Can The Decemberists, a Brainy Folk-Rock Band Pointed Toward the Past, Leap Into the Future on its Synthy New Record? | Music Feature | Indy Week
Pin It

Can The Decemberists, a Brainy Folk-Rock Band Pointed Toward the Past, Leap Into the Future on its Synthy New Record? 

Known for their ornate and verbose folk-rock, The Decemberists have always oriented themselves toward the past. Since forming in 2000, the Portland, Oregon band has mined the annals of pop music, from eighties college rock to traditional folk music—and sometimes even Black Sabbath.

Chris Funk, the band's guitar player, puts it this way: "We're always going backward while attempting to go forward."

Indeed, The Decemberists—made up of Funk, lead vocalist and guitarist Colin Meloy, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen—see themselves as a record-collector's band, a group of musical scholars that didn't shy away from referencing what came before them. Funk says his own musical journey started on saxophone while he was going to high school in Indiana. But as a child of the eighties—which he considers "a really interesting time for synthesizers and punk-rock guitar and horrible-sounding drums"—he started going to rock shows in Chicago and was inspired to put down the saxophone and pick up the guitar.

He's since become a jack-of-all trades when it comes to string and traditional folk instruments, and he also plays synthesizers for The Decemberists. In fact, he'd been messing around with synths for months leading up to the recording sessions for the band's new record, I'll Be Your Girl, their follow-up to 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

"This is being pegged as the synth album, but we've used synths all along," Funk says. "The synthesizers were things we already owned. We didn't go shopping. It was like, what else do we have in the closet that we can use to expand the orientation of the songs?"

The fresh sound is also a result of subbing out longtime producer Tucker Martine for John Congleton, who's worked with the likes of Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, and Spoon. That choice, Funk says, came from needing a producer who could bring a fresh approach to the band's new material.

"We had worked with Tucker for so long that it had become too comfortable," Funk says. "There was the challenge of growing the sound and the experience. We had put a bunch of parameters around Tucker through our friendship, so the most obvious thing to do was cut ties with him and try something new with someone we weren't comfortable with. It was wanderlust, really."

In a firm but friendly manner, Congleton pushed the band to embrace an aesthetic thick with dynamic guitar and synthesizer textures.

"He's a very stylized producer, which means he's a very good producer," Funk says. "To me, those are the great producers—they find a voice in the way they sculpt sound."

The band was often in the dark regarding how, exactly, Congleton achieved certain tones and atmospheres, even though most of the members have production experience of their own.

"I remember coming into the studio and being like, 'Wow, what [effect] do you have on my guitar?' And he said, 'Don't worry about it,'" Funk recalls. "He didn't want to reveal his tricks, which was totally cool. He's a wizard."

Congleton's influence is especially apparent on the densely arranged singles "Once in My Life" and "Severed." The latter begins with a krautrock-style mix of arpeggiating synth and heavy guitar riffs. It's strikingly different than anything The Decemberists have touched on before. Such old-school electronic elements appear throughout I'll Be Your Girl. Many of the songs clock in at under three and a half minutes, which is notable for a group with a long-standing affinity for multi-part folk epics. (There is one, however: the eight-minute "Rusalka, Ruslka/The Wild Rushes," which is based on a traditional Russian mermaid tale.) But the album stops well short of being a complete reinvention of The Decemberists.

"I don't think we tried to turn the band completely on its ass or anything," Funk says of the new direction. "You're consciously making music for people who like your band, and you don't want to ostracize fans, but you also get your creativity scratched. There are a lot of things to balance when you make a record."

The folky acoustic instrumentation and lyrical references to historical parables that define the band's eight-album discography are still there, and Meloy's singing voice remains central to the band's fanciful sound. The Decemberists found a new path forward, but they just had to find a new guide to get there.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Music Feature



Twitter Activity

Comments

Meh, Check out billy strings. Not only a good songwriter, but an extremely talented musician. Not from NC though …

by Timothy Oswald on Restless Musician Ryan Gustafson Embraces Being a Folk-Rock Gem on Unsung Passage (Music Feature)

The song is love for everyone. There is more love to die for younger. Play store is a good resource …

by Sabhana Chaudhary on Restless Musician Ryan Gustafson Embraces Being a Folk-Rock Gem on Unsung Passage (Music Feature)

Most Read

Most Recent Comments

Meh, Check out billy strings. Not only a good songwriter, but an extremely talented musician. Not from NC though …

by Timothy Oswald on Restless Musician Ryan Gustafson Embraces Being a Folk-Rock Gem on Unsung Passage (Music Feature)

The song is love for everyone. There is more love to die for younger. Play store is a good resource …

by Sabhana Chaudhary on Restless Musician Ryan Gustafson Embraces Being a Folk-Rock Gem on Unsung Passage (Music Feature)

Autumn and Melissa, you cavewomen, you :-) Thanks for keeping the fire alive in the depths of the night. I …

by Ruy Burgos-Lovece on The Cave Is Coming Back to Life. What Do Its New Owners Have Planned for its Next Chapter? (Music Feature)

There's an error in your thinkpiece - it states that Janet Weiss had a short-lived stint as the drummer for …

by SashaTNC on Can Pavement's Stephen Malkmus Hold His Own Against His Former Band's Ever-Expanding Legacy? (Music Feature)

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation