As the new Decemberists album began to take shape -- in late-night song swaps, in writing sessions snuck into tour schedules, in those "Hey, I've been tinkering with this" moments -- the band began referring to it as "the country record." After the wildly ambitious, rock-opera album "The Hazards of Love" in 2009, the emerging tunes were simpler, more succinct, with stringed instruments in mind.
"It's being pegged as this Americana sort of record, and that's sort of what we used in our brains to be the guide," says Valparaiso, Ind., native Chris Funk, the Decemberists' founding multi-instrumentalist. "We found ourselves looking back to our first record [2002's 'Castaways and Cutouts'], to that pedal steel, accordion, upright bass, that kind of setup. We wanted to return to making songs and not worry about song cycles or concepts. ... It's different from 'Castaways' in the narratives. 'The Legionnaire's Lament' is on that album. This one is more about Colin's family and personal experiences. There are songs about war, of course -- a traditional Decemberists theme -- but there's no character-driven material beyond his own person. It's very naturalist. It all felt more like acoustic instruments and that kind of flavor. You can't get away from who you are, even when you go off trying to be a psychedelic prog-rock band like on 'Hazards.'"
with Wye Oak
♦ 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4
♦ Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
♦ Sold out
The Decemberists, led by singer-songwriter Colin Meloy, typify a truly modern sound of America's urban outskirts. With a basis in acoustic music and tall tales, Meloy and his mates also incorporate the sounds and singing styles of contemporary bands they (like so many Midwestern teens) grew up slightly removed from but eagerly listening to -- mid-'80s "college rock" staples from America's R.E.M. to Britain's the Smiths.
One of Meloy's first bands in his native Helena, Mont., was an alt-country group called Happy Cactus. Later, he wrote a book for the 33-1/3 series about the Replacements' 1984 album "Let It Be," an album that came out when he was 10. He's made a solo record of Morrissey covers, and his reverence for R.E.M. led him to chat up Peter Buck, that band's guitarist and fellow transplant to Portland, Ore., which resulted in some Decemberists contributing to an album by one of Buck's other bands, the Minus 5, and -- turnabout being fair -- Buck playing guitar for a few tracks on the band's sixth record, "The King Is Dead," which debuted last week at No. 1.
"He lives right up the street from me," Funk says of Buck. "We just asked him to play. A few of the songs just sounded very R.E.M.-informed, and we thought, 'Let's get his 12-string arpeggiated magic on them.' He spent one day in the studio. He works very quickly. It's fun to be around someone who doesn't overanalyze. He has this jazz approach, though he's not jazz at all. It's truly rock, I guess. It's exactly what we were after."
To record "The King Is Dead," the Decemberists retreated to an actual barn on an actual farm. The songs felt close to the land, so they would get themselves close to the land. It sort of worked.
"It wasn't, 'Let's make this farmy, barny record,'" Funk says. "We had in mind something like [Neil Young's] 'Harvest,' but even 'Harvest' was made in a studio. It was kind of naive, setting ourselves up to get into this headspace, and it backfired a little. We were really bummed out because it rained a lot, like, a record month of rainfall while we were there. It's typically sunny then in Oregon, believe it or not. We wanted to camp out and have this fun party time. I think I camped out once. But it was at least good for us to get out of a traditional studio. They can be so sterile. We were able to walk around outside and not slump over in some strangely designed mixing room with Mix magazine lying there."
During the last couple of years, Funk and two fellow non-singing Decemberists (Jenny Conlee-Drizos and Nate Query) occasionally join guitarist Jon Neufeld and fiddler Annalisa Tornfelt in a band called Black Prairie. It's a mostly instrumental, bluegrass-rooted combo that draws from Funk's roots in northwest Indiana. Funk says he's "not sure what the band is exactly," something to do between bursts of Decemberists activity, but Sugar Hill released the Black Prairie debut, "Feast of the Hunter's Moon," last year to sizable acclaim.
For the Decemberists' new tour, Funk says in addition to the new songs, they will carve out certain selections from "Hazards" and most of the previous albums.
"There was the thought, 'Maybe we should just let that album be,' but then we did some shows this summer and the songs worked on their own. We're like the Grateful Dead or Wilco: We'll always play songs from throughout our catalog," Funks says. They also have a special guest, he added: "Sara Watkins [from Nickel Creek] is out with us, playing fiddle and singing. She just flew in from St. Paul, where she had filled in for Garrison Keillor on his radio show, and we just handed her 35 songs and said, 'Here. Learn them.' She looked at the variety of material and said, 'It's a lot, but it feels like home.'"