“Missoulians in Portland have a great reputation as a tight, self-supporting community,” says Colin Meloy, “They’re all very supportive of one another, to the degree that I think it kind of freaks other people out. There have been a few times when I wondered, ‘Is this totally healthy? Shouldn’t we be hanging out with other people?’”
Meloy, as at least a dozen of you old-timers will remember, is the former singer, guitarist and songwriter of Tarkio. Still among the best Missoula bands ever, Tarkio existed for roughly three years and released one full-length album and a six-song EP (both of them increasingly hard to find, by the way) before Meloy decamped to Portland in the fall of 1999. Since Meloy formed the band primarily as a conveyance for his own songs, it’s fair to say that he also moved Tarkio with him—or at least grafted a similar sound onto a new group of musicians who coalesced around him to become current Portland folk favorites the Decemberists. Of course, it didn’t all happen that fast.
“At the time I moved out here,” say Meloy, “There was this huge wave of Missoulians moving out here after the Fireballs of Freedom. They weren’t necessarily connected with the Fireballs, but the Fireballs sort of became the anchors of the Missoula expat community, helping everybody get jobs if they needed them and things like that. It was a really nice thing, but I just never really hung out with that crowd that much to begin with, so the people I met in town were mostly people I met of my own volition.”
It’s true: Former Missoulians now living in Portland are thick as thieves. In much the same way that you can spend a weekend hopping from American bagel shop to American nightclub in Prague without having to so much as talk to a real Czech person, you can also spend practically a whole weekend in Portland without ever meeting anyone you didn’t already know from Missoula. Great, sure, but also kinda smothery. Who can blame a guy for wanting to chart his own course, even if it means settling for early slots on open mic nights and having local musicians not return his phone calls?
“I sort of had to introduce myself my own way,” Meloy explains, “Just by going to shows and talking to people. Then I started going to those ubiquitous singer/songwriter-in-the-round things, which I despise now and patently refuse to play anymore. I just didn’t connect with what they were doing. It was all kind of Lilith Fair-y stuff and all the guys were all trying to be Peter Gabriel or something, and it was starting to really freak me out.”
Things began changing for the better, he says, when he started meeting some of his future labelmates on Hush Records, musicians who were writing quieter music like Meloy’s, but who were also “messing around and being weird with it.”
“I thought Portland was really polarized when I first moved here,” he continues. “On one side it was the Lilith Fair crowd, and then on the other side you had the Fireballs and the whole dirty rock crowd. And I wasn’t fitting in with either of them. And all of a sudden I discovered this crowd of people who were quiet and kept to themselves and played for crowds of maybe 50. It just made more sense to me at the time.”
A number of songs in the Decemberist songbook first sprang to life during the Tarkio days and, later, during Meloy’s first solo performances. Early setbacks aside, it hasn’t taken the Decembrists long to rise to the top of local critics’ grocery lists, snagging gooshball accolades like “There is doubtful a songwriter with a clearer vision in Portland. Prepare to melt.”
Out of all of Meloy’s songs, the one singled out most often for its swoon potential is “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist.” The track, which first appeared on Tarkio’s Sea Songs for Landlocked Sailors EP and was later recorded again for the a five-song Decemberists EP, is in all ways the quintessential Meloy composition. It’s a breathy slice of folk picaresque whose storyline starts with a mother smuggling bombs to the underground in wartime Paris and somehow ends up with somebody playing in a punk rock band in South Carolina. All in something like four minutes! This odd diegesis reads on paper like a cross between an old mock-Hemingway J. Peterman catalogue and Shel Silverstein’s fanciful “True Story” (“So I said I’d come back Wednesday, but I must admit I lied”). But to actually hear the lyric and Meloy’s reedy, nasal tenor combined to such melancholy advantage, there’s no mistaking it for anything but wonderful songwriting—not a little precious, but wonderful anyway.
There’s also a strong nostalgic undercurrent to Meloy’s lyrics—and, speaking of, that’s as good a place as any to talk about the upcoming reunion show with the Tarkio recording lineup: Meloy, guitarist Gibson Hartwell, bassist Louis Stein, and drummer Brian Collins this Friday at the Blue Heron. What, Colin, you can’t just come back for a visit without making some kind of CMJ showcase out of it?
“It was actually Louis who suggested it,” Meloy says. “I would jump at the opportunity to play with those guys again. When we split up, it wasn’t because we didn’t get along or anything like that. It was just because I was antsy to get out of Missoula and they were each doing their own thing.
“And it is nostalgic,” he adds. “Playing all those old songs we haven’t played in so long. I don’t even have copies of those records for myself. They’re all out there somewhere in the world. I had to get an MP3 copy of the second one.”