Catching Up With Colin Meloy

Music Features Colin Meloy
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Colin Meloy has regretted calling the time that he was planning on taking away from his day job as lead man for The Decemberists “a long hiatus.” While those words may have been misconstrued, it has been a longer than ever span between records for the Portland band. Meloy wasn’t stagnant in the interim, though. He’s recently released the second in his Wildwood series, a planned trio of children’s novels with the final chapter out in 2014; been outspoken for the left-wing side of several issues; and found his footing on raising a child who is on the autism spectrum. All of these were on his mind when I caught up with him during a stop into Headliners Music Hall in Louisville, Ky.

I caught you on a bit of a solo run right now. You’re supporting a Kinks covers EP, though it seems less like support and more like you’re getting warmed back up for The Decemberists again.
Colin Meloy: Yeah, the thing is a very limited run for the people at the shows. When I started, my first solo tour I’d ever done outside of The Decemberists in 2005, I thought it would be an interesting thing to have something at the show that you couldn’t get anywhere else. So, I did an EP of Morrissey songs…

Which was fantastic.
Meloy: Yeah, it was fun. Thank you for saying that.

There was a song on the last record you guys did, “This Is Why We Fight.” I can hear Morrissey singing that song. There’s something very Moz about it.
Meloy: Well, yeah that would be amazing. Amozing! So having set that precedent, every solo tour, this is my fourth solo tour, has been kind of picking an artist to cover for a limited-run set of CDs.

It’s cool that you do that you do that stuff, because these days with bands that are coming up now, in whatever age we’re in and the way the industry works now, I don’t think people are doing B-sides and people aren’t doing a lot of—I mean you have some groups that do the tour-only, but it doesn’t happen as much.
Meloy: More and more the idea of having an exclusive piece of merchandise, I mean, it just didn’t make sense to press it on vinyl, which is I guess what we would have done. I feel like, the last solo tour I did was in 2008, and I feel like enough has changed that when we were contemplating it, it was like “do we do a download code or something like that? Are people still buying CDs at shows?” Thankfully they are. So there’s something kind of throwback to that.

Well you’ve got a bit of a different crowd than a lot of bands.
Meloy: Yeah, maybe they still know how to use their CD players.

I had an intern that laughed at me the other day because I had a CD and was working one and he was like “wow, I haven’t used one of these in forever.”
Meloy: You know, the be honest, I don’t even really use CDs. I sold all of my CDs to a local record store for trade and have been buying vinyl.

I haven’t been able to get rid of any of them. I have my CDs and vinyl and I have cassettes. I have a car that only plays cassettes.
Meloy: I don’t mind getting rid of my CDs. I guess I don’t have as much of a sentimental attachment even though I still have the first CD I ever bought.

Which was?
Meloy: The first CD I ever bought was Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. I was probably 15. And at the time it was a decision made as much because I like Sonic Youth as it was, like, it was a really long record. It was like I was getting more bang for my buck. A lot of decisions were made that way early on.

I don’t know if it says anything about our characters, like you go for Sonic Youth on your first CD, and maybe because of my age, I was Shaquille O’Neal’s Shaq-Fu: Da Return. That’s what you missed.
Meloy: Yeah, I should’ve gotten into that.

No, I don’t think so. But it does look like you’re ramping back up into Decemberists. I know you’ve talked a little bit about that recently in some interviews, and that’s now going to happen. There are going to be more Decemberists records.
Meloy: Yeah. I think so. We’re at the very beginning stages of even writing. I’ve got a handful of songs, and I definitely want to have a couple handfuls. I always like to have a little buffer before I go in and just make sure all the stuff’s good. At this point in my career I don’t feel like the quantity over quality makes sense, just like recording everything I do. I want to make sure that everything is really good.

Are you looking for an angle this time? Now you’ve done the rock opera. Even the last one seemed like you had an angle with the Americana flare to it. Does this one have to have an angle, are you looking for it to, because looking back the parallel when you mention rock opera is The Who. So, you have Tommy and Who’s Next. Is this next record your The Who By Numbers?
Meloy: God, good question. I feel like, every record should have a through line. It should have something that connects it together, and I think the records have so far. Certainly, The Hazards of Love the through line is very clear, and yeah, The King is Dead did have a kind of an aesthetic to it. I don’t know. I mean, these things emerge as you work.

Because you didn’t go into it saying that this is….
Meloy: Well, The King is Dead, I feel was, it was a kind of reaction to Hazards of Love to a certain degree. It was a lot of songs that were written around the time of Hazards of Love that just didn’t fit. So I had these songs [that] were all like written immediately afterward, that were short and concise and more spare. So it seemed fitting that, considering that collection of music, that we would do it in a very spare fashion.

So, when you’re working on this new one, you’ve always had a great way of taking events that have happened in your life or out in the world and putting them into these great epic stories. It’s one of your great talents, and it seems to me there is no drought of material for you to take from. Are you finding those? Because politically speaking, it always seems like rock ‘n’ roll is better when Republicans are the loudest.
Meloy: That’s an interesting theory.

And I’ve seen you write a few political pieces lately about what’s going on, and I have to imagine that’s finding its way into your music again.
Meloy: Maybe. I feel like a lot of stuff that I’m working on more recently is much more personal and not so politically bent. I dip into politics occasionally, but it never really took it on that… I mean even “16 Military Wives,” which I think is probably our most political is still, just makes fun of it, so it’s not a very strong message.

But you’ve never had a problem of going out there with your public self to talk about it. With everything going on, obviously the hot button right now is the Affordable Care Act and with your son, who is autistic, that’s got to be a big issue. And from the outside, from a fan’s perspective, we can see a successful musician and assume the world’s taking care of you. But is that a big deal? Are you having an issue with this, and are you happy with the whole way it’s being handled right now?
Meloy: The ACA? Well, it’s complex. I’m a single payer guy straight up, so it’s not left enough for me. I’m full-throated universal healthcare. The worry going into this was that you strike a balance in the middle and then nobody is really satisfied. And so the muddle seemed like it was maybe inevitable. I supported it because it would make some inroads in particular for the autistic parent community. The fact that you can keep your kid on your health insurance until it’s 26 is a big deal because it takes a lot of these kids a long time to leave home if they ever did. And what do you do after 26? And then you have to find a way to get them health insurance. So that is a really big boon. The whole co-op online signup thing seems like it was a trainwreck in the making and probably not a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Republicans made it so difficult to get funding for it. And then also, the way the government went about using what designers, I mean I don’t pretend to know that much about it, but I have a feeling that it’s a little bit all over the map.

Do you think we’re going to come out in the clear on this?
Meloy: I hope so. I really hope so. It would be nice if everybody was in together to make it work. But not only are we not in together, but you have one side of the political spectrum actually working actively to make sure it doesn’t work. I mean, it just seems like something everybody should get together to be excited about.

This is a civil war, right? Do you feel like we’re in that? I mean, we’re not going to get out the muskets and go brother against brother or anything.
Meloy: Yeah, it’s dysfunction at its most pure. I think it’s terrible. Terrible.

But we’ve got to come out now that it’s started, right? You don’t just go this far and then it all falls apart.
Meloy: I think that in the end it’s a good idea, and in the end that good idea will eventually win out. It’s just going to take some time.

I like that kind of optimism.
Meloy: And it’s going to take old, entrenched conservatives to die in order for some of this stuff to happen. And that’s going to happen. You can see it all over with a ton of different issues, and I think healthcare is no different. This idea that, you know, it’s in the nation’s best interest to make sure that everybody has access to healthcare, that just makes for a stronger and better country. I think it’s a patriotic thing to do.

I was going to say the same thing. I know we’re preaching to the choir to each other right here, but it is, that was always the confusing thing, it’s like “that’s the most patriotic thing you could have!” To have a strong country.
Meloy: And a healthy country, no matter who you are, you don’t bankrupt yourself if something comes up. It’s not your fault if you get cancer, but it can devastate you in more ways than just the cancer. It’s awful. It can devastate your family. It’s terrible. People who are opposed to universal healthcare are assholes.

I think the sociology report on this in 50 years is going to be fantastic.
Meloy: If we’re still around.

You have to have that optimism.
Meloy: Right.

I did mention your son a bit ago. You’re in the middle of a series of children’s novels. Am I stretching it too far to think that that’s kind of why you got involved in that? You’ve got a kid and you’re going through the phases that you’re going through dealing with autism and everything. Are you writing books to relate to him?
Meloy: No. I think that those work together. The whole Wildwood thing is something Carson [Carson Ellis, his wife] and I have been talking about even before The Decemberists. When we were living in a warehouse in Portland and working in our day jobs we hatched these plans about [how] I would write this novel and she illustrate it and it would be kind of a weird kids’ novel. So, it happened that having kids certainly helped. I mean, Hank is an avid reader, and he is actually hyperlexic. He started reading when he was three.

Which is mind-blowing.
Meloy: Yeah, which is pretty mind-blowing, and he now reads encyclopedias and things, and he’s read all of them multiple times and certainly has lots of opinions. In this last book, he wanted to even give some ideas which I tried to incorporate. But it’s something that Carson and I mostly wanted to do and it just so happened that Hank was into it. I don’t know whether we steered him in that direction.

But again, it’s a perception on the outside to think that, “wow, what a great coincidence.”
Meloy: Right. I’ve barely grown up since I was 12, so anything like that that happens is rarely to do with my kids and all to do with me.

Yeah, and you’ve already had a second kid?
Meloy: We have a seven-month-old.

Meloy: Thank you.

I’ve heard that having two kids is not twice as hard, but 10 times as hard. And to be a traveling musician on top of it.
Meloy: Yeah, it’s tough. Thankfully my mother has recently moved to Portland, so it’s nice having a grandparent in town. But also, we waited so long to have another kid that it’s a little bit different. Hank is seven, and so he can occupy himself and is much more independent. He’s also on the autism spectrum, so in some ways he has behaviors that can be very delayed, but also he has behaviors that are like a 30-year-old, so it’s impossible to really judge it, so it doesn’t matter. Whenever we have this kid is going to be tough.

Right. One way or the other you’re going to be fumbling through it just like the rest of us.
Meloy: Yeah, and that turns out to be no different than anyone else.