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Meeting the band at sound check, I found that Rachel Blumberg, who I was scheduled to speak with, had just run out to a local toy store to spend a few tour pennies on fun gifts. Soon enough she returned, shared her gifts and sat down with me to talk about life on the road and recording with the band.
LAS: Thanks for chatting with me Rachel. I'd like to begin with a question about this current tour. You're playing two sold-out nights here in Chicago; have you noticed the fan base growing to necessitate two shows?
Blumberg: A lot of our shows have been sold out, and it's been pretty crazy. Looking back over each tour I can see a progressive growth in the amount of people knowing about us and coming to see us.
How is this tour compared with the previous ones?
They've all been pretty fun, but I think this one has been a little... easier? I'm not sure why - It's not necessarily going faster, we're just more comfortable. I think part of it is because we're finally getting used to one another. We have a flow now, being on tour and getting used to our routine and duties. It also helps that the shows have been really well attended; it helps to make every show feel pretty glorious. A lot of them have been sold out.
I can imagine in smaller town through the Midwest can be a little... trying.
We played Grinnell College in Iowa last night. It was fun and kind of crazy - It's a pretty liberal school so everyone was extremely drunk and in the beginning of the show we had a group right up front that was completely wasted. One of the girls fell flat on her face right on the stage. They were rowdy and heckling a little bit, but Colin (Meloy) and Chris (Funk) put them in their place - so soon enough they scurried off to the back so the people who came to see us could enjoy the show without their rowdy behavior.
It's good to be able to put hecklers in their place.
Because of The Tain, Chris now has a microphone in front of him and we've encouraged him to speak because he's a lot of fun, so now he and Colin go back and forth and it's added a new comedy routine to the show. Chris is the advice columnist "Crutchy McGee" on our website, so he certainly has a unique sense of humor.
Jesse (Emerson, bass) told me about the difficulty you guys have had trying to figure out how to play The Tain in it's entirety on stage. How's that going?
In the studio we did so much layering and we recorded it in pieces, because it would be difficult to record eighteen and a half minutes all in one take, so we pieced it together. When we sat down to figure out how to play the live version we needed to find the essential parts and [ask], How do we make everything flow? There is one part where Colin and I switch, he goes back to the drums and I come up to the microphone and sing, so we had to figure out the timing in doing that. We've gotten it down for the most part, but it depends on the size of the stage. When we have a big stage there's a lot of room and it's easy to do, but on the smaller stages there has been a lot of fumbling and tipping over microphones and tripping on chords. The night Jesse was talking about he actually had to lay his upright bass on the ground and straddle it when playing his electric bass because of the small stage. Overall I feel it's been going really well. It's always hard to play a new song that not everyone has heard, and when that song is over 18 minutes long you sort of fear that you'll lose your audience, but the response from our audiences has been nothing but positive and we really enjoy playing it.
I know that originally you guys went to record an EP for Acuarela and went in with some songs, but weren't really sure what to record - how did the idea for The Tain come about?
We all got together to rehearse and we began playing some new songs, but we sort of wanted to save all of them for an album, So then we thought we should take this opportunity to experiment a little bit and go into a different direction. It was Colin's idea to write a song based on the "Tain" [pronounced Toyne], Celtic mythology based on a cattle raid with this Ulysses style journey, like the Odyssey.
He had been working in a bookstore and found the story and thought it would be interesting to do some sort of concept song based on it. He sketched out the songs and I sketched out my song and we all got together and all arranged the whole thing. We spent four or five hours every day for five days putting the whole thing together.
When we went into the studio Chris Walla recorded and produced the whole thing. He added a lot to it. He's very energetic in the studio and had a million ideas. He had a lot to do with the final product. Specifically, he pieced together all of our voices to sound like the choir in the song, but that's just our five voices layered on top of each other to sound like a 40-piece choir.
The recording does sound pretty amazing. Do you think you guys will work with Chris Walla again?
We would like to work with him on our next record. We're in the middle of scheduling all that out right now, but we really loved working with him.
Was The Tain the most collaborative effort you guys have done together as a band?
I would say so, on Her Majesty we wrote our own parts of the music, and we all give each other suggestions, but The Tain was the most collaborative for one song. On the next record we'll probably stay in the same field because we've gotten comfortable working in that way, and giving suggestions. It's really fun for all of us.
Will the next release be on Kill Rock Stars?
We love Kill Rock Stars. They have been so good to us as both friends and a label. In the future, who knows what will happen. The most important thing for us is to keep our creative integrity intact and to work with someone who honors and recognizes the way we work and allow it to remain.
Do you have any goals set for the next record?
Colin has a few songs written and we've bounced around ideas of how we want the record to sound, but I think it won't become solidified until we start working on the songs in the studio. It's fun to keep a certain amount of spontaneity in the recording process.
I know you also play in the band Norfolk & Western; do you find you still have as much time for that?
It's really important to me to have time to make for Norfolk & Western. I was in that band before I was here with the Decemberists and I'm in Norfolk & Western with my boyfriend [Adam Selzer], who recorded half of Her Majesty. We're actually taking a little break for a while, but we plan on recording again and we'd love to do some more touring. I love playing in that band because it's a different kind of music and for me it's a different style, it's nice to have other outlets to play and to grow as a player and experiment. We do want to put out more records, but for the moment we're on hold.
What about this teaching job Colin got?
That was a joke. That was one of Chris Funks' hilarious asides. It's not true. We've been typing up a tour journal for this one, but we've been lazy and haven't posted any of it yet.
Is this a busy tour?
This is a really busy tour. We're on the road every day, playing almost every night. When we were [at] South by Southwest, that was the busiest I've ever been because we played three times. Our band was showcased at two parties and had some meetings with different people. It's been a really busy tour. We got to go to Niagara Falls when we crossed into Canada to play Toronto, but other than that we haven't many sight seeing opportunities. I'm excited that I get to spend the day at the Art Institute of Chicago tomorrow, so that's what I'll be doing.
Have you spent a lot of time in Chicago before?
My parents are from here, so I have a lot of relatives around in the suburbs. Growing up I spent a lot of time here. Chris Funk lived here for 6 years.
Are you going to get the chance to see any of your relatives.
No. I've invited them to come see us when we've come to town before, but I've sort of given up on that. I think the next time we come here we'll be playing at a bigger venue so it might be more of an event for them to come see. They don't know anything about this music scene. They're stockbrokers and thinkers.
Oh, real jobs.
Can you tell me a little about the video for "The Soldiering Life", and how that came about?
Kill Rockstars was putting out a DVD compilation and they asked us to make a video. We hooked up with Greg Brown [who directed the "So Says I" video by the Shins], who is a friend of mine. He and Colin came up with the concept for the video together. It was a really fun experience. It was a very hot day and we were wearing heavy wool clothes. It was sort of terrifying for me because I'm sort of a pansy and we had to run around with guns with bayonets, which are pokey and sharp. We had to crouch down in the trenches and someone would shout "Go!" and we'd have to run with the smoke and all the dirtiness. It was a lot of fun. We did it all in one day. I think it came out really well.
Are their going to be more videos?
Yes, we talked with Carson Ellis, who does all of our artwork for our albums and T shirts, about using some stop-motion animation for a video, which I think would look fantastic. So I'm hoping we'll do that at some point. I'm sure we'll do other things as well. All of us like to dress up and act goofy.
And act goofy is exactly what they did. When the Decemberists played the first night they sulked onto the stage and Chris Funk made an announcement that Colin had recently fallen ill and didn't have much of a voice, but they were still going to struggle through and play as best as they could. They proceeded to "warm up" their instruments for over a minute - making god awful sounds and playing like a complete train wreck until finally little Jenny Conlee, from behind her accordion, let forth a spine crushing scream which began "Shanty For The Arethusa" and fools were made of all of us, the viewing audience. The Decemeberists played two very different and equally amazing sets in Chicago with Clearlake and Tom Heinl.
VIDEO: "The Soldiering Life" SEE ALSO: www.decemberists.com
SEE ALSO: www.killrockstars.com
Having been introduced to good music by his sister in the early years, Bob Ladewig has been searching out all the best in indie music ever since. He also rides a skateboard and performs/directs comedy shows and, like all great men, he's afraid of really growing up.
See other articles by Bob Ladewig.
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