In anticipation of The Decemberists’ performance at this year’s Bunbury Music Festival on Saturday night, we talked with Chris Funk, the band’s guitarist/pianist/mandolinist/saxophonist/thereminist, about their new album, playing a festival venue, and what it’s like to open for Bob Dylan.
Is Chris Funk your real, birth-given name?
That’s pretty serendipitous for a musician…
Well, maybe if I played guitar in D’Angelo’s band or something like that.
The Decemberists 2011 album, The King is Dead, was such a huge success for the band—did that success cause the subsequent hiatus in any way?
No. In fact the opposite, in the sense that we’ve never really been a band that’s done things just to be successful. Of course we care about those things and we take steps to make sure we can tour and keep making records—you want people to come to your concerts, so I’m not going to say we ignore that reality—but [the success] had nothing to do with [the hiatus]. I think we were just ready to take a break after that record no matter what. We had only taken, like, a six-month break in the last 10 years.
The new album’s first song, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” speaks to that success, at least in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Is that something you discussed a lot leading up to this new album, the band’s success and the public perception?
No, not at all. We don’t talk about it. We don’t really talk about the past, or how to write a record to get more Grammy nominations. I mean, I don’t think anyone does that, really. Maybe Kanye West does, I don’t know. Not to sound daft or anything, but we’re always looking forward instead of looking backward. Musically, maybe we look backward and ask what would be different about the new record, or what would be similar. I think this album is sort of an amalgamation of all of our albums in the sense that it’s given us courage to genre-hop and explore other ornamentation in music.
It’s been suggested that the opening track acknowledges a move toward a more mainstream sound. Did the band feel that way at all?
When I initially heard it, I didn’t think it was the voice of (lead singer/songwriter) Colin (Meloy). I immediately thought it was a character. We have a long history of narrative songs that had kind of gone by the wayside on the last record. The second song is “Cavalry Captain,” and Colin’s never been in the military. You have to look at the lyrics—our drummer never cut his hair, the Axe shampoo—it’s referencing a timeline. But people want to grab on to the chorus and take dark and gloomy songs and play them at their weddings. I understand it, sure. Not to say that the song doesn’t have any first-person in it, but that’s the fun of it, to challenge people to think about that at times, and wonder if it’s about the band or not. But that song is more of a third-person narrative.
Which songs from the new album have been getting the biggest response?
I think “Make You Better,” just because it’s been on the radio…
And because Ron Swanson is in the video, obviously.
(Laughing) Exactly. And also the song 12/17/12. It’s a really touching song and a great performance, and I can say that because I’m not playing on that song. It’s a very moving song and one of my favorite on the record.
That song and the album title—What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World—is a reference to the Sandy Hook shooting. It was obviously a terribly tragic event, but was there something about it specifically that Colin or the band latched on to?
There’s the obvious, but the song is also about him having another child. It’s about many things. It’s about having a baby, how beautiful that is, and it’s a love song in a weird way—it has a duality to it. It’s his family. You parent and you bring children into a world—what a terrible world, what a beautiful world, right?—and you want to keep human-kind going, even though you look at the news, and the headlines are never really what is great with the world, unless it’s the world’s funniest cat. It’s just one of those moments when you’re about to have a child and wondering, What am I doing? You have fear, and wonder, and excitement.
In “Lake Song,” the band drops the word “prevaricate” into the lyrics. Isn’t that quintessential Decemberists? Can any other band get away with a lyric like that?
Umm…Morrissey maybe? I think I just exercised the meaning of “prevaricate” by saying that.
In regard to playing Bunbury here in Cincinnati, is there a difference in playing a festival show as opposed to a regular tour stop, in terms of how the band approaches the performance?
Yeah. I think we try material that might be more upbeat and maybe more familiar to the masses. That said, I have no idea how familiar people are with us at times. Who knows if someone coming to see Skrillex has any idea who we are? And maybe Skrillex is already passé, I don’t know. I think we just try to connect with the audience and have fun.
Do you have a personal favorite upbeat, festival song?
I’m always partial to playing stuff from Hazards of Love. I don’t think a lot of people know that record, but there’s a lot of material that’s heavier, guitar-driven music. But I think “Make You Better” will sound great live and at festivals, and I think “The Singer Addresses His Audience” will be great. People tend to respond to a lot of The Crane Wife material. “Down by the Water,” is always a crowd-fav. “Calamity Song.” With festivals, you’re just trying to hold it together for the most part. Festivals are hectic.
The band is known for having a lot of audience interactions and unique, interactive stuff on stage. Are festival performances the same in that sense, as well?
I’d say so. That stuff that now is part of the show just came from touring a lot and either trying to make ourselves laugh out of tour tedium or, I don’t know, alcohol.
You guys opened for Bob Dylan a few years ago. Do you have any good Dylan stories?
Yeah, I have one. Because you don’t “hang out” with Bob Dylan. When you open for Dylan, they make you stay in your dressing room for 15 minutes as he pulls up in his limousine and gets out and walks on stage. And then after he’s performed, they make you go back in your dressing room and wait 15 minutes, and he gets back in his limousine and leaves. So there is your awesome, opening-for-Bob-Dylan story—you’re not allowed to look at Bob Dylan on either side of his set. I don’t think it’s anything personal, just slightly annoying.
On the list of the band’s accomplishments—a number one album, a Grammy nomination—where does playing the Pawnee Unity Concert on Parks & Recreation rank for you?
It’s pretty high. It was a big show. There were a lot of extras there.