As the Decemberists Hibernate, Its Members Focus on Black Prairie (Q&A)

The Decemberists have been recording off-and-on and will "ramp up" next year, says Nate Query. Until then, four of the band's members push on with Black Prairie, which has released new album "Fortune"

"Fortune," the new album from Black Prairie, the Portland,Ore.-based band that includes four members of the Decemberists, provides considerable evidence that early definitions of the band need to be scrapped. Words like bluegrass and side project. Their performance May 7 at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles emphasized the classic-rock-inspired vivaciousness of the new album, their fourth, which in turn affects the heft with which they play older material. Part of that rests in the full-time addition of drummer John Moen.

"We were putting drums on everything and it was cut live within the spectrum of rock and folk-rock," says Black Prairie co-founder and bassist Nate Query. "It's unified in sound in that all the songs are shorter, no long meandering instrumentals like we usually have. It felt like it made sense to have it within a certain spectrum; we didn't go in a lot of different directions sonically."

Songs for the album, released by Sugar Hill Records, were written in two weeks and recorded over the course of another two, the first time they have worked that quickly. Now on a short West Coast tour -- they play Santa Ana, Calif., on May 9 and San Francisco on May 10 -- they'll do another run in late summer and play the East Coast in the fall. They have two festival dates booked -- Sasquatch! in Washington on July 5 and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion in Tennessee on Sept. 20.

Recently, they backed Rhett Miller of the Old '97s on his next solo album, which Miller figures will be released in January. "The chemistry I so strong in Black Prairie that it really strengthened the record," Miller tells Billboard. "I was really happy to be recording with them."

The members of Black Prairie -- Query,  co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, accordionist Jenny Conlee, guitarist John Neufeld, singer-violinist Annalisa Tornfelt and Moen -- sat down with Billboard prior to the Bootleg gig to discuss the Decemberists, the evolution of the band and the impact of Led Zeppelin on their sound.

How has the approach to the music evolved over four albums?
Jenny Conlee: If you compare our very first album with no drums and only two vocal tunes, we were gravitating to real traditional influences. This album ("Fortune") has more inspiration from ‘70s classic rock and all the songs have lyrics.

John Moen: Vance  Powell mixed it like a pop or rock record rather than a polite acoustic record.

Annalisa Tornfelt: This record pushed me to sing in a way I have never sung before. John Moen wrote the melody of "Kiss of Fate" and it's in a range I don't usually sing. I thought that it was a really interesting beautiful melody. Also, "Let it Out" is not necessarily phrasing that I have ever done before.

Nate Query: I play the most ridiculous stuff on this record. I play more notes on "Let It Out" than the whole rest of the record.

When you started, it was often repeated that one of the primary reason for Black Prairie's existence was so you could play instruments you were not playing in the Decemberists. Is that still true?
Chris Funk: Sort of. Personally, for this record I challenged myself to write songs with lyrics. To me that was just as important – song writing – as the musicianship or playing the dobro more.

John Neufeld: How many years has it been since you made that statement?

Funk: 2007

Neufeld: It's pretty easy in seven years to get a little tired of the first idea you had.

Conlee: I think there is something about playing our instruments differently. As the accordionist in the Decemberists, I have a very simple role and I use the same sounds and it's very poppy. In this band I can express different sounds and play with more virtuosity.

Neufeld: I had the exact opposite (experience) on this album - I never played simpler.It's what the music needed compared to the other albums. It was really cool, getting to that point as a musician where you can decide if whether guitar is needed in a  spot and you can just sit out.

You say the first record was the result of three years of jams and rehearsals. Why did you think two weeks was enough to prepare for "Fortune"?
Query: Over the course of these projects we have boosted our confidence to the point that we feel that if we schedule two weeks we'll have enough time to write. We have more confidence in our group productivity.

It's mystifying how often you get stuck with the tag of being a bluegrass band or being a side project. How do you approach it?
Funk: The Decemberists have been hibernating for three years -- you take it as it comes. I think about this band a lot, and write for this band a lot. The Decemberists have been in the studio for the past year but it's kind of 'bang out some songs,' then it goes away, and then it's thinking about this band again.

Query: It's more like we alternate. We were already doing this so we have really worked hard the last two, 2-1/2 years (with Black Prairie) and the Decemberists will ramp up next year. We won't stop doing this. It's more about scheduling and lately, Decemberists has been getting a lot fewer man hours than Black Prairie has.

Conlee: This is  totally different because this band is more collaborative. It has evolved to be more and more collaborative, playing and writing and driving and loading in. The Decemberists is us supporting Colin (Meloy) and his music. And we don't have to drive, people tell us where to go.

Annalisa, the new record really opens up possibilities for you as a singer.
Tornfelt: In my previous bands I was singing and I really wanted to focus on violin, so I was excited to do that (in Black Prairie). Everyone has been so encouraging with my singing and songwriting.

You're a secret weapon that's been exposed.

(Everyone agrees.)

Funk: We're so often referred to as a side project with four members of the Decemberists that it overshadows John and Annalisa sometimes. She is a secret weapon in that she is the lead singer that's the last person to do an interview or speak from the stage.

Black Prairie has received praise that connects you with the Band and Old West imagery, yet you tell great story songs that fit folk music traditions. Then there's classic ‘70s rock having an influence, specifically an Annalisa performance of Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same."
Neufeld: Actually, it's even on the first record. On a song I brought the band "Ostinato del Caminito," the idea was (to explore) writing some riffs for acoustic instruments and layering them while using classic rock, hard rock or metal as an inspiration. The string instruments don't have much sustain so it's a really cool (effect). We covered a Led Zeppelin song with Laura Veirs and realized its really fun to play rock music with these instruments and just decided to go in that direction and write that way. The new record has a lot of music written that way, different parts written with different riffs and rock-inspired rhythms. Then we let John go crazy on drums.

Do you see it that way John?
Moen: In any band it's fun to try to make the drums have hooks and musical input beyond keeping everyone in time. When I joined this band they already had two records and some other recordings and no drummer. I was sliding in by playing a lot with softer sticks and when we were playing older songs, trying to not make a big statement. They've always encouraged me to play louder and not worry about it. As long as no one is telling me to avoid doing something I'll try to do something musically exciting.

Query: There's remarkably little bossing around each other musically. We definitely give input to each other, but everyone is doing their thing and listening.


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