Seriously, what can you say about a band that's named after a 19th-century Russian uprising, conducts historical re-enactments onstage, and is obsessed with arcane instruments that are virtually impossible to tune?
It's not the most obvious formula for pop success, especially when you combine it with bizarre career moves like releasing an 18½-minute single based on Irish mythology, or releasing a progged-out concept album (2009's The Hazards of Love) that thrilled some critics and repelled others.
But those kind of willful idiosyncrasies have placed the Decemberists among indie-folk's most popular practitioners. In January, the Portland band's sixth album, The King Is Dead, debuted at No. 1. And two weeks ago, the legendary Newport Folk Festival announced the Decemberists as its opening-night headliner.
Last week, we caught up with Decemberists co-founder Nate Query to talk about recording with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, the specter of Chris Squire bass lines, and what might happen if Pete Seeger had an ax instead of a hammer.
Indy: So at what point in your life did you ever think, "Hey, I'm gonna be headlining the Newport Folk Festival someday"?
Nate Query: Well, you know, it's funny, because once the band got to the point where we were actually doing things that I dreamt about as a kid, I stopped thinking, "I want to do this" or "I want to do that." And then all of a sudden, we get an e-mail with proposed scheduling for the next few months, and I'm like, "Are you fucking kidding me? Really, we're gonna do that?" We did do Newport a couple of years ago, opening for Pete Seeger on the 50th anniversary, and that was epic. But I never thought we'd come back and actually headline it.
Indy: There's that Newport Festival legend, which is probably a myth, about Pete Seeger being so upset during Dylan's electric set that he threatened to take an ax to the sound system.
NQ: It's really hard to imagine people were that upset about it then. But you know, we have a song where we have the audience participate in a historical re-enactment. And so when we played Newport, we did a historical re-enactment of Dylan going electric. If Colin [Meloy] had known about that rumor, he might have made somebody be Pete Seeger with an ax.
Indy: Recent tracks like "Down by the Water" have a more pronounced R.E.M. feel, and I guess there are some obvious reasons for that. What was it like recording with Peter Buck, and how did that all come about?
NQ: Well, Colin was writing these songs that were R.E.M.-y before we decided to have Peter come in. And then he was sort of like: "Why don't we just have Peter play on it, like go all the way? Or maybe he could help us figure out how to make them sound less R.E.M.-y." And in some ways, it sort of made it easier to get away with the R.E.M.-sounding stuff because he was on it.
Indy: So you could just blame him.
NQ: Yeah, but the funny thing is, the first time we got together, Colin was sort of apologizing to Peter for ripping him off a little bit. And Peter was like, "Ah, whatever, I stole it from Roger McGuinn." So everybody steals it from somewhere. That made us a little less self-conscious about it.
Indy: When Hazards of Love came out, the term prog-rock came up in a fair amount of reviews, probably because of that opening keyboard track and the fact that the songs are tied together thematically. I even saw it compared to Yes' Tales from the Topographic Ocean ...
NQ: Wow. [Laughs.]
Indy: Do you see a connection between your music and the music of that era?
NQ: Yeah, and that connection is basically [fellow Decemberist] Jenny Conlee, who loves Yes and Jethro Tull ...
Indy: C'mon, why not just admit that you grew up practicing Chris Squire bass lines on a Rickenbacker?
NQ: Well, you know, it is funny, because there was a point during Hazards of Love where I was kind of going for that Chris Squire bass tone, which is kind of horrible, but it fit, you know? I had a hollow-body I was trying out, putting it through a guitar amp, and I ended up just bailing and doing my usual thing. But, you know, I think those influences are there.
Indy: I understand the Decemberists are releasing a live EP specifically for Record Store Day, which happens to be the same day you're playing here. How important do you think indie retailers are in the age of Amazon and free downloads?
NQ: The thing about independent retail is that's where you discover music. They're run by people that love music, that want you to love music. And it's great that you can get anything on iTunes, but who wants just anything? People need to find out what to listen to, and that's where independent retailers are so valuable.
Indy: So what would it take to get you down to an indie record store here for a daytime gig?
NQ: Well, I don't think that's going to happen because, if it was, we'd probably already have planned it. But I'm probably gonna go down there and buy some records!