Colin Meloy embarks on a solo tour Friday in New York City, and though the jaunt is anchored to his new EP of covers, Colin Meloy Sings the Kinks, fans can expect to hear deep cuts from the Decemberists' catalog along with never-before-heard material. These songs are the first of many that'll lead into a fruitful 2014 for Meloy, which may include the return of the Decemberists. Though the Portland mainstay has been on what a "collective stasis" since 2011's The King Is Dead, he's kept busy, writing new material, touring, and flexing his literary wings with the publication of the first two novels in his three-volume series, The Wildwood Chronicles. Rolling Stone spoke with Meloy about his new solo tour, new recordings and the future of the Decemberists.
You've done this kind of tour inspired by covers before, where you've worked with the songs of Sam Cooke, Morrissey, etc. How did you prep for this tour differently?
To be honest, I threw something at five records at random from my record shelf, and the Kinks happened to be one of them. With the first [solo tour], I'd wanted to cover relatively obscure Morrissey songs for awhile. Shirley Collins was the theme of the second solo tour, and that came out at a time where I was really diving into the British folk revival of the Fifties and Sixties, and she was sort of the leading light in that. Sam Cooke, I was in the midst of a real heavy Sam Cooke phase, and so that just kind of lent itself as an idea. This time around, there was nothing that instantly jumped out at me, so it was nice to do a kind of [record] lottery. Something about that kind of Dadaist lottery helped for the creative juices.
Between your solo material, Decemberists songs and the covers, how much of your live show is comprised of new material or previously unreleased stuff your fans may be unfamiliar with?
I imagine I'll land on kind of a set list on the first handful of nights. I'm sure there'll be a nice mix of familiar old Decemberists songs with a couple covers thrown in, and then a handful of new songs that are unreleased. With the Decemberists tunes, I'll probably try to throw in more deep cuts, just because I feel like the people that come out to the solo shows tend to be that 10 percent of diehard Decemberists fans that know all the weird songs we recorded in two minutes in 2004 and put on a Kill Rock Stars B-side, that kind of thing. Those songs will probably get dusted off.
You've been very busy with your flourishing literary career. Were the new songs written in between books, or more recently?
I've been writing mostly at home in between spurts of working on these books. Writing songs is a different enough pursuit that it's kind of a nice counterpoint to working on the novels. It feels like I can almost procrastinate the book with writing songs, and vice versa. That's been helpful. I've actually been writing songs while I've been working on the books. I have such a hard time writing on the road, but I think I'm going to push myself to work on the road, because there's just a lot that I want to do this year.
Now that you've spread your wings as a writer in different formats, do you approach music any differently than you did before you wrote the books?
There's a little bit of cross-pollination. When I was working on the songs for The King Is Dead, I was working on the first book, The Wildwood Chronicles, and you can kind of see some connections. If you look closely enough and read the book, you'll definitely see some crossover. The songs have sort of fallen away, and in some ways I feel like the Wildwood books have been my outlet for the fabulist in me, the kind of fantastical stuff, and the songs that I'm working on tend to be more first-person – maybe a little less all over the map a bit, less whimsy, more sardonic.
What are your immediate plans for this new material?
The third Wildwood book, Wildwood Imperium, is coming out in February, so that's the biggest thing on the plate. Between doing the festival dates this summer and the solo tour, I'm kind of getting back into music, having been away from it for three or four years. 2014 will be about the new book, and I'm starting to dabble with [new] Decemberists stuff. We've been hanging out, and I've been writing new material specifically for the band, so I expect sometime in the fairly near future that there will be a Decemberists record.
Would you say this "collective stasis" helped break new ground for the Decemberists?
I think that remains to be seen, as it's way too early in the process. It's at the nice part, pre-recording, where everything feels fairly amorphous and it's all very "in the ether." The time away has been great. It afforded me time to work on these books, which has been fantastic. We had another baby, so we added to the family. Being a new dad all over again, I took some time. Those guys have been doing Black Prairie, which is their other band. Everyone just gets to do their own thing for a little bit, which I think is great. We've been going fairly strong for 10 years, and it just felt like we were due a step away just to work on other pursuits to keep the juices flowing, to not stagnate or anything. Hopefully, we'll come back a fully refreshed band with a new perspective.
What's a misconception people may have when they come to see you?
I've been doing these solo tours for a while now, and I don't anticipate doing a solo record. I've always said that the songs that I write, none of them so far have suggested a solo record. I feel like [a solo record] would just be a weird version of the Decemberists without the bandmates, and I like working with them, so I don't know why I would do that, to be honest. I also kind of wish that I'd never said anything about "taking a break," because I feel like our "taking a break" is the normal time some people take between records. I'm so compulsively creative and working all the time that taking three years away from anything is sort of a big deal for me. In retrospect, it wasn't that big of a break.