On His New Song, Colin Meloy Gets Lost In 'Slint, Spiderland'

Sep 2, 2020
Originally published on September 2, 2020 6:56 pm

For the Morning Edition Song Project, we've asked musicians to capture life in the era of COVID-19 by writing an original song that describes this turbulent moment. When we contacted Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, he had an idea ready to go. He says "Slint, Spiderland" was something he had been jotting down as a sort of musical journal entry.


"It's one of those songs I don't think I ever really intended for public consumption," Colin Meloy says. "Sometimes you kind of scratch these things down to capture a moment, or some sort or observation of a moment."

Meloy wrote "Slint, Spiderland" in April at the start of the pandemic, just after Oregon issued its stay-at-home order, when "we were still up against this really unknowable thing that was happening just outside the walls of our homes."

While on breaks from from the book he's currently writing, Meloy killed time by watching Breadcrumb Trail, a documentary about the making of the band Slint's 1991 album Spiderland, and thought about the weirdness of it all.

"I don't know that it particularly spoke to the current moment in any way other than it felt completely disconnected from it," the artist says. "Thing is about the lockdown and the quarantine, once we got past the initial [concerns] — like, how to get food, how to teach our kids and do our jobs at the same time — once that pattern had emerged, our lives as a stay-at-home writer and a stay-at-home illustrator were sort of bizarrely normal. ... And so I think that was the moment: 'Here I am getting lost in watching this documentary. Meanwhile, this thing is happening outside.'"

NPR's David Greene spoke to Colin Meloy about the lyrics to "Slint, Spiderland," setting a routine for his autistic teenager during the pandemic and navigating the fine line between performative activism and true allyship. Hear the full interview in the audio player.

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DAVID GREENE: We've been reaching out to musicians to get their take on the COVID era. We're asking them for an original song inspired by this dramatic moment in American life. We call it the MORNING EDITION Song Project. And today's guest is Colin Meloy. He's the lead singer of the band from Portland, Ore., The Decemberists. When we contacted him, Colin had an idea that was ready to go.

COLIN MELOY: It's one of those songs I don't think I ever really intended for any kind of public consumption. You know, sometimes you kind of scratch these things down to kind of capture a moment or some sort of observation of a moment.

GREENE: The moment for Colin was back in April. It was early in the pandemic. Oregon had just issued its stay-at-home order.

MELOY: I think it was sort of after that initial spike of anxiety had maybe passed a little bit. And yet, it was still, you know, this really unknowable thing that was happening just outside the walls of our homes.

GREENE: Colin was actually already spending a lot of time at home working on a book. Though, on this day, he was procrastinating, watching a music documentary and thinking about the weirdness of it all. That is what we hear about in the song he's given to us. It's called "Slint, Spiderland."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) I was watching a movie about Slint, "Spiderland" while the parasite outside belied the calls from high command.

"Spiderland" is the record by the Louisville, Ky., band's Slint. I mean, it's kind of arbitrary. It just happened that there is a documentary that one can watch online about the making of this really seminal and important indie record.

GREENE: But why at this moment, when you're kind of thinking about this mysterious evil force outside the walls of your house, did this documentary strike you in some way?

MELOY: Well, it wasn't necessarily the documentary itself. I don't know that it particularly spoke to the current moment in any way other than it felt completely disconnected from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT, SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) Come around to the clamp down. Come around to the clamp down, down.

Thing is about the lockdown and the quarantine, once we got past the initial, like, how to get food, how to teach our kids and do our jobs at the same time - once that pattern had emerged, our lives were sort of bizarrely normal, where my day-to-day life of working on this book was totally the same as it had been in the sort of pre-pandemic times. And so I think that was the moment. It was like, here I am getting lost in watching this documentary. Meanwhile, this thing is happening outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT, SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) There's a hole in your wall. There's a hungry call - fledgling, dark-winged juncos. Baby, drag me in line. Tell me things are fine and roll me over. Baby, roll me over awhile.

GREENE: Colin Meloy knows that he is fortunate. But like so many parents, he is worried about his two school-aged kids. They're 6 and 14. The eldest has autism and really needs the structure of school.

MELOY: That was the real disruption and the real challenge and continues to be. I think kids on the spectrum, the predictability of the day has a huge impact on their well-being, on their development. And so the immediate emergency was to make sure that some kind of routine was in place that we could try to keep his world, at least, at an even keel so that he didn't go spinning out because of it.

GREENE: Then there are the protests not far from Colin in downtown Portland. They've been going on nightly since the killing of George Floyd in May. I asked Colin about his role. There have been so many businesses and institutions wrestling with how to send a message of anti-racism without appearing performative.

Does that sort of thought go through the mind of a musician in a band?

MELOY: Absolutely. I mean, I think there is an expectation of somebody with a platform and an audience to speak up and to amplify certain causes and voices. This one feels, in some ways, as, like, a white, cis-gendered male, you know - it's more delicate. I feel like the best thing I can do is to amplify other voices, particularly Black voices, and to do what I can to be an ally. But, yeah, the idea of performative activism is a fine line. I mean, you can't just stay silent. But it's sort of unethical to use those platforms, those voices as a way to kind of put a spotlight on yourself.

GREENE: Have you even thought about how to walk that fine line with your music in the months and years ahead?

MELOY: I mean, of course, like anybody, this is a time for reflection and see where you have made mistakes and how you can be better in the future. And that's an ongoing thing for me. And it is certainly changing the way I write if it's prose or a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT, SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) I said, jettison the lifeboats and maybe we'll survive. But the evidence suggested there'd no one left alive. Come around...

GREENE: Well, there is this line at the end of the song that I did want to ask you about. It's, (reading) so I headed to the market, took my life in my own hands like those four boys in the quarry on the sleeve of "Spiderland." And if you look at the cover of the album that you're writing about, you know, those boys are up to their neck in water. But they're smiling at least.

MELOY: That hadn't really (laughter) occurred to me. I'm sure all kinds of things could be drawn there. I mean, I think our human imaginations inevitably draw these lines. When you're in the midst of this chaos, your mind inevitably makes connections. And that goes up to and includes the cover of these four guys submerged in a quarry in Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT, SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) Like those four boys in the quarry on the sleeve of "Spiderland." Come around...

GREENE: Well, Colin, thanks so much for bringing the song to us and talking to us.

MELOY: Oh, yeah. Well, thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLINT, SPIDERLAND")

MELOY: (Singing) Come around to the clamp down.

GREENE: That's the singer-songwriter Colin Meloy. His song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project is called "Slint, Spiderland." And you can hear a live version of it on the MORNING EDITION Facebook page or @MorningEdition on Twitter. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.