The arbiters of uncool

Dubbed the “Anti-Cool Portlandites,” The Decemberists specialize in redrawing the parameters of rock-and-roll chic. Favoring theatrical leanings over indie-rock emoting, this Oregon-based band relishes tales of surly mariners, women in palanquins and morose barrow boys.

Somehow this troupe that sometimes channels Gilbert and Sullivan has landed right in the middle of hipville. The mainstream press adores them, their relatively new album, Picaresque (Kill Rock Stars), has sold admirably, and the shoe gazers that flock to their shows have demonstrated that this form of anti-cool is … cool.

Lead singer Colin Meloy is just as baffled as the critics by The Decemberists’ mainstream success. “The fact that we’re playing big theaters and selling relatively a lot of records is something I never really anticipated, and I’m still a little dumbstruck,” he says. “Why would a typical fan want to hear songs about legionnaires stuck in the desert and people being swallowed by whales?”

Creative humility

Picaresque‘s album art only deepens the mystery. Forgoing the usual glamour shots, Meloy and company don theatre garb, dressing as trees, male prostitutes and cheerleaders. Even the liner notes abandon the typical format in favor of a quasi-playbill: “The Tamarack played by Chris Funk, the Fop played by Nate Query,” etc.

Live, The Decemberists evoke “drama club” more than “rock concert.” At Chicago’s cutting-edge Intonation Music Festival, Meloy convinced the crowd to collectively crouch on the ground and leap up simultaneously during the song “Chimney Sweep.”

“I think everybody has an overly imaginative, and overly dramatic, side to them,” Meloy explained in a recent phone interview. “Our music tends to celebrate that side of people. You have to take a leap of faith with us, and allow yourself to unlock the long-suppressed imaginative kid.”

Meloy, the principal songwriter, employs a fiction-like approach well honed throughout his years as a creative-writing major at the University of Montana. Although a fan of nonfiction writing, he believes that “the pop-song format lends itself to exotic flights of fancy.” While cathartic, he swears his writing is not an escape from reality.

“I don’t think it’s a reaction against my life,” Meloy maintains. “I think of it as what I like to do — to use the songs to communicate, to show the lives of characters that are interesting to me, and their daily conflicts and resolutions.”

Conflict is what led Meloy to fictional pursuits. A rafting trip down the Smith River in Montana in 1999 with his family morphed into a real-life nightmare. “My dad and my uncle fought the whole way,” Meloy told writer Sean Nelson. “My uncle sort of barbed my dad by using my sister and me as ammo. At the same time, I was trying to get my dad to help me pay for my student loans, which were out of control. Then my dad had heatstroke. It was this super-intense, three-day river trip where we were all just stuck together, and it was all just like one constant fight, and everybody was angry at each other for all different reasons.”

After that, Meloy decided on a new form of songwriting. The first song — “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” (available on their first EP, Five Songs) — was about an imagined family, with Meloy casting himself as the anti-hero.

Meloy then moved to Portland — fresh full of ideas, but empty of musical contacts. Lonely open mics ensued, at which the audience sometimes numbered two. However, these vacant evenings inspired much of The Decemberists current allure.

“I certainly [learned] a lot of humility — knowing that you’re playing in a club and not to get angry at people for talking,” said Meloy. “It’s not going to make them listen any more if you’re mad at them. I learned to take baby steps, not rush into anything quickly. I learned to be very careful with the creative company I kept. I think learning the ropes and developing a voice — all those things really led to me making really smart, healthy decisions.”

Hometown heroes

Those vigilant choices led Meloy to present band members Nate Query and Jenny Conlee. Query and Conlee both had classical backgrounds, which steered the band even further away from the rock sound. Their resolve to be outcasts, along with the rising success of two EPs and two full-lengths has turned this band into unlikely heroes.

Though the band was already generating a buzz in San Francisco and New York, Portland was slow to warm to them. But with the triumph of Picaresque, The Decemberists have become hometown favorites.

The problem now is not falling into the same old shtick. Will folks get tired of this theatrical bravado?

“It was creative acrobatics when nobody was looking,” said Meloy. “Now people are looking. And I’m going along, waiting [he laughs] for the floor to drop out.”

Meloy asserts that the band won’t rest on its laurels. He’s already planning to create songs with several movements and flesh them out onto a whole album (like their EP, The Tain, an 18-minute version of an eighth-century epic poem). He concedes that traumatic moments like the rafting trip might need to happen to keep the muse lively.

“I would prefer not to have those things happen,” he says with a chuckle. But it certainly does help to put yourself in situations where you’re not comfortable.”

Any band that feels cozy singing sea chanteys to a large crowd will always find inspiration. This literary bravery should keep many coming back for more.

[Hunter Pope writes Xpress‘ weekly local-music column, “Earful.”]

The Decemberists play the Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) Friday, September 30. 9 p.m. $16. 225-5851

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