Unless you have been living under a rock (which, here in Portland wouldn’t be super unusual anyway) for the last two decades, you are probably familiar with the music of The Decemberists. What you may not know, even if you’re familiar with their music, is that they were formed and live right here in Portland, Oregon. The Decemberists are a Grammy nominated indie rock band from Portland, Oregon consisting of Colin Meloy as the principal songwriter, lead vocalist, and guitarist, Chris Funk as guitarist and multi-instrumentalist, Jenny Conlee on piano and keyboards, Nate Query on bass and John Moen on the skins.
The quintet formed in 2000 when Colin Meloy left his band, Tarkio, in Montana and moved to Portland, Oregon. The band’s name refers to the Decembrist revolt, an 1825 rebellion in Imperial Russia. Meloy has said that the name is also meant to invoke the “drama and melancholy” of the month of December. 5 Songs, the band’s debut extended play, was self-released in 2001. To raise money for the recording, the band played all night at a McMenamins Hotel the night before the recording, which was ultimately recorded in under two hours. Already, the Portland DIY aesthetic was strong.
Musically, the group’s songs range from upbeat pop to instrumentally lush ballads, and often use instruments not normally associated with rock bands, including the accordion and the upright bass. Lyrically, The Decemberists prefer the title of raconteurs over the brooding, with songs often touching on historical themes and events and folklore. The lyrics range from the quirky (“The Sporting Life”, “Apology Song”) to the epic (“The Tain”) to the dark (“Odalisque”, “The Rake’s Song”) to the political (“16 Military Wives”, “Valerie Plame”).
On their website, The Decemberists claim that their official drink is Orangina, that they love the video game BioShock and “adore” the bands Norfolk & Western, Explosions In The Sky, The Postal Service, The Long Winters, Death Cab for Cutie, Dokken, Tycho, El Ten Eleven, Siouxie and the Banshees, R.E.M., The Shins, The Octopus Project, Electrelane, Camera Obscura, Clearlake, The Thermals, Modest Mouse (another Portland band), Swords, XTC, Earlimart and British and Irish Folk music. In, keeping up their reputation for pomposity, the bands’ bio describes how they met in a Turkish bath. A footnote following the biography claims, “The Decemberists travel exclusively by Dr. Herring’s Brand Dirigible Balloons.”
The Decemberists are also well known for their heterogenous live shows. Audience participation is a part of each performance, especially during encores. The band stages fanciful reenactments of sea battles and other centuries-old events, typically of provincial interest, or acts out songs with members of the crowd. A Decemberists show is an event, not just for the idle listener.
Very few bands exemplify the Portland aesthetic like The Decemberists. If you haven’t experienced them, get out there and do so. You will thank me later.