The Decemberists, the folk-rock ensemble, have never been in a rush to release albums. But the band took more time than usual with its most recent, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.”
It’s the Decemberists’ first full-length release since 2011’s “The King Is Dead,” which debuted at No. 1 and earned a Grammy nomination for best rock song with “Down by the Water.” The album title is a line from the song “12/17/12,” which frontman Colin Meloy wrote after the Sandy Hook Elementary killings and a speech by President Obama.
Known for its thematic albums and sometimes elaborate costumed tours, the band — Meloy, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, drummer John Moen and guitarist Chris Funk — plays Merriweather Post Pavilion this week. We spoke with Funk from the band’s base in Portland, Ore., during a break in the tour.
Was the hiatus before this album the longest the band has ever taken? It was. It’s actually a normal break for bands of our peer group. We were kind of in a cycle of making records and touring for 10 years or more, so it was nice to have a welcome break.
What was the process for recording the new one? Colin would show up with a song structure and say, “I have no idea what to do with this.” We’d, dare I say, jam on it. Like the “Lake Song” . . . is like a second take of us playing.
We don’t have a formula — every record is different. Like when we started off, we had Monday night rehearsals in our drummer’s basement. And then we began touring a lot in 2005, we would play stuff on the road, in sound checks and debut things live, which we never do anymore. Then it became the process of Colin demo-ing things out on the computer, and I would demo the stuff on my computer, just to get the feel of the songs and arrangements. So the idea on this one was to come in with the least amount of work done up front and see what happened.
Did you have a theme for the new album, or did a theme present itself as you were recording it?
No. We’ve become this band with themes on the records. The era began I guess with “The Crane Wife,” which had a few song cycles that were strung together and were proggy to us; “The Hazards of Love,” which was very themed; and then “The King Is Dead,” in which the theme was: Let’s go to a bar and attempt to make some kind of quasi-Americana record. So no, it’s sort of old school for us in that way — just show up and record. I guess the theme was to have no theme. Which was refreshing.
Did you have leftover things when you were done? We almost did the double-album thing, we had so much material. And we were like, “Why not put it out?” People want to hear what we’ve been up to, it seems like. But you go back and forth with that, and there’s all kinds of reasons to not do a double-record — your record label encouraging you not to do it, for starters. There’s a lot of material that will see the light of day at some point, in some format, an EP or something like that. But, yeah, it was pretty hard. There was quite a bit of debate of what to put on the record.
Are you not debuting new things on the road because everybody has a recorder in their phone now?
Honestly, I think it’s because we have so many records. We were doing a Kinks cover for a while on the last trip. We have so many songs, and I think we’re pretty conscious that people are paying to see us and they are fans of us, so we have to be mindful of the catalogue we have now and get through material people want to hear live. So, no covers and no new songs this trip. The show is kind of all over the map from our catalogue, which is fun and challenging to remember on certain nights.
That means you have to give up the costumes and sets that go with certain records, right? There might be a whale coming up in there somewhere. We’ll see.
Are you playing more electric guitar because of that big guitar battle you had on “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert? Are you improving your skills so maybe he’ll ask you to play on his new show?
That would be nice, if he would have me. But no. I lost that battle. So I probably have no business playing guitar onstage.
But that was cheating, right? He brought in Peter Frampton as a ringer in the last minute.
I guess it was cheating. I never thought about it. That was a fun time.
The last thing I saw the band do on late-night TV was when you set random YouTube comments to music on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier this year. It made it seem like you guys could make a song out of anything. Did that take a long time to create?
No, we just kind of did it right before we got up there. We play a lot of music together, and with all the band members that were off the road, and in other bands, too, we’re kind of a well-oiled machine at this point in terms of arranging and writing, and with Colin being someone with a strong vision for songs. So it actually came along pretty quick.
Catlin is a freelance writer.
The Decemberists, with Father John Misty. June 4 at 7:30 p.m. at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia, Md. Tickets: $38.50-$48.50. 410-715-5550. www.merriweathermusic.com.