The Hazards of the Curious Instrumentalist and Other Short Tales

During The Decemberists recent two-night sell-out of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, founding member Chris Funk stopped by the 'House of Stathopoulo' to pick up an Epiphone Masterbilt Olympic archtop which he instantly put it to use on the band's tour to support their latest album, I'll Be Your Girl. And as we learned from our interview, picking up a new instrument and discovering what it can do in front of 2,000 fans is not unusual for Mr. Funk. Since 2000, The Decemberists have held a special place in the hearts of their admirers as a band that share the same adventurous spirit for discovery--but what mainstream pop, rock, and country artists would describe as practically reckless.

The Decemberists have retained their cool, independent status (thanks to their warm and sly sense of humor) without ever seeming detached or cynical. They can sell-out the most prestigious theaters in the world yet the next day be found busking on the street or jamming in the back of a junk store just for kicks. Mr. Funk's tools on stage include a panorama of "Americana" instruments including a pedal steel, banjo, and mandolin. But the Indiana native grew up playing loud rock and roll. In our Epiphone interview, Funk talks about drawing inspiration from sounds both new and old and how to sound big, you sometimes have to think small.

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How is the tour going and how do you like your new Masterbilt Century Olympic?

The tour has been killer--really, really good. It's fun to play the new material live. And the Olympic is totally killer. I actually can't stop playing it I love it so much. And I have recorded with it already. It sounds killer recorded. I've had several people play it who were friends--and I had a band come in the studio and check it out. So it's been getting a lot of love and it's awesome. I totally dig it.

The Olympic is very unique. As David Rawlings noted, it occupies a unique tonal space in comparison to standard acoustic guitars.

It's true. On this recording I just did, it sat right where you'd want it to. It has a great mid-range push that I've noticed. I love that archtop sound. It's completely that Dave Rawlings sound. We were backstage with it and started playing some Gillian and Dave songs--you almost have to. I identify him by that guitar now. But the Olympic could be a great swing guitar for people--gypsy jazz perhaps. It has that sweetness. And on top of that, I think it's just an interesting guitar. Everybody's got a dreadnought or a small parlor guitar. So if you want something in-between, oddly you have to look backward to go forward--the beginning of the 1900s--to find something different.

Do you think your interest in tones and mediating all of those elements and bringing them together is what attracted you to producing? Does hearing those details come easily to you?

I don't know if it's easy or if it's something I've ever taken into consideration. I don't think it's something I discovered until around five years ago. I remember reading an article about (Wilco's) Nels Cline and he was talking about how: 'what we are trying to do...' like he had a team of scientists working for him (laughs) '...is to get rid of the high end in my guitar.' And I thought that was really interesting because his guitar sounds distorted but warm and easy to listen to. I was already thinking at that time how to make a guitar do that. For instance, have heavy fuzz but have it not be abrasive to your ears. When I started paying attention to what our astute engineers were doing in the studio,I started thinking about producing and tones. We had an album called Picturesque and we had a song called "The Infanta." It was when we started buying some folk instruments because we had some money... finally! I should say I went shopping (laughs). But that song had a hundred different instruments on it and we just did it because we could--a bit of a joke. We wanted to see how grand we could make that song. I remember our producer for that album, Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie, said you know the more instruments you have on a track, the smaller the sound you get. And I remember thinking: What? That just didn't register with me for a long time.

That's a long way of saying it took me a while to figure out that the less you have the bigger you can make things sound. So bringing that back to the Olympic specifically, it's kind of like it has the tonal range that people end up wanting. I think about it a lot now and I find that compelling. I try to hone in on how things fit together and why things fit together. And then being in a band for this long, you really start to think about it and ask yourself how do I stand next to (keyboardist) Jenny Conlee or (guitarist and singer) Colin Meloy with an acoustic guitar that's always happening.

Do you ever want to say to your bandmates: You know what would sound good is if you stopped and just let me play!

Yeah, we've discussed that a lot. For this new record--it's subtle--but that was discussed. How could we change the tonal palette? What are the things that are always happening?--because the five of us are always kind of on, so to speak.

Now that you're more sensitive to these kinds of things, what are you listening to for ideas? For instance, are you listening to horn players as opposed to just listening to guitars?

I always jokingly say this because I have to say it to get my head around this but I like to say I hate guitar and I'm not a guitarist (laughs). It's not true at all but I put my head there so what I do is more like guitar with purpose. I've listened to all kinds of music and I like listening to productions that are pushing the envelope and not using guitar all the time. But I end up using the guitar because I still find them compelling. There are so many pedals out there that can make a guitar sound like a synthesizer, for instance. I think I'm more thinking about space and how you can make something more interesting. When I hear 'me' in a recording, it bothers me. I'm going more for a voice kind of sound. I know all my tricks. If I'm playing on someone's album that I'm producing or I'm playing on someone's session--which I don't do a lot of or even in the band--I'm trying to do something I haven't done before and asking myself what does that mean and how does that sound? How do I get away from what I've done before?

Did you start as a kind of 'traditional' guitarist?

I grew up in north Indiana near Chicago so I went to the city a lot. I went to a lot of rock concerts and punk rock concerts. Even though I'm pegged for being in an indie rock band and playing a lot of Americana instruments now. I don't quite play them that well. I liked hard rock and punk rock. That's why I wanted to play guitar. In my mind I thought the guitar was cool. So I played college rock, which is what they called it back then. Some of the seminal albums of bands back then, they all had nothing to lose. They didn't have big budgets. They were just making music. And that's a real sweet spot of being an artist is when you got nothing to lose. You're just making something very pure I think. You're trying to make something you want to listen to and that you're proud of. If you don't consider yourself a banjo player and you get a banjo, you'll probably write something cool or you'll get a song out of it. It's still wide open that you can take any instrument and plug it into anything and make something of that situation. Like Peter Buck playing mandolin with R.E.M. It was revolutionary then and it was a defining sound. But he didn't know how to play it and he'd still say he doesn't know how to play mandolin. And he's a friend of mine. So I'm a person who enjoys the instruments. Even instruments can take you backwards and take you to another place.