Punch Brothers - from Nickel Creek to a goldmine

Chris Thile is a happy man. On the day before we speak the former mandolin wunderkind with bluegrass band Nickel Creek learned that he’d been awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius grant. In essence this means that, along with 2012’s other twenty-two recipients from the art, music, literature and world improving charity spheres, he receives $500,000 over the next five years to enable him to pursue a creative project.

And it’s not like Thile is short of such projects. On any one day he might be working on an orchestral composition for mandolin, playing a pub gig with his duo partner, singer-guitarist Michael Daves, involved in the latest adventure with cellist Yo Yo Ma’s Goat Radio, perfecting his interpretations on mandolin of Bach’s violin concertos and partitas, ruminating on where his duo with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau might be heading, or revving up the band that brings him back to Scotland this weekend, Punch Brothers.

“Yeah, someone just called and asked how it felt to officially be a genius,” says Thile down the line from his New York apartment. “And I had to say I was still concentrating on being able to put the left shoe on my left foot. When the news came in, I was as close to hyperventilating as I think I’ve ever been but I’m going to be boring with most of the money. I’m going to put a lot of it away somewhere safe, although there is one self-indulgent purchase I might make: a new, or rather a very old Gibson mandolin that just came on the market. I’m test driving it right now.”

Thile’s band mates in Punch Brothers – the name comes from a Mark Twain short story, Punch, Brothers, Punch – might have ideas on how he can spend some of his money in Scotland. He could, for example, buy them some good malt whisky as he did following their debut here at Celtic Connections in 2008, when the audience response to Thile’s suite, The Blind Leaving the Blind, was less than supportive.

“Oh boy, that was a curious experience,” says Thile. “The reviews were lovely but I’ve never encountered so much heckling before. People came expecting to hear a bluegrass band and when you see Punch Brothers onstage, with our mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and double bass line-up, that’s what we look like.”

With the benefit of hindsight, he would have put out The Blind Leaving the Blind under his own name. “But what happened was, I had this idea for an extended, fairly complex composition and I asked the guys to rehearse it with me, and while it was quite involved, we clicked very quickly and it felt like a band. It felt great, actually, and we thought audiences would agree. Alas, not all of them liked its tempo changes and tricky metres but we’ve moved on from there and we came back to Celtic Connections and it was a wonderful experience.”

They have indeed moved on. Now three albums into their career, Punch Brothers are, says Thile, getting closer to the core of what they aim to be doing. Their latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now, has the familiar instrumental dexterity allied to a more pop or rock music aesthetic. As was the case with Nickel Creek, as well as writing their own songs, they’ll cover contemporary bands’ material. Thile has probably got over his liking for impersonating, with scary accuracy, Britney Spears, as he used to with Nickel Creek, preferring the challenge of Radiohead’s Kid A, which on Who’s Feeling Young Now took Punch Brothers into the realms of an acoustic King Crimson.

“We had so much fun doing that number,” he says. “It’s probably one of Radiohead’s most electronic songs and there we were attempting it with this acoustic instrumentation. But we all love Radiohead and, for me, there’s no better way of getting into someone’s head than trying to play their music as if it’s your own.”

These days, having begun as a vehicle for Thile’s music, Punch Brothers is very much a democracy. The quintet compose together, often as a result of jamming and working up ideas collectively at sound checks and rehearsals, and if one of them doesn’t like the direction a song is taking or isn’t happy with a cover version, it’ll be dropped unceremoniously.

“We share a lot of the same likes but we do sometimes use up a lot of time only to discard something,” says Thile. “But I don’t want to be going out on stage, playing something that one of the guys isn’t convinced about. I can get quite obsessive about an idea and the other four will pull me back to reality and that’s great because in a band, you have to be great self-editors and believe me, when it comes to self-editing, we’re tireless.”

From The Herald, November 8, 2012.

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