International recording and touring musician Chris Funk is a creature of his environment -- Northwest Indiana – where he was born, bred and baptized in the diverse musical styles native to the region.
Funk checked in by phone earlier this week from the road while on tour with his band, Black Prairie. Famous for being a member of Grammy Award nominated alt-folk/rock group The Decemberists, the multi-instrumentalist grew up in Valparaiso, played in a couple of local bands around the Region (The Outlaw Bikers, Social Sometimes and the Jim Chaddock Band), graduated in 1990 from Valparaiso High School, and spent a few years teaching music to local kids.
Funk is clearly excited to be bringing his new project home to play for friends and family in a pair of back to back concerts this Thursday at his favorite hometown haunt, Front Porch Music. (Black Prairie began in 2008 as a predominantly instrumental side project by three-fifths of The Decemberists -- Funk, accordionist Jenny Conlee and bassist Bate Query – during down times from recording and touring.)
“Initially, we wanted to have a group where we could write some experimental music and explore some of the musical styles we enjoy outside of what we do with The Decemberists,” said Funk. “In the Decemberists, Colin (Meloy) is the core writer (founder and band leader) and this group gives the rest of us a chance to stretch out a little more and do some other things.”
Unlike the more commercial sound of The Decemberists, Black Prairie embraces a broad cross-section of Americana and Eastern European folk music as they blend everything from bluegrass and klezmer to Romani music. As the group steadily developed, it grew to include vocalist Annalisa Tornfelt and violinist/guitarist Jon Neufeld, friends of the core trio from their home base of Portland, Oregon, where Funk has resided since leaving Northwest Indiana in 1998.
The success of The Decemberists allows Funk and his musical mates the luxury of having a decent budget to record with their side project.
To that end, Black Prairie released their sophomore album for Sugar Hill Records last month. The new 16-track collection, “A Tear In The Eye Is A Wound In The Heart,” (produced by Tucker Martine) is a more cohesive and focused follow-up to their 2010 debut disc, “Feast Of The Hunter’s Moon.” The first single and video from the new CD, “How Do You Ruin Me,” is an uptempo number showcasing Tornfelt’s haunting vocals getting spins at NPR, college and online radio stations. The video is currently available for viewing on YouTube.
Decemberists' drummer John Moen guested on the sessions and is currently providing the beat for this leg of live dates where the set list focuses primarily on the new songs. Lest rumors start, Funk made it clear that The Decemberists are simply taking some downtime, as group leader Meloy tries his hand at writing a series of books called “The Wildwood Chronicles,” targeted at “tweens” with his illustrator wife.
Funk recalls his developmental years in Northwest Indiana with great fondness. He told of taking piano lessons as a young child and growing up in a musically rich home where playing music was not only encouraged, but very much lauded. “My dad sang in the church choir and my mom played piano and my sister was active in the school music program. So music was something we all did as a family. I was really into the band Devo as a kid and remember playing along with Devo on my little Casio electric keyboard,” he laughed.
Funk later traded his keyboards for woodwind instruments and a saxophone by the time he discovered the vibrant music program at Valparaiso High School under the direction of Dan Pritchett, who opened the teenager’s eyes and ears to a wide array of music and underscored the importance of practice, practice, practice. “I might not have liked all the practicing he made us do and I might not have liked all the music we were doing, but as I look back now, I see how much I learned about music there. It’s where I got the tools I’m still using today in my career,” he said.
Funk had been teaching himself guitar and jamming in a teenage punk band by the time VHS music teacher Alice Gamble encouraged him to get involved with the school’s music program and bands. “Alice got me involved in some pit orchestras at the school and at the Opera House in Valpo. She opened the door. She was great,” he said. While the VHS music program gave Funk the tools he needed, his real education came a few years later, when he discovered a sense of community and a whole new world of music genres while “going to college” in Valparaiso.
The elements at Front Porch converged to make Funk the man and the musician he is today. “In a very real way, Front Porch was my ‘college’ because my real education and inspiration came after John Derado hired me to run the register there,” said Funk. “John was one of the (store) partners at that time. His giving me that job changed my life.” Funk eventually became manager of Front Porch and house booking agent for the basement coffeehouse, where Black Prairie will be “bringing it all back home” for him this Thursday.