Whether in the studio or a barn, getting back to basics isn’t always easy
Following 2009’s The Hazards of Love—the Decemberists’ second straight high-concept fairy-tale song cycle in a row—frontman and principal songwriter Colin Meloy decided to ditch the theatrics and record a batch of no-frills Americana tunes. Taking cues from the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. and the Band’s
self-titled sophomore effort—barebones albums made in rented houses—Meloy booked a barn outside of Portland, Ore., where he hoped to capture the sound of five people playing in a room. But things didn’t work out that way. “That was the starting point, and much to our dismay, it unraveled,” explains multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, who has played with the group since its formation more than a decade ago. “When you read back about how all the old bands did it, they would take 40 or 50 or 60 takes of songs, and I don’t think any of us had the patience for that. That’s the problem with concepts and dreams: They’re concepts and dreams, not reality.”
So the Decemberists stayed in the barn, but recorded The King Is Dead in their conventional painstaking fashion—and invited guests like Gillian Welch, violinist Annalisa Tornfelt and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to sit in. The result, the warmest and most straightforward work of the group’s career, is also its first-ever No. 1 album. We spoke with Funk about the ups and downs of concept albums, the future of the Decemberists and the dangers of attempting to make a “barn record.”
What did you have in mind when you started work on the album?
The concept was to make this, quote-unquote, barn record, like Neil Young’s Harvest. That record wasn’t made in a barn, but it feels like it was. So the concept became, “Let’s make a record that feels like it was made in a barn.” We turned the barn into a more conventional recording situation. It’s been spun like we had these jams captured live during the sessions, and we were all excited to do it that way. But I think the only song we actually recorded live was an outtake, a Grateful Dead cover. It was very much a studio production. People talk about how it’s stripped back, but there are a lot of songs that sound like big rock songs to me.
You wouldn’t say it’s back to basics?
I don’t think it’s any more or less stripped down. “This Is Why We Fight” is as big a studio production as anything we’ve ever done. Same with “Calamity Song.” Same with a lot of them. The only ones truly stripped down are at the end, and we’ve had those types of songs on every record. As time has gone on, Colin has started demo-ing songs more, so he gets more in his head what he wants as far as guitar lines and stuff. In some ways it’s helpful, because he has more of a vision of how he wants the song. That gives me a launching point to work from.
How long did you work with the “barn record” concept?
We were actually recording for a week. It was happening—then I think everyone started to self-analyze. The reality is that the Decemberists are not a rollicking rock group like the Band. That’s not who we are. We just got caught up in the process—but the point is to make a good record, however you get there. You can’t get hung up on, “But this is how we set out to make the record.” It’s more glamorous to talk about making a stripped-back acoustic record, but I think it’s more interesting to hear how it really went down. We made a great record, we’re all proud of it, and it was harder than our last record.
How does this compare to Hazards?
I really liked Hazards of Love. It was interesting and fun to play a lot of electric guitar. Being a multi-instrumentalist I don’t ever think to do that, because I get a little annoyed by how much guitar there is in the world already. It was fun to indulge and spend a lot of time doing that, but I was excited to come back to this approach. This record is like Castaways and Cutouts , our first record, in some ways—just a random batch of songs from Colin’s writing periods over the past three years. So it was refreshing in that way. We’re such fans of music, and we love to think about our songs in terms of other bands. In interviews we talk about R.E.M. more than we talk about ourselves, which is probably just us being modest. But it’s weird. I don’t see Arcade Fire talking about Bruce Springsteen all the time.
How was working with Peter Buck?
He did that in an afternoon. He works really fast, and all those songs were already being written as his parts, essentially. It’s no secret that we just rip off Peter all the time. Like on [2006’s] The Crane Wife, “O Valencia!” that’s me playing [R.E.M.’s] “Seven Chinese Brothers” backwards, as a descending line instead of an ascending line. The [King Is Dead] song “Down by the Water,” in its original form, was so much like “The One I Love” it was insane. We were like, “Let’s just put the cards on the table and go into the belly of where we came from.” So it was more about us wanting to work with Peter. He lives down the street from me, and he’s amazing to work with on many levels. He’s super humble: “What do you want me to play? I’ll just play the parts you want me to play.” He added his touch here and there. It’s funny—on “Calamity Song” Colin had written the arpeggio parts, but they’re just sort of Peter Buck’s sound. And Peter would just say he got it from Roger McGuinn. It’s a style of guitar playing that’s very recognizable, and that nobody on this record is going to claim to have created in the first place.
What other artists do you listen to?
It’s always been R.E.M., Neil Young, the Byrds, Camper Van Beethoven and the Waterboys. We tried to get a Fisherman’s Blues thing going on this album, in the sense that the Waterboys had a lot of demo sounds or scratch field recordings. Tom Petty, who’s a Byrds fan. All roads lead back to the Byrds, in my opinion.
Colin has said this will be the last Decemberists album for a while. Has he discussed that with you?
That statement is kind of a tricky one with us, because most bands in our position of touring, sales and however you want to look at it usually take two or three years off between records, and we haven’t done that since the early 2000s when we started touring a lot. But I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ve heard it before with Colin: “I don’t have any songs, let’s just take a break.” And I’m always like, “Great, let’s do it. I’m ready to come off the road for a while.” Colin is putting out a children’s book, too [Wildwood, due out this fall], so maybe that’ll take over. Maybe it’ll be the next Harry Potter, and he won’t want to do music anymore. I don’t know.