Interview: The Decemberists

JENNA CORDEROY talks to Russo-Greco-Smithian indie band The Decemberists, in the wake of their new album, ‘The King Is Dead’.

If you think they look like something straight out of a Russian novel, you’d be right – The Decemberists are named after Leo Tolstoy’s unfinished novel, The Decembrists, inspired by the 1825 Decembrist revolt in St. Petersburg. If you go to see them, you’ll find they’ll often start their set with the Soviet national anthem. And they proclaim that their ‘official’ drink is Orangina and that they met in a Turkish bath. You’re not dealing with your typical indie band here – The Decemberists tread their own path, their songs referencing Greek mythology, Herman Melville, and Billy Liar. Following the release of their new album, ‘The King is Dead’, I catch up with the accordionist, Jenny Conlee.

Jenna Corderoy: How does ‘The King is Dead’ compare to ‘Hazards of Love’?

Jenny Conlee: ‘The King is Dead’ is a major departure from the ‘Hazards of Love’ in that it is a group of unrelated songs, not strung together by a common narrative. We intentionally stripped down the arrangements on this record to let the songs stand more on their own.

Who would you cite as your main musical influences for the new album?

There are many influences in our music, but I think this record really hearkens back to our earlier influences, like R.E.M., The Replacements, The Smiths, etc.

Why did you choose to work with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck?  What was it like collaborating with him?

A few of the songs had obvious R.E.M. licks, and we thought that instead of trying to hide that, we should embrace it, and ask if Peter would like to record with us. He is a pleasure to work with. He was very gracious about playing parts that were very similar to things he would have written. He works very fast, and he really enjoys recording.

What are the ideal conditions for making music?  Do you lock yourself away in the studio for days on end or do you something different?

On this record we wanted to record out in the country to avoid distractions, which I guess that is like “locking yourself away in the studio”. The farm recorded on was far enough from Portland to create a feeling of isolation and peace, which I think really helped in our performances.


The Decemberists’ video preview for ‘The King Is Dead’

Your music has a certain literary feel to it, especially in ‘Picaresque’.  Are there any poets or authors that have had a particular impact on your work?

Our songwriter Colin Meloy is very interested in literature. I know he likes a variety of writers, especially modern ones. I know he is a big fan of Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, and David Foster Wallace.

I couldn’t help but notice that the album title is similar to ‘The Queen is Dead’ by The Smiths.  Was this intentional?

Yes indeed…

What is your favourite track off the new album and why?

I really like “Rox in the Box”.  I think it has a great feel, and it tells an interesting story. As the accordionist I also really enjoy playing the tune “Raggle Taggle Gypsy” that we inserted in to the middle of it.

It’s your third release on Capitol Records since switching from Kill Rock Stars label.  Has the album recording process changed? Are you pressured into making a more commercial album, and have you ever felt pressured to take your sound in a new direction?

Capitol has never put any pressure on us to make more commercial recordings. We have full creative control over our music. The fact that this record seems more commercial, is just a factor of us making a more straight forward record.

Where would you like to see the band in five years time?  Are there any other projects on the horizon?

It is hard to tell the future…

Are you planning to play at any big festivals this year?  Perhaps Glastonbury?

I am not sure if we are doing any British or European festivals, so far they are not in the schedule.

The Decemberists new album, ‘The King Is Dead’, was released on January 18th.