The Decemberists’ Chris Funk

By - Apr 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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Anyone with even a minute awareness of The Decemberists would find it challenging to resist asking guitarist Chris Funk all kinds of ridiculousness, like the random “What’s your favorite Western?” or the general “Why are you guys so fun?” But, it takes only one spin of anything in their catalogue to understand – Guitarmageddon, stage antics and official drink aside – that they are indeed serious musicians.

With Guitarmageddon, stage antics and official drink considered, however, perhaps “serious about music” would be a better phrase. Multi-instrumentalist Funk, who personally handled acoustic guitar, banjo, bouzouki, dulcimer, electric guitar, hurdy-gurdy, pedal steel and percussion on 2006’s The Crane Wife alone, is fresh off a European tour and at home in Oregon, a state whose spectacle and character lured him from the Midwest over a decade ago.

“I felt like I had done all I could do,” says the Indiana native. “I wanted to move out to Oregon to play music, for some reason.” Portland may now be the hub for a list of acts just as extensive as Funk’s performance credits, but, he adds, “at the time it wasn’t known as a musical city, and not a music-industry city by any stretch of the imagination.”

Intuition paid off for Funk, who has toured with The Decemberists for around six years, a substantial tenure. During that short span, they have cultivated an active community of fans and released four LPs and five EPs (including two online exclusives) to critical kudos. As impressive as that sounds, to Funk, it only means that he, vocalist Colin Meloy, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen simply “happen to find ourselves in a rock band that people marginally care about.”

The understating Funk knows that “blowing people’s minds is really difficult to do these days” and that not many since Jimi Hendrix have accomplished anything of the sort. “I’m not saying our band is doing it; I don’t think our band is,” he says. Yet sitting somewhere between Hendrix and today’s Top 40 are The Decemberists. So what are they doing exactly? “We’re a pop band and that’s about it.”

It’s clear that Funk is realistic, even while contributing to a group especially keen on narrative, mythology and folklore. That being said, The Decemberists aren’t your trendy, textbook cool, or even a particularly marketable band, which is why signing Capitol Records to push their new release last year, instead of their alma mater Kill Rock Stars, was a potentially risky move. Thankfully, outside of the inevitably larger venues and increased ticket prices, corporate pitfalls have been innocuous thus far to the quintet, who places “serving music” above all else.

“The responsibility is initially with yourself,” Funk explains. Integrity will prevent the release of anything they’re “not into” in the future, regardless of what label is driving their deadlines. “When we make a record, we feel an unspoken responsibility to make ourselves happy and entertain ourselves.”

The Decemberists are celebrated for their over-the-top theatrics and audience participation at shows; past performances involve light saber battles and Funk ambushing the crowd with a giant prop whale. While the expectation of being an entertainer is something he found dispiriting earlier in his career, he has now “taken on the perspective that it’s important to remember that these people are paying to come and see your show.” Funk admits that some days he would rather “play quiet songs” or occasionally “a different set,” but acknowledges that “touring is for the fans’ benefit ultimately.”

If by now you’re wanting to give Chris Funk some kind of hug or handshake, it’s completely justified. Not only is he incredibly down-to-earth, but, in conversation, he’s strangely reminiscent of the uncle who used to buy beer for you and your friends in high school. He even has the same laugh – something that, within his frank and thoughtful commentary, he does often.

In good humor, Funk appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report in December of 2006, representing The Decemberists in a guitar-whiz showdown opposite the host, who claimed in a November broadcast that their contest to revamp the then-failing “Oh, Valencia!” music video was, in fact, his original brainchild.

“We did steal the green-screen idea,” Funk confesses. “Colbert was totally right. He called us out.”

Staying true to his all-or-nothing reputation, Funk specially purchased a B.C. Rich Warlock, the instrument that “the guy from Slayer” plays. “I’m not really, obviously, a guitar shredder,” he says. “I didn’t think [Stephen Colbert] would actually accept this invitation to have a shred-off.”

To prepare, Funk “researched in a super nerdy, not-rock-guitar way,” by rummaging the internet for visual aides of the greats, including Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt. “I had this whole thing worked up,” he says, but upon arriving on set, Report producers informed him that his showcase would last approximately one minute.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god,’” Funk says. “Initially I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough cool licks to do, because I don’t know any cool licks because I don’t play cool licks. Then I had too many cool licks, so that sort of messed up my mojo.”

Guitarmaggedon, which also cast Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and the Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider, was unforgettable for the good sport, but not necessarily a defining moment. “I can’t just be the indie rock guitar-player-guy,” he says.

Funk and his band plan to pull away from both the favorable and the unfavorable Arcade Fire comparisons by piloting past the “too-many-instrument” orchestral phase. They aspire to “get back to the crude elements of what a band is” through simplification.
Though Orangina is the band’s “official” drink, the PBR-endorsing Funk is “excited” for his upcoming Pabst Theatre visit, where he will undoubtedly consume his share of the refreshing, hipster’s-choice backstage. “[Pabst] is the hipster beer,” Funk jokes. “And I’ll have you know I drank it before the Arcade Fire ever did.” VS

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