Polyester Chaps, A Sack Of Potatoes, and Middle-earth: An Interview With Black Prairie

Black Prairie

Bringing to mind the image of a romantic slow dance under a fading blood-red moon, the music of Black Prairie’s bluegrass-influenced orchestrations are as likely to have you slapping a rhythm across your knee as they are to quietly lull you to sleep. Comprised of members from the Portland, Oregon area, including three-fifths of The Decemberists (Christopher Funk, Nate Query, Jenny Conlee) and prolific artists Annalisa Tornfelt and Jon Neufeld, the band’s expert musicianship and down-to-earth attitude have delighted critics and audiences everywhere they go.

Before their performance at The Frequency this Sunday (October 21), guitarist Christopher Funk answered a few abstract questions via e-mail for True Endeavors about the instrumental-style music of the band and his thoughts regarding reincarnation.

True Endeavors: For the Black Prairie music that doesn’t contain any lyrics, is an underlying narrative necessary for the creative process, perhaps a scene that you see in your heads as it plays out? Or is the music simply an extension of the emotions you are all feeling at the time of creation?

Chris Funk: That’s a broad question for many songs. Frankly, I think most of them come from a regional sound or genre, such as Romani music, fiddle tunes, jazz, maybe Middle-earth? Some [songs] come from just playing, sort of spacing out and letting go at first. They are really all over the place. Though Jenny [Conlee] will always create a dance to accompany the finished product, so ask her to dance while we play a tune in Madison. That may unlock many secrets to the middle world.

As a sort of continuation of the first question, if there is or isn’t an underlying narrative to each track, how do you go about choosing song titles? (For example, this seems easier for songs with lyrics, but I’m curious about songs like “Ostinato Del Caminito” from the Feast of the Hunters’ Moon album.)

With instrumental music, it’s a little silly to actually attempt to associate what are abstract “sounds” with the real world in my opinion. Often we just think of names that make us laugh, or something that has a rough flavor of the type of song it is. They are typically unrelated I believe, though other members may have another take on that. “34 Wishes” was written on Jon [Neufeld’s] birthday. Pretty deep, right? Again, it varies from song to song I’m sure. I personally always liked John Fahey’s song titles, such as “Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of King Philip of Spain.” Like, what the fuck is that?

Many people try and compartmentalize music into specific genres, but in an attempt to bypass such narrow mindedness, I ask you this: If Black Prairie’s music were personified into a living, breathing person, what would that person be like? Appearance-wise? Personality-wise?

Orville Redenbacher in a Stetson Rambler, red cape and mask in polyester chaps…but look out! He’s half man, half horse and he’s playing soprano sax with a nude headset mic!

On the days when I believe in reincarnation, I sometimes imagine that I was a (nice) train robber at the turn of the 19th century. Do you ever get the feeling that you may have lived a previous life? And if so, who were you?

A sack of potatoes? Or Captain & Tennille—not one or the other but oddly vacillating from one to the other over a matter of seconds.

What is something that all aspiring musicians should realize before picking up an instrument?

It’s a high paying gig and with this Romney fella at bay, things will be looking good for your tax bracket if he’s elected!

How would you describe that breakthrough moment when you no longer are playing the chords you’ve learned but are using the chords to play a part of yourself?

There’s only so much room at the top, so I can’t give away all the chairs. Sorry.

–interview by Austin Duerst

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Grab your tickets to the show here

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