Colin Meloy is lying onstage at the Wiltern like a puffy Adonis ready to receive grapes; someone feeds him a Twizzler. Girls are screaming, taking pictures of him with their cell phones as if he were Justin Timberlake. Meloy bends down, touching their hands, then snatches a phone from one lucky gal. Scrolling through the address book, he dials a number and sings into the phone, loudly, spurring Elvis-appropriate cries of adoration from the crowd. (We find out later that Meloy dialed the girl’s mother. “Everyone has ‘Mom’ in their address book,” he will explain.) Could this really be the Decemberists — the band once described as a bunch of “drama nerds”? And is this really their lead singer, oft accused of “fey prancing” and “nasal bleating”?
Decemberists shows past have featured legionnaire costumes and giant whales; on this tour, in support of their major-label debut, The Crane Wife (Capitol), the eye candy’s in the audience (at the Wiltern, celebs like Kirsten Dunst, Orlando Bloom and Kate Bosworth). It’s as if the band, along with signing that record deal, has finally been asked to sit at the cool kids’ table. “If we are sitting there,” Meloy laughs after the show, “we sat there accidentally. We must have stole somebody else’s seats!”
No kidding. Listening to the Decemberists is like opening a musty and tattered leather-bound book: You expect to hear the sounds of a creaky spine and flip of a yellowed page between songs. The influences — prog rock, folk, sea chantey, Irish jig and klezmer — blend gracefully, buoyed by lilting violins, whirling organs and accordions, all billowing around tales of chimney sweeps, sea captains and trapeze artists. The Crane Wife — which movesinto more proggy territory than the pop-folk sound of their last album, Picaresque — is loosely based on a Japanese folktale. In it, a poor man saves a crane with an arrow in its wing. After she reappears to him in the form of a woman, he unwittingly marries her. The rich fabrics she weaves make them rich, but he eventually loses her through his own greed. Not exactly Top 40 material. Says Meloy, “It’s amazing to me, a constant revelation that we’re relatively successful making this kind of music.”
Though the Decemberists still treat their live audiences to singalong/clapalongs — which feels like being in an Irish pub — the band’s new live show is undeniably toned down. But Meloy assures me the band’s switch from Kill Rock Stars to Capitol Records had nothing to do with it: They simply wanted to perform the new songs with as honest a reading as possible. “There’s just not as much room for the goofiness.”
And despite Meloy’s stage banter at the Wiltern about “the Oompa Loompas” at Capitol, he insists the jump from Kill Rock Stars was not artistically compromising. “[The Capitol people] were not very present at all,” Meloy says matter-of-factly, with a hint of pride. “[They] came out to [Portland] and I played them what we were working on; they were head over heels and left enthusiastic. That was all we saw of them.” What about the snazzy tour bus? “Actually, those sorts of things we already won on our own,” he says. “We have the dubious honor of being the only band to have toured on a bus under the Kill Rock Stars label.” And that J-Lo-style tour rider, which includes the ruby liquid Meloy sips between songs? “I usually ask for a nice Zinfandel. I like darker, spicier wines. Why, are you going to send me a case?” he teases. (I blush and stutter.)
No article about Meloy is complete without some mention of his literary prowess. Through The Crane Wife alone, I learned several new words (sycorax, parallax, curlew, keening), even stumping my widget dictionary. But more than flexing a well-endowed lexicon, on The Crane Wife Meloy manages to weave other tales around the titular one. There’s the dystopic society of the 13-minute, three-part saga “The Island,” and the alternate utopia of “Sons & Daughters,” which Meloy says he wrote during a time of heightened tensions in Israel. “I kept thinking of people living in war-torn environments. How can people live with bombs going off in their home cities? So I created this group of people getting in a boat and sailing away.” The lyrics“Take up your arms Sons and daughters/We will arise from the bunkers . . . When we arrive/Sons and daughters/We’ll make our homes on the water/We’ll build our walls aluminum/We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon . . . Hear all the bombs fade away,” are a message of hope and redemption. And “Yankee Bayonet,” a song-conversation between a dead Civil War soldier on the field and his pregnant girl at home, could be interpreted as a modern day story if you substitute Baghdad for Battlecreek.
But it’s not all political. You’ll find Meloy is still obsessed with the ocean, as evidenced in “Summersong” and “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning.” “My initial fascination with the ocean came about because I grew up in landlocked Montana,” Meloy explains. “And when I did visit the ocean, I saw it as this magical, exotic thing. It’s inevitable that I choose characters that are really built by their environment.” His dark side is still there, too, with hefty thematic doses of rape, theft and murder. Like the dark Sweeney Todd–esque “Shankill Butchers,” about a group of real-life serial killers who slaughtered Catholics over the course of a few years in Northern Ireland. Meloy, who “grew up doing musicals,” admits he is a closeted Sondheim fan. “It’s sort of a guilty pleasure of mine,” he confides — with no apparent guilt. “I would totally consider doing a musical. I’d love the challenge, if only I had any other time besides working on Decemberists music.”
Where that music leads will likely surprise even Meloy, who only recently started reading contemporary literature. “I wasn’t happy unless I was reading Hardy,” he says. Who was the gateway writer? Julian Barnes. “And I just read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which I didn’t expect to like, but I did.” What if he were stranded on a desert island and could bring only one book? Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. “I could read it a million times and still find joy,” Meloy sighs. So rest assured, Meloy is still most definitely a nerd. And if you find him suddenly cuter, more charming and even cooler than before, it’s completely by accident. He just sat in somebody else’s seat.