Punch Brothers

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Punch Brothers evolves into a ‘sustained musical relationship’

:: Punch Brothers ::
:: Belly Up :: September 1 ::
:: Mishawaka Amphitheatre :: September 2 ::

By Ryan Lappi

 

When faced with a musical resume as detailed as Chris Thile’s, it can be easy to lose track of his ongoing accomplishments. Every collaboration, album, or award brings a different set of expectations, challenges which have become, to say the least, a bit daunting. His latest collaboration with cellist Yo Yo Ma, for instance, helps sum it up:

“The project is called The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” Thile told The Marquee in a recent conversation, “because the definition of a ‘goat rodeo’ is a situation where everything has to go perfect or else you’re completely screwed. We thought that was the situation that we put ourselves in.”

Thile has already lived the career of an esteemed veteran, a career which has spanned roughly 22 years (he recently turned 30). Aside from The Goat Rodeo Sessions (due out in October), in the last two years he has recorded and toured extensively with his band the Punch Brothers, recorded a traditional bluegrass album with guitarist Michael Daves, premiered his first mandolin concerto with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and even won the praise of Elton John, who called the Punch Brothers “astonishing … the best jam band I’ve ever seen.”

Yet being at the forefront of some of the most “fucking brilliant” (again, Sir Elton’s words) music of today is no easy task, even for a prodigy.

“I think I’d rather be someone who works hard than someone who is phenomenally talented,” he said. “I think the harder you work the luckier you get. Good music finds people who work hard. I don’t think it finds people who are just talented.”

With the Punch Brothers, Thile seems to be hitting his stride with new vigor, surrounding himself with musicians who are all young and gifted in their own right. Along with Thile, the band consists of classically trained bluegrass stalwarts Gabe Witcher (violin), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass), and former Leftover Salmon picker Noam Pikelny (the 2010 recipient of the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass). For Thile, the ongoing relationship he’s developed with the Punch Brothers has brought new rewards, both musically and personally.

“I think that sustained musical relationships are what I learn the most from,” he said. “It’s exactly the same as romantic relationships in that sense. It’s a thrill meeting someone and having the flame burn brightly for a little bit. And then after a year or so things either burn out or just simmer awhile, and a simmering sort of a situation is where you really dive in deep with someone and learn the things that you’ll take with you for the rest of your life. For me, Punch Brothers is that sort of situation on a musical level.”

Much of Thile’s life has been based on these terms in the last few years. The dissolution of his marriage served as a catalyst for the band’s first album, Punch, and the 40-minute, four-movement piece “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” But at this point he seems more preoccupied with making more accessible music. Aside from taking a more collaborative, song-based approach on their second album, Antifogmatic, the band is currently in the process of further distilling their approach to songwriting.

“Right now, I’m obsessed with achieving directness and clarity in a way that’s not boring to people who live for music,” he said. “There’s that little white style handbook that every English major has to read, and it talks about how you always need to say exactly what you mean with the least words possible. That’s something the Punch Brothers have struggled with, being direct, being clear about our musical intentions. So we’re trying to filter out the things that are unnecessary and really boil it down to its essence in a way that’s both mentally and physically stimulating.”

That shouldn’t be a problem. At this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the Punch Brothers provided a seamless mix of original songs and covers from such acts as The Strokes, Josh Ritter, and Beck, along with some spiced-up bluegrass staples. But Thile doesn’t see much of a distinction between those styles. In fact, while descriptions of the Punch Brothers’ music have ranged from “post bluegrass” to “progressive chamber music” to “jam band,” Thile doesn’t settle for any of it.

“I don’t care to put music in an historical context,” he contends. “I’m not interested in the early incarnations of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys just because it’s a taste of eastern Kentucky. I’m interested in it because I think it’s really good. The only non-musical part that interests me is what about it was brand new. What did this or that musician conjure out of thin air? Otherwise, I’m just interested in things that are both good and different than everything else.”

:: Punch Brothers ::

:: Belly Up :: September 1 ::

:: Mishawaka Amphitheatre :: September 2 ::

 

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