While it's never easy to guess what a new album from The Decemberists might sound like before it's released, the sonic callbacks in "I'll Be Your Girl" to the more cynical bands of the 1980s still come as a surprise.
For a band whose aptly titled "The Mariner's Revenge Song" — a 9-minute song of revenge between two shipwreck survivors sitting in the belly of a whale — ranks among their most popular with fans, it's amazing that a few synthesizers have thrown the group's admirers for a loop.
For nearly 20 years, the indie-rock band based out of Portland, Oregon, has been breaking conventions, which feels like it should be an oxymoron within a genre of music that has a diversity of sounds built within its history. With a back catalogue of songs that features historical incidents as their settings, and a live show that has been known to present staged sea battle reenactments, there's no argument that The Decemberists are the most commercially successful touring act to meld the worlds of both lyrical and visual art so capably.
However, within a couple of minutes of talking to Chris Funk, a multi-instrumentalist for the band, it becomes apparent that there's a good chance the band has heard that fans greet "Girl" with trepidation, which must feel odd to a group of musicians who have been ever-changing in musical production.
When the apparent '80s synth influences on the new album are broached in conversation, as heard in the first single "Severed," he first greets this particular line of questioning with a terse, "Mmm hmm," before relaying how the initial reaction has him a bit perplexed.
"We've been using synths throughout our history, but maybe it has just always been more subtle?" he said. "We're always drawing from this well that's always full of folk music, prog rock and '80s college rock.
"Those just seem to be our go-tos for inspiration," Funk said with a laugh.
Funk and the rest of the band will perform April 19 at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of their new tour to support "I'll Be Your Girl." They will perform at Charlott'es Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre April 18.
"I was just listening to New Order ("Blue Monday") the other day, and I was listening to them back when I was in high school, but at that time I never really thought about how they were using synths and drum machines," Funk said. "That was just kind of the times, when those two worlds could combine. Really, we just look into our own record collections, and don't spend a lot of time worrying about what's hot right now."
One only needs to look at some of the instruments that Funk has played on some of the band's work in the past to back up that claim. From the hurdy-gurdy to the theremin, being a key member of The Decemberists has allowed the musician the freedom to experiment with fairly obscure instruments at a professional level at a higher rate than the average rock band would ever allow.
"When people find out I'm a musician and ask me what I play, I always answer with the guitar, although I consider it a pretty boring answer," Funk admits. "I have always found it strange that rock bands always have the same basic formula — bass, drums and guitar — and I've always wondered why that was. I've thought about that a lot in my role within the Decemberists over the years, just wondering how we could change that."
When the band first started, he says, it almost felt like a "tango band" with an accordion, an upright bass, an acoustic and steel guitar. This was in the Pacific Northwest, at the same time bands like influential punk trio Sleater-Kinney and post-grunge guitar heroes Built to Spill were pointed at as what indie rock was at that time.
"Not that I'm saying we changed the game or anything," he said. "We were just this weird indie rock folk band. I've always been kind of brazen with my choices (of instrument), although I don't think they have ever really been that odd, as it's just ornamentation in different ways (than other rock bands)."
Who: The Decemberists with Tennis
When: 8 p.m April 19
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Cost: Tickets start at $35
Info: 919-680-2787 or dpacnc.com