The Decemberists – Iconic Rock Band from Portland Oregon
By PDX People
PORTLAND, Ore. – Over the years Portland Oregon has had many iconic rock bands and musicians get their start here including The Dandy Warhol’s, Menomena Kutless and the Decemberists.
There’s no doubt that The Decemberists are arguably the most well-known Portland Oregon rock band because they’ve been a part of the music scene here for 18 years.
Named after a Russian uprising which occurred in 1825, The Decemberists are different than other rock bands because they go all out to include the audience in their live performances and every concert is literally an event which includes things like whimsical stage performances and long encores.
Some of their hit songs include:
The King is Dead
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Hazards of Love
The Crane Wife
Long Live the King
About the Decemberists
Founded in the year 2000 by Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, John Moen and Nate Query, the band didn’t have enough money to record their first demo and played for hours at McMenamin’s hotel so they could raise the money for studio time to record.
The time they spent playing at McMenamin’s became their first album, Castaways and Cutouts.
The group’s songs range from upbeat pop to instrumentally lush ballads, and often employ instruments like the accordion, keyboards, and upright bass. In its lyrics, the band eschews the introspection common to modern rock, instead favoring a storytelling approach, as evidenced in songs such as “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” from the 5 Songs EP and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” on Picaresque. The band’s songs convey tales ranging from whimsical (“The Sporting Life”) to epic (“The Tain“) to dark (“Odalisque”, “The Rake’s Song”) to political (“16 Military Wives”, “Valerie Plame“), and often invoke historical events and themes from around the world (“Yankee Bayonet”, “Shankill Butchers”).
Growth Of Fan Base
Like other great bands including My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists have built a huge fanbase over the years thanks to the Internet.
In March 2005, the band distributed a music video via BitTorrent, the self-produced “16 Military Wives” (from Picaresque). In the same month, the band’s equipment trailer was stolen; fans contributed to a replacement fund, and another fundraiser was organized via an eBay auction, with buyers bidding for copies of Colin Meloy Sings Morrissey and original artwork by Carson Ellis. The band also received help from Lee Kruger, the Shins, The Dandy Warhols, and other musicians. C.F. Martin & Company offered 6- and 12-string guitars on permanent loan. In early April, police discovered the trailer and a portion of the band’s merchandise in Clackamas, Oregon, but the instruments and equipment were not recovered.
Ben Franklin’s Song
Over the last two years one of the most popular musicals that just about everyone has seen is Hamilton.
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, this musical covers the life of former President of the United States Alexander Hamilton and it incorporates plenty of musical genres including soul, pop music, R&B, hip hop and so much more.
A fan of the Decemberists, Lin-Manuel Miranda had an unused song for Hamilton and turned to the Decemberists for help with bringing a song to life based on those lyrics.
The Decemberists resurrected an unused set of Hamilton lyrics with “Ben Franklin’s Song,” the first installment of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s monthly “Hamildrops” series.
The triumphant, expletive-laced folk-rock track chronicles Franklin’s numerous accomplishments as an inventor, writer and diplomat. “Do you know who the fuck I am?” bandleader Colin Meloy sings on the chorus, adding at the climax, “I am Poor-Richard’s-Almanack-writing, polymath, bifocal-wearing, hardened glass-harmonica-playing Benjamin Fuckin’ Franklin.”
Miranda originally wrote the song for his hit musical, but discarded it after he couldn’t figure out how to implement the scene. The writer-actor then reached out to Meloy in 2016, asking if the Decemberists could record their own version of the track. “Funnily enough, he said he’d imagined Franklin singing in a sort of Decemberist-y way, whatever that means,” the band wrote in a post on their website.
“We hope you like it,” they continued. “It was a lot of fun to write and record. If you’re a HAMILTON fan, we hope it will add a new dimension to the world of the show for you – but you can also just enjoy it as a history lesson. Franklin invented bifocals, you know. And the glass harmonica. WHAT A F***ING GUY.”
“Ben Franklin’s Song” launches the “Hamildrops” series, which will feature new Hamilton-related content every month through December 2018. Miranda – who previously wrote an essay for the band’s 10th anniversary box set of The Crane Wife – enthused about the track in a statement, detailing how the collaboration came together.
A True Portland Oregon Band
Besides their work writing Ben Franklin’s song, the band has remained one of the top touring bands in the United States and they’ve also continued to produce great music that’s been warmly received by fans and critics alike.
Within the robust Decemberists songwriting framework there’s a pleasing variety to the sound and a much broader vocabulary than in most folk-influenced indie. Jenny Conlee toggles between keyboard and accordion, and there’s room for mandolin and banjo while Meloy croons about bagatelles and curlews. The new songs, notably the hook-filled Make You Better, sound triumphant, and are warmly received.
Unlike some bands which may have started in cities like Portland over the years then relocated to Los Angeles, The Decemberists have stayed and continue to relish being PDX people including lead singer Colin Meloy who recently purchased a farm in the Portland area.
Meloy has lived here since before it became a destination not just for musicians and artists but also for people who pretend they are musicians and artists, and he’s well versed in IFC’s sketch-comedy series Portlandia’s caricature of the city, among others.
Still, without much irony, he tells me about his farm. “We got it primarily because we needed to move closer to my son’s school, and it’s an area with mostly crazy suburban mansions. I found this place on the historical registry—it’s an 1850s farmstead, what once was a 2,000-acre farm, and it has all these 19th- and early 20th-century farm buildings in it. There’s an amazing barn, with a chicken coop. We only have eight chickens in this coop that once housed 500.”Oh, and “there are two llamas that the seller’s agent was boarding here. They asked if we wanted to keep them, and we said sure. They just kind of do their own thing; they’re pretty low-maintenance animals. We could use them for pack animals, if we ever wanted to go on a hiking expedition.” And there it is. Colin Meloy, whose band is known primarily for two things—being from Portland and infusing arcane historical and literary references into indie rock songs—has moved to a farm on the historic register, where he tends a flock of not just eight chickens but two llamas. How very Portland.
This was an easy segue to the conversation I wanted to have with him—not about the Decemberists’ seventh album (which dropped in January) but about the city he helped put on the map, whose residents now live under the microscope of the New York Times features desk, which assiduously follows every trend here (coffee roasting, microbrewing, bike riding) and reports on it with anthropological detail and devotion.Meloy lives in a markedly different Portland from the one to which he migrated from Montana in 2000, thanks partly to the same gentrification that has reshaped Brooklyn and San Francisco in the past decade but also because this city in particular became a mecca for cool kids. For much of the past 10 years, it and Atlanta were the two metropolitan areas to which more Americans in their 20s moved—with or without jobs—which is why Portlandia spoofed it as “the city young people go to retire. ”Everyone in the City of Roses has a predictable range of opinions about this phenomenon: It’s either delightful that someone finally figured out there’s life outside Manhattan and Los Angeles or it’s terrible that we have to wait in line two hours for brunch at the Screen Door. But I was particularly interested in Meloy’s perspective because he’s not just another Portland resident lamenting a problem. He’s part of the problem.
It’s geek-chic guys like Meloy who spawned this generation of mustachioed intellectuals we mock (or secretly envy). Meloy is the real McCoy, the bona fide starving artist who squatted illegally when he first got to Portland, who played shows with only a bartender as audience, and for whom commercial success was such a distant hope that he decided to do weird shit like lace antiquated references to the Civil War into his songs.
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