The Decemberists
Louis Jones
November 23, 2006
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Rock Music Reviews

The term "retro" is applicable to many bands in the indie rock genre. While most of these bands incorporate elements similar to popular music from the past 30 years, The Decemberists, from Portland, Ore., create sounds that echo a time when baroque and folk ruled the musical landscape of the Western world.

Decemberists keyboardist Jenny Conlee took a break from touring to support the bands' new album, "The Crane Wife," to talk with Rock Music Review about the recording process, new marketing tools for bands and pirates. Conlee, with her expertise on the organ, accordion and all other manners of keyboard instruments, is central to The Decemberists' un-modern sound.

RMR: For the newest record, you moved to Capitol Records. Did being on a major label affect the writing and recording process?

Jenny: The only way it affected us was us being able to have a little bit more time in the studio. When we signed the contract, we made it clear that we wanted to have full artistic control of music still, and since we were in a place that we were doing well and had a thing that worked, they were really OK with that. Once during the process, a couple people from Capitol came in to check out what was going on and they were really happy with it. We had a little more time we got to hire two producers: Tucker Martine and Chris Walla. Other than that, it was just like the old days.

RMR: Were you given a bigger budget to incorporate more instruments and such?

Jenny: A little bit bigger budget-that's why we had more time and we had a budget for renting equipment, but we didn't really do that that much. We hired a couple musicians to come in, which was really cool, but we did that last time. What it did pay for was a nicer studio, and we got to record on tape instead of digital, and that's very expensive because tape is very expensive. Besides that it was pretty much the same.

RMR: You prefer analogue to digital, then?

Jenny: I think we do. I do, for sure. It sounds better. Chris Walla likes to work in the medium, and so does Tucker, so it was their comfort zone. It just gives it that little bit of warmth. It's pretty fun to work with only 24 tracks, and some of those songs had a lot of tracks, so we had to bounce tracks a lot. I've been making records since before the digital age, so it's been kind of fun to go back to that time and be like "Remember when we had to think, 'I can't play piano and accordion on the same song because there aren't enough tracks.'" We still had a Pro Tools thing set up so we could do some editing and bounce it back to tape, so there was a little bit of digital stuff going on.

RMR: You released the video for 16 military wives on BitTorrent. Do you think web sites like bit torrent will or have changed the way musicians market themselves?

Jenny: Definitely. Especially with videos because there's really not that many venues for videos these days, so why make a video because no one's gonna see it? BitTorrent is away for people to see the band, and it's free for us to get it on there. We don't need to have a big marketing department to put it on BitTorrent and get our video played, and we got some video award for that because it was on BitTorrent, so it's pretty amazing. And the whole MySpace thing has revolutionized how bands market themselves. It puts people on the same playing field. All the sudden, you don't need a whole lot of money to market your band. If the band's good, and you have an interesting presence or interesting video, people will go to your site. They'll go to YouTube and watch your video. It's great. It's one of the reasons the Decemberists became what they are now. It's an amazing tool for an independent band without a budget to become popular.

RMR: Do you guys use Myspace to promote?

Jenny: We do now. That's a sort of recent thing. Before it was just blogs and people downloading our music off of probably Napster and all those thing. It hurts our records sales somewhat, but it also helps our band grow.

RMR: I've noticed with your lyrics you've really got a lot of narrative going on. Does the Decemberists have a lot of literary influences?

Jenny: Yes. Colin writes the lyrics and a lot of the music, and he's very comfortable using those kind of metaphors in comparison to using a first-person narrative of his own experiences. I think he likes to use characters he's read about in stories or made up characters. It just seems to work for him better, and it gives us a palette to work from so we can make sounds that might have been heard in the 17th century or something. We'll use the hurdy gurdy instead of the electric guitar and bring people back to a place that's not hear and now. I think it' just a style that we've grown with over time.

RMR: As a musician, what kind of training do you have?

Jenny: I took piano lessons growing up, and I got my degree in piano from college. But I've always been interested in pop and rock. I had a band in college, and that band continued after college until like 98 or something and then I met Colin in 2000. At that point I'd been playing in bands for 10 years, so I had sort of a whole lot of tools in my tool kit in terms of piano and accordion and Hammond organ. The accordion and the Hammond, those things are self-taught, but with my piano background, those came kind of naturally for me. With the rest of the band, it's kind of a hodge-podge. I know John, the drummer, is self taught. Chris had a lot of musical training and so did Nate, our bass player. He has more of a jazz background in bass. I think Colin took some guitar lessons, but really he's a self-taught player, just from playing along with records and playing in bands.

RMR: It doesn't seem like there's a lot of bands out there playing nautical adventure folk.

Jenny: Adventure folk-that's cool.

RMR: Are you ever afraid people who listen to your music will run off and become pirates?

Jenny: I don't know. We actually don't have any pirate songs, but people definitely dress up like pirates to come and see us. There's a lot of maritime subject matter. I don't think it'd be a bad thing if people became pirates. I just read this book called "Two Years Before the Mast." It had a lot of pirates in it, and they can be pretty cruel, but I think it's fun to hearken back to a time when instruments were really acoustic and the hurdy gurdy was a folk instrument was a folk instrument you heard on the street. I think in this modern time when a lot of music is electronic and people experienced their lives over the internet — I think it's nice to hearken back to a simpler time of whimsy and imagination, and there's actually a lot of bands I've seen like Arcade Fire or Norfolk and Western—they're using a lot of those instruments too, which is pretty neat to see. You're seeing a lot more accordions an violins in the indie group, and I really like to see that. I think that's a step forward-or a step back. I'm not quite sure how you'd describe it.

RMR: The Decemberists have released four full-lengths in just four years. The normal industry standard is an album every two years or so.

Jenny: Yeah, we're trying to go with the one-and-a-half year plan. Part of it is Colin's a voracious writer. When the band started, we made our five-song EP, then we made our record right after that, and he had a catalogue of songs already that we had way more songs than what went on the record. Eve this record, we had 19 or 20 songs and we only put 13 on the record. He's always got ideas. I think its good to keep it fresh too. It's good not to stagnate so people don't forget us. We get tired of playing the same stuff, so we want to keep it fresh for us too.


The act of smashing pumpkins or the band Smashing Pumpkins?

The act of.

Bilbo Baggins or a jar of salsa?

Bilbo Baggins!

Glen Danzig or Tony Danza?

(laughs) I don't know Danzig that well. I'm gonna have to say Tony Danza.

The 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team or Tom Selleck's mustache?

The hockey team.

Why not mustache?

Um, I don't know if I like Tom Selleck that much.

Blue cheese or the show Blue's Clues?

I'll take blue cheese over Blue's Clues. Blue's Clues is cute, and I know that guy's in a rock band now, so that's pretty cool, but I love blue cheese with salad dressing.

The pronunciation noo-klee-er (nuclear) or noo-kya-lur.

I like the way it's supposed to be pronounced, so noo-klee-er.