Nobody expected the Decemberists, the theatrically-minded indie-folk band from Portland, Oregon, to ever hit Number One on the Billboard album chart. So what did they do after their sixth LP, 2011's The King Is Dead, made it all the way to the top? They took four years to release its follow-up, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (due January 20th). Not that they sat around drinking artisanal lattes: Although lead singer Colin Meloy has yet to get his stage musical off the ground, he did publish a trilogy of YA fantasy novels: Wildwood (which hit the New York Times bestseller lists), Under Wildwood and Wildwood Imperium, all illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. "There are a lot of people who know me just for the books, which is strange to me, and then discover the band later," Meloy told us on the phone from his home in Oregon.
Do you come down more on the world is terrible or the world is beautiful side?
That's changing daily, but I think the point is that it's both. I feel like I've spent the last four years trying to get my head wrapped around that idea that those things can live together symbiotically.
When the band gets back together, does everyone fall into old roles and habits?
It's not like we've been strangers to one another during the intervening years. We've had charity shows here and there and done a few other projects. But we've been around long enough and we're adults, so everybody comes back to it in a very – I hate to say professional way, because it sounds so austere and sterile, but everybody knows what they do well at this point. Not to say that there wasn't room for us to challenge one another, but for the most part it was as if we were all climbing under the same comfortable duvet on a cold winter's night and snuggling close.
What was the origin of "The Singer Addresses His Audience"?
That was my imagining the viewpoint of a singer in a band. In my head it was the singer of a boy band coming to terms with how everything in their life and their career has changed. That relationship between bands or singers and their audience, it's kind of a funny relationship and abusive in its own right, going both ways. I shouldn't say abusive, but it can be antagonistic. I think that it's an odd relationship, and it's just that particular singer trying to come to terms with that aspect of it. Having an audience, you may want to continue doing things on your own terms, but that becomes more challenging when there are expectations. And audiences have more of a voice than ever with the advent of the Internet. While I may not be cowed by it, I can imagine a singer with thinner skin would be terrified by that. I've always been humbled and flattered that people have attached themselves to certain aspects of the Decemberists.
How about "Make You Better"?
I got hung up on the idea of thinking about how we kind of seek to define ourselves in relationships and strive to cure our ills through our relationships – and sometimes through our past relationships. So it's the futile attempts to achieve some kind of wholeness in relationships that don't exist anymore.
If you replay the relationship in your head, maybe you can win this time?
Yeah. I think we do that a lot. We replay our mistakes, we question our motives: I needed you because I needed you to make me a better person. But I think the singer in the song, the "I" in the song, is coming to grips with that.
Is the "I" in your songs ever you?
Absolutely. There's aspects of me in all the songs, even the ones that aren't first person. But definitely on this record there's a lot that's me. I hope people will forgive me.
How does this record feel different from other albums that you've made?
Well, it represents a broader swath of what we do as a band. We recorded it over a year and a half, which is the longest we have ever taken to make a record. Some of the songs were five years old when we recorded them and some were just a month old, so they represent a real sense of passing time. You can see how my fascinations with songwriting change over the course of five years. After we had finished the King Is Dead tour and as I was pivoting to writing, I was feeling weirdly cynical about music. So a lot of self-reflexive songs came out, stuff like "Anti-Summersong" and "The Singer Addresses His Audience." Once I got that out of my system, I was working on the books, which were satisfying a lot of my narrative bent, so the songs tended to be more first-person meditations or just taking stock of my surroundings. And as soon as the books were finished, the last few songs that I wrote were "Till the Water Is All Long Gone" and "Easy Come, Easy Go." The narrative starts to sneak in again.
You're a narrative junkie.
I am. I just like stories. I like people telling stories. I hate being called a storyteller, though. When I'm referred to as a storyteller, my brain gets pinched.
How do you feel about "troubadour" and "bard"?
Yeah, those are less offensive. I'd rather be called a "bard" than a "storyteller." And I have no idea why.
Because "bard" sounds like a playable class in a Dungeons & Dragons game and "storyteller" doesn't.
In fact, it is a playable class in a D&D game. Oh, you've revealed yourself.
As have you. When is the last time you played an RPG?
OK, full disclosure. It came out, that new edition. I hadn't played D&D since I was 12. Some writers in town got a little thing together, and I may have stepped in on that at some point. And that's all I'll say.
Hypothetically, was it entertaining and pleasurable or was it just a weird flashback to 13-year-olds sitting around the kitchen table with Doritos?
Actually, it's both those things, in a funny way. My recollection of games involved going to [imaginary] taverns and trying to pick up elf women: sad preadolescent fumbling. As a 12-year-old, that was the only place where you were able to actually do that. I'm not sure I'm ready to come out about this, particularly in Rolling Stone. I'm still traumatized as being so marginalized from it as a child... Maybe I don't care. Just go for it.
What have you been listening to lately?
Topic Records in the U.K. released a record of Lal Waterson's demos. She was a British folk revival mainstay. She recorded very few records – Bright Phoebus is a record she did with her husband, Mike. The Watersons mainly did traditional songs, but she was a songwriter. This is all early demo stuff, and it's beautiful. I'm just amazed that it hasn't come to light sooner. What else? I was listening to Parquet Courts a lot recently. That's only two things, but you've probably got a limited word count.