Colin Meloy discovered early on that music can offset the mundane aspects of life.
So then perhaps it is no bombshell that the Helena native and frontman of the Decemberists’ cleaves to an interest in Montana that is genuinely personal. Indeed, when Meloy presents and headlines the first ever Travelers' Rest Festival on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 12-13, he has two ambitions: produce a satisfying affair and introduce unusual musical alternatives to Montanans, especially youth.
Heavily established in Portland, Oregon, the Decemberists’ beginnings are wrapped up and enfolded in — and indebted to — the remarkably odd and furiously energetic music scene of the late 1990s in Missoula.
“I attended the University of Montana between 1996 and 1999,” said Meloy. “So, it’s the place where I started playing at open mics at coffee shops around town, and we put together (the indie-rock band) Tarkio and we played at Jay’s Upstairs (currently The Loft of Missoula) and the Top Hat and the Old Post, and the musical scene then was super vibrant, and the punk scene incredible. There was the Sputniks, the Volumen, Oblio Jones and others. We were playing some stuff that was different — sadder music, I think. Then, (the psychedelic-punk band) Fireballs of Freedom went to Portland and you could just feel the exodus of music out of Missoula in the summer of 1999. ”
Meloy is the son of Claudia Montagne and Mike Meloy and grew up in Helena. His grandfather Pete was a potter, who joined arts patron Archie Bray in launching the Archie Bray Foundation. Pete’s brother, Hank, was a painter who taught art at Columbia University in New York.
“There was always an emphasis put in the home on following your bliss,” said Meloy. “That emphasis shot through me. Although, I think my parents wanted us to do it (the pursuit of art) as a hobby and not as a main goal. After all, my great uncle died impoverished in New York becoming an artist. But my older sister (author Malie Meloy) and I definitely proved them wrong.”
Hence, the blissful sounds of music served as flashy, funny, inspiring baubles. The first two records he ever owned came from Henry J’s: the eponymous Chicago 16 and Cargo by Men at Work, a birthday present from his mother.
“There was Henry J’s for the older crowd out on (the west side of town) on Euclid and Pegasus Music at the mall,” said Meloy, 42. “Pegasus had the major label releases and an import section of CDs. Before the internet, I had an uncle who lived in Eugene, Oregon, who would send mixed tapes in the mail. For years, Cactus Records, in Bozeman, and Rockin’ Rudy’s, in Missoula, provided a lifeline. Growing up, Helena was interesting because even though it was the capital, it felt like the kind of a community that you wouldn’t associate with as a town in Montana of its size. It had a progressive scene and art scene.”
Meloy's mother was active in Second Story Cinema, an artistic collaborative in Helena in the mid-'70s that included alternative theater, poetry, satirical revues, multimedia and musical events. (Second Story Cinema in time developed into the Myrna Loy Center.)
“Apparently, I appear in an early fundraising pitch for the Myrna Loy,” recalled Meloy. “I worked there at the Myrna Loy and I played my first show there in the high school band, and it is hallowed ground in my mind.”
Music was both an allure and an escape for Meloy, and, at the time, Helena offered several places to escape to (though, no record store exists there today). The guitar’s voice was capable of expressing opinions and feelings in ways that words neglected. It dazzled and empathized; it calmed, excited and explained; it moved him.
Experimenting with the guitar had been the entry ticket into the world of wonder. Better yet, the guitar had the ability to make his life by and large better.
“Music fit the kid who I was,” said Meloy. “When I hit my early teens, I didn’t fit in with the interests of my peers, or interests elsewhere. I was not into sports or that world and I loved writing. I grew up in a progressive household that was good and supportive. I loved music that felt weird in the context of local Helena radio and weird in the context of what other kids were listening to. In junior high school, I discovered and I threw myself into music that was a little more obscure than what was available at Pegasus Records at the mall. I started searching out and treasure hunting and finding this music.
“I liked listening to the Smiths, the Replacements, Morrissey and Paul Westerberg. It was all of the music that had the feeling of being kind of off the mainstream, on the margins. I had a lot of feelings of being out of place and feeling like I didn’t fit in, and that stuff was a real haven for me, and allowed me to get through the harder times during my teenage years.”
Subsequently, Meloy cultivated a vocal style of grandeur, sensuous richness and emotional exuberance, paying homage to a worldly wise perspective.
“I guess it is kind of worldly,” said Meloy. “Maybe similar to how Robyn Hitchcock looked to Ireland, and the Rolling Stones were aping American rhythm and blues, I was looking in the other direction, to other countries.”
Meloy peers back to Montana with the hope of delivering a recurring music festival that introduces alternative acts generally unavailable or unseen in lineups in the state. Meloy said approximately 15 acts will appear at the two-day event, including national touring acts such as Scottish indie-folk group Belle and Sebastian and other regional bands accruing fan bases like the Head and the Heart, Sylvan Esso, Shakey Graves, Real Estate, Julien Baker, and Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires.
“It drove me crazy how many national touring bands skipped Montana altogether. I'm glad we can do our small part to bring more music to the area. Helena and Missoula were the hubs of the state, but growing up it was slim pickings and wishful thinking as far as live music. I.R.S. (record label acts), Robyn Hitchcock, Camper Van Beethoven, they never played Montana. When I went to the University, I saw Firehouse and the Violent Femmes, and Suzanne Vega in Bozeman once. But your favorite band wasn’t guaranteed to play here by any stretch. If you are a touring band on a shoe-string budget, think about heading over I-90 in a gas-guzzling money sucker. That route doesn’t get taken unless you make an effort to make it happen. Every tour cycle I play at least once here — much to my booking agent’s chagrin.”
Engaging in the music-making experience gave Meloy entry into a world of whimsy, where he could safely say what he wanted to say, safely be who he wanted to be, and wrestle with what ailed him with creativity and playful irreverence. Meloy said he is humbled when people can make sense of what he creates and that the festival is his way of making the musical and cultural landscape in Montana less limited and more at liberty. Indeed, the artist who slowly discovered his talents here soon will be ready to fully employ them.
“We investigated the idea of bringing a festival to Portland, but Portland had no ideal location, and Montana seemed perfect,” said Meloy. “The beauty is that artists do want to play in Montana, and it does feel like we have the chance to curate and host something really special. Half of the people purchasing tickets are coming from out of state, and this is their introduction to Missoula.”