March 30, 2007

Friday Spotlight: The Decemberists

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The Decemberists are currently on tour to promote their new album, The Crane Wife. Guitarist Chris Funk took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Daze.

DAZE: You’ve come a long way since self-releasing the 5 Songs EP. What is the biggest difference about being represented by a major label?

Chris Funk: Well, I don’t think for us there have been that many differences. Our record is more places to purchase.

DAZE: Have you had any different production?

CF: Not really, no. I think we probably had a bigger budget available to us if we chose to use it, but we really didn’t. I just feel like we made what would have been the next record. There’s more people working on your record. We never had anyone like, fly in on their jet and say, ‘Today we’re going to do this big radio single, and you have to sing this, this and this.’ We went into the contract with them understanding that we’re already a pretty established band and that we have a system for things and a way we’ve been making records and we just want to be left alone. If they were going to be amenable to that, then cool. If not, we’ll just go sign to Kill Rock Stars again. So it was not so much a major label vs. the indie label, just sort of what label understands us, and the people that are working at that label. Every label is different; there are bad indie labels too.

DAZE: I’ve been having a hard time characterizing what genre you guys might belong to; can you help me out with this? Are you indie? Prog rock? Folk?

CF: I think we’re a rock/pop band. Pop in the sense that the majority of the songs are something you can play on the radio. I think there’s a long history in pop and rock music of exploring other genres, exploring prog rock, exploring folk music, exploring some things. Maybe some people think we’re something novel and different, but I don’t think we are. We’re just rehashing old ideas and records we’re fans of and trying to put them in the context of maybe a little bit different set of vocabulary, different language.

DAZE: How did you guys all meet and form the band in the structure that you have now?

CF: We all met by living in Portland, and Colin [Meloy, frontman] having the initial idea that we should have a band like this, an acoustic band back when we started. I just played steel, Jenny [Conlee] just played the accordion and maybe a little piano, and Nate [Query] played just upright bass and drums and acoustic guitar. I guess if you look at it we were sort of a weird tango band or something [chuckles.] But it was just that we had this idea of starting an acoustic band.

The point we’re at now, we’ve had band members come and go. John [Moen,] who is our drummer now, he’s actually our third drummer from the beginning. Nate played bass for a while then quit. We got a new bass player, then he quit, then Nate came back. Touring in a band is hard to do and its hard to be away from home. Like Rachel [Blumberg,] our old drummer, missed her boyfriend and being in a band with him and being home. She’s playing pick up gigs here and there, which is better for her schedule, I think, then being in The Decemberists all the time. When we tour, we play close to 200 shows a year, and then add in travel, that’s pretty much the whole year. That’s your life.

How we got to that point? I guess we’re the last suckers standing [chuckles.] We have the lifestyle of a carnie.

DAZE: The Decemberists bio on your website calls you a “multi-instrumentalist.” What instruments do you know how to play and what do you play for the band, lately and always?

CF: Well for the most part I play guitar, but I also play banjo, mandolin and the hurdy-gurdy and –

DAZE: Wait, what was that last one?

CF: Hurdy gurdy. It’s like an early European instrument. You crank it with a handle and spins around some strings. I’ll have it at the show, you can check it out. [I play] all sorts of stuff, like dobro, traditional American folk instruments, stuff you see in a bluegrass band. I play some fiddle — stringed instruments pretty much.

DAZE: You guys like to tell stories with your music, often using historical references. What made this the preferred method of songwriting for The Decemberists?

CF: Initially, Colin wrote a song called “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” and it was just to make his girlfriend laugh. It was like, how can we do something different from the status quo? So, writing character narratives and in time periods, and having the same little stories in each one of them in themselves. People just kind of liked it, so it gave us confidence to keep doing it for a while. I think on this last record we got away from that a little bit, from like “Leslie Anne Levine” which was a very strong, character-driven song. We got away from it just for the idea of trying something new. I think the imagery is still the same, word choices are still the same. It was a wild guess for fun, trying to do something different in songwriting. Although that said, we’re not the first people to do that, either.

DAZE: Do you find that those motifs and methods are liberating or constricting in your music?

CF: I think maybe I can see us getting into a strict spectrum, but also on The Crane Wife we’ve started to step away from it. We’ve written songs like this for such a long time, and now we’re going to try something slightly different and creep away from what you’ve been doing. Respect what you’ve done without disregarding your fans; we’re not going to put out an electronica remix record. Just from pure songwriting, maybe stand back and try something new, but each record has a different feeling depending on what our influence is and what we’re listening to at the time.

DAZE: Is “Sons & Daughters” a generalization of the ideals and attempts of every generation to unite and move away from the current state of the country or nation? Or is it a specific call to this generation?

CF: I think its become that; that’s not really what the intent was. It’s more of a story. It’s cool that people are taking it as like, we play it live and “Hear all the bombs, they fade away,” and people chant that and we can all forget about the song for a minute and all share that poem. And I think this country of all places needs something that we can rally around and take refuge in and have peace. There aren’t that many bands that are making protest songs. There aren’t that many bands that are trying to speak to our country right now. But that wasn’t the intent of it and I don’t think we’re that kind of band either. All that said, I don’t think we’re necessarily trying to make social change. We’re not making huge statements like Pearl Jam or Neil Young.

But it’s cool that’s the case, but maybe it’s along the lines of getting away from a song that was purely character-driven. It’s story a story but it’s not told in the first person. That’s really what that song is—well, the intent of it has changed, which I think is cool and should happen in music. Fans should take on songs and take on what it means to them and that’s the great thing about having a song that doesn’t spell everything out for you, one that’s open to interpretation. You can understand the movement of the song or the tonality without missing the actual point of a song. It’s like looking at a painting or something like that. I’m not trying to lump us up with high art or anything, but looking at an abstract painting, you know what it makes you feel or something it evokes but its not completely spelled out. If you found out that it’s actually a sketch of a banana and an apple, it would just destroy it for you. I don’t think it’s our place to tell people what the songs are either. I think they’re to be enjoyed. I got an email form a guy today that said, ‘Oh, I heard your singer on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and it was great to hear the meanings about the songs, a little more explaination about your songs.’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah, but it takes out the pleasure of unraveling a song.’ Maybe, one day it can mean one thing for you and the next something else to you. On top of that too, I think of us as a rock band and not professors [chuckles].

The Decemberists will be playing at the University of Buffalo tonight. Their album The Crane Wife is available on iTunes, and in many music outlets. Visit for more information.