In 2011, the Decemberists hit a new pinnacle when the group’s album, The King is Dead, debuted at number one on Billboard magazine’s album chart.
The band went on tour as The King is Dead racked up sales and impressive reviews. Then in 2012, the group members did something they hadn’t done in a career that stretched back a dozen years—they went on an extended break.
“It was definitely a moment to get away from things and just, yeah, it just seemed like it was time,” guitarist Chris Funk says of the decision to put The Decemberists on pause. “It was time to break off and do other stuff, for sure.”
And other stuff the five band members did.
Ironically, Colin Meloy, The Decemberists’ lead singer, songwriter and best-known band member, kept the lowest profile—at least as far as music was concerned. During the break, he focused on writing the third installment in his series of “Wildwood Chronicles” fantasy adventure illustrated novels, “Wildwood Imperium” (with his wife, Carson Ellis, handling the artwork).
Meloy also wrote songs for what eventually became the new Decemberists album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, during the hiatus, but songwriting served as a breather from work on the book, rather than his primary project.
Meanwhile, the other four members of The Decemberists—Funk, keyboardist/accordion player Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen—wasted little time returning to musical pursuits.
Along with Annalisa Tornfelt (vocals/violin) and Jon Neufeld (guitar), they reactivated their rootsy bluegrass-informed side band Black Prairie and put the pedal down on that project.
The group released three albums – 2012’s A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, 2013’s Wild Ones and 2014’s Fortune—and toured extensively, considerably raising the profile of the band in the process.
The roadwork also helped the four members of The Decemberists maintain their playing chops for the time when their main band reconvened.
“Four years is a long break had we not played music with each other,” Funk says. “So I think it benefited the band and the recording process (for What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World) in the sense that we were just already up (and running), the whole band, working together.”
When it was time for The Decemberists to end their hiatus, the group didn’t rush into the What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World project.
Instead, work on the album stretched out for a year and a half as the band began recording and refining the 18 songs Meloy had amassed during the hiatus and exploring other song ideas.
Funk said while the band worked diligently—some of the parts recorded on the first day in the studio are on the finished album—the extensive schedule for studio work was a nice change from the shorter, more frenetic recording sessions that had produced the other Decemberists albums.
“I think it (the 18-month schedule) was just a way to ease back into it,” Funk says, “and also not just going into the studio and having this full-on recording happening all of the time.”
The extensive work that went into What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World paid off. It’s one of the strongest albums in a catalog populated by six other acclaimed—and frequently ambitious—albums.
Funk says fans can expect to hear songs from across The Decemberists’ career during the band’s concerts this spring.
“I think it’s a pretty healthy retrospective on everything mixed in with the new material that we’re excited to play,” he says. “We are conscious of the fact that we have fans that have been with us since day one, so we’re trying to play music they want to hear, but also be conscious that likely we have a lot of fans that signed on at kind of The King Is Dead era for The Decemberists.
“But yeah, we try to make it fun for us, too,” Funk says. “I think whether or not people have heard songs all the time, we’re not a band fully driven on hits, either. We have a catalog of music and a fan base that I think was kind of created out of touring a lot. So we can kind of get away with choosing a set list that we think is exciting.”
THE DECEMBERISTS, Mesa Arts Center, 1 E. Main Street, Mesa, 480.644.6500, mesaartscenter.org, Wednesday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., $35