Since their debut in 2001 with the self-released 5 Songs EP, Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists have built themselves a catalogue of hyper-literate folk songs, bombastic anthems, wistful Americana tunes, tranquil love songs, rock opera movements and joking ditties—basically whatever kind of music they want—and their fans have followed them all the way. Behind frontman and lead vocalist Colin Meloy, the band has come to be synonymous with the indie rock movement of the early aughts. After a multi-year hiatus, The Decemberists continue to push themselves to new heights, releasing this year’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, an eclectic, sprawling collection of tracks that follows up and wholly contrasts the group’s succinct 2011 effort The King is Dead. Their newest release, Florasongs EP, is made up of unreleased recordings from the recent album’s sessions.
Chris Funk has been playing guitar (among many other instruments) for The Decemberists from the beginning, adding his Midwest roots to the Pacific Northwestern outfit. An admitted fan of punk rock, Funk complements Meloy’s acoustic demeanor with an edge that has led to the band’s signature sound that, he says, has never really fit the mold. Here Funk discusses the refreshing aspects of the most recent recording sessions, why every Decemberists record is different and which album he enjoyed recording the least.
How’s the touring been this year—any surprises?
Our concert sold out in Winnipeg, Canada—that was surprising.
Let’s talk about the recent album and the upcoming EP. What’s the usual process that you guys go through to start out an album? Is there a set routine at this point, or is it always kind of different?
It’s been different with every record, honestly. This one was to show up with no overarching theme. A lot of our albums have overarching themes, I think for us to sort of wrap our head around them—and for Colin [Meloy], in the beginning, to wrap his head around the genesis and songwriting of the music, and then for us as a band to augment it and sort of focus what we’re going to play. For example, The King is Dead was sort of our idea of making an Americana record, and then The Hazards of Love being more of a rock opera record. This time we just booked studio time and didn’t talk about it that much until we were in there making the music. Usually there’s a lot of chatter before we go in—“How’s this gonna be?” or “How is this album gonna sound?” Usually Colin or myself will demo something and put in sounds just to have a talking point, but we didn’t do that this time, which is really nice.
With the other albums, are there songs written going in to it, especially on the more concept driven albums like The Hazards of Love ?
Sure. I don’t mean to say that Colin just showed up [for this album] and we jammed and then he wrote songs—the structures were made, and in some cases he already had some ideas of guitar lines or some suggestions—but it wasn’t as much as previously. With The Hazards of Love, it was a maze putting that thing together, so that was well written in some regards before going in to the studio. It kind of reminds me of the old days, like on Picaresque where we just showed up and I’d bring instruments, like I’d try out a banjo or try this and try that and we’ll see how it layers in. I don’t want to say it is, but to me it’s like our greatest hits type of thing, because I can point to every record in our career and say, “Oh that kind of comes from or was informed by this record” or “That one’s informed from that record.” It’s kind of strange—it arises some very strange sounds when I break it down album for album. Sometimes we’re a folk band, sometimes we’re a hard rock band, sometimes we’re British folk and sometimes we’re American folk, or whatever. It’s like we’re all over the map, and there’s all types of genre selections.
It took a year and a half to do the record. Not every day—it was a year and a half by design, because we would come in and work and then split after four days and not reconvene until months later. That was the difference with this record—we didn’t block out this huge intense part around making the album. We’d just show up every so often, which I really enjoyed, because I feel like you can lose perspective at times. At least I do.
I’m interested as to why certain songs don’t make it on to albums, and why others are left for later projects, like the EP that you have coming out. What goes into that decision?
You don’t know what a song is going to sound like until you put it up and get it recorded and then hear it coming up over the hi-fi, or whatever you want to call it. Overall I think that an album just captures a moment in time, and there are some albums there are some songs that looking back I don’t think should have been released on that album.
Any ones in particular?
No [laughs]. I’m not gonna reveal that. But I think that the band can get excited about songs—Colin can get excited about songs or any combination of people, and then we have Tucker, who’s our producer, who’s involved in it as well. I think you start to see the shape of an album and how it makes sense, and we still think of these things—which are arcane at this point—but we still think of things about how you rule things out in terms of an album, and how the identity sits. But I think it helps us focus on what the identity of that album should be, and what those songs are. And there was a debate for a while about if we should make a double album, or leave it as it is, but everybody makes an iTunes playlist and then exports it and that’s how they listen to it. I think that you have a beginning and an end, and what goes in between is based on the pace of songs.
So yeah, I’d say it’s a democratic process that’s just putting the album up and every day you listen to it, and every day it feels different. Some days there’s a band you listened to or whatever and it’s like, “I love this album today!” And then other days you hear it and you’re like, “I don’t want to hear this ever again.” And then you hear it again and say, “That’s an amazing record” [laughs]. But there’s no distinct methodology that I’ve come across yet.
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