Last Tuesday night the Decemberists, arguably one of the most popular indie rock bands in the country right now, sold out yet another venue on the current leg of their spring tour. But it was not an arena, nor a 1,400-person club. The venue was lead singer Colin Meloy’s middle school in Helena. The last time Meloy—also a graduate of UM’s creative writing program and lead singer of former Missoula band Tarkio—graced his middle school stage was 16 years ago as Salesman Number 4 in the school’s production of The Music Man.
Lest anyone be concerned, the band that has been at the top of CMJ’s charts for three weeks running with the critically acclaimed Picaresque, and the frontman who has been interviewed by an increasingly thick slice of national media—with upcoming appearances scheduled for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and NPR’s “All Things Considered”—are firmly grounded. Meloy’s inimitably literary lyrics, and the band’s R.E.M-meets-seafaring sound, best captured on the new album, are scrumptiously original compared to the typical buffet of generic rock acts, thus making them deserving media darlings. Yet, they still spent most of last Sunday and Monday churning miles in the tour van so the band could play a full-out gig at Meloy’s middle school. It doesn’t get more humble than that.
“We were forced to choose between Missoula and Helena,” Meloy writes in an e-mail to the Independent. “And because I’m a Helena boy who has many memories of being a teenager constantly scrambling to find someone’s parents’ car to drive to Missoula for rock shows, I figured we’d do it in Helena and let the Missoulians do that for a change.”
That’s right—an e-mail. Meloy’s interview, conducted over a few correspondences as the band made its way from Minnesota to Montana, underscores the Decemberists increasing popularity. The band’s publicist has limited Meloy’s phone interviews to tour press or large media outlets. Time is precious when you’ve been swooped into the express lane to celebrity. So, how are we supposed to thoroughly catch up with one of Missoula’s favorite sons?
Sometimes it’s best to have drinks with the lead singer’s girlfriend. She has the good stories, anyway—like the explanation of the band’s connection to a recent methamphetamine lab bust in Eugene, Ore.
Carson Ellis met Meloy in Missoula when the two were undergrads at UM. They’ve been dating for years now, and Ellis, a fine arts graduate, is the art director for the band’s expertly refined and wholly unique look. From the antiquated illustrations of the band’s early album covers to the vaudevillian photography of Picaresque’s liner notes, Ellis is the visual extension of Meloy’s folksy Old English narrative.
“Colin has such a clear vision, a perfect visual idea of what he wants for the band,” Ellis says over drinks at the Old Post. “But he doesn’t draw or paint. I’ve done projects before when I can just go and create things, but with Colin he looks over my shoulder and works with me.”
Ellis hasn’t seen Meloy in almost three weeks, which is why she and partner-in-crime Seann McKeel (dating another Decemberist, Chris Funk) are road-tripping to Helena. Despite the distance, Ellis has been pretty involved with the tour. For instance, Meloy called a few days ago to see if she could look into the possible recovery of the band’s equipment at a busted meth lab—all of the gear had been stolen following the first concert of the current tour. Between the theft of all their gear, the crush of media attention, and the end of a hectic Midwestern concert swing, Ellis says the guys are spent. But, again, not changed.
“If fame is going to their head, it’s only in a good way,” she says. “What I mean is, all of the guys in the band are band fanatics. As a kid growing up in Helena, Colin was the kid chasing down his favorite bands at any cost. This is his dream. He wants to be a pop star in the sense that he can reach a lot of people. He cherishes the opportunity.”
Meloy certainly hasn’t lost sight of his beginnings, both in Helena and Missoula. While the Garden City is being passed over for a live show, that doesn’t mean the Decemberists have pulled up their roots. Kill Rock Stars has announced the re-release of Tarkio’s earlier recordings—the band also included guitarist Gibson Hartwell, bassist Louis Stein and drummer Brian Collins—sometime within the next year.
In addition to the Tarkio connection, Meloy and Ellis are also working closely with Missoula’s Andy Smetanka (a name familiar to Indy readers; Andy recently retired as the Independent’s longtime arts editor) to produce music videos. On Friday, Smetanka is debuting his haunting Super 8mm stop-motion film for the Decemberists 2003 song, “The Bachelor and the Bride” (along with other original videos for other bands) at the Crystal Theatre.
“To say that [Andy’s video] exceeded my expectations is an understatement,” writes Meloy. “I was completely blown away.”
Smetanka’s silhouetted video was created using a Super 8 camera mounted above a homemade light table. Just above the lights, and below the camera, a glass platform is covered with multicolored tissue papers and two-dimensional hand-cut figures made from thick folders. The characters are fastened together with wire nails in their joints so Smetanka can manipulate them from shot to shot. The elaborate backgrounds—nature scenes, medieval castles and enormous winding staircases—are made from the same folders, each deftly cut with an X-Acto knife.
Like a mad scientist, Smetanka hunkers over the light table, surrounded by characters and backdrops hanging from the wall, for hours each day in the patient pursuit of the necessary shots, each of which makes up one-twentieth of a second. The video took him more than three months to complete and the current five-minute version contains more than 6,000 individual stop-motion images. Those shots were edited down by Smetanka’s partner, Ben Hatfield, from more than 30,000 stop-motion shots.
“The stuff that really speaks to me is the stuff where you can see the stitches,” Smetanka says. “In the old days everything was painted by hand and we didn’t have these sweeping, computer generated backgrounds…What I’m hoping for is sort of a backlash or a retro-trend [in filmmaking].”
Needless to say, the Decemberists are co-conspirators in the backlash. Ellis calls Smetanka’s work “super Victorian” and Meloy recalls that it was Smetanka who turned him onto Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, an inspiration for all parties.
“I knew I could just give Andy complete creative license with the video and he’d come up with something amazing,” he writes. Meloy adds that the band is in talks with Smetanka about commissioning a film to accompany the entirety of the band’s 18-minute concept EP, The Tain. As long as, Meloy adds, “he doesn’t become too famous for this that we can’t keep working with him.”
There’s that humility again. With the local connection still strong, the chances remain that the Decemberists may yet make it to Missoula for a show. Meloy concludes, “I don’t know if it has something to do with that pulp mill air, but I think Missoula tends to warp one’s aesthetic sensibility. Carson and I have always felt a really strong creative kinship with Andy.”
“The Bachelor and the Bride,” along with five other original music videos by Andy Smetanka, plays at the Crystal Theatre Friday, April 15, at 8 PM. Tickets are $5.