If there is a white picket fence along the rock-star trajectory, Chris Funk has likely found it. The Decemberists' jack-of-all-instruments (guitarists first and foremost; banjo, mandolin, bouzouki, pedal steel, glockenspiel, and hammered dulcimer follow suit) has a few weeks to spend with his family in Portland, Oregon before casting off on full tours of the U.S. and Europe. His group's fifth album, The Crane Wife, has coveted celebratory reviews since its October 3 release, and defied the myth that going corporate is the ultimate indie death-sentence. (The Crane Wife marks the group's first release on Capital Records, formerly releasing on the independent Kill Rock Stars label.) Funk recently caught up with Street over the phone as he and his four-month-old daughter were out enjoying the changing leaves in the City of Roses.
Street: A lot of fans believe that when a band makes the switch from an independent record label to a corporate label that there is pressure on the band to have to compromise their image or style to the market, that the band may become 'less real.' Did you find that to be the case when you guys went to Capital? Were there those sorts of pressures or not?
Chris Funk: No, it's been the same. We've never put ourselves in situations where we have to have 'pressures' upon us really, that's not the kind of band we are. We've never tried to be a pop band, and when you hear bands dealing with that kind of stuff it's usually because people put themselves into that sort of position. They try to become this huge pop sensation, all of these people have expectations of them, they're not living up to them and all of a sudden you've got a fiasco. So we're always realistic with who we've become as a band, and Capital knows who we are as a band. It's been great so far, they're a great label.
Street: Has your life gotten any more glamorous now that you're on a major label?
CF: [Laughs] No, it's the exact same. I mean, I've done other interviews where people are like 'Oh I see you all own your own houses now, blah blah blah,' and I'll be like 'Actually, we all bought our houses when we were on Kill Rock Stars.' It's not any more glamorous at all, again, we're not that kind of band. We don't live in Los Angeles and hobnob with the flavor of the week. We live in Portland, two of us have kids now [lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy has a seven-month-old son, Hank], we just make music, hang out with our kids, see our friends. No one's buying anything unusual, and so on and so forth. We're more the type that tries to plan for the future; hopefully we'll never have to work again when it's all said and done.
Street: You have other work outside of the Decemberists, correct? A side project called Knock Knock looking to make an album next year?
CF: Well that's just something that me and my friend Shines - he's in a rap group called Lifesavas - and he's a great producer. I was interested in a pedal steel record that sampled beats -- sort of like a DJ Shadow with pedal steel - but as time went on we realized that we share many other interests as well, and at the end of the day we both just realized we wanted to make a record with some singers on. So that's where we're at right now, we've got about 20 songs, and a bunch of instrumental interludes and things like that that we'll put together. But it's just some time to hang out with my friend and try some new styles of music. He's an amazing sampler, kind of akin to the old-school before people did Q-base and all these computer programs. It's a little bit more laborious and musical I think. It's a nice diversion from the Decemberists and something to do when I'm at home and stay active and stay musical.
Street: So how does a Decemberists song get written?
CF: Well Colin begins with words, chord changes so on and so forth. And it's different with every song, and sometimes he comes in with a song idea and we pretty much add really obvious bass and drum parts in there and we just run with it. And other times the song ends up being arranged completely different. But I think the genesis of the words and the music, initially he brings it in and we just work on it all together. We're not really a jamming band.
Street: What's it like when you guys are in the studio? Is it very strict, do you bring your material in ready to go, or is it more a creative, casual atmosphere?
CF: He [Colin] gives it to us on a compact disc like a month before we're in the studio and just had a bunch of chord changes. With The Crane Wife we actually did just jam on the songs, we just kinda started playing them. I actually tracked a bunch of stuff at home, added some fake drums and synthesizer parts to just flesh out some ideas before I went in the studio. Then we went into the studio for a couple of weeks and started playing the songs and everybody just kind of came with their ideas and took the songs further. Once we had that sort of flushed out, Tucker Martine, one of our producers there, started pointing out things that he thought were really cool and not cool and if we got into a pinch on something where we couldn't decide he'd help us out. And after that Chris Walla [second producer] came and then we started recording and the ideas further got strengthened out we just kept going, just kept working on it In some cases everything we'd worked on for two and a half, three weeks we completely trashed and started over, which was always really scary initially and really fun at the same time to see a song completely transformed. Like the beginning of "The Island," for instance, was pretty much a metal song, a la Black Sabbath, and then it kind of changed into this. now I feel it's Pink Floyd of something. So yeah, I guess we do jam a bit, but the initial idea always comes from Colin.
Street: Speaking of the sound variations on The Crane Wife: you mention Pink Floyd, and I hear some Yes too in there. You guys are definitely trying some new things here, where did they come from?
CF: To me this record is kind of a Greatest Hits, actually. Everything we've done thus far. "The Island" is pretty much in my opinion "The Tain," which is an EP we put out, an 18-minute-long song that encompasses one record. So "The Island" to us doesn't feel that foreign of a territory. I think we keep trying to do something different on each record but also have a foot in the past and be the same band we are, be conscious of what the band is when we come together to make music. We're not like Beck or somebody who keeps tweaking his image out. He's more of a pop identity, where he has the freedom to sort of go wherever he wants to go musically. But we're certainly not going to come out with an electronica record or something like that. [Laughs]. So to us it feels like the same thing, and we live with ourselves everyday and we live with the band all the time, so the change, we don't see it as much. It's something we're not the best authority on, to say how we've changed or why we've changed. You know? You're in college, try imagining your senior year of college and re-tracing every semester and how you've changed. It's difficult. But I feel we're pretty honest musicians, in that we openly steal from our various heroes and things we're listening to at the time. It's pretty easy to figure out I think.
Street: Let's talk about performing live. How do you guys get the energy to come out night after night and throw yourselves around on stage during songs like "Mariner's Revenge"?
CF: Well that's part of entertaining, and you have to realize after a while that it's music so much as it is entertainment. And unless you're Bob Dylan or someone I don't think you can just come out and stand there, unless you've so solidified yourselves as the best songwriter in the world or something. When you're really down in the dumps and you're exhausted, I'm not gonna kid you, it's hard to be away from home for two months at a time, it's just physically exhausting. So when you're in that position you'll say to yourself "I'm gonna go out to make the best of this, people are here to see us." And that's just always going through my brain, what a great honor that is to have people pay to see us. On this next tour with Ticketmaster the ticket charges are insane, it's like $40 to see our show, so it better be good. I'd sooner shoot myself in the head than walk offstage and feel like we've just let down a bunch of people. So subconsciously you have that energy, and by the time you're a couple songs into it it's just great.
Street: Does your personal relationship with the music change by playing the same songs over and over? Is there some sort of business versus pleasure boundary for you?
CF: I don't really ever get sick of the songs. By the time we put a song on an album I love the song. You know we're all human beings, so we can't all sit and listen to the same thing over and over, we can't all watch the same television program over and over. But because you're participating in the delivery of the music there are different aspects every night that transcend the tedium of performing it every night. There's always something in it, in any given song, that I can subconsciously latch onto and still be with the song and perform. I don't ever feel like I'm half-assing it.
Street: Are you as into the theatrics as the rest of the group? What's your relationship with that aspect as the band?
CF: I don't really feel like we're that kind of band. I think that's maybe the short impression, that we're very theatrical. People have started to write and say that, and I think it kind of comes from the lyrics and everything. But the only thing that was theatrical about the last tour was that there was this whale that I would bring out, and it was just more of a joke, it wasn't meant to be this big theatrical statement. So every night we brought it out, it was just hilarious. Everything's very tongue-and-cheek with us, like with the photos we take. We're not trying to make this huge statement and fool you. It's more of a joke, it's more like "this looks ridiculous." Even the lyrics too, it's like how far can we push the envelope? People always perceive us as these really bookish hobnobbers that run around Portland in mariners outfits, and that's the furthest thing from the truth.
Street: Do you have a favorite song to play live?
CF: I think probably "The Island" will be my favorite live off the new album. It's really challenging, it's really anthemic, and it rocks, which is nice. I think particularly on the road it will be really great to crawl inside that song, and just the visceral experience in performing it will be fun.
Street: Hypothetical question. Colin Meloy is sick before a show and you can pick anyone from rock-n-roll history as your lead man for the night. Who would you choose?
CF: I'd probably say Paul Westerberg from The Replacements because that would mean we'd just get really drunk and wouldn't have to rehearse so we could just kind of fall around on stage. I think it'd probably be pretty entertaining.
Catch the Decemberists at 8 p.m. at the Electric Factory on November 1 for the (relatively) low price of $22.