The Decemberists are named after the Decembrist revolt, the 1825 uprising in Imperial Russia. Minus the slightly different spelling, the band’s name conjures up images of czars, stern Russian military men, cold stretches of wilderness and a specific historical event. So naturally, the Decemberists are a band that, first and foremost, tells stories.
“I have a memory of the first time I heard one of Colin’s songs, the song ‘My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist,’ and asking him ‘Wow, did your mom really do all that?’” said Chris Funk, multi-instrumentalist with the popular Portland, Ore.-based indie rock band, referring to his band mate, singer and songwriter Colin Meloy. “He said ‘No way, it’s just a story.’ But that’s the way he writes. It’s really beautiful and full of cool imagery.”
Funk, Meloy, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen have played together as the delightfully anachronistic Decemberists since 2000, with five albums under their belt. They range from the comparatively subdued indie folk record “Castaways and Cutouts,” their 2002 debut, to 2009’s “Hazards of Love,” a bold song-cycle rock opera telling the story of Margaret, her lover, her mother and a dastardly rake. They will play songs from all those albums at the concert tonight at the Collins Center for the Arts, with opening artist Laura Veirs.
The Decemberists’ story-songs and unorthodox pop instrumentation have garnered them fans worldwide, along with critical acclaim. They were among the first bands in the wave of orchestral pop that came to dominate the indie rock of the past 10 years. Along with bands and artists like Sufjan Stevens, the Arcade Fire and Beirut, the Decemberists were partly responsible for the fact that instruments like the accordion, the hurdy gurdy and various and sundry woodwinds are now commonplace in indie rock.
“At the time we started, there weren’t many bands at all that used more folk instrumentation, and less commonplace instruments,” said Funk. “There are lots of them now.”
Funk believes that the average indie rock fan’s tastes have broadened over the years. Where guitar-bass-drums-vocals used to be the name of the game, listeners now have more open ears.
“I think people are much more accepting of nontraditional music, even if the musicians are technically playing very traditional instruments,” said Funk. “I think the definition of what is pop and rock has changed. Colin used to joke that we look more like a tango band than a rock band.”
True to their image, the Decemberists have continually done more and more quirky interesting things over the years. They range from performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007 to a 2006 mock feud with Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert in which Funk agreed to a guitar-shredding contest with Colbert, only to have Colbert drop out and bring in replacement Peter Frampton.
In the meantime, all members of the band relish the downtime in between tours and recording to work on their own projects. For Meloy, that has meant a series of solo recordings in which he covers songs from the likes of Morrissey, Sam Cooke, Fleetwood Mac and Shirley Collins. Drummer John Moen has played with seemingly every West Coast indie rock band ever.
And Funk records with his electronic duo, Knock Knock, and is working on a family-friendly series of concerts in Portland. The idea? Indie rock bands play during the day for both kids and parents, along with various performers, animators, puppeteers and other talented artists.
“I’m a parent, and I can’t stand most kid’s music. Why can’t kids and parents listen to the same stuff?” said Funk. “My daughter got bored of the same old stuff, and I got bored of all the corny kid’s music, so something like this makes perfect sense. Parents get to see a show, and kids just get to have fun.”
The Decemberists and Laura Veirs will play at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, at the Collins Center for the Arts. Tickets are still available by calling 581-1766.