Older, wiser and back out on the road

After a four-year hiatus, US folk rock band The Decemberists have a new album out. Duncan Seaman caught up with front man Colin Meloy.

US college rock group The Decemberists
US college rock group The Decemberists

For most bands, reaching the cherished top spot in the US album charts would be a watershed moment, a point at which to start scheduling arena tours and working on a follow-up with a big name producer.

For The Decemberists, however, scaling the heights of popularity in 2011 with their sixth album The King is Dead prompted a hiatus during which Colin Meloy, the folk rock group’s driving force, stepped away from the music industry to raise his family on a farm near Portland, Oregon, and collaborate with his wife, the illustrator Carson Ellis, on The Wildwood Chronicles, a series of fantasy adventure books for children.

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This month The Decemberists end their self-imposed musical silence with an arresting new album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, whose sales could well outstrip its predecessor.

Meloy, 40, explains his exile was “just a way of working things out” after their surprise entry into America’s mainstream. “We’d been a band for ten years, working solidly from day one, it felt like a good time to take a break,” he says.

What a Terrible World opens with The Singer Addresses his Audience, a song which seemingly reflects on the charged relationship between performer and fans.

Meloy dispells the idea that the lyrics are self-reflexive.

“It’s done in the voice of somebody else, in many ways I feel it’s a fiction,” he says. “The ‘I’ in that song is not me. I was thinking of a boy band who has never known anything but the stage and celebrity and adulation, trying to make sense of it, with an adult head. It was informed by my own experience. It’s an exploration of that weird relationship between an audience and a singer.”

The Decemberists’ shows are famously noted for a high degree of audience participation. Meloy, however, is wary of lapsing into showbiz tropes.

“I don’t want to get caught up in any kind of self-mythologisation,” he says. “So much of what we have done on stage in our shows is frankly spontaneous. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. If somebody says we put on a good show, we like that, but I don’t think that should dictate what we do. As long as we are having fun and doing something productive on stage, that’s the prime considerations.”

Seven albums into the band’s career, What a Terrible World strikes a careful balancing act. While Meloy was “mindful of falling into old habits and old tricks”, he didn’t set out to alienate longstanding fans.

“I’ve never wanted to change for the sake of changing,” he says. “Like I said earlier, it’s what the singer is struggling with. Why should we change? Do we need to change? Could we always stay the same? No one of these things is possible.”

Increasingly, though, Meloy is writing lyrics in the first person. Where once he favoured the third person mode for writing stories and characters because “I did not find my own life particularly inspiring or nothing was finding its way to the page”, now, approaching middle-age, it’s become easier to say things directly.

“There are songs on all our records that are very autobiographical,” he says. “Since life became more conflicted, with kids and family and different considerations, it’s inevitable it tends to find its way onto the page a little bit more.”

Four years ago The Decemberists worked with the former REM guitarist Peter Buck. The influence of REM has been evident throughout their career, but now they find themselves following a similar trajectory from the college rock circuit to international acclaim.

For Meloy, REM were “just part of the pantheon, the godhead of bands that I discovered at the prime age of 11 or 12 or 13 when music strikes you at the core if you are a music fan. For whatever reason their sensibility has always informed the songs I was writing from an early age. They hit me in a sweet spot a little bit.”

He doesn’t hanker for the same level of mass appeal that REM once enjoyed. “The stadium stuff does not appeal to me as much. I think they struggled with a bit. Where we are at now feels comfortable.”

Nonetheless, he says: “The idea of reaching a lot of people does appeal. Fame does not matter to me but we do want to reach people, we do want to touch people.

“We are not ever going to achieve the kind of notoriety and success that REM did, but that’s something we can at least aspire to.”

In the meantime there are also more children’s books to write – “I’ve got a couple of others in the works right now,” he says. Given the chance, he could also venture into adult fiction.

“Yes, I would like to,” he says. “Eventually that’s possibly something I will do provided there’s an audience for it or a publisher interested in publishing it.”

And in music, Meloy seems to have reached a happier stage where he can dictate 
the pace of his career more now.

“I hope so,” he reflects, “but I don’t know if it’s for me to say. I probably have a lot of people criticising me for taking a four-year break 
after our most successful record.

“But I’m 40, I have two kids, a wife and a happy home. I certainly can’t keep up the same pace that I did when I was in my late twenties. It just would not make sense to. I think at least I can take more time with things.

“Who knows?” he adds. “You’re always giving something up.”

• The Decemberists play at O2 Academy Leeds on February 14, 6pm, £18.50. http://www.o2academyleeds.co.uk/event/71949/the-decemberists-tickets