Photos by Autumn de Wilde
Four years after the release of their last album The King Is Dead, The Decemberists have returned with their latest LP, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. And the timing couldn’t be better.
Fans have been eager for new music from the Portland, Ore., outfit and considering this record has been in the works for some time already, the band has been just as anxious to finally get this one out for the world to hear it.
We sat down to talk with guitarist Chris Funk about the ongoing evolution of the band, keeping things exciting and adapting to changes within the industry.
Both of the last albums have been released in January. Is that a conscious decision or just how it works out with the label?
I think it’s a good time in the year to release a record. Obviously, it depends a lot on the label and what works into their schedule too. But I do think it’s good because it gives you time to build momentum, play festivals in the summer and then still have time to tour in the winter.
You guys changed up your own studio formula this time, right?
It was different this time in the sense that we didn’t really rehearse. We just went into the studio and tracked everything. That’s kind of unusual for us, not to have that many ideas of what we’re going to do before we go into the studio. For that reason, it was really exciting, because you’re wondering how the songs are going to shape up. Who’s going to play what? We left a lot up in the air.
At this point in the band, how do you keep things fresh?
You have to take a break of course. [Laughs] Getting away from it all and doing other things. For Colin [Meloy], he wrote a series of books, which is pretty remarkable. For me, I produced records. I hate to say you need to get away from the band, but you really do have to take time for yourself, get your mind out of the latest project or tour. The Decemberists, for all of us, could easily become our only identity and our sole source of energy. It hasn’t been like that but that happens to a lot of bands and it’s not good.
A lot of people really thought the album was going to release last year. Were there delays or was it simply not ready?
I don’t think there were necessarily delays but we just didn’t feel like it was finished. We wanted to keep going. I think we trust each other and what we’re doing enough to know not to force it. It will come when it comes and we kind of accept that natural curve. In the world of music and being a band, I’ve accepted that there’s an element that is out of your control and you’re happier when you just surrender to that. And it’s strange, because so much of this industry is about scheduling. Everything hinges on a calendar. To stay sane, though, you have to be flexible.
The King Is Dead debuted at No. 1 and earned a Grammy nomination. Did you feel any pressure this time around, considering these benchmarks?
We’ve never been a band that gets hung up on the benchmarks. The success we’ve had—I think it’s actually caught us by surprise at times. I mean, we’re very grateful but it’s not something we get emotionally invested in—the benchmarks or the titles. When our record hit No. 1, it was also really a celebration of the people on the team working for us. It’s a sales number really. Chart rankings aren’t equivalent to the merit of the quality of work. I’d like to think it is, but a lot of it is timing and how good your team is.
Speaking of that team, The Decemberists are kind of a darling of the indie world, but you’re on a major label (Capitol Records). Do you feel the support from the label?
Well, we definitely get more studio time, so that helps. And you don’t have to pack up your gear at the end of the night because somebody else does it for you. [Laughs] I mean, they’re getting paid, so it’s not free, but it makes it easier for the band. There’s definitely not a right or wrong to go about a career, but it sure is nice to have a budget and more money for your tour and even advisers to help you navigate this crazy music world. We’re still making the music we want to make, which is important.
How do you balance that with fans’ expectations? There are several songs that kind of touch on it.
On the writing side of it, we just do what we want to do. I think it’s on the show side of things that you start to become conscious that people are paying to see you perform. So that’s when you’re suddenly aware of fans. But as far as the writing, we’ve always felt we have the liberty to do what we want. Ultimately, it’s our music and we want to make something we’re proud of. It sounds rude to say you don’t think of your fans but in the beginning we didn’t have any fans, so why we suddenly change things?
A lot has changed since the last album. Spotify is a much bigger factor than it was in 2011. Are you guys better positioned because you emphasize the live show so much?
We’re embracing Spotify and we’re giving them songs to premiere at times. We’re not in a position to pull our records like Taylor Swift. I use Spotify and so does everyone in the band. You can waste a lot of energy as a musician complaining ...but it’s nothing new though. There’s always been this struggle for artists and musicians and the people making more money off of them than the actual artist does. That’s as old as publishing. In general, music is seen as entertainment. It’s like how you go to a concert and you drink and jump around. I’m not saying I don’t do that. And everyone wants their entertainment faster and cheaper. That won't change. It’s just where we’re at right now.
What comes next for The Decemberists?
The live show. I think we’ll be touring for the foreseeable future, which is great because we’ve missed it.