Everybody has their own definition of a band ‘making it big.’
For some, making it big would consist of signing to a major record label with oodles of publicists, designers and ad execs pushing your album. For others, getting nationwide exposure from an impromptu guitar duel with one of America’s most popular late night hosts would qualify you for ‘big’ status. And still others—artsy types and rock critics mostly—would say that you’ve made it big when you can combine a Japanese folk tale and a famous Shakespearean play into one of the most acclaimed rock albums of the year.
Which means that, however you define it, The Decemberists are riding their latest album, The Crane Wife, to official and inescapable Bigness. Residing on an obscene number of music critics ‘Top Ten’ and ‘Best Of…’ lists for 2006, The Crane Wife also marks the band’s first foray into the wild and wooly world of major label music.
According to bassist Nate Query, the Crane Wife story is one that had been percolating in the mind of front man and songwriter Colin Meloy for years, ever since he and keyboardist Jenny Conlee had come across the tale while reading children’s books during a lull at the Portland book store where they both worked.
“The story really struck him and he kind of had it in the back of his mind as a song idea for a long time…he was never really finishing it.” said Query of Meloy’s fascination with the fable.
The impetus to complete the song came while the band was throwing around ideas of what they wanted their next album to sound like. There was a lot of talk about “…having some longer songs on it or making it a little more proggy, or at least exploring that direction a little bit, and maybe that was what inspired him to try turning it into three songs. But once he turned it into three songs, all of a sudden it came together really nicely and basically as you hear it on the record,” said Query.
In its three song format, the tale of the crane wife formed one of the two song cycles that make up The Crane Wife, along with The Island, an eleven minute opus that retells Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The Island was the tune originally slated to open the latest album, until producer Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie) suggested taking the third portion of The Crane Wife and making it the first track.
“Once Chris suggested that, everybody got really excited about it,” recalls Query. “I think it works great as an album opener.”
Local boy Walla has been working as a producer and engineer for the band since their 2003 EP The Tain, where the two parties discovered the great chemistry they had together.
“Chris Walla was so fun to work with, worked so well with the band, was so spontaneous as an engineer and a producer that we’ve maintained that relationship,” said Query.
Another great relationship that the band has fostered has been the one with their new co-workers at Capitol Records. After releasing their first few albums on Portland’s Hush Records and venerable northwest indie label Kill Rock Stars, The Decemberists have made an unexpectedly smooth transition into the world of major labels, a world that Query characterizes as having less differences to it’s scrappy, independent counterparts than one would think, with the most striking one being the small legion of people assigned to a given album.
“Part of the reason albums never recoup is because all they know how to do is go all the way with a record, so you’ve got a bazillion people working on your record, and that’s expensive,” says Query, who seems a little blown away but grateful for the label’s strong backing. “It’s really nice to have, because it means that we have a lot of support…we’ve been really lucky, it’s gone well.”
Their biggest bit of publicity for The Crane Wife may have come with no help from their label. The band’s much ballyhooed feud with spoof newsman Stephen Colbert came to a head in December of last year with a guitar competition between the Decemberists Chris Funk and Colbert himself, who brought in ringer Peter Frampton to steal the show, all under the watchful eyes of Henry Kissinger, marking the first time any malfeasance went unreported by Dr. Kissinger. Despite the defeat, Query remains delighted about the spot.
“When I’m 80 years old and telling my grandkids how I used to be a rock and roll bass player, that’s definitely going to be one of the things I talk about.”
The Decemberists with My Brightest Diamond
Saturday, May 5
in Red Square
Doors at 4 p.m., show at 5 p.m.
$18 w/ID $25 general