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The Decemberists

The Decemberists

Photo by Autumn De Wilde
Photo by Autumn De Wilde

It’s been four years since our ears have been graced with a new Decemberists album, but that doesn’t mean they have been sleeping ‘til noon in the land where America’s youth goes to retire. The band’s members are as multifaceted as their discography. Where Picaresque lends itself to historical folklore, Colin Meloy has created a children’s fantasy novel. Where The Hazards of Love explores operatic rock, Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee dabble as members of a Pogues tribute band. Perhaps you saw their performance on the season six finale of Parks and Recreation as well? This is a band that does what it wants without consideration of industry expectations. Oh, and they’re also damned talented musicians with each of them playing a handful of instruments.

Their newest release, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, is less structured than past albums. The theme doesn’t offer itself immediately and the captain isn’t suffering from scurvy. It is more self-reflective, a bit older and direct. Meloy has said that the album title is inspired from the last line of a song, “12/17/12,” that he wrote after hearing President Obama speak following the Newton school shootings in 2012, “I was hit by a sense of helplessness, but also the message of ‘Hold your family close.’ This bewildering, conflicted feeling came out in a phrase near the end of the song – “what a terrible world, what a beautiful world”—that gave the album its title.”
I had the pleasure of chatting with multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk about the upcoming release, life in Portland and the pros and cons of the modern music industry. Beyond The Decemberists, Funk is a well-known producer that has worked with several other prominent Portland bands and he is a member of the quasi-Decemberists bluegrass side project Black Prairie, which also features Jenny Conlee.

ELEVEN: This is The Decemberists first album in four years. Besides the album, what else have you all been working on?

Chris Funk: Colin, our singer, wrote a series of books called Wildwood. Myself and other Decemberists are in a band called Black Prairie. We put out two records, an EP and toured. I also produced a few records for some people. John Moen, our drummer, is in a band called Eyelids and I think he put out a solo record in that time. Danny, our keyboard player, plays with a million people. So yeah, we’ve been busy.

11: What were those albums that you produced?

CF: The last Red Fang record, Sallie Ford’s new record, Casey Neill’s solo record and Rhett Miller from the Old 97’s – he’s got a solo record coming out that I just finished.

11: This is the Decemberists seventh studio album with many of the previous albums receiving critical acclaim. Do you feel added pressure to continue that legacy of success or is it still just fun for you? Or both?

CF: No, we don’t really talk about that stuff. I think that we do it for fun but it is also our careers, which is a different thing than just doing it for fun. I don’t want to say those things don’t matter, they matter to your career, but they don’t really matter to us as artists or musicians. I don’t mean to sound daft or anything or that we aren’t stoked when we get these sort of accolades along the way that mean a lot to people.
We’ve never felt pressure to make an album. We signed with Capitol after Kill Rock Stars and even then we didn’t feel pressure. I think they knew the band that they were getting. We took money from them to make a record, but we didn’t sign over our heads. Therefore we’re still on the label and they like us and we like them. We’ve had success, but we’re not the kind of band that has had Mumford and Sons kind of success. We sort of just go at our own pace and as a result we turn inward, make albums, and go on the road. Just get the album in the stores and on the radio a little bit and we’ll be good to go.

11: What changed for you when you signed to Capitol?

CF: Audiences have gotten bigger, but that’s hard to say if that had anything to do with Capitol or if that was our trajectory. When a major label signs you after three records, you’ve got something brewing anyway. The record we made after our first record on Capitol was Hazards of Love, which is not what I’d call pop. It was kind of a rock opera and it didn’t sell that well. So, what has changed? Not much. I think that there’s this misconception that when you sign to a big label you are suddenly pressured to do things that you don’t want to do or that you “owe them money,” which is just not true.

11: The band lists Leonard Cohen’s 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, Death of a Ladies’ Man, as an inspiration for this album. What are other musical and non-musical influences for this album?

CF: On this record I think there’s very much the British folk side of The Decemberists. There’s also the Americana side of The Decemberists–like the last record. I think there are songs that, as always, are inspired by 80s college rock like The Smiths, Morrissey, The Pogues… I don’t want to say that it’s a greatest hits record for The Decemberists, but it sort of has all of those influences on this record, which has become very Decemberist over the years.

11: The past Decemberists albums have been very thematic with historical themes, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is more free form. How is this album different for you than past albums?

CF: It’s kind of the first album that I went in as a musician in the band not having discussed with Colin before what the sort of theme of the record is, which is strange to be in a band where you kind of have a theme. I think from the writer’s perspective, I think Colin was like, “I’m going to try to evoke Leonard Cohen here,” which I think you can hear in a couple songs. What you say you’re going to do on an album a year and half ago ends up being a different thing. That’s the main thing.

We had this rock opera storyline [The Hazards Of Love] happening that was shrouded in British folk with these sort of Black Sabbath guitar riffs and then the last record was made out at Pendarvis Farm where they have Pickathon and we were like, “Let’s go to this quasi-farm and make an album that we think resembles Neil Young’s Harvest and get the of queen of modern Americana Gillian Welch to sing on it.” That’s the main thing, going in and not having rehearsed anything. Just turning the tape machine on, rolling tape and playing, which was really refreshing. As exciting as it is, also to be in a band that does have strong concepts and ideas for albums and not just documenting your songs. I happen to love that The Crane Wife and even Picaresque have such strong narrative themes. They make it really easy for instrumentalists to look at what your instruments are and what you can play on that. It was oddly refreshing just to be a band and go in and play.

11: In your opinion what are some positive and negative aspects of today’s music industry?

CF: I think the negative aspect, for me, is having to watch people complain about it on Facebook all the time [laughs]. It just gets tiring. The music industry has always been what it is. There’s always been issue with it and it’s always been kind of a Wild West of commerce and art. There’s always people making a lot of money at it somewhere and other people that are not making money at their success. I just get tired of hearing how great Taylor Swift’s idea was to take things off Spotify and I get tired of people complaining about how Spotify is ruining everything when in reality there is nothing that you can do about it. You know?

You just have to take it for what it is and technology moves at a lightning pace and our children in four years will flip it on its ass one more time. Whether you like it or not, whether you think vinyl is good or not, whether you think record stores should exist or not, there’s nothing you can do about it. If you want to participate in it and you want to be happy you have to sort of just have to figure out how to be happy instead of grumbling about it all the time.

I feel fortunate to still make a living doing it and I feel lucky. I’m one of the lucky ones that squeaked in. We have a lot of success. I also feel that it’s not luck. We worked really hard. I think there are a lot of people in the music industry as musicians that don’t want to work hard. They don’t want to get into the van and invest and take the time to make it happen. People can kind of look at what you have and think that you didn’t earn it and that you just signed to a label and it came to you. I think music will always exist, I think records will always exist and I think studios whether gigantic fancy ones or they’re in someone’s basement will always exist. I don’t care how it’s recorded. I’m more interested in the art form. Obviously I’m concerned and want to make a living as an artist, and hopefully I can, but those things are also out of your control sometimes too. It’s the wild west of music…

11: You’ve lived in Portland for some time now. What are some of the changes you’ve noticed living in Portland?

CF: Obviously all those ugly buildings on Division and Mississippi Street, which is probably a good thing. There are a lot of people that grumble, “Oh my God Magic Gardens is closing.” Having toured a lot, you go to other cities in the Midwest and you look at what they have and, no offense, do you want to be like Detroit or Cleveland? People are struggling to keep any of their businesses open. My main thing that I hope for the city is that younger people can continue to move here that want to take advantage of this quality of life that we believe we have here. That existed when I moved here. I think that’s the biggest change. Maybe the city is growing too fast and we’re not taking care of their renters.

11: Besides The Decemberists and Black Prairie, what are some Portland bands that you’re into?

CF: I think Luz Elena Mendoza is always doing something cool. Maybe I have a bad opinion because I’ve been a part of making some of her records. I think she’s talent and you can kind of follow her around and just breathe her air and hear something great. There’s a great band called The Domestics. Michael Finn works with Tucker Matin who makes our records and I’ve gotten to know their music. After a while, you start to see your friends’ bands. You go on tour and you come home, so I do tend to see the same music. I’m more interested in going and hearing bands at like PALS Clubhouse. Seeing the bands that OPB isn’t writing about. It’s important that that [PALS] is here. That’s what Portland was when I moved here. My friends are like, “It’s gone!” It’s actually not gone, they’re just forty. »

– Elizabeth Elder