Decemberists Bassist Nate Query Talks Influences, The Smiths, and a Love of Americana

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Everyone, it seems, loves The Smiths. Morrissey and co. hasn't played together for nearly 25 years, yet the hyper-literature jangle rockers have had an enduring influence on bands across the spectrum. Good luck finding an indie scenester who doesn't know every morbid word to "The Boy with a Thorn in His Side," "Unlovable," or "Cemetry Gates."

Their ever-lingering influence is perhaps most conspicuously heard in Portland's The Decemberists. "I was kind of late to the game on getting into The Smiths," says Decemberists bassist Nate Query. "But Morrissey's phrasing and even sense of humor are definitely in our music."

Speaking on the phone from his publicist's office in New York, Query concedes that he learned an ample amount from NYC DJ and ex-Smiths bassist Andy Rourke, who will spin at Phoenix-venue Bar Smith on September 2. "I try to incorporate a lot of what he did into my musical vocabulary," Query says. 

The Decemberists' widely lauded sixth album, The King Is Dead, puts a gritty, bare-bones spin on '80s college rock. The jangling melodies are there, as is a much-ballooyed cameo from R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, who is credited as playing on three songs including the delectably austere "Down By the Water." 

"A few songs are influenced by R.E.M.," admits Query. "Even the press release mentions that Peter played on the album. But, I mean, they're an awesome band to emulate." 

Whatever the case, King Is Dead marks a drastic departure from The Decemberists' previous albums, which often went for maximal opulence and grand theatricality. Those records were sometimes criticized in the press for their perceived overindulgence; indeed, The Decemberists of old were synonymous with the term "rock opera." 

"People are entitled to think what they want, but a lot of our fans like our more dramatic, overblown songs," says Query. "We weren't worried about alienating them. We trust that they'll come."

Query was keenly aware, however, that the unfussy arrangements of songs like "January Hymns" would come as something of a shock to listeners expecting another batch of 14-minute prog epics. "The previous records were moving in a more orchestral direction and they were a little proggier," says Query. "This was more Americana-influenced."

While King Is Dead highlight "Rox in the Box" has all the spry jangle of classic Smiths and R.E.M., other tracks take their cues from such folk standard-bearers as Neil Young.

"Americana is kind of a hard genre to pin down, but our influences on King Is Dead ranged from '70s and '80s Neil to the harmonizing of Gram Parsons," says Query.

Rather than worry about listener preconceptions, The Decemberists tend to follow whatever impulse strikes. If the impulse is to bend subgenres with liberal regard for their distinctions, so be it. "It's more fun to keep things fresh," says Query. "It makes every record unpredictable."

Although King Is Dead is more grassroots in tone and feel than its predecessors, Query is adamant that the album's recording was still a reasonably convoluted process. "There's some simpler instrumentation," says Query. "But it didn't really feel any easier to make than, say, a rock opera. It didn't feel any less ambitious." 

If anything, Query says, this was the most rewarding album of their career - and certainly the most fun to create. "Me personally, I felt the record was more suited to my playing, just in the way the songs were structured," Query says. "It was kind up right up my alley. It's what I play anyway, when left to my own devices." 

Regardless of where they go next, The Decemberists will likely have their tongues in cheek. "There's an element of wink-wink to our songs," confesses Query. Morrissey would probably love them.

The Decemberists are scheduled to perform Thursday, August 11 at Mesa Arts Center.

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