Interview: Talking about The Kinks and cover songs with The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy (playing The Keswick Theater on Saturday)
He’s a songwriter in his own right, but Colin Meloy of Portland indie troupe The Decemberists is also an appreciator of music, the pop hits and the deep cuts. In 2005, his Colin Meloy Sings… EP project made its debut to coincide with a solo tour. Over time, the series has tackled the music of Morrissey and Sam Cooke, as well as lesser-known names like English folk revivalist Shirley Collins, via limited-run tour-only EPs.
Since their wildly popular 2011 album The King is Dead, The Decemberists have been relatively quiet, allowing some of its members to play with the rustic ensemble Black Prairie, while Meloy launched a series of children’s books with his wife Carson Ellis. But this fall he is out on the road again, hitting up Glenside’s Keswick Theater on November 2nd, and this time he brings an EP covering the music of The Kinks; you can hear his rendition of “Do You Remember Walter?” at NPR Music.
On Tuesday I caught up with Meloy on the Phone from his Portland home; you can read our conversation below to dig into the origins of the Sings project, the function of cover songs in general, the greatest era of Ray and Dave Davies, and what might become of the new songs he’s testing out on tour.
The Key: You’ve been doing these Colin Meloy Sings EPs for about eight years now. What were the project’s origins?
Colin Meloy: The first solo tour I did was in 2005. It seemed like kind of a novel project, as far as just having something on the road to make it an event, and maybe induce people to come out to the shows. I think I mostly just thought as excuse to take on a weird project. And I think just Morrissey had drawn me because he is one of the few artists that I know pretty much his body of work, inside and out. I don’t think there is a single song that I don’t know pretty intimately. I mean, since 2005 I guess I haven’t really kept up with the post-You Are The Quarry output, but certainly prior to that. And it was fun to kind go through and dig through B-sides and kind of re-record these songs as my kind of interpretation of them. So that sort of set a precedent and so for the next solo tour I figured I should just keep doing it, and doing it in the same fashion. And that leads us to today with The Kinks.
TK: Were the other artists in the series ones that you knew their body of work just as intimately?
CM: No. With Shirley Collins, I kind of had given myself a crash course over the course of a year or two. So that came at a time when I felt like I was being kind of like a scholar of the British folk revival, and she was one of my intros into that. And it was also an opportunity to kind of maybe expose people to Shirley Collins; people who maybe haven’t necessarily known about her. And then with Sam Cooke, I just had a love for those songs. They’re the sort of songs that are just in your bones, everybody just knows them. I tend to think of them as pop songs and they do have a nice intimacy that I thought would translate nicely to really simple, spare renditions. So that’s really where the Sam Cooke one went. And The Kinks was trickier. I feel like I was really stumped this time around. I have their records and I know their work really well, but I never actually dug in that deep. Aside from playing “You Really Got Me” with a high school band, I had never actually learned a Kinks song really. So it was an opportunity to do that.
TK: I’m a little intimidated by how many albums they have. And I know a lot of people, a lot of people I know are in the same boat. With you, what do you think it really was that kept you from diving in till now?
CM: It’s the depth of the work and it just runs the gamut. I mean there’s just tons of kind of tossed-off stuff, as well as, songs that you know, but never maybe spent the time to really sorta focus in. They’re baroquely arranged, which can sometimes distract from the lyrics. For example, it was sort of a revelation to me that “Waterloo Sunset” – which I think everybody knows as being this love letter to London, so much so that it was even performed at the opening ceremony of the Olympics – that if you dig, if you get under the hood and actually learn the song it’s kind of a really sad song about an agoraphobe and kind of a misanthrope. I think that strain, that attitude goes through a lot of his music. So where it seems like this really romantic tune about the beauty of the London skyline, it’s actually about a guy who just doesn’t leave his house; which is kind of amazing.
TK: The EP mixes up those more well-known songs with deeper cuts like “Harry Rag.” Why?
CM: I wanted to do tunes that maybe didn’t immediately jump out, you know. It wasn’t going to be covering their greatest hits. So for Kinks fans…I mean, you meet Kinks fans and Steely Dan fans for example for whom there is no difference between the singles and the album cuts. They all might as well be singles! I know there are a lot of Kinks completests, who would say “of course you’re going to cover Harry Rag’”. But as I was combing through trying to figure out what songs to do, that song jumped out at me, kind of like I’d known it all my life.
TK: Thinking more broadly about role of cover songs in general, it’s kind of like you said when you were talking about the Shirley Collins EP. Part of why an artist might choose to cover a song is to introduce the song to an audience that might not be familiar with it; one that might only be familiar to completeists or die-hards. But then another reason for doing a cover is putting your own spin on a song that most people are familiar with. So as a performer, as a singer, is there a difference in how you approach a really well known song, like “Waterloo Sunset” versus like “Harry Rag” or “Days,” something that’s not maybe as well known?
CM: No, I think just wanting to do the song justice and not just doing it for the sake of doing it. I had heard various people do stripped down acoustic versions of “Waterloo Sunset” and I’ve always kind of preferred those. I think the original studio recording of “Waterloo Sunset” feels sort of like product of its age. It very, you know, Beatle baroque inspired, and there’s lots of “sha la la”s and tricky arrangements. But I think the bones of the song really does lend itself to a very simple and spare arrangement. And Ray Davies has done that. And so I was kind of really basing my version off of his more stripped-down acoustic version. Kind of giving it a little less bombast and less intimacy. I tell you, though, if you want to see something so funny and ironic, watch that video of him doing it at the Olympics. It’s hilarious. Like I said, it’s a song about agoraphobia and misanthropy and it’s this entire gigantic stadium singing along to it.
TK: This was what, the London Olympics last year?
CM: Yeah. And they had trapeze artists and, you know, fireworks going off. This garish display to what is really kind of a weird song about a shut-in.
TK: So generally speaking with the EP, the five songs on it pretty much focus on two of The Kinks’ albums, Something Else and Village Green, if you consider the song “Days” to be from the Village Green era. Are those your two favorite Kinks albums, would you say?
CM: That’s my favorite era – the one that stretches from about the late 60s to the early 70s, and where they became a little more cultish. When the songs get a little weirder and not so straightforward.
TM: What other songwriters do you think you might want to cover for future of Colin Meloy Sings installments?
CM: God, I have no idea. I’ll have to cross that path when I get to it. I really made a considered effort to take on Quasi and Sam Coomes, which I thought would have been really fun. I’m an old fan and appreciator of Sam’s work going back to The Donner Party. But his range is too high. It would have been too much work to get it all to fit into something I could sing. So it had to go.
TK: I have friends that would like to hear you do a Robyn Hitchcock installment at some point.
CM: Yeah, that also. I tend to stay away from the too obvious things. I just put together this Robyn Hitchcock birthday party in San Francisco, and learned a bunch of Robert Hitchcock songs, so I feel like I had been there. I don’t know, for some reason it seem not as novel to me even though he is one of my greatest influences, and one of the people’s whose work I appreciate the most.
TK: So tell me about the tour. I imagine touring solo acoustic is maybe a little less stressful than a full band run, at least from a production stand point. Is that the case?
CM: Yeah it’s a lot easier. They have gotten more complicated – when it started out, it was just me and a guitar flying to these different various cities just playing in these tiny cafes. And now it’s a bit more of a production. But that’s fine. It’s a little more comfortable. But yeah, I’ve always like doing them because I started out in Portland playing solo, and even when the band started up, I kept doing solo stuff. I was really kinda torn between writing for a band or just writing for myself. And the band kinda went out. But I’ve always still loved playing solo and so these solo tours is an opportunity to sort of scratch that itch a little bit and also gives me a chance just to connect with the die-hard Decemberist fans. You know, the slimmer percentage of fans who would come out to see the show who’d probably know the songs pretty well. Sort of like a sing-a-long thing. It just feels more closer and more chummy. And it feels like a good place to try out new material and see what people think, see how people respond.
TK: You had talked about the difference between “Waterloo Sunset,” the very orchestrated Kinks album version, and the solo acoustic approach you take. Certainly a lot of Decemberists songs are very arranged as well? Do you go for the ones that might immediately lend themselves to going solo, or do you like challenging yourself with some of the more orchestrated ones?
CM: I think a little bit of both. I mean, they all start out like that. That’s the other neat thing about doing a solo tour, is that I’m kinda performing them as they began. The way that we work, I’ll come to the band with pretty much a finished song, just with voice and guitar. And so, despite whatever kind of orchestrations or arrangements or how lacking it is in its bare bones version, that’s kind of how it comes into the world. So it’s interesting to go back and try those out. And some work better than others. But yeah, it’s kind of interesting and revealing to see which ones hold up with the band stripped away.
TK: And with the new material that you’re trying out, what do you foresee happening with it? New Decemberists album? Solo album?
CM: I think that they are all Decemberists songs. We are making our first tentative steps back into band-land. And so I am writing right now kind of expressly for the Decemberists. And so, yeah, the ones I’ll be playing slikely, if they don’t end up on the floor of the editing room, they will be Decemberists songs eventually.
Colin Meloy performs at The Keswick Theater on Saturday, November 2nd with Eleanor Friedberger. Tickets to the all-ages show are $32.50 and available here.