your way of saying, "I'm not going to become this sentimental dad?"
[laughs] Yeah, that was my way. So hopefully that tempers the sappy sentimentality that was to follow.
You're about to go out on tour. What song are you tired of playing?
There's not one that survives. That's just the honest answer. I think once you've been on tour enough it's very rare that each song retains its freshness. I think we've probably played "The Mariner's Revenge Song" more times than I care to say. And maybe that might be the obvious. I do love playing it 'cause it's not for me anymore. It's for the audience and as long as the audience is having fun with it, I can get over my selfishness of playing it a lot. You give your stuff over to the audience. It no longer belongs to you at a certain point and there is a kind of obligation there.
That's part of the opening song on your new album — "The Singer Addresses His Audience" — that the audience at a certain point is as much in control of that relationship as the singer is.
Yeah, and there's something kind of nice about that. Not only can you be grateful that you've created something that somebody else can feel ownership of, but you're doing a service to the community. That's kind of how I'd like to think of it.
You've written a song in the past about your not-quite-fond feelings for Los Angeles, the city in which this show originates. Have you evolved in your thinking about how bad Los Angeles is?
I still feel exactly the same way about Los Angeles. I find it endlessly fascinating and also endlessly terrifying. And kind of nauseous, in the traditional sense of the word. I don't know what that is, and I think the song addresses that. It's a little ambivalent, like, "Take me into your arms, I'm so afraid of you."
“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” from The Decemberists is out now. The band will headline The Greek Theatre on May 2.