Reverb Interview: The Decemberists’ Jenny Conlee

Jenny Conlee began playing the accordion for The Decemberists before she had time to master the instrument’s chord and bass buttons. “I’m a pianist,” she says. “I played the keyboard side. I didn’t know how to play the left hand.”

No matter. Conlee helped found the Portland, Ore., indie rock band that would place her on a permanent learning curve. Fifteen years later, her fingers easily find chord and bass buttons. She recently added a Mellotron M4000D mini to a stage lineup that already includes accordion, organ, keyboards and glockenspiel.

Her work crosses genres: Folk rock with the Decemberists, bluegrass with Black Prairie, a film soundtrack based on French musettes, recorded with husband Steve Drizos and also published as a collection of sheet music.

Conlee currently is waiting for Seattle-based Petosa Accordions to deliver a custom instrument, one light enough to wield night after night on stage, but also packed with enough reeds to create the range of sound her music requires. She spoke to Reverb about the evolution of her accordion and the challenges of packing up her kit and taking it out on the road.

What drew you to the accordion in the first place?

Practicality. I was playing keyboards in a band called Calobo in the ‘90s. We’d play festivals, and I never had an instrument to play at the big jam session afterward around the fire. It bummed me out. So I got a concertina, which is a diatonic accordion. It’s round shaped and gave me only a couple of keys. It seemed hard and limiting, even though I’m sure that if I had stuck with it, I would have been fine. But I found a Wurlitzer accordion at a guitar shop for $100, so that became my instrument. It’s on the first Decemberists record.

What led you switch to the Petosa accordions you use now?

I like the musette tuning. Instead of having the two reeds an octave apart, they are the same note, just detuned slightly – meaning you’ll get this real wet sound. The Wurlitzer had a musette on it. It seemed brighter, and it helped tune with the other instruments. Sometimes a dry reed is so specific that if anything else is slightly off, it sounds out of tune.

Anyway, the Wurlitzer was not in great shape. I ended up finding another accordion up in Seattle, a Paulo Soprani, which is a nice instrument with a wet musette tuning. That was my instrument for the next two Decemberists records. But as we began our tour for [2005’s] Picaresque, all of our gear was stolen. It was awful. It was the beginning of our tour. We played Portland with gear borrowed from our friends. Then I was going to Seattle and stopped by Petosa. That’s where their headquarters are. I asked if they had a musette accordion that was a little bit smaller in size. And within five minutes, I bought the Futura accordion that I use all the time now. It was perfect. I fell in love.

Then about three years ago, when Black Prairie was recording, I wanted an accordion that acts like a full-fledged accordion, that has all the bells and whistles, that has a lot of different stops so I can have two octaves, a dry octave or the three octaves or a violin setting or a musette. I wanted all the options. So I bought a fancier accordion from them, the Leggera 1050, which I love. It’s just really heavy. I did a tour with it with Black Prairie, and my back couldn’t hack it. My Futura is 17 pounds, which seems like nothing compared to the 23-pound Leggera. So I play the Leggera here at home, and I record with it. I play it at gigs where I can sit down. Now, actually, Petosa is making me an accordion that is similar to the Leggera, but it’s going to be lighter. It will have a few less notes to get the lightness.

I never considered the weight.

That’s the thing. You have to compromise reeds and how many notes you get for how much the accordion weighs. So I’m trying to plan the perfect instrument. How many bass notes can I cut? Every bass chord is three reeds, and you end up with the backside just chock full of stuff. Besides all the reeds, there is this bass machine that when you press one button, three reeds will open. It’s an old-fashioned machine. And it’s heavy. Then I’m not very tall, so when I sit, it comes up to my chin. It’s a little uncomfortable, so I’m looking for something smaller.

In the keyboard world that’s always the problem too. Trying to find a compromise between acoustic pianos and digital pianos is a constant battle. I’m not a very techie person, so I tend to find something that works and stick with it.

How has that corner of your world evolved?

I have a Hammond B3, which is the standard Hammond if you’re going to go for the tone wheel organ. It’s humongous, and it has a Leslie speaker with it, the 122, which is one of the biggest Leslies. That’s the center of keyboard land. Then on top of that I have my Nord Stage 88, which I play piano, Wurlitzer and Rhodes sounds through. Then in an L shape, I have a Mellotron M4000D mini on the right, which I play harpsichord and string patches, horn patches and flutes and stuff through.

Hammond B3 Organ

Hammond B3 Organ

Nord Stage Keyboard

Nord Stage Keyboard

Taylor T5z Classic

Moog Little Phatty

That’s new to me. The Decemberists used that Mellotron a lot on the new record because it was at Tucker Martine’s studio, Flora [Recording and Playback]. I had to buy one so we can play it live. And then I have a Pearl glockenspiel. It seems like every tour demands something different. Hazards of Love tour we had a Juno onstage. For the Crane Wife tour, I had a Moog Little Phatty Tribute Edition and a pump organ. But all of that seemed redundant. The pump organ sounds like an accordion. We don’t need to bring that out for three songs, because I can just play the accordion. You start to think about channels and costs and space. You can’t just take everything you want on tour. We’re not quite that big yet.

What are some of the other differences in your gear, from the recording studio to the stage?

It’s definitely comparable. I actually started out the Decemberists tour with a Baldwin acrosonic studio piano, so I could play piano on tour. I’ve always wanted to do that. I bought some Helpinstill pickups, which is a common way to mic the piano. But I couldn’t keep it in tune, and it blended too well with the other instruments. It disappeared in the mix. So I took that away. On the recordings we have an acoustic piano, but we can’t bring one out, so I’m always using the Nord as my digital piano. It’s a bummer but there is no other way. I have too much stuff. An acoustic piano is one too many things.

I also record on the Hammond organ in the studio, and that comes with us, unless we are playing in Europe. In Europe, I just bring a keyboard. We play smaller venues and the power is different. Hammonds have to be at 60 cycles of power to make the sound correct, because the tone wheel spins at 60 cycles. Then I have a solid-state Leslie [simulator] made by a company called Motion Sound. It looks like a Leslie, but there are no tubes. That’s my substitute rig for the organ when we go to Europe and Australia.

You say you’re not technical, but obviously you know your way around quite an eclectic bit of gear. How are you learning?

Friends help, and I’ve done some stupid stuff, like plug my Hammond B3 into the 145 Leslie which I have to play with the keyboard. They’re not compatible, so I blew the Leslie up and almost blew myself up. I try things, and I ask people and read my manuals.

But I’m not a programmer. I don’t really play synth. That Moog that I have, I just make a sound and then I stop. I don’t have that need to figure out the schematic work with the synth, what oscillator does what to what. I just play around until it sounds good. Some guitar players are pedal people. Chris Funk from the Decemberists will play with pedals all day long.

For me, I feel like there is so much to learn just to play my instruments. I don’t have time for teching out.

Photo by Jason Quigley

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