The Decemberists recently jumped the Kill Rock Stars ship to board the Capitol vessel; everyone seems to be pretty cool with that. Usounds writer Scott Roots talked to Nate Query, bass, from his hotel room in Dallas, Texas about stuff not really related to the move to Capitol.
Scott: Before we get started are there any frequently asked questions that I should avoid as to not annoy the shit out of you?
Nate: [laughs] Certainly everyone wants to talk about the prog rock on the new record; everyone wants to talk about signing to Capitol Records. But everyone sort of has their attack on what’s interesting. So you have free reign.
Scott: I think the band’s progression outside of changing labels is more interesting anyways.
Nate: Me too. [laughs]
Scott: You guys started the tour kind of at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle?
Nate: Not really. At that point we weren’t really doing new songs. We had to do some really thorough rehearsals to get this tour ready to go. So, the Woodland Park show and the Salem State Fair show, those were separate.
Scott: When you guys were touring for Picquaresque, the shows were pretty bombastic. You guys played with the brass section, you started doing audience participation and costumes. Did you ever find yourself asking how you’d top that energy?
Nate: Certainly. For example, the Mariners Revenge song which is the 10 minute epic, which is…you know…the 10 minute epic where Chris Funk goes into the crowd with his fake whale. It’s such a fun song to do in a show; it’s got so much energy. It’s probably our most requested song. But we sorta felt like it had run its course. It’s time to take a break from that to avoid the risk of it becoming shtick. And with this record it’s much more musically involved. So there’s a lot of dynamics in the show but they’re not necessarily from things like jumping in the crowd. And it’s a little different, but people expect that Mariners Revenge thing from us. So I sort of wonder if people are going to be disappointed with what we’re doing now. But then again, musically what we’re doing now is pretty over the top. It’s exciting to me, and it feels like we’re getting good response. We try not to worry about those things. If people expect this bombastic jumping around, whales in the audience, and we’re not doing that anymore, is that okay or do we have to do that forever?
Scott: Speaking of the instrumentation on Crane Wife, it’s seems to me that it’s drastically different than Picquaresque. Was the writing process different on the two albums?
Nate: A little bit. But with this record, Colin wrote a lot of it. It came in the time off right before doing the record. So he brought a batch of songs that none of us had ever heard and we had never played. Picquaresque, some of those songs we had known a little bit on the road. We’d been playing some of them live already. And with this, almost all of the record was fresh to all of us. We got acoustic demos, and we all got together and started arranging them. That was a little bit different. Instrumentation wise, it’s not really drastically different. I would say the sound of the record is pretty different. Just sonically, but that has more to do with production than instrumentation. I’m not sure that we used anything that we’d never used before. But we did do a lot of things to a stronger degree. For example: the use of Colin playing electric, I played cello, Jenny played a Hammond. It’s not really different instrumentation; it’s just sort of different arrangements.
Scott: Was that something you talked about early in the writing process with the producers of the album Chris Walla…
Nate: And Tucker Martine? Not so much. If Colin brings us a song if he has an idea for a direction that he envisions for the song we sort of use it as a starting point. But basically we brought in every instrument that any of us played and had it at our disposal at the studio. We could take a song and be like, “let’s take it this way” and then we’d be like, “well, actually let’s try something else”. If the song naturally felt like an electric song, we’d try is acoustic and see what happens or vice versa. It was more-just let the group dynamic flow and see what happens than well thought out ahead of time.
Scott: I have a couple questions about touring. It’s pretty easy to imagine, even if you’ve never been on tour with a band some of the hardships like being away from friends and family, odd hours, fast food overdoses, and stuff like that. Is there anything that maybe you didn’t expect as a real hardship about being on the road all the time?
Nate: You know, I’ve been touring as a musician for like 12 years basically off and on, even before this band. This band has done a better and better job of making our schedule more reasonable as far as time off and time on and time off and time on. But it just never really gets easy. You move from a band to a bus and you think it’ll make your life easier. It does in a lot of ways; we have crew people now so that takes a load off. But then every time you do that you create more possibilities for other things harder to compensate for the things that got easier.
Scott: Like taking time to do interviews?
Nate: [laughs] I think the road is a fairly taxing experience. So I think we all just try to take good care of ourselves and make sure we’re saving our energy for the shows. A few of us brought folding bikes on tour with us so we can tool around town when we have time off.
Scott: And use your legs for a little while?
Nate: Yeah, I used to try and walk around or even jog sometimes, otherwise you’re just sitting around all the time playing shows and drinking beer and eating bad food. So the tours got a little better now that we have a little bit more time to seek out good stuff.
Scott: So the fact that you walk around in your off time from playing shows must make your trips to Europe pretty interesting?
Nate: Yeah, but it’s a really surreal experience. For example, I’ve been to Paris three times on tour and I’ve seen a total of about four square blocks of Paris…maybe a half mile area is about it. Because we’ve played a couple clubs in the same place each time and we’re just in and out. It’s extremely surreal, it’s nice to walk around and see what you can but you have to sort of give up on the idea that you’re gonna see anything. You just have to walk around and take what you can get. That’s my entire experience in Paris. You never get more than an hour or two to walk around town and there’s only so much you can see.
Scott: So a touring musician wouldn’t write the best guide to a city?
Nate: Well, not if you wanna see what everyone else sees. But musicians usually have their favorite restaurant in each city, their favorite coffee place in each city, and maybe know a good record store or music store. And most of us in the band tend to have the same restaurant we go to every time. Like in Austin we have our favorite breakfast place and there’s something about that, going back to the same place each time you go there. It’s a different way of getting to know a city.
Scott: These next questions pertain to your bandmates. Who is the best joke teller?
Nate: Joke teller…I would venture to say John Moen is the funniest. Chris Funk and John are both extremely funny. But neither one necessarily tells jokes. John especially can end up being a one-man show.
Scott: It seems like the people who tell jokes are some of the least funny people.
Nate: Right. Some people are good at that. It’s hard to tell jokes that feel spontaneous. Colin has a good arsenal of jokes. Maybe he actually is the best joke teller.
Scott: Who would win in a 100 meter dash?
Nate: Probably me.
Scott: Honesty is good. Who would be the best at fixing an old ham radio?
Nate: John Moen.
Scott: Who would be the best rapper?
Nate: The best rapper? [pause] Geez, I don’t know. Maybe Chris Funk. There’s Jenny and Lisa though. [laughs]
Scott: I have one more question….it seems like Picquaresque would have been really tough to follow up because it did really well with critics and people in general. And it had this grandiose sound, this lofty, epic sound. Was Crane Wife the most difficult album to start? Or at least, the most intimidating?
Nate: You know, honestly I think we were all pretty confident about this record, I’m pretty excited about it. It’s always scary to release something to the public. You never know if the critics are gonna rain down negative criticism on you. So it’s been really exciting to get such positive response on this record. I don’t think we are particularly worried about it. Mostly because we are all really excited about this record. Making it was a lot of fun, and I think we’re all really proud of how it sounds and how it came out as a finished product. I just think we’re really confident about it and even if it would have got negative reviews, we’re all proud of it enough not to let it bother us. But we’ve gotten a lot of positive response which is really exciting. But it’s always a little nerve-wracking like when you want to read the New York Times review and you’re like, ‘oh no, what if they’re going to trash it?’
Scott: From what I’ve read, the critics are giving it higher scores than they did Picquaresque. I think the confidence in your guys’ sound shows. This sort of willingness to change direction can have conviction in that new direction. You’ve had great albums, but it makes you really look forward to the next one, and I think that’s cool. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and good luck with the rest of the tour!
Nate: Thanks. See you in Seattle, then?
Scott: See you at the Paramount.