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A Journey with the Decemberists


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The cover of the new CD titled "Picaresque" from the group The Decemberists shows a theater stage with curtains drawn back. The band favors theatrical songs that tell fanciful stories somewhere back in time. Colin Meloy started the band. He's also the lead singer and writes the songs. And he explains the group's name comes from history, from the Decembrists, Russian revolutionaries who led an unsuccessful uprising against the czar in 1825.

Mr. COLIN MELOY (The Decemberists): The accepted translation from "Dekabristi" in Russian is `Decembrists.' We kind of appropriate it and add an E. I think it's kind of appropriate just because we kind of appropriate all sorts of history and make it our own.

BLOCK: The very first song on the album, "The Infanta," has this timeless picturesque quality to it of just this incredible scene of an infanta being presented to the public, I guess, for the first time.

(Soundbite of "The Infanta")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Here she comes in her palanquin on the back of an elephant on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk. All astride on her father's line with the king and his concubines and her nurse with her pitchers of liquors and milk. And we'll all come praise the infanta. And we'll all come praise the infanta.

Mr. MELOY: It's basically an exercise in trying to write the biggest song I possibly could involving as many elephants and camels and palanquins and things like that.

BLOCK: Was it just an excuse to get the word `palanquin' into a song?

Mr. MELOY: I think partially, yeah.

BLOCK: I had to look it up. I thought I knew what it was, but I actually went to the dictionary.

Mr. MELOY: It's a beautiful word, lovely three-syllable word.

BLOCK: And it means?

Mr. MELOY: You know, you see heads of state and things like that in centuries bygone riding around in those boxes where there's two people on either side sort of carrying him along. I don't know how to describe it. They're like a canopied box in which a member of the monarchy would ride. The one in the "The Infanta" is perched on top of an elephant.

(Soundbite of "The Infanta")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) And as she sits upon on her place, her innocence laid on her face, from all atop the parapets glow a multitude of coronets, melodies rhapsodical and fair. And all our hearts afire, the sky ablaze with cannon fire, we all raise our voices to the air, to the air.

BLOCK: It's great because at the end of this huge spectacle with parapets and coronets, where it all ends up is inside the mind of that little girl and what she's thinking.

Mr. MELOY: What I wanted to illustrate was kind of the absurdity of the whole procession and the whole affair. When it comes down to it, the infanta herself is just sort of this innocent babe sitting in oblivion to everything that was going on around her.

BLOCK: We've been talking about characters in your songs. I think the character I'm growing the fondest of is "Eli The Barrow Boy."

(Soundbite of "Eli The Barrow Boy")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Eli, the barrow boy, of the old town sells coal and marigolds, and he cries out all down the day.

Mr. MELOY: Eli sells all sorts of random things, sort of walks through the cities, much like Molly Malone from that Irish folk song.

BLOCK: Selling cockles and mussels?

Mr. MELOY: Selling cockles and mussels. But Eli's selling more kind of random bric-a-brac, like corncobs and candle wax. But then there's also this back story that kind of has this lost love who died, and he never was able to make enough money to really buy her the things that he thought that she would like.

(Soundbite of "Eli The Barrow Boy")

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) Would I could afford to buy my love a fine robe made of gold and silk Arabian thread. She is dead and gone and lying in a pine grove, and I must push my barrow all the day.

Mr. MELOY: And then, in another tragic turn, he dies as well. And so it's just basically--"Eli The Barrow Boy," the song, is just kind of a--it's just a tragedy of a very sort of sweet character, who just never really gets a break in life, I guess.

BLOCK: You studied writing when you were in school, in college. Are there lessons you took from that, maybe anything a teacher ever told you that you find yourself using when you're writing songs?

Mr. MELOY: I don't know. I went to school at University of Montana in Missoula, and I tend to think that a lot of the writing I was being taught there is kind of the polar opposite of what I ended up doing. I think when I came out of that department, a lot of what I started doing in songwriting was almost a reaction against that.

BLOCK: In what way?

Mr. MELOY: Just instead of writing the sort of, really, realist kind of stoic, creative non-fiction, I just started using things outside of my experience, entirely outside of my setting in history.

BLOCK: So if they're saying, `Write what you know,' you're saying, `No, I'm going to write about being in the belly of a whale.'

Mr. MELOY: Exactly. Exactly.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) We are two mariners, our ship's sole survivors in this belly of a whale. Its ribs are ceiling beams. It's guts are carpeting. I guess we have some time to kill.

BLOCK: Colin, are there things that you're reading that you find are helpful to you as a writer?

Mr. MELOY: I'm a big fan of Vladimir Nabokov and just his use of raw language and his ability to play words off of each other. I think of really good writers as being like interior decorators in some ways because they have sort of this understanding of the kind of feng shui of words as if they were pieces of furniture in a room. You know, you kind of understand what words work together and what words don't.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) And I am a writer, writer of fictions.

BLOCK: When you're on stage doing a live show, I bet there's a moment now when you look out and you realize that all the folks who are there to see you are singing along with the words, `Here she comes in her palanquin.'

Mr. MELOY: Yeah.

BLOCK: That's got to be great.

Mr. MELOY: Well, yeah, that's one of the nicer bits about being in this band. I love the fact that I can see people singing these sort of strange, alliterative words. They're just fun to sing.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) And I've written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my song.

BLOCK: Colin Meloy, thanks so much.

Mr. MELOY: Oh, well, thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song)

THE DECEMBERISTS: (Singing) If you don't love me, let me go.

BLOCK: Colin Meloy is with the band The Decemberists. Their CD is called "Picaresque." This Friday you can hear The Decemberists live from Washington, DC's 9:30 Club on "All Songs Considered" at npr.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.