Phish perform at the Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco, August 12, 2011.
The Decemberists treat high-concept nerd-dom like their one true calling. Writing story-songs about forest queens and evil rakes, naming one of their albums (2005's Picaresque) after an obscure form of fiction, and generally making liberal use of their liberal arts educations, the group were one of the most unique bands to surface in the 2000s. It helped that they infused their songs with a warm, woodsy tunefulness, which made the narratives go down easier and earned them loyal listeners.
The band formed in Portland, Oregon at the turn of the millennium. Led by singer Colin Meloy, whose strong lyricism and vivid storytelling served as the backbone for the band, the Decemberists came together when Meloy left his native Montana and his former band Tarkio for the musically emerging Portland scene, eventually teaming with bassist Nate Query and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlin. The addition of guitarist Chris Funk soon followed.
After self-releasing their debut EP 5 Songs in 2001 and signing with Hush Records for their first album Castaways & Cutouts, the Decemberists signed with famed Pacific Northwest label Kill Rock Stars, onetime home of artists like Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. Their sophomore album Her Majesty followed in 2003, a theatrical slice of symphonic indie pop that, couple with Meloy's opaque lyrical imagery, earned the Decemberists comparisons to bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Belle & Sebastian.
The Decemberists' breakthrough came in 2005 with Picaresque, a musical folk-rock voyage with Meloy's storytelling exploring the moral ruins of a corrupted society, including tales of a murder in the belly of a whale, runaway prostitutes and the album's double-suicide denouement. "Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy has never been shy about the Morrissey and Melville inside his melodies," Rolling Stone's David Fricke wrote in his review of Picaresque. "But here he turns on his inner Tom Waits and Fairport Convention to spectacular effect in eleven parables of dashed expectations." Drummer John Moen, who previously worked with artists like Elliott Smith and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, joined the Decemberists prior to recording their next album.
Following the critical and semi-commercial success of Picaresque — it peaked at Number 135 on the Billboard Top 200 — the Decemberists' signed with Capitol Records for 2006's The Crane Wife. Despite the shift to a major label, the band stayed on track, delivering a critically acclaimed 10-song cycle referencing everything from the old Japanese tale "The Crane Wife" to the Siege of Leningrad and Protestant paramilitary organizations. For the single "O Valencia," the band asked fans to create their own music video using green screen technology. The challenge gained national exposure when The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert, fresh from his own green screen challenge to his audience, jokingly accused the band of "riding his coattails" and stealing his idea. The situation was resolved when the Decemberists appeared on Colbert and faced off against the host in a guitar solo showdown.
The Decemberists performed in support of then-candidate Barack Obama in Portland in 2008, and also toured in support of their three volume series of 12'' singles Always the Bridesmaid. Hazards of Love arrived in March 2009, a rock opera love story that featured Meloy playing the role of several characters. Hazards weaved together all the trademark the band previously displayed on their previous albums but with a progressive rock seam that further expanded the Decemberists' palette. The LP brought the Decemberists the highest chart position of their career, hitting Number 14 in its debut week.
Outside of the Decemberists, Meloy has issued three solo Colin Meloy Sings… cover EPs—2005's Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey, 2006's Colin Meloy Sings Shirley Collins and 2008's Colin Meloy Sings Sam Cooke—as well as a 2008 live album called Colin Meloy Sings Live!.