Meeting one of your heroes is always a thrilling experience, but actually sitting with them and working on a project must be something else entirely.
The Decemberists found themselves in that situation when they recorded this year's The King Is Dead, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck came in to the studio to contribute guitar to three songs.
We caught up with multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk to talk about that experience, why The Decemberists are so fascinated with "folk" music and why the LP constantly gets called "Americana," when it's kiiiiiinda not.
CHARTattack: Tell me what it was like working with Peter Buck.
Peter's awesome. He's super laid back, and he kind of does stuff in one or two takes. It's not that he can't be bothered to do it again, but it's that he's good enough that he just plays it once and it sounds cool and it's kind of a blues approach in some ways, I think. He's the nicest guy.
He lives in Portland [Oregon]; he's my neighbour, actually. You get desensitized to the fact that he's a Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame hero and that you - I just did another recording session for him lately where he and I sat side-by-side and played guitar together, and I realized we were kind of just winging it and making stuff up as we went, and I was like, "Why is he playing what I'm playing?" and then I was like, "Oh, it's just me trying to play like him when I was in eighth grade."
He's so much a part of our sound already that it was just awesome to have him in there and he just felt like part of the band. He's the best.
There are a lot of elements on this record that are very similar to the first record [2000's Castaways And Cutouts]. It's not even really that surprising that you guys would want to explore American music more. You've explored English folk, you've explored sea shanties, even, different types of folk music. What is so fascinating about different types of folk that always brings you guys back to it?
I think it's starting with the lyrics. There's so many different ways to twist a tale depending on what region of the world you're going into, you know, British vs. American. There's a lot of archetypes that aren't too dissimilar from each other in all of those as well.
I think, you know, speaking for Colin [Meloy, singer/guitarist] as a writer, I think having some foundation of characters to work on it is probably a great place to start working from.
But I think this record for us is getting labelled as more Americana because a lot of it's coming from the first person because it's not using traditional archetypes like in Hazards Of Love with the faun — which is very common and a recurring character.
In American music, you have, you know, John Hardy or something like that. You have these people who are just part of the fairy tale or part of the folk idioms from those particular countries.
So what keeps us coming back? I think for me as an instrumentalist, I love those instruments. I love those instrumental sounds.
Colin, as well. That's how the band started. He was like, 'I want an accordion player and a bass player.' I played pedal steel; that's how I wound up meeting everybody.
I think it's just part of our record collection. I don't know what draws us to it; the honesty and the universal pull that I think anybody can play that music in a way. To me that's what folk is. Your fourth grade teacher could come up and sing it in front of everybody, whether she sang it that well or not. It's just the retelling of a tale.
But again, I think this record being more Americana, I think really what it is is a departure from the narrative piece, character-driven stuff. It's more first-person in Colin's life and more of the pastoral — I call it naturalist imagery. You know, when he's basically singing about his house a lot and the surroundings around there.
So in our minds I guess that basically gives us more of an Americana feel because we're Americans.
I don't know exactly what Americana is. Someone in the past asked me to describe it. I was like, "I don't really know..." That's a good question, what Americana is.
You know, there's this newer version of Americana, which is No Depression — like what Uncle Tupelo started, and Gillian Welch. They've been champions of the Americana, but it's such a broad term, you know.
It's just like folk music is African music if you go to the Calgary Folk Festival, for instance, or whatever folk festival's around here. It's such a vast term.
You were saying R.E.M. has had such a huge impact on your sound throughout your entire career as a band. When you go back through the old Decemberists records, where do you hear it most?
On The Crane Wife, "O Valencia," that's "7 Chinese Brothers," the guitar riff, actually just inverted, I think.
There's "We Both Go Down Together" from Picaresque, that's another "The One I Love," I think. You could sing that over that, as well as "Down By The Water" on our new record. I think there's just points on every record.
Maybe the first ones sound more like Camper Van Beethoven, but it's just of that era and that pocket, and also the use of mandolin, which — it's mind blowing that Peter doesn't get touted as more of a mandolin player, but he had a #1 single with a mandolin, which is so cool. I don't think people even realize that's a mandolin.
Just being armed with the sensibility that you can play rock with acoustic instruments, which nowadays isn't the biggest deal, but when we were starting off in 2000, there weren't a lot of bands — I'm not saying we led the way in doing that or anything — but there weren't a lot of bands.
It's so common in indie rock now where everybody has accordions and violins and strings and Sufjan Stevens has an orchestra; it's not rocking at all, even though his last tour was pretty rocking. It's a strange thing to go away from the Pavements of the world who were all so laden with loud electric guitars.
I think that's just sort of how R.E.M. empowered us and how Camper Van Beethoven empowered us to keep it acoustic.
I've heard Colin describe the record as "more simple" and "an exercise in restraint" and that you guys found it hard to record. Really?
I think "more simple," in my opinion, just being on the inside of it, is just his mindset that he gets into to write, or gives us a guideline, like the guideline is this: We're going to record in a barn, and we're going to keep it simple and we're going to try to pull back from throwing a bunch of guitars on everything or whatever, and overdubbing.
Whether or not that happened, exactly, I think that was just how we went into it and we therefore think about the record.
But I listened to some songs like "This Is Why We Fight" and that's a pretty big-sounding song, you know; that's pretty thick with guitars and to me it's not really simple.
But again, I think that's just sort of what you go into the game with, the process with, so you can sort of articulate the vibe and not really the end result.