The Decemberists Aim for the Ultimate Barn Record on The King Is Dead
by Bud Scoppa
The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead was recorded in a barn on Pendarvis Farm, outside the band’s Portland, Oregon, home base— representing a radical departure from 2009’s TheHazards of Love. Whereas the previous undertaking was a wildly ambitious reimagining of British traditional music and myth, the new album’s touchstones are Neil Young’s Harvest, which band leader Colin Meloy refers to as “the quintessential barn record,” SoCal country rock in general, and R.E.M.’s pastoral jangle-fest Reckoning. Gillian Welch appears on seven tracks, updating the roles of Nicolette Larson on Young’s Comes a Time and Emmylou Harris on Gram Parsons’ solo albums, while the R.E.M. homage is made literal by the presence of Peter Buck, who plays electric guitar on two tracks and mandolin on another.
“Our records had become increasingly complex, reaching a kind of apotheosis with Hazards,” Meloy explains, “and after having been embroiled in months of meticulous overdubbing and multitracking, we came out of there saying, ‘Next record, we’re gonna do like two weeks in a barn.’ In some ways, it was a euphemism that we made happen. After the crazy puzzle of Hazards, everybody was excited to try to make a regular record this time around.”
Returning for the band’s third straight project was producer/engineer Tucker Martine, whom Meloy has come to consider a close collaborator. “Colin and I have a lot of overlap in the music that impacted us the most in our formidable years,” says Martine, “and it was pretty apparent from the songwriting that he was revisiting these roots. Early R.E.M. is among my favorite music ever, so I was excited to revel in our version of those sensibilities. I’m just there to try to bring the songs to life in the best way possible, and to me, a big part of that is trying to understand where the writer is coming from in the deepest way possible. So our collaboration largely comes out of me having a lot of respect for his artistic sensibilities, and hopefully vice versa. From there, it’s all just an ongoing dialog to get to a place we’re all happy with.”
“Tucker and I had a lot of discussions before we even started the record,” Meloy confirms. “I turned over the demos to him and we talked about concept: What does ‘barn record’ really mean, and how far are we willing to take it?”
The wooden barn they chose as the recording site was about 30 x 30 feet, with a high, slanted ceiling and lots of odd angles. “Acoustically, it had a pleasing character to begin with,” says Martine. “And that became the theme of the album: Pick a space that felt good and embrace all the limitations it was gonna present. You really have no choice once you commit to making a record that way. Whether or not you can hear the space, at the very least, you’re hearing a band relaxed and away from it all— without the Internet or coffee shops next door or the bustle of the world right outside.”
Martine recorded to Radar 24, which he was using for the first time, finding it to be “the most analog-sounding of the digital mediums” in his experience. For monitoring, he went with a used Mackie, which he’d bought on Craigslist specifically for the project, listening, as always, on his Proac Studio 100 speakers. He made extensive use of his collection of mics and mic preamps, including pairs of API 512Cs, Electrodyne 710s, Neve 1081s, Dakings, Millennias (“They sound great on ribbon mics, with tons of clean gain”), Brent Averill 312s on the kick and snare, Neve 1073s (into a Telefunken re-issue U47) for the vocals and a mono drum overhead. “Going for the mono drum overhead was a new thing for me, and it’s great,” he says. “It leaves more room to move other things around in the spectrum.” For the vocals, Martine opted for a Wunder CM7 into a Neve 1073 hitting a silver-face UA 1176. He mixed it on an API Legacy console he’d just bought from Avast Studios in Seattle—the same board on which he’d mixed numerous albums.
They were about a third of the way into making the album when Martine accidentally discovered the sweet spot in the space. He’d been moving his Royer SF-12 room mic around the barn from song to song and take to take when he noticed it—right by the mixing board, as it turned out. “The spot seemed arbitrary,” Martine recalls, “but I was standing there at one point while everyone was playing, and the drums suddenly felt so open and alive but still had some punch to them. Whatever bleed I was gonna get from everyone else was gonna be minimal but pleasing and balanced. It was just a great drum sound, and it sounded so much like the barn that we were all in. Once I discovered that spot, I leaned on it pretty heavily in most of the mixes— wherever it was appropriate. That was crucial, because what a shame it would be to go to all the effort to make a record out there in the barn and get to mixing and not be able to hear the barn.”
The character of the space is dramatically apparent on the opening track, the strikingly Harvest-like “Don’t Carry It All.” “On that one,” says Martine, “I was really pushing the room mic on the drums. I love the way it sounds. I look for that, anyway— unusual accidents to highlight that add some kind of curiosity to the music. It’s good to be open to that stuff.”
One sound you won’t hear on The King Is Dead nonetheless exemplifies the vibe of this comfortable-as-corduroy album, as well as Martine’s willingness to go with the flow. “This horse named Lucky was in a stable right by the barn,” he says, “and sometimes, right at the end of a take, we’d hear this great big neeeiiigghh as things were ringing out. It was almost too perfect. I was secretly hoping Lucky would do that at the end of a keeper take. But he never did, and it would’ve felt too contrived to record one and paste it in—we were trying to keep it as dogmatic as possible.”
Martine is making further use of the insights he gained making The King Is Dead as he produces My Morning Jacket—in a Louisville church. “The Decemberists being in a barn and My Morning Jacket being in a church shows they want something that’s not necessarily just another state-of-the-art modern rock record,” the producer points out. “They like to throw a wrench in things to see if it will help yield a more unique result, one that surprises both the band and the listener.”