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Interview: Chris Funk

If the quintet was a single person, Colin Meloy would be the raconteuring, songwriting, floppy-banged face of the Decemberists, but Chris Funk would be the backbone. He’s the guy transitioning with no little grace between every instrument in the baroque-indie-folk-rock book, from the guitar and banjo to the theremin and hurdy-gurdy.

Funk and the rest of the band have just left their Portland, Oregon environs for a tour in support of their latest, the country-tinged The King is Dead. TOB got Funk on the phone to talk about the new album, why committing to one genre is overrated, and how recording is like the longest ever game of Monopoly.

TOB: The King is Dead is a big departure from the Decemberists’ last album, The Hazards of Love.

Chris Funk: It’s just kind of a collection of songs, which is really refreshing after having two very thematic records in a row. The songs on the album are from all the eras of Colin’s songwriting. Some of them we’ve played on the road. I think there’s a more naturalist approach to the songwriting. I think they’re more personal for Colin, too. Some of them are about his family; like in “Rise to Me,” he’s singing to his wife and his kid. It’s pretty cool to see him step away from the third person and sort of put the cards on the table.

I mean also, a lot of the songs are about deep Montana silver mining, which come from an aborted musical that Colin was working on. It’s just kind of a mish-mash. It’s been pinned as an Americana record, which I think is kind of a misnomer. It’s a folkier side of the Decemberists. To me it sounds like one of our first records. Some of the songs, like “This is Why We Fight” and “Calamity Song,” are straight myths and sort of in the style of R.E.M..

Speaking of R.E.M., Peter Buck plays on a few tracks. What was it like working with him?

It was great! He’s actually my neighbor—well, all of our neighbor. Portland’s not that big. When we first met him, we were like, holy shit. This is one of our idols. It’s really strange. There’s a moment of being like, wait a minute, you’re this person that I grew up trying to emulate. By no means do we feel like his peer. I think he’s a genius. He does stuff in one or two takes, and that’s it. It’s really inspiring. It’s a little like going to school, but totally fun.

There have been a lot of R.E.M. comparisons with The King is Dead. Were they a big influence?

Oh yeah, totally. Every one of our records has an R.E.M. moment. Like on The Crane Wife, we had “O Valencia,” and that guitar line that I put on there is “Seven Chinese Brothers.” We’re kind of a weird band like that. We’re one of the only bands you read about where we just talk about our influences—or we don’t try to mask it. There’s R.E.M. all over the place. In The King is Dead, there are a lot of Reckoning vibes, which to me is an alt-country record from before the idea of alt-country was even out there.

What are your other big musical influences?

I think with the band, it’s a lot of folk music all over the map—and the American versions of folk music from bluegrass and country for myself. Colin really enjoys British folk. And rock—The Hazards of Love had moments of epic stoner rock, for sure. We all like indie rock. When the band first started, we all listened to stuff like Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle and Sebastian and Yo La Tengo. And Jenny [Conlee] and Nate [Query] are into jazz and classical. It’s really all over the place.

It’s really our downfall in some ways, because I think you can look at us and say that we’re genre-hopping. But it holds my interest, because I grew up in the suburbs so I have a problem committing to one musical style. They really don’t have a musical style in South Chicago and Northwest Indiana. No, I take that back—there was steelworker blues.

You play a lot of different instruments. Do you have a favorite?

I love playing electric guitar, just really cranking it up. We go out and make records and then tour, but it’s so rare that the band actually just plays anymore. It’s kind of the only situation where I play electric guitar. So it’s super fun to actually play what I consider to be the most common instrument in the world. I also love playing square-necked and back-slide instruments—pedal steel, lap steel, that kind of stuff.

The Decemberists have both toured and recorded a lot the past few years. Do you prefer being in the studio, or onstage?

They’re kind of their own separate things, honestly. You can’t really pick between them. But if I had to, I’d probably pick the studio. I produce bands on the side, so I have a recent interest in the overall process. I nerd out just seeing the process happen, and getting to try different instruments and approaches. But every record we’ve made since Her Majesty, there’s a moment where we’re like, “Oh my God. It’s been a grind.” Because you’re in this room with six people and you’re breathing the same air for five weeks. It’s like coming home for Christmas vacation and getting snowed in with your relatives, and playing the same Monopoly game over and over. It’s a really fun game, but after awhile you might freak out a little bit.

What’s up next for you guys?

We’ll tour for most of the year, and then I think we’ll probably take a good one or two year break. Colin’s been working on a book. I have a side band called Black Prairie that Jenny and Nate from the band are in with me. We put out a record last year, and we’re gonna put out another. We all have side projects. As soon as the Decemberists shut down I’d like to say I just go to the bar, but I haven’t figured out the slowing down part yet. Just more music. It doesn’t stop.

The Decemberists play the House of Blues, Jan. 28 and 29