Meet the Decemberists, Rock's Nerdy Superstars

Portland folk rockers the Decemberists are bookish, mature and nobody's idea of pop superstars. That's just how they like it

  • Chris Mueller / Redux for TIME

    The Decemerists from left: Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Colin Meloy, Nate Query and John Moen

    It's a clear, chilly winter day in Portland, Ore., and Colin Meloy, leader of the Decemberists, is expounding on folk chanteuse Gillian Welch's guest vocals on their new album, The King Is Dead . "No country-rock record would be complete without some backing vocalist with a clear and distinct voice," he says, citing Nicolette Larson's singing on Neil Young's Comes a Time and Emmylou Harris' work with Gram Parsons. Welch's soaring harmonies are, Meloy proclaims, an "homage to the form." Then he sighs. "We're so nerdy."

    Well, yes. This is, after all, the guy who writes songs with titles like "The Chimbley Sweep" (from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood ) and "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist." The most bookish front man in rock 'n' roll, Meloy comes across like one of the brainy, eccentric British folkies he acknowledges as influences, artists like Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. But the Decemberists are Portlanders through and through, and over the past decade, the group has flirted with commercial success while forming the nexus of a burgeoning folk-rock scene in the Pacific Northwest.

    The Decemberists aren't the easiest band to pigeonhole: there's not a big "hyperliterate alternative-prog-folk" section at most record stores. But with critical buzz building behind it, The King Is Dead could mark their crossover to the realm of important American rock groups alongside the likes of Wilco and the White Stripes. Or it could keep them hovering comfortably outside the mainstream: to use a word popular in their ecologically minded hometown, the Decemberists are sustainable.

    With little in the way of radio hits, they've grown into a solid touring attraction, drawing enthusiastic fans who flock to their shows and dissect Meloy's lyrics online ("All dolled up in gabardine/ The lash-flashing Leda of Pier 19," goes one couplet from their new single, "Down by the Water"). Their audience isn't the sort usually associated with pop-music fandom. As multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk describes them: "They like to read books. They probably weren't athletic in high school. They probably went to a liberal-arts college and listen to NPR."

    The band has spent the past decade specializing in high-concept suites and tongue-in-cheek lyrical conceits, culminating in 2009's hour-long prog-rock opera The Hazards of Love . So The King Is Dead is something of a departure: 10 crisp, pared-down, often intensely personal songs in the mode of vintage R.E.M. or Young. (R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck appears on a few tracks, in fact.) Four of the five band members have young children, and the two most powerful songs on the new album deal with parenthood. "Dear Avery," Meloy says, was inspired by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan: "They're kids," he says. "If you're a parent of one of these people, you just want to grab them by the scruff of their neck and yank them out of it. When they're that far out of arm's reach, that must be devastating." And "Rise to Me" directly addresses Meloy's son, diagnosed with autism several years ago: "Hey Henry — can you hear me?/ Let me see those eyes." "It's chronicling our feelings as a family and the sort of face that we have to put on to remain sane," Meloy explains.

    The release of The King Is Dead coincides with the band's 10th anniversary, more or less — none of its members seems clear on when exactly the group formed, although everyone agrees it took a while to catch on. Meloy remembers hanging a poster at a record store for an early show and overhearing someone say, "Oh, the Decemberists. They play all the time." He winces. "I walked out, and I thought, 'We're never gonna do anything .'"

    The punch line is that the Decemberists do play all the time in Portland now, just not necessarily together. "We try to really be active in the community," says Funk, who co-curates a monthly music revue for kids called You Who . Various Decemberists moonlight as the instrumental bluegrass band Black Prairie, back up singer-songwriter Laura Veirs as the party band Two Beers Veirs and play in a Pogues tribute band (named K.M.R.I.A., by Meloy, after a profane rejoinder in James Joyce's Ulysses ). As bassist Nate Query puts it, "There aren't a lot of people in Portland who don't have two degrees of separation from the Decemberists at this point."

    This month, the band launches a world tour in support of The King Is Dead . Then it plans to take a year or two off — although, Funk notes, "We always say that." Meloy, for one, has a handful of other projects in the works, most prominently Wildwood , a series of adventure novels for young readers (with art by his wife Carson Ellis, the band's "illustrator-in-residence") debuting this fall.

    The Decemberists wouldn't mind if their audience expanded beyond NPR listeners and library patrons, but after a decade together, they seem satisfied to be where they are right now: part of a stable, well-loved group, enmeshed in their community. "Maybe we'll become a pop band, finally," Funk muses. "But I just look at photos of us, and I'm like, 'Well, there's your first problem.' We look like we should be at a farmers' market, serving scones or something."

    This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2011 issue of TIME.