An Interview with Chris Funk of The Decemberists and Black Prairie

by Jamie Deering

Attending the Black Prairie concert in March 2013 at the historical McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, I had the pleasant opportunity to catch up with multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. I really enjoyed hearing his thoughts about songwriting and playing music, advice to those starting out on the banjo and his adventure with the instrument.

Chris Funk

Chris Funk performing with his Deering John Hartford banjo


As for introductions…

My name is Chris Funk and I play with Black Prairie and The Decemberists… I think that’s it (laughs). I play regular guitar and Dobro, and other kinds, pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, banjo, some keyboards sometimes, umm…and several others, I mean all of the above I should note but I fake it on all of them (laughs). I kind of figure them out. So string instruments, I like all kinds of stringed instruments. I have a hurdy-gurdy.  I like Turkish saws, that’s really fun, kind of banjo-y. Yeah the basement’s full, a lot of stuff. But in those bands [above, I play] primarily banjo, mandolin, guitar, pedal steel and Dobro. I’ll play some autoharp tonight too.


How Long Have You Played the Banjo?

The banjo I have played I think 10 years, maybe a little longer ...maybe 15 years, yeah. The first banjo, being a guitar player, I had a 6-String. I worked at a folk music shop in Indiana called Front Porch Music that at one time carried Deering I don’t know if they still do or not. I used to sell Deering [banjos] actually to people, so I had a 6-String Deering! Unfortunately I was 24 I had to sell a lot of instruments to move to Oregon, where I currently live. And I think all I had left at the time was the Dobro, sorry Deering banjo (laughs).  I have since gotten another Deering banjo.

So, yeah, I worked at this folk music shop and that’s where I got interested in bluegrass music. I mean I had already liked bluegrass because it was Indiana there was a lot of it around. Just started playing a bunch of instruments, but banjo hanging on the wall you know, on Monday morning in a small town in Indiana you start plinking around on things. Eventually I was just watching, figuring out the 5-String and really liked the sound of it.

At the time I thought 6-String was like a cheater banjo and now investigating it’s actually, the history of the 6-String is…you’re not a cheater if you just play the 6-String. Like there’s a lot of great New Orleans music that has that. I’m friends with Preservation Hall, I was surprised to see those guys have some guys that were playing 6.

I became interested in 5 because 5 was like the bluegrass machine, you know. But I have also since bought a 4-String banjo and been playing that too, but 5 has kind of been the one I‘ve been playing the most lately.


What Style Do You Play on The 4-String?

4-String I just try to play reels and stuff, try to play Irish music. It’s hard though, it’s its own thing.

That’s my problem I can’t focus on one thing. I recently took some clawhammer lessons, and started playing a little clawhammer, that’s fun too.

Oddly Scruggs style is what I learned first and then clawhammer, that just looked mind boggling to me. I was just like ‘I don’t understand it’. Now I’ve learned it and was like ‘oh ok, that’s really simple’. When you watch someone do it, it’s counter intuitive to 5-String playing Scruggs style, I think. So it’s been a lot of fun to learn that too, but I love playing, it’s fun, that’s one of my favorite instruments to play. Hopefully I’ll play more of it in The Decemberists, and I’ve been slowly working it into Black Prairie on this last record.


What Was The First Song You Learned?

I don’t know if I ever learned like a fiddle song. So later on in life during a Decemberists recording I bought a banjo just to play on our song, so more learning my songs, or our songs on it. So I guess the first song I learn was actually just creating a Decemberists song.  I didn’t come from the festival circuit playing, in the campgrounds playing fiddle music, like traditional music on it. It’s like utilitarian. It was on our record in 2005.


So you learned a Decemberists song, you wrote a song for your first one!

Yeah exactly, old school!

Was that the Goodtime that you got?

Yeah, that I still have. Now I have recently purchased, as you know, the Hartford (24 frets). And that’s just been awesome so I’ll use that with the band and stuff.

Do you use a pickup or do you just use a mic?

I was using a mic up until like a week ago and our sound guy was like ‘get a pickup!’, so I’ve been using the Hatfield.


What do you think?

Umm, it’s got a buzz in it right now (laughs).  I don’t know, last light we kind of played a rock club so it might be because of the wiring of the rock club, so we‘re still sorting it out. I’m curious about the Kavanjo. That’s probably next on the list.

But I prefer playing with a mic, to me it captures what that body is doing…you know that resonant cavity.


What advice would you give someone if they wanted to start learning or they were in the process of learning?

I guess, buy some records of banjo players and listen to banjo, all the styles of banjo, there are so many out there. There are so many people doing so many things with it now in popular music.

But also go back to the origins of the banjo and listen to all the different styles that started it all, I think too. Like African origins and then even just old minstrel banjos. It‘s so interesting to hear how that instrument can span. I think so many peoples idea of a banjo is umm, you know… the theme of Beverly Hillbillies, or whatever. That is the first thing that comes to mind which is not a bad thing, because that’s a very fine banjo player, a very famous one, he was amazing.

But it’s interesting to hear the banjo go through different genres and I think it’s inspiring to think outside the box and take it into other forms of music. So that would be my advice, listen, just listen a lot and don’t be afraid to experiment. And don’t get stuck in a genre, I mean unless your heart’s stuck in one genre. Try to play other styles of music on it which is what the ‘Flecks’ have done of the world, which is inspiring to hear this banjo come out of the only idiom that the public thinks of it in.


When you were first learning did you practice a lot or did you just enjoy playing and that was your practice time?

Yeah, and this is another good piece of advice, is learn songs don’t get mired down in technical things.  I mean you have to initially, but I’d just play songs a lot. I guess that’s practicing. For me now the lines are blurred because I don’t feel like I practice anymore, I feel like I work on songs more.

I feel at the end of the day that’s what I am after. I’m not after learning different chord patterns on the banjo or something at this point really. I am more interested in how it serves the song and how instruments serve songs that I’m working on. I play with a lot of songwriters and I’m a songwriter myself. So I’m thinking more about the song and not the technical things of the instrument all the time. I think it takes a while maybe to get there too (laughs)… so yes at one point I imagine I practiced, or like learning clawhammer or what have you.

For me it’s best served if it has a purpose. Like what‘s the purpose of this, because I tour and make records. So now I’m thinking about songs all the time and projects.


When you write do you mostly do instrumental writing or do you write lyrics too?

Historically it’s been instrumental but lately more lyrics, and black Prairie has been a great exercise in that. So collaborating with Annalisa, like we all kind of are. Writing melodies with her, and singing. On this current record I helped write some lyrics of a song. Getting more into that just as an exercise, if anything I’m going to practice it’s that, writing lyrics. Something I really enjoy.


When you play what do you enjoy the most about the banjo?

Man! Umm… people can hear it! (Laughs)

It sticks out and I think people respond really well to the banjo, people like love the instrument. In the audience, because I switch through instruments so I don’t know if it’s the type of songs that we use it with, with Black Prairie or The Decemberists, but …I’m not saying it’s the banjo that makes those particular songs great… but I think people love it, people are always drawn to it.

I am surprised people in the United States still don’t know what that instrument is after all these years. People are always like ‘Wow, what is that? That’s not a guitar’. I’m like ‘no’.

It’s exciting when people get excited about it. So I like that aspect of it, the communal aspect of music I love and the communal aspect of instruments I love, people wanting to talk about instruments or enjoy looking at them or hearing them. That’s really exciting to me.


What do you think about the banjo finding its way into more and more people’s hearts these days?

It’s awesome. That’s what initially drew me to the Dobro or mandolin or banjo. I was like, well I play guitar, there’s so many guitar players. Why not try to do something different, or explore different sounds. I think it’s great.

I guess [it’s] historically a European and African instrument maybe, but I view the banjo as such an American instrument, honestly for me, even when knowing its origin. It’s like the ukulele to Hawaii specific if you want to break it down to a state or something. I think it’s strongly American. I don’t know, it makes me excited that people want to buy them and learn them.

Whenever I see people playing banjo at festivals or parties or whatever, I’m immediately drawn to them, I’m just like ‘that’s my people’!


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