The Decemberists to make Aspen debut at Belly Up
IF YOU GO …
What: The Decemberists
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Satuday, Aug. 11, 9 p.m.
How much: $85/general admission; $150/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com
More info: The Louisiana-based indie rock group Givers will open the show.
The Decemberists never have been afraid to get a little weird or to try something new.
But nobody saw the sonic makeover on the band’s new album coming. “I’ll Be Your Girl,” released in March, opens with three songs that prominently use synthesizers. And not in the organic-sounding, subtle way the mostly acoustic Portland, Oregon-based quintet used them in the past — these are straight-up New Order- and Depeche Mode-styled ’80s synth-pop synths.
The Decemberists didn’t actually have to buy any new gear to make “I’ll Be Your Girl,” notes multi-instrumentalist and co-founder Chris Funk.
“It was conscious and we just felt comfortable doing it,” Funk said in a telephone interview from a tour stop in Park City, Utah, last week. “Like, ‘We’ve messed with these before, let’s just mess with them a little bit louder in the mix.’”
The beloved band, which makes its Aspen debut Saturday at Belly Up, formed nearly 20 years ago and broke out with the brilliant back-to-back mid-2000s albums “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife,” showcasing an expansive hipster-folk that was baroque both in its intricate instrumentation and the stories it told. The Decemberists have long-established creative signatures, like taking bits of English and American folk music and old world traditions, telling fanciful, grandiose stories and tongue-in-cheek parables in song and taking multi-syllabic SAT words and miraculously making them work in pop music choruses. (The tall tales are still represented on the new album in the mermaid saga “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes.”)
Their adventuresome instrumental quiver includes accordion and hurdy-gurdy and theramin, so a touch of synth was just another thing to play with. The record had the band working for the fist time with producer John Congleton, who is a synth-friendly artist who has made records with St. Vincent and Swans.
“It was out of trying to re-ornament the songs,” Funk said.
The ’80s college rock sound has always been there in Decemberists songs, Funk noted, so the electronic sounds on new tracks like the gorgeously gloomy single “Once in My Life” were not a huge leap.
“Our band has blatantly ripped off R.E.M. for years,” Funk said with a laugh, “so switching over into a New Order gear makes a lot of sense to us, or The Cure. When we were growing up and listening to college rock, you would listen to New Order or Depeche Mode alongside R.E.M. and Husker Du. They were all, somehow, to me and my friends’ circle, on our same turntable.”
Saturday marks the band’s first show in Aspen, though the Decemberists have made regular stops in Denver through its life and headlined Red Rocks Ampitheatre in May.
This August string of mountain town shows — including Park City, Fort Collins and Aspen — is built around the Decemberists-curated Travelers’ Rest music festival in Missoula, which had its second annual run last weekend.
It was time for the band to get off the Interstate and finally play Aspen.
“We’ve been a band for so long that the band wants to play markets that are the non-obvious places, and not just all the big cities,” Funk said. “So Aspen, not Denver, makes sense.”
The new album also includes some of the band’s most straight-forward pop songs, like “We All Die Young,” a peppy and ironic sing-along that is readymade for a raucous live show. That and “Everything is Awful” were in-studio creations, Funk said — a rarity for the Decemberists, who normally test out songs live before recording them.
“It’s fun to hear how anthemic those feel (in concert),” he said.
They’ve been playing a handful of the new songs nightly at recent concerts, but not to the exclusion of older and more familiar fare. The band typically plays two sets with an intermission. Learning to play the synth-heavy tracks like “Once in My Life” took some practice.
“It was challenging at first, because at our core we’re a rock band or a folk rock band,” Funk said. “So introducing these sounds and then figuring out how to do it live was a challenge. But I think we got it.”
The growing sonic palette has led to some slight rearrangements of Decemberists classics. “Mariner’s Revenge Song,” the band’s epic accordion- and klezmer-powered shanty tale of two sailors in a whale’s belly — which is a frequent encore at their live shows — has gotten the synth treatment from keyboardist Jenny Conlee. It only heightens the song’s already awesome absurdity, said Funk: “Adding synths to that song is a nod to the fact that we’re using more synthesizers. And it’s kind of fun. It’s just more playful.”
The band is planning to keep touring on “I’ll Be Your Girl” through next year. After that, Funk thinks they may take a break.
The band took a hiatus in 2011, after wrapping their “The King is Dead” tour. At the time, the announcement prompted some internet hysteria from fans who thought The Decemberists were breaking up.
“We were actually taking a hiatus, which just means we’re not going to tour,” Funk said.
They only stayed away for about two years, before beginning a three-album run and tour cycle through “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” (2014) and the Olivia Chaney collaboration “Offa Rex” (2017) into “I’ll Be Your Girl.”
“I think that we need to step away from it and ask ourselves what would be exciting to us,” Funk said. “So I really have no idea. That’s terrifying and also exciting.”
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