In 2006, The Decemberists released The Crane Wife to some critical acclaim. It would be the fourth in their 9-album, 21-year career, and, some would say, their finest; 2008's Cat O' Nine Tales signaled their descent into what came to be known as their ‘sanguine' period, exemplified, of course, by 2011's Sorry, Sanguine Salvo, the heart of a blistery convolution of mottled, almost schizophrenic songwriting, not to mention their dangerously dated misappropriation of grime.
With Colin Meloy's gangrenous Antarctic voyage and subsequent dementia still months into the horizon, the band went on an extensive tour that fall in support of The Crane Wife. Guitarist Chris Funk, poised, unknowingly, to germinate the solo side-project that would ultimately eclipse the Decemberists name to become one of the most significant musical voices of the ‘10s, joined me for a rare cell-phone interview from his combustion bus, as we spoke of wookies, iTunes, and the pre-fallout American Union.
So you guys are in Atlanta right now?
How's the tour going, you're like a week into it at this point?
I guess it's a week, maybe more like two weeks. [Laughter] I don't really know.
How does Atlanta treat you, historically?
Great, every time we play here. I think the show's sold out, so, I guess it's treating us well, that's what it's supposed to do, right? [Laughter]
Is it a big place, I have to assume? I've seen you a couple times, and every time it's just been bigger and bigger.
Yeah, we played here last time, this place called The Tabernacle. It's like, a couple thousand people. So, yeah, it's big. It's pretty, though, it's an old church. It's got like a pipe organ on stage and stuff. It's really an epic, beautiful place to play.
And appropriate for you guys.
Yeah, I think so.
So let's talk about the new album.
It's being very well-received. But what surprises me is that, and of course inevitably fans will talk about, you know, comparing newer stuff to older stuff. And I'm really surprised to find that a lot of times it's highly polarized – I hear people say both, "Oh, you know, Castaways was when they were at their best," and then from there they kind of stopped paying attention, and other people say, "I've been following them but they never really struck me until Picaresque." Do you get that sense, from both other people and from being there and recording these albums? Do you see that difference, or are you too wrapped up in it, or, what's your perception of the progress you're making?
I think it's a little difficult to look back at your own life, and, you know, say how it's happening while you're living it still, so I think we're still living this record out. I'd like to think with each record we make we get closer to what we consider to be a better record. But for me they're just kind of like timepieces, and that's kind of how I view them -- just where we're at in our lives and whatever songs we had on the board that day. We had a lot of outtakes from this record and there are some songs that I think maybe now we wish we would have put on the record for various reasons – but we don't regret it.
You can't really get too wrapped up in, "Oh maybe we should have done this or that," and so when you start looking at records like that it's sort of, for us, it just sort of relieved us a little bit, to just accept it and be happy with it. But that's not so much the case on, like, Picaresque or Castaways And Cutouts or Her Majesty because I think we were really pushed for time and money, and we had very different budgets to work with, so I think we left those recording sessions being like, "Damn it, I wish we could remix something." So I will say that this is I think the closest we've gotten to something we really liked, and it's our favorite record thus far.
I think everybody has attachments to various records for various reasons. I have attachments to, let's say, R.E.M.'s Life Rich Pageant, which may or not be their best record, but I bought it when I was in high school, and was driving through the South with my parents in the fall. Even though I'm probably supposed to like Murmur, or their earlier work or something. I think there's all kinds of factors that go into what makes a great record and why people wax poetic about ‘best record's.
You were talking about some songs that you had recorded that didn't make it on the album; I've read that you recorded upwards of like 20 or 25 songs? Or had them written, at least?
Yeah, we had about that many songs on the board to choose from. Colin always gives us a CD of stuff to kind of rifle through and listen to and take stuff home and work on before we get into the studio. So yeah we had about 20 songs, then we ended up recording, I think, 14 songs in their entirety. So we had some outtakes. Which was nice, to have a chance to sit back and listen to the record as if it were in a different form. And we've released some of those songs through various outlets, so it's nice to see them have a life of their own, and we're actually playing some of them live 'cause we really like them. So, some diehards, some completists who find their way to those songs will enjoy that, I suppose, and other people who just have the record will be thoroughly bored and can go to the bathroom at that point.
And these are being released how?
"After the Bombs" is available if you buy the album via iTunes. Then there's another song called "Culling of the Fold," and for that you get a certificate, or a passcode, and you can go download it. That was done through the Coalition of Independent Music Stores. So, various bonuses for buying an entire record instead of downloading single songs off of iTunes, that was kind of our goal, because we really feel strong about the record being an album, but didn't want to be one of those bands that was like, "You can only get a whole album on iTunes." That always makes me a little upset. But we want to encourage it, to keep people thinking about a record being a record. Just to have a record from side 1 to side 2 – thinking about it in terms of vinyl, that's kind of how we think about records still.
Is that something you plan to do? I know you did that with Picaresque, had a bunch of songs on there that weren't on the CD, and the big booklet. Is that something you're planning to do, or planning not to do, or you just don't know?
Well the vinyl came out last week, and it's just its own little thing, it's just a record. You know, we thought about doing that, and I've always thought it's kind of an asshole move to your fans, you know? [Laughter] Somebody bought stuff, and it's like, "Alright, you're trying to reinvigorate record sales, and make even more money on it?" But there's two sides to that coin. So to answer your question, I don't know how it'll come out eventually – the box set retrospective when we're old and decrepit and washing dishes.
Is there any one song that you were sorry to see not make the album, that you personally had an affection for?
Now that we're playing this song "Culling of the Fold" live, I'm like, "Damn, this is a really fun song, and maybe it should have had a different life." But it's out there, and you can buy it, and you can find it. You can steal it if you have to, I suppose, on the internet.
In terms of increased crowd size, how is that taken into consideration? Does that ever bleed into and affect the actual songwriting process? I mean are you conscious of how you're going to have to perform these songs as you're writing them?
I don't think it affects the process, I mean, Colin starts writing from his living room or wherever, then we get together and play, and we write however we want because we like the song, and whatever serves the song, but we are always conscious of like, "How can we pull this off live?", realizing that we identify as a road band, to a degree. To a strong degree. The portion of the song called "Landlord's Daughter," we're like, "Oh god, this is gonna be so awesome live.” But then we were like, "Wait, Jenny, how are you gonna play the organ and the Moog at the same time?" And she's like "Oh, I'm gonna have to practice that shit" – and what we did was bring in another musician with us to help out with that stuff. [Laughter] Took the easy way out.
On this record I know we tried to simplify the sounds quite a bit too, as a challenge to ourselves, whereas Picaresque was, "How expansive can we make this sound by throwing on a bunch of ridiculous instruments to the nth degree,” like on “The Infanta,” and I think we sort of felt exhausted by that. So, yeah, to me this record feels like more of a 'band' record for that reason, staying focused, knowing that we're a live band and knowing that we perform. It helped us stay kind of true to who we are, which I think was, in retrospect, now that I'm saying it out loud, probably a really good thing.
I also wanted to talk about Carson Ellis, who, she has done the artwork for just about every release you've put out, I think, everything except Picaresque, is that right?
No, she's done everything, she did all of the conceptual work for that, and then she did the borders around it and everything like that.
And what I noticed about the art on Crane Wife is it's surprisingly different; to me, I found it to just be stylistically a little fuller, there's some more depth to it. So I was wondering, there's clearly a relationship between the art and the music – do they kind of inform each other, or is she off doing her own thing until she comes and hears this album?
I stay out of it, 'cause whatever she gives us is amazing, always. It's always really great. She's Colin's girlfriend, you know, they have a child together, so they live together, so it seems like there's always this intense period of debate between Colin and Carson, of how the art's gonna go down a little bit. But I think the pencil drawing on the type of paper that she was doing was just something that she started moving into more at this point in her life. More of a stylistic change, I think, going from ink and paper and watercolor – and previous to that, Castaways And Cutouts was an actual painting in oil. So it's sort of just following what her particular medium is at the time. And she's a full-time illustrator now. She's doing a kids' book with Colin about their cat. She's just working her ass off. It seems like every two years we're making a record now, so we'll check back in with her in two years and whatever she's into, we'll go for it. We instill a lot of trust in her.
So it doesn't seem that the music is ever inspired by a certain piece of hers, or some direction she's moving in?
No, we never wrote a song that way. But she and Colin share so many of the same tastes, and they read a lot of the same books, and they live together and they watch the same movies. I'm sure that they have influenced each other subconsciously. They get into the same thing definitely, all the time. Whether that be Russian prison tattoos or, you know. [Laughter]
I have one last question – I have to ask about the wookie, the little wookie doll that I've seen in your band photos.
Oh, yeah, that's Jenny's wookie. That's her little buddy she brings on the road, and we're big Star Wars nerds. I don't know if you heard, we got invited to go to the Skywalker Ranch in San Francisco, and tour the Lucasfilm dynasty out there, because Jenny made her wookie so public…that doesn't sound right.
That film series wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for you guys.
[Laughter] That's right, man. We'll take full credit.