Catching Up With Black Prairie's Chris Funk
The members of Black Prairie read like a who’s who of the Portland music scene. Made up of three Decemberists, Chris Funk, Nate Query and Jenny Conlee, Bearfoot and the Woolwines’s Annalisa Tornfelt and Dolorean’s Jon Neufeld, the band will release their second album, A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart , Sept. 18. With its combination of styles, the album is an eclectic mix of folk, bluegrass and European sounds. The album plays around with new elements, including the addition of vocals and drums.
Black Prairie will go on tour starting Sept. 20 in Seattle. We recently talked to one of the band’s founders Chris Funk.
Paste: Let’s start off with your new album. The title is very poetic sounding and it’s almost like a proverb. Where did that come from?
Chris Funk: It’s an old Romani saying, or I guess some people call it gypsy. It’s just like an old, I don’t know if you want to call it proverb, but it’s an old Romani saying. I was listening to a lot of music, there’s this band called Taraf de Haidouks , like a lot and just listening to a lot of Romani music. That’s where it came from. I always liked album titles or like song titles that were sort of longer, like John Fahey, the guitar player. He makes really long titles out of things and we all like that.
Paste: What do you mean by ‘Romani’ music? What is that exactly?
Funk: The people of Roma. So like, I guess that’s the politically correct way of saying gypsies. So like music from that region.
Paste: So does Tear in the Eye retain many of the same elements that were in Feast of the Hunter’s Moon? Did the band experiment with anything new?
Funk: Yeah. There’s drums all over the record. So we’re playing with a drummer now and there’s more vocal songs and we did a lot of amping acoustic instruments, you know playing through amplifiers and sort of like exploring just slightly different tones, not just limiting ourselves to strictly being a string band and opening up the palette a little bit I think, whereas it sort of started as this string band and ultimately I think all of us are, three of us are in the Decemberists, so I think we’re kind of rock musicians moonlighting as a folk band. I think, after a while your real colors come out and we just kind of threw the idea of having us strictly just be a string band.
Paste: I noticed the vocals are a lot more prominent on this album than the last one. Is there any other reason for this?
Funk: I think that the band operates with no one songwriter. We all write songs. So, we’re kind of in a place of like, ‘Okay, you’ve got songs ready to go.’ By the time we’re recording and Annalisa’ s really prolific with the origin of her song and it’s got a lot of vocal songs. We’ve got a lot of music period. It’s kind of a long record. I think it’s like, almost 60 minutes, which is long for a record these days. Tucker, who was our producer, wanted to sort of trim back and make it more focused record and I was like ‘No let’s just record everything we can’ and we used it. There wasn’t much discussion and logic in who was going to do this many songs or how many vocals songs are going to be on there. It was kind of like let’s go into the studio for six days and well, I guess for the next 10 days, record as much as possible. It wasn’t conscience. We recorded it let’s put it out there, why not?
Paste: How do you break up the song writing? Do you collaborate or do you go off on your own and write?
Some people have ideas that fleshed out, like the vocal songs will always be fleshed out. I helped co-write one of the songs that was on there so she and I, Annalisa, would sometimes get together with John the guitar player. The song ‘Dirty River Stomp’, which was one that Jenny sort of penned, she had that all written out and then we added the kind of crazy little part. So everybody kind of helps the band with ideas. We just take them from there. It’s always like, the Decemberists will be off touring so Annalisa and John might get together and play some. It’s kind of all over the map, which is a really fun thing about the band that anybody can bring something to it. There’s no one person, even though Annalisa will arguably be our lead singer now. You know the Decemberists were Colin, our songwriter. At this point the Decemberists would be strange if you suddenly added a lot of songs to the table.
Paste: On the album, it’s labeled as Americana but the accordion gives it a very European sound. How do you think those two sounds meld together?
Funk: Like Americana with the accordion with the European stuff?
Funk:</b Well I don’t know. Like the song ‘Taraf’, which again is the gypsy sound, put up against the song ‘For the Love of John Hartford’, which is a bluegrass song. We don’t give much thought to it. We just kind of follow our whims. We don’t concern ourselves with what Itunes is going to label us as or somebody, a music journalist, will have to say their either this or that, ‘they’re Sugar Hill so they must be a bluegrass band or an Americana band. ‘For me, American music comes from all these other places so it makes a lot of sense to me. Bluegrass came from gospel music and Scottish music and all these other instruments, slaves, and banjos came from Africa and accordions from all over the place. It all makes sense and comes together. Ultimately I think we’re just kind of the sum of our iTunes libraries of what we listen to and our record collections.
Paste: How do you think just following your whim has paid off? Has it enhanced your sound or made you stand out from other bands?
Funk: I don’t have any perspective of where we’re at in the world, popularity wise or genre specific wise or anything. To us, it’s just refreshing and it’s fun to have the palette be open and people wanting to try whatever songs that people bring in. Everybody’s wide open and excited and interested in composition and they’re interested in writing. It’s a really exciting band in that way.
Paste: Black Prairie is almost like an indie super group. Do you feel a lot of pressure from your fans because of your group’s pedigree?
Funk: No. The band was started just as like, not an experiment, but a need to sort of play some more music. The band was started as no pressure and we never had it in line to get on a label. It was by a chance that we hooked up with Sugar Hill. We never felt any pressure really to do anything and we kind of still don’t. We’re touring and the label is really patient with us because you know we go tour but we don’t tour that much. I think we’ll tour a little more this year probably because we’re excited about the record and people want to hear it. We’re really fortunate to have a label fund us, in particular when the record industry’s in shambles. There all very excited about our record. They just let us do whatever we want. The band is kind of designed to be no pressure at all. Even in the Decemberists I don’t think any of us, Colin included, I don’t think we feel pressured even then. Fortunately I get to be in bands where there’s not a lot of We just kind of do what we want.