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John Moen: The Organic Sound Of The Decemberists

The Decemberists’ John Moen seems content. Enjoying a tour and the success of The King Is Dead, their newest album. As a huge fan of Bill Berry of REM and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, Moen’s style is understandably understated, economic, and band-centric. Their new album shows a change in the band’s sound, stripping down the big, sprawling songs into simpler structures. The British folk influence yielded to American folk and country, and Moen morphed into a modern day Mick Fleetwood.

Could you describe the change in the Decemberists’ sound from the previous album to the new album?
It’s more Americana, or at least our version of it. You know, REM and other Indie rock bands.

Did you change your setup for the new album?
I did get a different drum set. I’d been playing an old Gretsch kit with smaller sizes for a long time. I decided I wanted to a get a late ’60s Ludwig, with a 22" bass drum a 16" floor tom. I wanted to get a little wonkier sound. We tried to approach the music more as a band than as individual parts constructed in the studio. We really tried to do that as a group.

Did you listen to any particular drummers for inspiration?
Yeah. Levon Helm of The Band, who sings, and is a big inspiration. He’s got a great groove that I aspire towards. He just plays the song, and has a beard, and everything he does is just awesome. Excellent musicianship, very tasteful. Totally inspiring. When you’re a kid, and music is more about flash and excitement, he’s not the first guy to come to mind, but he’s certainly a superhero. I also listened to a lot of Bill Berry of REM. I’ve been a fan for a long, long time. There’s this interesting thing he does with the hi-hat, this offbeat thing. But when I saw him live, he wasn’t doing what I thought. It was just the feel of it. I tried to replicate that feel on “The Calamnity Song.”

Did you play any percussion on the album?
Mostly tambourine. I overdubbed it mostly. Live, we have Sarah Watkins, formerly of Nickel Creek, who plays tambourine on a few songs.

How did it feel having the number one album in the country?
It was totally awesome. Our hometown, Portland, really got behind us. It’s funny, watching the music industry crumble around us, and we’re kind of locked into it, being on a major label right now. We’re in a unique position.

What was it like to record in a barn?
It was pretty fun. It could get frustrating at times, when we’re together all the time. And with some songs, we decided the whole band had to play together, but it can be difficult getting a take.

Is there anything you wish you had known earlier in your career as a drummer?
I don’t know. Probably not. I was blindly optimistic for a long time, and it ended up working out for me. It’s a weird gig. I don’t work at drums too hard. I work at songs really hard. My skill set is a mid ’90s one. If I wasn’t into songs, I don’t know if I’d be as interested in music in general. You know, the music stores are full of guys with awesome chops. But I guess I wouldn’t mind knowing more about playing drums.

What was it like to play with Elliott Smith?
That gig was really fun, and then I got fired. Elliott’s a really funny dude, and we had a lot of laughs, but yeah [laughs].

Tell us about your solo album?
Yeah. I have a recent album called Perhapst. I’m really into melody and the songwriting process, and you don’t get to be as involved with that when you’re the drummer in a band with a strong songwriter and such awesome musicians. I like to have the outlet to dabble with that. We have a hiatus coming up, and I’ve got another record I’ve got almost done, so I can focus more on that, work on guitar.

Does working on songs or melodies help you with the drums?
I think so. It’s hard to say. People can make a list of their skills, and misjudge themselves, but I try to listen to songs carefully, and play something that applies well, that’s not too cliché. And I would say that’s a strong suit of mine. Hopefully it is. Did you ever read that article of Mick Fleetwood in Modern Drummer? He has a lot of resonance for me. He said something like, “I can’t remember exactly what I played the last time, it’s always a little different.” I take a lot of solace in that.

He’s also one of the canonical examples of drummers that play the right thing for the song.
Yeah. I’m a huge fan of his. He’s in the same school as Levon Helm for me. Really reliable and on point. And that thing of crashing on the & of the 1 – that’s the coolest thing in the world.

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