On an otherwise normal evening at Colin Meloy's house, the Decemberists were working through tunes for their new album, The King is Dead. But one thing was different about this night: The Portland-based band had a special guest joining them. It was Peter Buck, the guitarist responsible for giving REM—and perhaps 1980s college radio as a whole—its distinctive, barrier-breaking sound.
The Decemberists' bass player, Nate Query, remembers the eye-opening nature of having Buck around—before he recorded his parts for three The King is Dead songs, even.
"Peter came over, and at one point we were all just playing acoustically with him, and then we just kind of made eye contact with each other," Query says. "You could tell that we were all thinking about how cool this was. It wasn't like we hadn't met him before, but, still, we were all like, 'This is rad!' He's an amazing musician."
The Decemberists perform Friday, April 29, at the House of Blues.
As it turned out, the good times surrounding the preparations for the group's third album on Capitol Records were only beginning. The collective would go on to make the biggest headlines of their decade together when, in January, The King is Dead crashed the Billboard Albums chart and landed at the No. 1 spot upon its release.
Some pundits pointed to the more accessible, country-rock stylistic shift the album offered. Others theorized that such success was merely the product of major-label marketing. Query, taking a break from his band's practically sold-out tour, thinks that there were other factors.
"Really, the success of this record is more a product of our slow build over the last 10 years," he says. "Every record we've done has been more successful than the one before it. This album's more mainstream and less out-there and weird, for sure. Also, these songs are easier to put on the radio, and major labels love using radio to promote records. The record had a great first week, but then it gained momentum due to the sheer fact that this weird band that uses big words and is named after a 19th century Russian Revolution group has a No. 1 record. It's bizarre."
But maybe not as bizarre as the fact that, according to Query, the Decemberists thoroughly enjoy their partnership with their major label and the stability the relationship has afforded the band in the current musical climate.
"As the music business has been collapsing, the Decemberists have been growing," Query says. "There's no way that five years ago we would've had a No. 1 record, because then, No. 1 records sold five times the amount they sell today."
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Adding to this story of triumph is the fact that the group has continued to control their artistic vision inside of a system that seems to often kill even the smallest measure of soul and individuality. For the Decemberists, the ways in which they had historically employed themes and prog-folk meant that any label rep would be ill-advised to hope for anything different after getting the band to sign on the proverbial dotted line.
"By judging from the albums we had made before The Crane's Wife, it was clear to anyone interested that we weren't going to be a normal major-label act," Query says. "Capitol was really excited about us, and has been super hands-off and has loved every record, really."
No. 1 albums are indeed notable achievements, but there's a special type of approval that can really make one feel as though they've truly had a successful run. And, indeed, Query says that a certain section of their fan base has really been impressed by their ascension.
"We've been on the cover of The Oregonian a few times now," he says. "My family is really going nuts."