The Decemberists have probably been called some variation on “hyperliterate” in everything ever written about the Portland, Oregon-based indie rockers. That’s because the band’s frontman, Colin Meloy, tends to pepper his lyrics with words guaranteed to have even the brainiest hipster scrambling for the dictionary. If you know what balustrade, odalisque, charabanc, fontanelle, and tarlatan mean without having to look them up, you probably already have your ticket for the Decemberists’ show at the Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday (August 8).
Going down. The particular brand of rock ’n’ roll the Decemberists deal in is often described as, uh, not exactly virile. In an article for Reuters, Steven Van Zandt lumped the Decemberists in with other indie acts such as Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and Broken Social Scene. “It's a sensibility that is specifically modern,” according to Van Zandt. “It introduces a new level of isolation hiding a helpless, sexless desperation.” Perhaps in an attempt to rectify that “sexless” reputation, Meloy wrote a song called “Philomena” (featured on the Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World) that is unabashedly about wanting to give a woman oral pleasure. “I think this is my attempt of making a portrait—a bundling idea of what human sexuality is and could be,” Meloy once explained in what was possibly the least sexy sentence ever spoken aloud by a human being.
Yellow fever. You know you’ve made it when you’ve been featured on an episode of The Simpsons. Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, and Dolly Parton have all had the honour of being sketched into the series by Matt Groening and pals—and so have the Decemberists. Aired in 2012, the spot features the band as music teachers at Springfield Elementary, with Meloy asking the children—in true Decemberists style—if they want to “learn a song about press gangs and infanticide”. That’s not the band’s first foray into TV cameos, with the five-piece taking on various roles at the made-up music and film festival Blunderbuss on Portlandia. Most recently, the group took to the stage for an appearance in the series finale of Parks and Recreation—a move that broke their three-year live hiatus before their scheduled benefit show. We wouldn’t turn down the chance to play with Mouse Rat either.
Anything but the arts. Who amongst us hasn’t disappointed their parents with, well, every life choice made since Grade 8? It will please you to know that Colin Meloy is one of us. In an interview with Salon he revealed that, successful as both he and his author sister Maile Meloy have been, their lawyer (and later Democrat politician) father wanted them to pursue traditional careers. Meloy stated: “There was never a suggestion that, for example, Maile and I were expected to take up where my dad and my grandfather left off and join a law firm—that sort of thing. It really did feel like we were allowed to pursue whatever we wanted to—and I think our creative streaks were really encouraged. However, dad made it very clear that we should not pursue a creative life as a career. It should always be something you do on the side.” While Meloy Sr. is no doubt proud at the way things have worked out today, his initial frustration has been backed up by Maile, who told the Los Angeles Times: “There was a while when my dad was like, ‘Will one of my children please get a job?’”
Country livin’. Although every bit as closely associated with Portland as Powell’s Books, Stumptown Coffee, and craftspeople obsessed with putting a bird on it, Meloy actually lives on a farm outside of the city. The circa-1850 property, which is dotted with 19th- and 20th-century buildings—barns, coops, his family’s residence—is home to chickens, pygmy goats, and a couple of llamas. That’s right, while the best the average Portlandia resident can hope for is free-range eggs direct from Naked Acres Farm, all Meloy has to do is wander outside and see what’s sitting in the nest. The property is also home to a studio, where the likes of British troubadour Olivia Chaney have recorded. Did we mention that the farm is really old? Meloy’s wife—notable illustrator Carson Ellis—told Portland’s OPB radio: “It was built by a pioneer who drowned in a river going to deliver a baby in the middle of the night,” she says. “There was a lot to come to terms with…the oldness of house—the old pioneerness of it.” Yes, there are cooler places to live in Oregon than right next to the Aladdin Theater in Portland.
Taking a break. As well as eight-minute sea-chantey epics, Meloy writes young-adult novels. Penning his first story right before the band starting taking off, the singer invented a plot about a young protagonist searching for a lost relative in an apocalyptic world, and a mechanical boy-prince whose resurrection and death was the ultimate cause for the fall of a nation. Easy reading, obviously. Bringing the bones of that plot back to life a decade later when the band was on hiatus, Meloy fashioned the basic story into a 541-page novel named Wildwood, illustrated by Ellis. The book made it on to the New York Times best-seller list in 2012, greatly boosting the singer’s literary credentials.