The Decemberists, a quirky indie rock group based in Portland, Ore., is heading to the Strathmore for a sold-out show on March 26. We caught up by phone with Chris Funk, the lead guitarist for the group who, of late, might be best known for taking on The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert in a guitar playing contest.
Thanks for calling. It’s great to speak with you. Where are you calling from?
Portland, Oregon. It’s great, the sun is shining for once. We just got back from Europe about a week ago. It’s always nice to come back to the States.
What’s one thing you learned in Europe?
That everybody hates Americans. Opinion is not held high of President Bush. Shocker.
You play guitar, pedal steel, piano, violin, the theremin and many other instruments. Which instrument do you feel the closest to?
I think probably the square-necked dobro, it’s sort of a bluegrass instrument by way of Hawaii. It’s something I play only on one song for the Decemberists. It’s closest to my voice. Beyond that, I guess electric guitar. It’s fun to play the guitar, and crank it up and try to get a really good electric guitar sound. It’s something I’ve been working on while on tour. I started taking violin lessons, too.
If you could be any instrument, which would you be?
I would be the drums because everybody wants to play them. Every lead singer wants to play you, and every kid wants to play you, so you always have a gig.
Did you always want to be in a band? What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Growing up, I think I wanted to be in advertising for some reason. I thought it was creative because I grew up in a well-to-do suburb and everyone had to know exactly what they wanted to do by the age of 18 when they applied to schools. I had a suspicion that I wanted to be in a band, and I started a band in high school. Nobody ever said that to me, that you should be in a band. My parents wanted to me to be in a music school like Julliard and play semi-classical music. I guess that being in a band isn’t something you tell your children to do. You don’t tell your children to go around in a rock club and get drunk and tour around in a bus and pray that you’re going to be able to buy a house some day. For some reason, I moved out to Oregon and said that was where I was going to start over and try to be in a band, which is ironic because it’s the least music-oriented industry place in the world.
Read below for more with Chris Funk.
From your hip-hop group Knock-Knock with D.J. Revs from the hip-hop group Lifesavas to the Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, you have a lot of side projects. What’s your motivation to be involved in so many side projects?
Well, the “Flash Hawk” one was just to learn how to record at home, really. I started doing all these cover songs, just instrumentally. When The Decemberists go on tour, we don’t do music until we make another record. We play probably over 200 shows a year and then travel on top of that, so you’re gone so much from your world. We used to practice every Monday night and work on all these songs. So, I thought, “Hey, I’ve made it to this place I want to be at, and I’m a musician, so I should be recording, and playing, and practicing more." When I started touring, I would go home and go to a bar and strut my feathers that I was touring, but now it’s like I want to go home and play. I thought, you should put out a CD because CDs are kind of a goal, and it gives you focus. Just taking time out of your day to sit down and play music and do something creative. I don’t know how often people get to do that in life.
So that was the one project, and then the Knock-Knock thing was me wanting to check out another type of music, which is electronic music. It started off that I wanted to make a petal steel record with beats behind it, and then I decided that’s so cheesy that I don’t want to do that.
They’re kind of fun pressure, and there’s no pressure to put them out even though they’re coming out. If I had my way, I’d love it if the Decemberists could record all the time. We’re all having kids now it seems. I just had a kid, the drummer’s about to have a kid. When we get together to make music it’s so easy and fun. It’s also fun to make something without intent.
You often choose to buy CDs over downloading iTunes because you like the human interaction that a music store provides. What was the first record you bought?
I think the first record that I ever bought, it might have been “Oh no, it’s Devo.” Or it might have been “The Xanadu.” Or the Steve Miller band album, and not the one that you think its cool, the one with “Abracadabra” on it. I was lucky because my older brother and sister really had good albums, and I could go and listen to them. I was exposed to a lot of great stoner rock records, for lack of a better word.
Did you know that you can buy Decemberists CDs at Starbucks?
How do you feel about that?
I’m fine with it. Of course, we want as many people to buy our records as possible, and I think anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. And we don’t want to buy Lear jets or whatever, but I’m fine with our CDs selling at Starbucks. We can’t monitor everywhere where our stuff is sold. I don’t know enough about Starbucks to say that they’re so super-bad that I don’t want them selling my record. I don’t go through every item in clothing and figure out whether kids in China made it. I think I know what you mean, though. I think the initial knee-jerk reaction is that the Decemberists are in cahoots with Starbucks. But our CDs sell at Walmart, and Walmart’s horrible, but I’m not going to say don’t say to sell our record at Walmart, though maybe I should. I don’t know. I think there are bigger battles to be fought right now.
What’s your favorite thing besides Decemberists CDs to buy at Starbucks?
12 oz black coffee. I never go there when I’m at home, though. At Portland, we have so many amazing roasteries. I’m looking out the window at my house, and I can see the Albino Press, which is this awesome independent coffee shop. When you’re like in England, and you can’t get a good cup of coffee, I go to Starbucks for sure. And not to defend Starbucks, but I read that more small coffee shops started popping up when they got popular because more people in America were finding out what espresso was, which is true for me because I grew up in a small suburb around Chicago, and I didn’t know what espresso was until I went to Starbucks. But you don’t question it when you’re growing up.
Changing tracks a bit, recently, you took Steve Colbert on in a guitar match with a questionable fair-play policy. Do you have any more guitar challenges in the pipes?
No, I think that will be it. Just Colin [Meloy, The Decemberists’ singer/songwriter] on stage sometimes. We have guitar battles on stage that were kind of the inspiration for it. But, that was a one of a kind, once in a lifetime experience, I think. We were honored that Colbert would even take notice of us. We’re really big fans.
If you could take on any pundit in a guitar-off, who would it be, and why?
I’d like to challenge the head of the Army Corps of Engineers of Louisiana. I’d like to take my guitar off and hit him over the head.
Last year you guys visited the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Do you have any favorite places in the DC area?
Yeah, the Florida Grill. It’s a great restaurant. I’ll always go there and eat dinner and come down with type II diabetes and then go to Ben’s Chili Bowl later that night and get a chili dog. But the Florida Grill is great. It’s great soul food. It’s amazing.
We’re a city magazine, so we’d like to talk about some of the cities in your life. Think of this as an urban Rorschach test. I’m going to say a city, and you say the first few words that come into your mind.
Valparaiso, Indiana [Funk’s hometown].
Popcorn central. It’s where Orville Redenbacher’s from.
Don’t move here.
‘Cause, I like it the way it is.
Okay, Washington, DC.
Harboring war criminals.
Do you mean politicians?
Yeah, I mean the big guy. You know, the guy who ignores the UN, that one. The guy who pretends he’s from Texas, but is really from Connecticut. The guy who can’t dribble a basketball. The guy who farms out our military. Etc….
Well, thank you for speaking with me. It’s been a pleasure. Safe travels to DC.