Q&A With the Decemberists

By Dan Kimpel

A Celtic influenced folk-rock-roots band atop the Billboard charts: The King is Dead, the Decemberists’ No.1 release on Capitol Records arrived in the aftermath of a solid decade of hard touring. But fans should plan to see them now, because when their current tour wraps in 2011, the band plans a three-year hiatus. While the music press has leaped on this pronouncement, according to founding member and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, his band mate Colin Meloy (chief songwriter and lead vocalist) was misquoted in a Rolling Stone interview. “The headline came out, ‘The Decemberists are at the top of their game and they’re hanging it up.’ That’s not quite what was said, but it’s a good story lead, I guess. We’re talking about taking three years––a natural break for a band doing what we do and touring at this level. It’s not that we don’t love it, but we’ve been doing it for 10 years.”
In this exclusive interview, Funk talks to MC about how the leap from indie darlings to major-label chart-toppers has impacted the Portland, OR, band members’ lives, and the variety of projects that both he and his cohorts will mount to occupy their creative souls.  

Music Connection: Your current tour itinerary reveals a daunting schedule. Do you ever have time to enjoy being in the cities where you perform?

Chris Funk: It depends on the timing and the day off. It also depends on the venue, because some are so far out of town. We played in Atlanta at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre that’s on the edge of a highway. In D.C. we play Bethesda, the Merriweather Post Pavilion, which is stuck out in the middle of the woods. It depends on how much energy you’ve got to figure out a ride to town.

MC: Is it possible for you to work on music projects while on tour? 

Funk: Sometimes I stay in the room and work on music. I bring recording stuff with me and try to focus on that. Or just catch up on life: we all have families at home.
Our tours are not “travel to see the world,” it’s to ultimately perform, which doesn’t feel like a job at all, but it’s promoting a record and it is work. I don’t mean to spin it in that light, but the days of, “Oh great, I’m in Austin, I’ll go to a roadhouse and eat barbecue…” No, you’ll be downtown, go to Stubbs to eat, play and then go to bed.

MC: What is it like to play the legendary Newport Folk Festival, and do they still have educational elements and workshops?

Funk: Newport is a beautiful location, an old fortification that’s now a state park. The stage is on the top of an old fort, above a peninsula where people are floating on their boats. It’s very scenic. In terms of folk festivals being like the days of yore, I have no idea whether they are or not. They’re fun to play.
I think the folk festivals are turning into more conventional rock festivals in some ways. I call them “NPR Festivals.” We played Telluride Bluegrass and so did Mumford & Sons, so it’s not really bluegrass any more. These festivals are really well run, and mellower than your conventional rock festival like Coachella, so I prefer them. They had an educational element at the Philadelphia Folk Festival and at the folk festivals across Canada and at Telluride. But at Newport, no. It’s a shame.

MC: The band has performed live on KCRW radio’s Morning Become Eclectic. Online viewers can also watch your archived shows on the Los Angeles station’s website (kcrw.org). Do equally supportive radio stations exist in other cities?

Funk: Seattle has KEXP, which is really great, and they make a great effort, like KCRW, to do online broadcasting. There are stations in D.C. and New York, but I assume you mean stations that support indie and up-and-coming music and have a really varied playlist. We live in Portland, and there’s a mountain of culture, and a mountain of people supporting it, but there are two commercial stations, one with a light rock, singer-songwriter vibe, and the other with a new rock vibe. They support us, but only because we’re on Capitol Records, frankly. They used to play us on the Sunday night local music showcase.

MC: You would expect Portland to have a thriving indie station. 

Funk: It’s a bummer that we don’t have something like KEXP that might have a weird techno show at noon in the middle of the day. I go to kcrw.org back to the Nic Harcourt days and check it out. You can read about a band on Pitchfork and then go to KCRW, and nine times out of 10, there they are.

MC: We were watching a performance by your band online and you were playing a 12-string that looked very much like a mid-‘60s hollowbody Vox Phantom. What is it?

Funk: It’s a Vox copy, a Phantom guitar made by a guy who lives outside of Portland. (phantomguitars.com.) He used to be the guitarist in the band Quarterflash. I put some work into it because I travel a ton with it. There are moments when I almost bite the bullet and buy an expensive Rickenbacker, but I like the way this guitar plays.

MC: With the Decemberists, you play a variety of instruments including mandolin, pedal steel, Dobro, banjo and bouzouki. Growing up in Valparaiso, IN, you worked at a store called Front Porch Music. Is this where you developed your abilities as a multi-instrumentalist?

Funk: It was. There was a lot of bluegrass music there and the one thing people weren’t playing was a resonator Dobro. I wasn’t then, and I’m still not now, much of a bluegrass picker. I could join the jam because no one else was playing the Dobro. It spoke to me. I learned a lot about different instruments of the world, a Turkish saz, and the oud, and I discovered David Lindley around that time. He became one of my idols.

MC: You were seeing the potential to move beyond the tried-and-true pop music sound?

Funk: Working at a guitar shop I wondered, “Why do so many people play guitar?” And I was thinking about the idiom of conventional rock music, and beginning to look elsewhere. The band came along and it was great that it already had an acoustic quality to it and everyone was game to explore their instruments. Once we started making a little bit of money I was able to buy a hurdy-gurdy or something. I’m cheap. I have a problem with trying to buy and play too many instruments.

MC: Let’s talk about the recording process. The King is Dead was tracked at an ad hoc studio, set up on a local farm. Could you describe this environment?

Funk: It’s called Pendarvis Farm. Our friends live there, and they rent it out for weddings. They also have a huge festival called The Pick-a-Thon, which is really fun, sort of a continuation of folk festivals. It started as an old-time and bluegrass festival and it’s evolved into a combination of indie rock and traditional music: Frank Fairfield, Bonnie Prince Billy, Bill Callahan and other artists. We recorded in a pottery/wicker storage shed––it looked like somewhere where Stevie Nicks would have hung out back in the days when she didn’t have any money.

MC: Shacking up at the same place you record is the stuff of rock & roll legend. Were you consciously tapping into that vibe? 

Funk: We wanted to make a record that was like the Band recording at Sammy Davis Jr.’s house, or the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. But once we got into it, it was, “Oh, but those guys lived there for a year, and they were fucking partying 24 hours a day and recording whatever they wanted to.” We came out at nine in the morning to the farm, and everyone left at six to go home to our families. The vibe we were trying to capture wasn’t who we are.

MC: Your 2005 release, Picaresque, was also tracked in an improvised studio, correct?

Funk: We recorded that in a Unitarian church. I prefer that approach, but having done that I can see why going back to a studio would be fine, too. We tend to romanticize things after they’re done and forget about the harder parts of it. There were limitations that were difficult and would have been augmented by having a studio.

MC: Are all of your recording projects thought out conceptually prior to tracking?

Funk: We do that with every record we make. “What is this record going to be? What are the parameters around it?” It’s a launching pad, and once you get down into the dust it’s going to come out however you make it. It’s like having a party and saying, “Everyone is going to drink this much alcohol, and smoke that much pot and have X amount of fun.” And then you get to the party, and no one has any fun. You can’t make the magic happen. But we made a fine record, although it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be. But it doesn’t matter. Not when you’re putting a record out.

MC: The Decemberists were once an indie band on a local label, the aptly titled Kill Rock Stars. How did the signing to Capitol Records impact you?

Funk: In terms of making records, signing to a major label didn’t change anything, but in terms of promotion it did. Now, you can be an independent and hit Number One, like Bon Iver almost did and Arcade Fire has. Not that we were concerned with that; Kill Rock Stars was a great, high functioning label. But what if?
Our contract was up, and [major-label] people were knocking on our door and we thought we may never have this opportunity again. It was curiosity––not that we wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but we wanted our audiences to grow. Also, we were touring seven, eight months out of the year, and we felt maxed. We wanted to continue making records and maybe one day not have to work so hard. So our answer to “What if” was––and we didn’t talk about this, I’m just thinking out loud in retrospect––but how far can we take this? We’re doing it now; we’ve quit our jobs, and maybe this can support us into not having to tour so much. As long as you’re making music you might as well reach a larger audience, but we didn’t have designs on having a record reach Number One.

MC: So how do you feel now; has the new situation met your expectations? 

Funk: We didn’t think this record would do what it’s been doing. It’s been fine for us. We go to places like Louisville, or a market where we were two years ago, and the audiences have doubled. The label is doing their job somewhere––radio promo magic or something.

MC: As I’m sure you’re aware, Mumford & Sons, with their West London sound, are making a huge impact. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

Funk: I listen to Mumford & Sons, but I’m not sure anyone else in the band is. I have the record and I really like it; I had it a while ago. They write great songs, and their shows are great––and Pitchfork gave them like a “two.” C’mon! Why even review it? You can tell those guys are in it because they enjoy music. That’s what bums me out when I hear people taking criticism. They came back and played Telluride for the second year in a row because they wanted to. They’re platinum artists now. But they were still out jamming all night, so enthusiastic about music. I have a hard time criticizing people when they’re doing the right things for the right reasons. You can feel it with those guys. They have a community. Mumford & Sons’ sense of community is awesome.

MC: What is most fulfilling to you about your life these days? 

Funk: In Portland, there are so many scenes and it’s about finding your musical community. That’s what keeps me going. When I come off the road I don’t check SoundScan or try to find sales reports of our shows in certain markets. I hang out with my friends and try to invest in other musical projects here and be active in my community and not be shy about it.
Our lives doing the Decemberists will come and go one day. I’ll live in Portland and just fall back into the vapors.

MC: Let’s talk about the forthcoming hiatus for the Decemberists. 

Funk: The Decemberists’ idea of a break is not like the Rolling Stones’ idea of a break, where you go to your house in Maui or something. Colin is super active, writing books, and I have three records on deck to produce, and the music to a play to score, and we’re on tour now. I perform with and produce the band Black Prairie, and John Moen, our drummer, has his own album where he sings. We made a record with John Wesley Harding, (a.k.a. Wesley Stace) and we’re going on tour with him and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) and Scott McCaughey from the Minus 5 in November. Jenny Conlee, our accordionist and keyboardist, is in like eight bands.
We’ve been touring so long and have been so occupied that we don’t know how to live in Portland anymore and not do something. I remember the first tour we did. I came home I didn’t have a job anymore, so what do I do? I didn’t want to just go to the bar and celebrate my “Cool Rock Star Life.” I’m a musician. I want to seize the opportunity and do music. I haven’t slowed down. Nobody has.
We all have families. It’s nice to live in town and to not be as consumed with promoting a record and just get back to it.

MC: Speaking of Jenny Conlee, she has been undergoing treatment for breast cancer and has not performed with the band on this tour. How is she doing?

Funk: Jenny is in her second term of treatment with chemotherapy. You get basically poisoned with the chemicals and throw up for four days. Then, when you feel normal, you have to go back in. She was really sick, and then a week later she was going to a Rush concert. It was so confusing. But she’s going to come out on the road and play four or five shows over the next month with us.

MC: So, after 10 years with the Decemberists, it seems that your development as individuals has made for both diversity and unity. 

Funk: It has. Some people embrace the rock star lifestyle. I couldn’t tour with people like that. Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek has been on the road playing with us. She’s super freaked out by how on-time everybody in our band is. If we have a lobby call at 10 a.m., everyone is in the van at 9:55. We take it seriously, we respect it and feel really lucky and never take it for granted with some hedonistic lifestyle that’s so easy to fall into. But just for the record: Say we like to party! Bring it out!

Contact Cem.Kurosman@emimusic.com