INTERVIEW- Knockout: Punch brothers move on from bluegrass
Chris Thile will be the savior of bluegrass.
That's how this article might have started five years ago, when Nickel Creek performed at UVA's Springfest. At the time, there didn't seem to be any question that Thile was the world's premiere young hotshot mandolin player. That hasn't changed, but the past few years have seen him abandon that role in favor of a new, decidedly more progressive route that he's having to forge for himself every step of the way.
The process arguably started with his 2000 solo album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost, which had him playing alongside big dogs like Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer– and, remarkably, holding his own at only 20 years old. It continues through to the newest record from Punch Brothers.
The new quintet evolved from the backing band on Thile's last solo record. Where they spent a significant amount of time there on covers including songs by the Strokes and the White Stripes (and, most famously, a Radiohead tune that didn't make the cut), Punch is all original, including a sprawling four-movement, 42-minute masterpiece Thile penned about his 2004 divorce called "The Blind Leaving The Blind"– which he has characterized as classical music for bluegrass instrumentation. He may not want to be a savior, but clearly he's still dreaming just as big.
The Hook: This same band did an album in 2006 that was credited primarily to you. Why the change?
Chris Thile: Quite honestly, I had one more solo record with Sugar Hill, and the band and I didn't necessarily feel like signing and getting all shacked up with a record label without pursuing other options. The other thing is that I don't really feel like we were ready. That record was a great spring training for us.
The Hook: What's the biggest difference between working with less established musicians and those you've worked with in the past?
Chris Thile: I've never practiced so much in my life. And as amazing as it is to be playing music with Béla and Edgar, I can be a little too awestruck to communicate as meaningfully as I can. In this band, nobody's afraid to tell anybody that such-and-such isn't good enough.
The Hook: Given your past success, do you ever worry about being the big personality yourself?
Chris Thile: We've been noticing that we have to fight to present the identity of the band as a band and not as my band.
The Hook: You've known fiddle player Gabe Witcher for much longer than the others. How does that impact operations?
Chris Thile: You know when you meet someone and you wonder why you haven't already been friends with them for 15 years? That's how it is with these guys.
The Hook: You moved to New York City a few years back. What happens when one makes rural music in a decidedly urban environment?
Chris Thile: We're trying to push forward, and a place like New York is perfect for that sort of attitude. We play bluegrass instruments, so all of a sudden people decide we're a bluegrass band. It's certainly not my goal to be a youthful curator of traditional American music.
The Hook: That role would have been handed to you on a silver platter if you'd wanted it.
Chris Thile: It's just never been interesting to me. Ever since I was little, I've heard people saying that I was bringing bluegrass to the next generation and stuff like that, and I just never really cared. I don't like the idea of spending my career allying myself so inseparably to something. I certainly get, after shows, young people saying 'I never really listened to bluegrass until I found your music.' I tell them, 'Well, I don't think you've really listened to bluegrass yet.' I love bluegrass– I hope I don't sound like I don't– I'm just not personally concerned with its fate. I think it'll be fine without me.
Punch Brothers definitely won't play bluegrass at the Satellite Ballroom on Friday 5/16. $20, 8pm.