The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy Is Fine With the Long Wait for the Group’s New Album, but Isn’t So Sure His Dream Is Still to Write With Morrissey

Whenever the Decemberists have released an album, Colin Meloy has wondered if it would be their last. Perhaps fans may have felt similarly after the release of their 2018 LP “I’ll Be Your Girl,” as the Portland, Oregon-spawned indie icons found themselves in the midst of its longest gap between records. But there were several factors at play in the delay: a pandemic, fits and starts of songwriting, and Meloy’s other creative projects. It was a break from the Decemberists, but the prolific songwriter didn’t think fans were starved for music considering their robust (now) nine-album discography. “It’s a natural pattern that we’ve fallen into,” Meloy tells Variety over the phone from Portland. “We can spend a little more time between records.”

Over the past 22 years, the Decemberists — now Meloy with bassist Nate Query, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, guitarist Chris Funk and drummer John Moen — have never shied away from evolving, tackling folk laments, fantastical epics, synth-rock numbers and anthems with political undertones, flanked by historical and literary references. Their latest project, “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again,” is a culmination of the band’s history — a double album with prog-rock overtones centered on an imagined version of martyr Joan of Arc (“Joan in the Garden”), a quixotic tale about a character inspired by a 16th century Brit and John Prine (“William Fitzwilliam”), a jangly folk ditty circling impending doom (the counterintuitively catchy “Burial Ground”). With their latest project, the band left Capitol Records after 20 years and opted to independently release the record under their own label, Y.A.B.B. Records. “We didn’t need a major label anymore,” Meloy said. “It was time for us to heave off on our own.”

Below, Meloy speaks with Variety about the road to the new album, the narrative he wants to tackle next, and how his other creative projects, which include solo recordings and a childrens’ book, impact the work he does for the band.

It’s been six years since the last Decemberists record — the longest time the band has had between albums. What accounted for the gap?

It’s the natural pattern that we’ve fallen into — we can spend a little more time between records. There’s so much Decemberists music in the world, and I’m a little shy to put more of it out there because I don’t want to overstay our welcome. Also, I get drawn off to do other creative things — working on music and writing projects — so that contributed to the delay. But also the global pandemic certainly put a [wrench] in plans early on.

Tell me the story behind the album title, “As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again.” 

Well, it’s the last line of the last song, so it has a power and a presence just from that. The record, in some ways, is a return to earlier stuff, but it’s a summation of everything that we’ve done so far, and not in any intentional way. Once we stepped away and looked at it, it did feel like there was a little bit of something from every corner of our catalog. So it felt like a fitting title for a record like that.

There are four sides to your latest record. Did you approach each side as a character?

Yeah. Some of them are more narrative than others. That first side is the more narrative songs. It’s familiar in our body of work, but I tend to think about the first side as being a lot of meditations on death and mortality, whereas the side after came from this wealth of songs. We had an opportunity to sequence it in a way that felt like a conceptual whole. The model for this record, I think, is Hüsker Dü’s [1984 classic] “Zen Arcade,” which as far as I could tell [is] one of the only double records that really has a thematic element to the side breaks, and that’s something that we wanted to mess around with. That’s why each one is so distinct.

Your last record “I’ll Be Your Girl” was heavily influenced by the 2016 election. How did writing and performing those songs impact you emotionally as an artist? Did that also account for the break?

Oh, yeah, it certainly did. Writing those songs was its own catharsis. I [was] working through a lot of anxiety and anger that was coming out of 2016 or just the political environment. Once I’d gotten it out of me, it was in this record, and we were performing it, that particular brand of darkness and cynicism at some point got to me, and I came off of that tour, feeling a little bit depleted and ready to move on — at least from that tone. To my mind, I was like, “Maybe I just want to move on from The Decemberists.” But that wasn’t the case. I just needed to have some time away before I could return to it.

When was the point in time that you thought you might not make another Decemberists record?

I feel that way after every record, so I don’t feel like my experience in 2018 or 2019 was really any different than my experience after the last record [or] the record before that. From day one, it’s been on the precipice of throwing it all in, and that’s just my own weird hang-up. I tend to get so overloaded and overwhelmed by these projects that imagining a circumstance where I sabotage it all is a weird balm for me. Then I can come back to it once I’ve thrown that off and feel energized to do it again.

In addition to the Decemberists, you’re a children’s book author and you’ve crafted a handful of cover EPs. How have those creative projects influenced the band?

As far as the cover EPs go, even though those are kind of a lark to coincide with doing a solo tour or something like that, it’s nice to get under the hood of other people’s songs and feel like you discover something new about your process when you learn other people’s songs. Writing books is such a different process and way of working. The only way that bookwriting informs songwriting is that bookwriting is a nice break from songwriting, and songwriting is a nice break from bookwriting. They complement each other in that way they’re so different, that toying around with either one is a way of freeing yourself from the limitations of the other.

There are always clever literary references embedded in the Decemberists’ songs. How did literature influence the LP?

“The Black Maria” came about from reading a book about Soviet satellite countries in the ’70s and ’80s and living through Stalinism in the ’50s. “The Black Maria” is a police van that would show up, and this idea that if “The Black Maria” is outside your door, something terrible is about to happen. That looming danger out of your control has always been a weird thing that I keep returning to. That was the kick-off point for that. “William Fitzwilliam” is from Hilary Mantel’s [“The Mirror and the Light”]. So that was in my mind as all that surreal stuff was happening in the outside world. At the same time, learning about John Prine [the legendary singer-songwriter who died in 2020], and John dying made this weird combination of this Tudor England character and John [in the song]. There’s a constellation of [book] influences on any of these songs.

You collaborated with James Mercer of the Shins and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on the record. What was that experience like? 

[James] came in and sang on “Burial Ground.” We had this vocal line song that sounded like it needed to be sung by a distinct voice, and [producer Tucker Martine] and I were talking, and James’s name came up. I texted him and it happened he was in town and could be in the next day. So, it really came together very organically. Mike Mills sings on “Joan in the Garden” and plays piano. He was in town finishing up a tour with the Baseball Project, one of his bands, and he was game to come in. He changed his flight home and everything.

The final song on the album, “Joan in the Garden,” is centered on Joan of Arc. What piqued your interest in her story?

I wanted to do something with that story, but I wanted to get down to what I felt was the most interesting, universal piece of it that still speaks to us over the centuries. I read “The Book of Joan” by Lidia Yuknavitch, and she managed to do that really well. So, I wanted to familiarize myself with her biography, and from there, extrapolate, what is the thing that draws us back to [the story]? To me, it’s a 19th-century painting of Joan standing in her family’s garden being visited by angels and being given her vision. That has always appealed to me, particularly from a modern standpoint, because we can put so much on that now. So much of that is about: What were her visions? If this were somebody now, we would be talking about mental illness, talking about hallucinogenic chemicals, and that’s what’s curious about it. But there’s so much about her entire story that speaks to the modern sensibilities. She was, in some ways, anti-autocratic [and] gender fluid.

Was the track always 19 minutes long?

I wanted it to be a journey. I could not have fit that kind of stuff into a three-and-a-half-minute song.

Narrative storytelling has just been something you have mastered throughout your career. Are there any stories you have on your bucket list for the band to conquer?

The Moonies. Religious cults.

Why religious cults?

I don’t know. It occurred to me just now.

Who do you dream of collaborating with at this point in your career? 

I’ve always harbored a dream of writing a song for Morrissey, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen in my lifetime. For one thing, I don’t know how often he does that or how he would do that now. It would not [be great] culturally to work with him now for the damage that he’s done to his own reputation. And, maybe I shouldn’t want to, I think maybe he would be an unpleasant person to work with. So I’m of two minds about it.

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