The Decemberists

Photo courtesy of Colin Meloy- Helena born Colin Meloy and his band The Decemberists are up for two Grammy Awards this evening.

Up on the Grammys’ star-studded stage this Sunday with the likes of Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett and Paul McCartney, you just might catch a glimpse of hometown Helena boy Colin Meloy and his band, The Decemberists. 

Those who knew him when aren’t surprised about Meloy earning national acclaim for his music. But they’re a bit stunned to see him in the same glittery crowd as Beyonce.

None are more perplexed than Meloy himself. The Decemberists song “Down By the Water,” written by Meloy, is nominated for both Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance.

Puzzled or not, Meloy and The Decemberists will be at the Grammys “gussied up” in their L.A. designer suits. “I think it’s going to be quite a scene,” he said last week from Portland, Ore., where the band is based.

“To be honest, the Grammys were never on my radar,” Meloy said. “The music they picked never represented the music I listened to — remotely. The stuff I liked never had a big audience… other than R.E.M., the Grammys never recognized the work of the bands I really loved. In the scope of the Grammys, we’re a little on the left of things.”

The musical honor that means the most to him, he admitted, is “meeting some of my childhood heroes and being their peer. I think just having the opportunity to do this and having fans that appreciate the work that we do is certainly honor enough.”

“‘Down By the Water’ is a song that had been kicking around for a while,” he said. Although he thought it had promise, he hadn’t finished it. “You’ll write a verse and … hit a wall. It sometimes helps to give it time and come back to it later. With the lens of time, I got back to it and it turned into a workable song. 

“It was just an interesting story. I was imagining a coastal resort town that gets overrun by people during certain seasons, and I imagined an ill-fated romance … and the kind of torture it would present to the narrator.”

Musical beginnings

Many Helena-area residents heard Meloy first in Happy Cactus, a band formed with fellow Helena High School student David Casey, later joined by Deidre Tooke, who is now David’s wife, on vocals and Mark Shummer on drums.

“You know … I’m not surprised,” said David Casey. “I always thought if there was someone you knew who would make it in music, it was Colin. I thought he might go all the way. He was really creative. Colin would always have an idea.” 

He was a great guitar student, taking lessons with Casey’s dad, Darrell. He would take a concept he’d learned in his guitar lesson, internalize it and immediately start putting it into a song.

“I am surprised at the immense popularity of The Decemberists,” Casey said, and what he calls their “Thesaurus” rock lyrics. “I love his melodic folk pop. I think he’s at his best when he does folk music in the broadest sense of the word – a blend of Irish, American and English music.”

From starting out with gigs in the library parking lot, Happy Cactus eventually filled the Myrna Loy Center.

“We played a lot of alternative pop/ folk music,” said Deidre Casey, most of it originals. In 1993 the group recorded a cassette, “Cricket,” which can be found online.

“I like to tell people the story (of how) we went on our honeymoon with Colin Meloy,” she said. For their wedding trip, they all headed to Portland to hear one of their favorite singers, P.J. Harvey.

In fact, the trio often took road trips to catch the music of Michelle Shocked, Uncle Tupel0, Suzanne Vega, and Richard Buckner. 

David Casey laughs at how excited Meloy was when the bass player for the Violent Femmes spat on him. They had other wacky times — roaming the Helena streets on Halloween dressed as “Clockwork Orange” droogs and the occasional all-night “Dungeons and Dragons” games, when Meloy tended to play an obnoxious dwarf who got into barroom brawls.

But before Happy Cactus, there was The Babies, recalled Claudia Montagne, Meloy’s mother. At 6, her son rounded up neighborhood kids who played riffs on broomsticks and firewood at the annual Grasshopper Days on Rodney Hill in Helena. One hilarious cover was “Mommy and Daddy are all Crazy Now.”

A reluctant piano student, the young Meloy was obsessed with guitar, finally getting a shiny black electric model from a Rodney Street pawnshop at age 12.

More memorable than Meloy’s early music was his flamboyant imagination, said Montagne. Much of his early childhood was spent as a super hero, wearing various caped costumes till they fell apart in rags. He also wrote plays, she said. And as a second-grader at Central School, he both wrote and staged a play at the school, “The Bloody Knights.” 

“Colin really enjoyed doing the music he did in Helena,” said his father, Mike Meloy. “We always thought it was a recreational thing. It was something he loved to do. We didn’t think back then it would blossom into a career.”

Creative family

Creativity, art and music were valued at home, while Meloy and his sister Maile, an acclaimed writer, were growing up. Their grandfather Peter Meloy was a founder of the Archie Bray Foundation. A lawyer, judge and an amazingly good potter, the elder Meloy and his wife, Harriet, were active in community theater. Hank Meloy, a great uncle, was a professional artist who taught at Columbia University. 

In fact, it was the space and freedom for imagination to take wing in Helena that both Meloy and older sister Maile spoke of last October, when each gave a book reading from new novels for young adults at the Holter Museum of Art. 

Another big step in Meloy’s musical career was playing with his Missoula band, Tarkio, while he studied for a degree in creative writing at the University of Montana. 

Even then, recalls fellow Tarkio member Gibson Hartwell, Meloy’s early talent stood out.

“When you walked in the room (and heard him singing) … you went ‘Oh, my God, this guy’s got something going on.’”

Hartwell recalls some memorable Tarkio gigs — one in Bozeman at The Filling Station, when a Skinhead band tried to pick a fight with the Missoula group.

“I’m a huge fan of those guys,” Hartwell said of Meloy and the Decemberists. “They’re crazy talented — in that way I’m not surprised at all they’re nominated for a Grammy.”

But he admits he’s leery: “They’re all so sweet. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want them to be contaminated by it all.”

One Tarkio song, “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,” went on to find fame through the Decemberists. Such song titles and lyrics baffle many a music critic, but enchant droves of fans. 

A critic for the Manchester Guardian wrote of a Decemberist concert, 

“In this era of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, you wouldn’t have put money on Oregon’s Decemberists becoming huge. They play old fashioned instruments ranging from piano, pedal steel and accordions to a funny gadget wound with a handle. They wear checked shirts, sing about the joys of chimney sweeping and hanging out the washing, and bespectacled singer/‘song-crafter’ Colin Meloy looks more like someone auditioning for the role of Clark Kent than a rock star.”

What left the critic awestruck was “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” which “finds Meloy making what must be one of the most bizarre requests ever delivered from a British stage. ‘I want you to make the sound of a multitude of people being swallowed by a whale,’ … and amazingly, they do.”

For now, Meloy is taking a hiatus from the world of music, focused on finishing his second novel, “Under Wildwood,” a sequel to a young-adult fantasy book titled “Wildwood.” 

“I’m within striking distance of the end of the book,” he said. He expects it to be out in fall.

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