|Photo by: Provided|
Chris Funk had a busy 2011. As guitarist of The Decemberists, he achieved a Number One record (The King is Dead) on the Billboard 200 album chart and had a number of successful tours--culminating with two GRAMMY nominations. Funk also found himself back with folk/bluegrass side project Black Prairie and produced music for Red Fang, Casey Neill and Heartless Bastards.
The multi-instrumentalist reflected on the year with ACRN, and spoke about the things still yet to come in 2012 and beyond.
ACRN: I know the tour you were doing with The Decemberists ended a few months ago. What have you been up to since then?
Chris Funk: I built a recording studio, so working on that, kind of finishing that up. [Also] producing a record for a friend of mine named Casey Neill. Black Prairie is working on the score to a play called The Storm in the Barn, based on book by Matt Phelan.
The band is also writing a new record, [though] Black Prairie is sort of focused on the play at the moment, primarily. Also, helping the band The Heartless Bastards produce, and helping them write and perform on a movie score that they’re doing called The Winter and the Blood.
ACRN: How did the first live show back with Black Prairie go?
CF: It was great. It was in a bigger room than we’re used to performing in, so it was a challenge to use acoustic instruments to do that. But, it was really fun.
ACRN: Has anything that you know of changed within the band from last tour to now?
CF: Really, I mean, I think in terms of the next record, we’ll probably add a bit of percussion, and I think it might be more focused on vocals--I think we’ve been writing quite a bit of vocal- oriented material.
The only thing that has changed is maybe opening up the palette a little more for Black Prairie, and not necessarily taking as a string band so much as more of a a straightforward band. But, we’re still using the same instruments as a string band.
ACRN: I know on the “Burn Down The Organ” tour, you guys had that tour EP, We Can Sing, where you each took a turn singing. Would it be something like that, or would you consider Annalisa [Tornfelt, vocals/fiddle] to be your lead singer?
CF: She’s definitely the main vocalist. I don’t really aspire to sing songs, but it would be nice if Jon [Neufeld], our guitar player, sang some more.
The way the band works is very natural: whoever is inspired to do whatever they want to do in that and bring whatever song they want to bring to the table. For us, the band is really a platform to write and record, not have pressures of delivering any sort of expectation. In that, it’s kind of wide open. So, it’s kind of hard to say who would sing or wouldn’t sing. It’s fun to have vocal songs to break up the other stuff.
ACRN: You mentioned this score you guys are doing for a stage play, do you mind talking a little more about that again?
CF: It’s called The Storm in the Barn. We were commissioned from the Oregon Children’s Theater to do it, even though it’s not really a young-young kids' play. It’s more of a middle-reader, middle-aged young, probably like 8 to 12 or 15 [years old] because of some of the themes, and probably adult as well. And the book is a children's book so it’s esteemed, I guess, in that parish.
It’s about a 1937-era festival in the Oklahoma-region of the United States. The book was translated into a screenplay, actually by a writer from Ohio named Eric Coble, and we just met up with them.
The music is actually going to be performed by actors onstage, so we won’t be performing it, but we’re sort of writing with other people in mind. Black Prairie can wind down a path of complexity that I think might be difficult for some actors to play [laughs].
It’s interesting writing and trying to keep the writing simple, and it’s been interesting writing collectively for something that is more or less an underscore for a film. You’re sort of writing this thing that is going to be performed live in real-time and writing songs that are 30 seconds long to string together with other songs. So, it's a nice challenge.
ACRN: Now, is this something that you plan on releasing as an album at all?
CF: Yeah, we’ll put out our take on it, sell it at shows or at performances of it or have it online. The music is interesting enough, I think we’ll actually perform it. It will be performed. The play comes out in April. It will be a separate release from our record.
ACRN: You’re getting back to Black Prairie after doing The Decemberists for the last while. Are you excited to be returning to this music?
CF: Yeah, very much. The Decemberists, we’d make a record over a concentrated piece of time, then we’d go play it, and we’d play our old material, and you know, we’d tour for a year or year and a half, whatever it was.
Black Prairie is more of a writing project. We meet once a week, and we write. It’s really collaborative. We’re kind of a different animal from [The Decemberists]. You know, there are some songs fall into the treatment category of traditional songwriting. It kind of satisfies a different part of our brains.
And you know, in The Decemberists, Colin [Meloy] is the primary writer, so it gives us a chance to really bring a song to the stage. You know, at this point, Jenny’s not going to walk in and be like, "Hey, I have a song I want to sing!" [laughs] It’s just not what it is.
So, for her, she could walk in [to Black Praire] and say, "Hey, I’ve got a song I want to play" or "Here’s a song I wrote from top-to-bottom." It just feels different, and it really awakens, at least for me, a different part of my creative psyche.
ACRN: So, we’ve been hearing a lot more of you doing producing gigs lately. Is this something you enjoy and want to keep doing?
CF: I think I had it in my mind at one point in time, like, "Hey, maybe I could be a junior version of Tucker Martine [producer, Death Cab for Cutie, The Decemberists]" or something, or be a producer one day full-time.
I think it wasn’t my design when I decided I wanted to have a studio like I have now, but I think, like, doing that day-in and day-out for me personally, my livelihood one day could maybe depend on that, but I don’t know, it doesn’t seem as appealing to me.
It’s more appealing to me to do projects sporadically and when I’m inspired to do them, as opposed to really having this high-functioning studio and kind of like tape rolling every day, or every month on a new band or something like that. I don’t think I have the personality for it.
Having done it, it takes a special person, and knowing Tucker Martine, who is the sweetest man in the world, like, "Oh, you love this because you’re the sweetest man in the world." I think maybe I’m too grumpy for it or something, I don’t know.
Every band has their own politics. It’s crazy. And you’re just in other people’s politics, making their records. I think Tucker, when he’s a part of a record, that’s his music, too. He’s making that music along with people, and I feel that way, as well.
Doing a full-time producer gig and going after that sort of arm of another career besides being in The Decemberists or just being a performing musician isn’t really what I’d like to focus on. But, that said, I’ve got a couple records I’m working on. I’m the type of person that needs to sort of dabble in five different things at once, I think, to be satisfied.
Like, this working with the Heartless Bastards on this movie score is something that I can see doing more of. We’re renting out this primitive sort of bunkhouse out in the middle of the desert somewhere, and setting up a studio and recording for five days. It’s going to be weird and fun. So, those sorts of things, I think, are going to keep me interested in doing music at this point in my life.
Everything translates with everything. As long as you’re making music every day, or doing something that involves music, you’re growing as a musician, and everything ties to everything else. I just don’t want to be pinned down to one thing, I think. That would probably be my ultimate demise. I’m a musician and producer and writer, player, performer, all sorts of stuff. I like it that way.
ACRN: Now that you have kind of been on both sides of the spectrum: being the musician being produced and the producer producing the music, is there anything you prefer or dislike on either side of it?
CF: As a producer, I think what I don’t like about it is when people start to struggle with music and when musicians, primarily songwriters, put pressure on themselves and aren’t enjoying the process anymore. Making music is art and art is supposed to be fun.
People in music have these weird pressures through commercial means, I guess, success or whatever, to outperform their last record. It becomes a sort of pissing match with yourself. You need to outdo your last record, and I just start to look at records as a timepiece. Like, this is where you’re at in your life, and you’re capturing this three-to-six weeks while we’re working on this.
That’s not fun. And, it’s like you’re standing naked in a mirror and circling the bad parts of your body with a black Sharpie. Everyone should aspire to make a great record, for sure, something you’re proud of, but not to the point where you’re hating yourself.
That’s not specifically any of the bands I’ve worked with, or me or The Decemberists or whatever, but I’ve been a part of those records where it’s like, "Holy shit, this is not fun."
And then, the other side of it, you know, playing music, the part that sucks is: eventually everybody grows tired of touring. Everybody wants to go on tour, as a musician, anybody that joins a band wants people to come to their concerts one day, make money doing it and go on tour. That and a record deal.
But eventually, you realize that it’s as difficult as any other part of life. That’s the part, I think, that sucks about playing music and being in a band. That day sort of comes, and you realize that, and you’re like, "Oh, wow. This wasn’t just like the movies."
ACRN: Going to the Decemberists really quick: You guys had the no. 1 record in the country for a while with The King is Dead, had a couple pretty good tours, and it seemed pretty well-received by everyone. In your opinion--do you think this was a pretty good year for the Decemberists?
CF: Sure. Yeah. Every year has been a pretty good year. Every year has been successful. We’ve been a very lucky band. I mean, the first tour we ever went on, people came to it, you know, and we were profitable. We all earned, collectively, $400, so that’s better than spending money if you’re on tour. So yeah, I think we’ve been a very lucky band, and every year the audience grows, which is I guess what is supposed to happen in a band.
I think the number one accolade is really nice, but if Kanye West would've put out a record that week, he would've been number one. [laughs] It's all timing, but it makes my mom think I’m doing really well.
ACRN: I can’t remember for sure here, but I think you guys beat out Kidz Bop for Number One, which is always an achievement.
CF: Yeah, I’m proud of that. I didn’t even know what that was until we got it.
ACRN: Now you guys are starting on a pretty long break with The Decemberists; you guys have been going at this non-stop for a while. Are you excited to finally have a bit of a break from this band?
CF: Yeah, totally. Having all of these aforementioned projects that I’ve been doing in between, it’s nice to really focus on them, or be a resident of a city and not run to the airport, so it’s great.
It’s great to sort of not know what’s next after every tour. We’ve sat down and been like, "Okay, here’s when we’re going to record the next record." It’s nice to not know exactly when that is, even though we’ve talked about it, but we don’t know exactly when that date is.
You do something for so long, and you want it to feel good, right and fresh and maintain the honor of what you’ve built, I guess. So, yeah, I think we’re all very excited to be home for an extended period of time.
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