The Decemberists change gears by doubling down on keyboards

Funk (far right) and the Decemberists return to House of Blues on August 1.
Photo: Holly Andres / Courtesy
Annie Zaleski

Inventive indie rock troupe The Decemberists recently released a studio album, I’ll Be Your Girl, that boasts a heavier synthesizer presence than previous albums. Multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk called in from Portland, Oregon, to discuss the band’s latest direction and what influenced it.

Reading other interviews, there was a lot of talk about how the band wanted to get out of its comfort zone for this record. Why did that make sense now, with the material you were working on, and also at this stage in your career? This is our eighth album, and I think by circumstances of it being that deep into a catalog—which, to us, that seems deep—that was the beginning of it. Like, “We have this eighth album. How can we challenge our listeners and, mainly, challenge ourselves?” It was a creative impulse. For us, at least, it always starts with us, and starts with the songwriting and the creation of the music and how inspired we’re feeling. It was maybe a stab at also just looking for other inspiration.

You know that in your gut, as an artist, when it’s time to shake things up a bit and mainly challenge yourself. In our mind, it was switching a producer and looking into some other instrumentation. It’s not meant to be disrespectful to our other producer [Tucker Martine], who we love very much (laughs), who we’ve worked with forever, who is a collaborator in the band. It was something that we felt like we should try. And we also worked at a different studio. It was just shaking up those parts of the creative palette, if you will.

How did you find yourself being shaken up as a musician and as a creative person by making all these changes? It’s really in the moment. And it’s really when you get deep into the process. Working with a producer, you’re working so intimately with them—you’re often friends with them, they become part of the band at times. They’re really helping shape the sounds.

It’s such an intimate process being in the studio, because it’s for such a long period of time. And it’s really the other half of where the magic happens—the other half being the inspirado, probably at home, when the song starts to begin.

It’s in the moment when something’s being created and you’re honing in on a sound, or consciously trying to shift it, that you realize your discomfort (laughs). And realize your old habits with your former producer and yourself.

We’ve been a band long time, so we have sounds that we create and we have roles that we create, my role being the person who ornaments these songs, versus Jenny Conlee who plays the keyboards in our band. She sits opposite me, and she ornaments the songs as well. We have this shared role and this palette of sounds that we rely on. In that moment, you’re discovering how you’ve chosen to do that over the years, and how you might get away from it, while still having it sound like The Decemberists.

It’s an interesting thing. Still, I’m looking back on it and trying to understand it. And then even moving forward to the next album, seeing how we can maybe even take that further—or do we step backwards?—will be the question, I suppose.

It’s such an interesting puzzle, because it’s looking at where you have been, what is your identity and how you can add to it. It sounds intellectually stimulating. It is, yeah. And it’s a mystery to me, too. I produce as well, I own the studio that we were in, and you could have one other person in the room, and it would completely—without the risk of sounding like a narcissist—affect a generation (laughs). You know what I mean? That person could change that one lyric of the song, or the hook, and it could be, like, an anthem to change the world. It’s really this ground zero moment. And I think about that every time I’m in the studio. Not to pressure myself, but it’s more appreciating the magic of music, and the magic of the studio and the power of song. In this day and age where, respectfully, the music industry is sorting itself out with that, we will always have music and song, despite our industry.

How did you guys go about amassing other instruments, like synthesizers? We actually owned them all. There is a history of us using synths, but maybe just not as forward in the mix. And they were vintage synths that we didn’t really do anything [to] in the computer—which, you know, a lot of people produce that way, and that way is just fine. So it was more like referencing bands, [like] The Cure, New Order, Krautrock [bands and] Portishead a little bit at one point in time. Now that I’m saying it out loud, it’s probably career suicide, because all those bands are dad rock like we are probably (laughs).

It made sense to me that you guys were using synthesizers on this album, because I feel like that’s always sort of been lurking in your past records—and certainly some more than others. It wasn’t strange. Yeah, I always think our band, we’re either referencing ’80s college music or we’re referencing folk music. It’s either one or the other. That’s the duality of The Decemberists to me. We’re either referencing this category to the right, which is American and British folk music, and then this category on the left, which is ’80s college rock with a smattering of stoner rock here and there. So in the ’80s category, you know, The Decemberists sound like R.E.M., it’s very blatant. But when I was listening to R.E.M. as a kid, I was also listening to Depeche Mode and New Order, and somehow those bands fit. Now we divide those—like, New Order would probably be more squarely in the, I don’t know, MGMT or electronic music world these days.

So it’s really curious to me that I was listening to that music and not really realizing how that music was made, or while Peter Buck was playing mandolin, [New Order’s] Peter Hook and all those guys were using all these really complex synthesizers across the pond. It all was really good songs, just ornamented in different ways. And that’s what our band evolution is at the core. It’s typically pop music—or it’s a reaction to pop music, so it’s a deconstruction of a pop music song, just ornamented in different genres. That’s how I view it at least—Colin Meloy’s songwriting skill around pretty good musicians( laughs), who sort of know what they’re doing.

What was it like working with John Congleton? I admire him as a producer, because he’s worked on so many records—and they all sound so good. Well, I think you hit the nail on the head there. He has a very distinct sonic landscape. I can usually hear something that he’s produced and recognize it, which is really great. Not to say that he’s pigeonholed, because I think he’s very adventurous. He has a way of doing things that is a technique. And I’m not really sure of what that is, because he does it behind the scenes a little bit, and he does it without you realizing he’s doing it.

He’s very easy to work with, and he’s very fast. He comes from more of this approach of Steve Albini—who’s this fly on the wall, more punk rock, slightly scrappy [studio persona]. [But] Steve Albini would abstain [giving] an opinion of how the song should go. John was very involved in how the song would go. So it was this combination of the two, of really knowing when to pull back and let it happen, and recognizing there is a band in the room, as opposed to just a songwriter and hired musicians, melded with all these studio tricks that he’s doing.

So I, as somebody who aspires to produce, and my assistant, who was also working on there, just on the technical side, we were like, “What are you doing right now?” and he would sort of skate around it, and be like, “Don’t worry about it.” He was really guarded with the techniques, which I really appreciated, because it means he’s like, got something going on. He’s got a spellbook or a bag of tricks going on, which I think is badass.

What was most gratifying and fun about exploring all these different sounds and ideas on this record? I think it was the synths, definitely, and then some guitar tones. In the moment, you know, the band always gets in there, and we tried things out in different forms. “Severed” sounded like a Replacements song when Colin brought it to us. Hearing [“Severed”] morph was really interesting. The song “Rusalka, Rusalka,” the first half of that—having that come together and just feeling the tone of that song come together, was really magical too, for me, personally.

And this is always subjective. When a song is really happening, and the magic is really happening, I can feel it in my gut. It might be like as a listener, when you’re at a performance that blows you away, or when you hear a song that makes the hairs stand up on end.

You have that moment in the studio, too, where you’re like, “Yeah, we’re totally onto something here.” When you’re exploring something and you’re exploring something new with a new instrument, for example, you’re taking a chance on something. And you get in that creative space where you could feel free enough to take that chance and be vulnerable, and then suddenly, magically, it starts to happen and everybody’s high-fiving each other in the studio. That’s really fantastic and awesome.

As a writer, if I put together a sentence, and I’m like, “That works! All right.” You get that little bit of satisfaction, like, okay, I can still do this. There’s always that pursuit of something better and something interesting. I totally get that. It’s the addictive part of it, and it’s also the dangerous part of it because one day it’ll just go away (laughs). It just happens to everyone. Or you just keep trying, and you won’t admit to yourself, I guess.

Hopefully it doesn’t go away. The goal is to not have it go away, but I know what you mean. You don’t know when it’s going to dry up. Yeah, life is long. And we’re getting in the middle of our lives as a band, and as adults, I’m starting to see where it can go away, and I can start to see how that might happen. Look, when you’re a dishwasher, and you start playing in The Decemberists, you kind of got nothing to lose (laughs).

Not to say that we feel pressured by that or anything like that, but when you have that satisfaction of delivering music that you’re proud of and inspired by, that’s what keeps everybody going in the morning. I’ve been thinking about that lately, just as a creative person in our band, as we’re touring and everything. It’s interesting to be in this phase of our career.

Do you have any memorable Las Vegas shows that stand out? I think we’ve only played there twice, maybe three times? Once we played Vegoose, the old festival, and then we played the Joint. I remember it just being totally fun. I love the casino side of Vegas. I unfortunately don’t know the other side of Las Vegas, like most people that probably don’t live there. To come in and be playing a casino is totally bizarre, [for] being a band that plays theater and clubs typically. I remember it being really fun, and being a great time.

THE DECEMBERISTS with Whitney. August 1, 7:30 p.m., $31-$46. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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