Dare to be dopey

Music IndustryElton JohnPeter FramptonStephen ColbertDeathThe Decemberists (music group)Metallica (music group)

All bands have history, but Portland pop-rockers the Decemberists have lore--even if most of it is fiction. After all, their bio once claimed that the band members met in a Turkish bath and travel only by balloon.

Sonically, the critically acclaimed quintet is rock enough for a stadium, but folk enough that they wouldn't get kicked out of a Renaissance Faire. Stephen Colbert, who coordinated a guitar-playing battle between Peter Frampton and Decemberists' guitarist Chris Funk on "The Colbert Report," called the band's storytelling approach on albums like the recent, Japanese folk tale-inspired "The Crane Wife" "hyper-literate prog rock." Now, the Decemberists are growing their legend by playing a series of shows backed by full symphony orchestras.

Despite all the eccentricities, the Decemberists technically are no longer an indie band; "Wife" marks the their debut on major label Capitol Records. From L.A., singer-songwriter Colin Meloy talked to us about the term "indie," battling Oasis and more.

Your songs sound like they should be played out over the ocean, so I have to ask: What makes a great sea chantey?

I think [a great sea chantey] really pulls back the veil and you see just how dirty and difficult and stinky and gross it was to be a seafaring person in the 19th century or earlier--just pre-Industrial Revolution--but still kind of celebrating the maritime life. Playing those two things off each other, that's really the best sea chantey.

The band always has had a grandiose mythology behind it. Does performing with an orchestra play into that?

Yeah, definitely. In the past I think it's sort of [been ] reserved for The Moody Blues and Elton John ... to play with orchestras. Considering our music and our attempts in the past to put string sections on our record, it just seems like it would be kind of a fun, cool thing.

So you're not in the same category as the Moody Blues and Elton John?

Well, I would hope not. That's up to other people. In some ways [playing with an orchestra is] kind of a dopey and sentimental thing to do, and I think that's probably why the Moody Blues and Metallica have done it. And maybe it's dopey and sentimental that we're doing it. I think it's sort of a relatively new thing that orchestras are reaching out to bands that aren't like the Moody Blues and Elton John. I'm sure we're one of the first invitations of many. Look out, Death Cab for Cutie. They're coming.

People often call music like yours "indie," but "The Crane Wife" was your major label debut. What does the term even mean?

It never really meant much to me. It was a media label.

How do you describe yourselves then?

I don't know. Kinda poppy-folky-rocky. Probably if I just said indie rock it would help, but there's something really kind of weird and trite about describing your band as indie rock because it doesn't mean anything.

Chris Funk recently battled Peter Frampton on "The Colbert Report." If you could start another feud, who would you want to take on?

You know who would be really fun to take on? Oasis. Like, the king of band feuds, or at least rock-band feuds. Just to bring 'em back for a rematch, ya know? Like the old, grizzled prizefighter who's been spending time in a motel in L.A. and [you] convince them to come out and relive their former glory.

What would that battle involve?

Maybe just arguing, but then finally getting onstage and really letting the axes do the talking.

Matt Pais is the metromix music and movies producer.mpais@tribune.com

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