THE DECEMBERISTS’ JOHN MOEN INTERVIEWED (2009): Marching to his own drum

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The Decemberists: Won't Want for Love
THE DECEMBERISTS’ JOHN MOEN INTERVIEWED (2009): Marching to his own drum

With all due respect to their craft, drummers aren’t usually the people you want to interview in a band. As saxophonist Branford Marsalis -- who played in Sting’s band -- recently noted, the audience’s attention is on the singer and the guitarist, “the rest of us are just background.”

And the drummer -- who doesn’t write or sing the songs -- is maybe the least of them. And when it comes to the Decemberists out of Portland it would certainly be singer, songwriter Colin Meloy you might want to hook up with, after all he’s the guy who has conceived the band’s recent conceptual albums The Crane Wife (based on a Japanese folk tale) and their current Hazards of Love (a rock opera grounded in English folk traditions)

But hold hard, because drummer John Moen, who plays a number of instruments and is a singer as well as a drummer --  also has his story to tell: he played (albeit briefly) in bands with Elliott Smith and Stephen Malkmus (he was a Jick), was in Guided By Voices, and has run his own solo career.

He’s also a witty and insightful guy who laughs a lot.

So drum roll please, because here’s John ….

Are you sitting in record company office or at home?

I’m at home with the dog and cat and a list of an hour’s worth of interviews.

I guess life could be worse, it might be that no one from this far side of the world was interested in you or the Decemberists at all. We wouldn’t care. Home has been Portland for a long time now.

Yes, it has and it’s a lovely grey and rainy day here.

I know very little about Portland although I have been there, I stayed in the White Eagle Hotel which was interesting and it rained the whole time I was there.

The White Eagle is supposed to be haunted.

By the spirits of long dead musicians I suspect.

It’s an old brothel too.

Yes it was, but the Holy Model Rounders often played there and their lyrics are written all over the walls. When I was there, there were singer-songwriters every night and some time later I heard Colin’s acoustic Sings Live album and I recognised some songs immediately -- and I always wondered if he had been one of the people I saw, amongst many, there. The songs seemed alarming familiar.

That’s interesting, he would have played there solo.

What took you to Portland? You were born in Brainerd which I always thought was a fictional town after I saw it in the movie Fargo, then grew up in Salem.

Yeah, Salem which was an hour away from Portland and when you were coming out of high school and a teenager in Salem you were thinking of Portland as a place to come and make music with your band. We just moved the band up and I’ve been here ever since with different bands.

What is the scene like in Portland? It was three years ago when I was there -- it seemed to be the place that people had come to after Seattle and when they didn’t want to be bothered with all that had happened there [in Seattle]. It seemed maybe a much more supportive musical environment.

john_moenI would categorise it as more supportive, and at a time when all those bands in Seattle were getting popular and getting signed to major label deals there was no small amount of envy around here. People were always a little jealous about the bigger city.

But on the other hand a lot of people from around here wouldn’t have moved to Seattle just to be famous and in a band either. People cherish the small town vibe here, although that’s rapidly changing too. It’s kinda full of a lot of talented young musicians and entrepreneurs in all different fields. There are a lot of food people here, cutting edge restaurants and things.

And excellent bookshops.

Oh yeah. It’s not as cheap as it used to be though.

Are you one of the grand old men of the Portland scene?

It hurts me to hear you say that Graham, but I am getting on in years and have lived here for a long time. I’m 41 this year and have been in Portland since ‘86 which is the year I graduated. So I moved here and have never looked back.

You’ve seen them come and go as they say.

I guess so.

I’ll talk to you about some of those people in a minute, and you well chose not to talk about some of that. But let’s talk about the Decemberists. You came into the band at quite an interesting point a few years ago. How did that happen for you, were you approached, was your name well known?

It was pretty random actually because at the time I was still involved with Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. I was in the band for six years, but we’d come to a point where we weren‘t working very much and I was having a hard time getting plans out of Stephen about what was going to happen.

So I was unsure of my future there and I walked into a record store in town and a friend yelled down to me from the upstairs and said he had friend looking for a drummer and did I want the number. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’

It was very random, and this guy threw a number in my hand so I made the call and did the audition and got the job. It was not something I knew much about and the only person I knew in the band was the person I replaced. It was happenstance.

There is a very big difference between the Jicks and the Decemberists. When you joined how did you feel about this very different project.

Oh yeah, very very different. But if you go through your life and feel you don’t fit in anywhere it’s actually not so hard to do different things!

What? You figure, ‘Well, I’m not going to fit here either‘?

Sort of, but I’m pretty adaptable kind of guy. If you came to my house and we started pulling records off the shelf you’d hear that I’ve gone through a lot of different style and flavours, and I think my career reflects that a bit. Hopefully it’s not too erratic.

But I enjoy playing a lot of different things and I learned a ton about music by playing with Stephen because he introduced me to a lot of different things, and oddly enough some of that was the British folk revival music -- which I wasn’t really aware of. And that came back around in this band pretty recently because that’s an influence. We tend not to go for long guitar jams like Stephen does these days.

I guess as a multi-instrumentalists as opposed to being just the drummer you can actually bring something to the Decemberists. The new album would allow you to participate in that more than other musical environments you’ve been in, do you think?

I think so. Your hope as a musician is that everyone will love you, that’s always what it’s about. If you are in band where you make a suggestion for an avenue for an arrangement and if it’s met with a good response that is very gratifying. And I certainly feel like I’ve had enough of those instances working with Colin and the rest of the band for it to be a great place for me. I have something to add and it might not necessary that it be added, but it works out well.

I also make my own songs and if I feel if I’m not getting to make decisions in the Decemberists then there are plenty to be made in my own material if I choose to do that.

hazardsI keep delaying the things I want to talk about, but if we can go back to Hazards of Love for a moment. I’m curious as to how it goes: does Colin come in and say. ’I’ve got this new idea and guess what, it’s going to be another concept album and it will be Anglofolk and mythic and have these characters in it‘. Then does he pour a glass of wine and say, ‘So how do you guys feel about all that?’ Does anyone at that point go, ‘Holy shit!’

Everyone in the band is pretty ready for whatever and they’ve all been with him for longer so are pretty used to the idea that things can go crazy. There’s an EP they put out called The Tain they put out some years back which somewhat foreshadowed this album, and I think they are just thinking it might be old hat. For me it was real exciting because I’d never been involved in anything like that before. It was an undertaking for sure.

You said Stephen introduced you to Anglofolk so you were open to the idea, but in terms of a conceptual album, that is a big ask for the musicians -- and an audience.

I think so and I wasn’t sure it would go like gangbusters or anything. But the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that’s not how you measure the worth of what you do. And at this point in time anybody who has got an idea that doesn’t seem competently tired, well that is pretty exciting.

We didn’t invent the wheel, but the idea seemed fresh and we could put a lot of ourselves into it and the result would be unknown, whether we did a big batch of pop songs or a crazy concept with witch-queens or whatever. It was a gamble.

There has been quite a remarkable symmetry and almost synergy that the Fleet Foxes would do what they do and Decemberists would do what they do, and I know now that people in their 20s are thinking there is something going and the next thing they are buying Nick Drake albums or something.

Right. It’s so great to have your musical horizons opened up and I can speak from personal experience having reached the point where I was bored with independent rock which I had been making since 2000, then having listened to records with Stephen at his house and he’s showing me things, and not just folk. There are so many bands in the history of rock now that didn’t get popular -- like the Groundhogs, another English band which was an amazing rock band.

Status Quo in the Seventies were amazing and I had never heard them. So many amazing styles, but if you are kid from suburbia in America in the Nineties or 2000s you just don’t know this stuff.

There’s so much to be discovered, new music is coming out but there’s also the stuff that is influencing it.

Let’s talk about your own music. You said outside of Decemberists if you have ideas which don’t get any traction there then you can put that somewhere else. You’ve done one solo album I know, have you done or are doing another?

I had a band called the Maroons in the mid Nineties and we put out two records and then I did Perhapst, and the extend of my solo musings. It’s a nice thing to have in your back pocket.

As a drummer you don’t often get an opportunity to influence melody, although I sing enough back-up to chime in. But it’s also nice to be able to write and sing your own song.

I believe you have perfect pitch.

You are the third person in week who has mentioned that!

It’s on the internet, it must be true.

No, it’s not true at all.

I wondered if you were the David Crosby in the band, the one who could sing counter-harmony perfectly.

Some of that might be true, all the drug abuse -- but not the perfect pitch part.

Let’s me ask you about Elliott Smith. I cannot lie about this, I don’t know how long you played with him.

I played with him on the last Heatmiser tour and was meant to join him on a tour for his solo material, but it turned out being just a Saturday Night Live -- then I got fired. I didn’t do much touring with him.

You weren’t interviewed for, or declined to be interviewed for, The Big Nothing biography?

I don’t think anyone actually asked me, not that I recall. Maybe they did and I said no. Probably a good move.

And Guided By Voices, did you spend much time with them and Robert Pollard?

Not a lot of time. Just our new band Boston Spaceships, I get to dabble with that and just play the drums. It’s a lot of fun.

One last one: the Decemberists are coming down here for the 2010 Big Day Out dates, but can you do the whole Hazards of Love album, or is the set just a mix-up of material.

We’ve been touring that album but we can’t bring the singers so we are just going to be playing a smattering of  . . . not the ‘greatest hits’ but whatever we have. There will be a few songs from the new record, the ones we can do without them.

I’ll let you go but just wish you well and say I hope the weather improves in Portland. But it’s not going to.

No it isn’t. Why do you think we are coming down to see you all?

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