Anthony Cushing on the Decemberists at IASPM Canada 2009

My last IASPM Canada 2009 interview…

anthonycushing

Name: Anthony Cushing

School: University of Western Ontario

Program: PhD in musicology

Title: “Sad, mad, and murderous: Tracking Reflections of Victorian Sea Narratives in The Decemberists’ revised Sea Shanty: ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’”

The Short Form: Along with his colleague, Matthew Rohweder, Cushing explores how hyper-literate indie rockers The Decemberists connect their modern aesthetic with the anxieties and structures of nineteenth century sea narratives, specifically to reveal how such allusions enhance their shanty’s affective power. The paper connects Meloy’s own tales with not only the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, but also Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

McNutt: It’s obviously a pretty awesome song, but what is the appeal of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” – and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” which you’re also exploring – from a scholarly perspective?

Cushing: There is such a rich history of intertextual borrowing in Colin Meloy’s work. He has acknowledged several influences, mostly from the realm of literature – Victorian, 19th century – and that really comes across. That’s what makes these tracks so rich.

McNutt: I’m intrigued by how that kind of borrowing ties into the band’s appeal. They do seem like something of an oddity in the indie rock world, where you have so many bands courting a modern style. And here you have this band embracing these historical, literary ideas. How does this play into their popularity?

Cushing: It’s great novelty to have these sprawling, epic narratives. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is eight minutes and 26 seconds and “The Bagman’s Gambit” is almost exactly seven minutes – they’re very radio unfriendly kinds of track. But in concert, the band really are great performers, and their charisma, their humour and their personalities makes the songs become more alive. So on CD, maybe, they don’t come across as the traditional kind of performers, but what really makes the songs is the live performance. That’s where [these songs] started, and their live performances show a great degree flexibility and improvisational quality which, I think, makes them very appealing in that indie rock sense, in that they’re not necessarily trying to reproduce what’s on CD. The CD doesn’t come first; the live performance does.

McNutt: So what are some of the intertextual borrowings that define these tracks?

Cushing: There are very specific allusions we look at in the paper. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is about this narrator that is thrown into this awful childhood and early adulthood of despair. He goes out to sea, he talks about whaling, he talks about enacting violence, self-pity and self-loathing and ends up swallowed by a whale – clear allusions to Moby Dick, where Ishmail goes to sea not as a means of enacting violence on someone else but to avoid self-inflicted violence. There’s the “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” where the mariner is haunted by the ghostly spectre of the albatross, whereas in “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” the mariner is haunted by the spectre of his mother. These are relatively clear allusions. And, of course, being swallowed by the whale, that’s connected with “Pinocchio” and other stories.

McNutt: These songs aren’t being written by an 18th or 19th century writer – they’re being written by a modern, 21st century hipster-type. Are there certain modernist revisions to these narratives, or are they largely authentic to the texts they’re borrowing from?

Cushing: They are very arcane narratives. They’re wonderful fusions of all these different things – narrative aggregates, if you will, which could have existed independently in the 19th century. Maybe a derivative novelist came along and said, “Well I like this from this novel, this from this one”; that could have existed then.

What is unique is how the narrative is set harmonically: what kind of things are they doing musically to enhance the text, to propel the text, and the recording process itself? How are they spacializing themselves? What is the mixing? What kind of reverb or echoes are being used? How are they manipulating their instruments in the space? That, by necessity, is something new, but even then, how is the text – the lyrics – affected by the recording?

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is about as basic as it gets for recording practices. It was recorded around a stereo microphone, and their mixing – their spacilization – was enacted by moving closer to the microphone, turning away from it, and playing with the space, which was a church in Portland, Oregon. You hear a lot of the ambient noise, the real noise, which you can tie into the text – “the belly of a whale,” this imagined cavern. It’s a novel sonic interpretation of the song’s theme.

So end my series of IASPM interviews…thanks to everyone who took the time to sit down and chat. Also, if you’re interested in these sorts of topics you should review the entire program from this year’s conference. There was so many interesting papers on display that I wish I’d had the chance to listen to all of them.

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