The Decemberists on Synth-y New Sound: 'You Need to Be Uncomfortable, A Little Uncertain'

The Decemberists
Holly Andres

The Decemberists

“I think from the onset, we’ve decided whatever we decide is the Decemberists, is the Decemberists,” says Colin Meloy.

He’s speaking about the band’s sixth album I’ll Be Your Girl, out March 16 — a somewhat radical departure in sound for the Portland-based folk-rock band, where synths and dance-driven numbers that could’ve been lifted from the ‘80s intermingle with their familiar rock approach. 

Meloy wrote the album’s 11 songs over the last two years and the band convened in the studio for five weeks last fall, tapping a new producer this time in John Congleton, who has worked with a range of artists over the years, including Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, Marilyn Manson and David Byrne.

“I don’t think that we’ve been catholic with one sound or another,” he says. “The beauty of this project is that we’re all pretty dynamic players and interested in different types of music.”

Here, Meloy discusses the band’s new approach, his collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda, and why he’s the group’s reigning board game king.

How has the first year of the Trump era been for you?

Pretty surreal. A lot of feelings of tearing my hair out, but feeling more energized to be more active. Local, regional, and nationwide races — paying more attention to that. Hopefully this anger can be channeled into some sort of action.

I’ll Be Your Girl is a departure from the Decemberists sound of the past in many ways. Did you feel like the band was stagnating?

I don’t know if we were stagnating. I was aware, or curious, to what it would be to shake the tree a little bit. I was noticing habits that I was falling into — not necessarily bad habits, but habits nonetheless. Maybe things were feeling too comfortable. I thought as a grand experiment, it would be interesting to try something completely different.

What were those habits?

Arrangement habits. We were just recognizing patterns. And they had been successful for us. That’s the thing with creative habits. You endear yourself to them, because they’re satisfying and successful. I don’t know if that’s the best way to progress as an artist. You need to be a little uncomfortable, a little uncertain. That’s definitely how I feel what this record is.

It’s uncertain?

Yeah. I’m really vacillating and did during the process: How is this going to be perceived? Are we making something true? Is it something the fans are going to love? Is it something I’m going to love? Right now, I’m falling pretty square on the side of I really love it. But with any kind of risk-taking venture, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty. And that’s good. We’ve done this before with varying degrees of success. You have to take these risks to keep moving forward.

It feels like there’s a lot of darkness on this album. Perhaps the most ever for the Decemberists.

Certainly darker than the last couple. The darkness is always there. [Maybe] this one is elevated because there’s more irony to the darkness? The absurdity of some of the songs and embracing the absurdity of darkness and cynicism is perhaps more elevated. It’s what’s happening right now, with the world.

But at the same time it’s surrounded by some joyful sounding arrangements.

The upbeat stuff is a bit more upbeat when the darkness goes further dark. It’s something we’ve played with from the beginning, marrying darker, dour lyrics with upbeat melodies. Maybe I’m pushing those things to their farthest extremes.

In the last few years, along with working on a new record, you all Kickstarted and released a board game called Illimat with Keith Baker. Is this the nerdiest thing the band has done to date?

Potentially! We’ve done a lot of nerdy things. But it is pretty nerdy. We embrace that side of ourselves.

You raised close to $500,000. That’s impressive.

It was an expensive board game to make, it turns out. It was my first foray into producing board games and it is a very complicated process. But yeah, we’re super excited. It just shows that a lot of people are into board games these days.

Who’s the best in the band at Illimat?

Well, I’m the reigning world champion. Two years ago, at the end of the Kickstarter campaign, we did a “rumble,” which is a tournament. And I won. Until there’s another rumble, I remain the undisputed world champion.

You also recently released the first song from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamildrop” project. That must be a pretty good call to get.

Yeah, it was rad. He had shouted us out one way or another. And we convinced him to write the liner notes for The Crane Wife reissue box set. Shortly after that, he came to me with these lyrics that didn’t have any music written for them. So I had the joy of taking the lyrics and writing a Decemberists-themed song for it.