Chris Thile: ‘Tony Furtado told me to listen to Planxty, and my mind was blown’
‘For all of my omnivorousness as a musician, I come from the British Isles fiddle tune tradition, and from Irish music in particular’
Singer/mandolin player Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers: ‘I didn’t think music could get more important, but there’s an urgency to the endeavour right now, owing to the political climate, in America and around the world’. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Chris Thile wants to get a badge made for his next tour that says “Hi, I’m Chris, I’m from America and I’m sorry.”
The Grammy-winning mandolinist from southern California has spent most of his 36 years on the road, first with bluegrass prodigies Nickel Creek and then with his own genre-bending group Punch Brothers.
Along the way he has sold cartloads of records, garnered breathless critical praise for his instrumental virtuosity, won the prestigious MacArthur Fellows grant, and collaborated with fellow virtuosos such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau.
We miss Obama, of course we do, but at this stage, we even miss George W Bush
But the best way to experience Thile’s talent is in solo performance, when it’s just him, eight very short strings and a microphone. And as he prepares for this week’s National Concert Hall show, his mind is on the political turmoil he will be leaving behind.
“When the election results came in, I was thinking forward to this tour going ‘How am I going to hold my head up?’ I mean, of course we miss Obama, of course we do, but at this stage, we even miss George W Bush.”
For Thile, music has taken on a new importance. “I didn’t think music could get more important, but there’s an urgency to the endeavour right now, owing to the political climate, in America and around the world.”
“The inclination to make beautiful things and share them with each other is one of the things that makes us human. We’re just the worst to each other, in so many ways, but that desire, to make a lovely thing and to take it to someone else, to say ‘Here, I made this for you, check this out, do you like it?’ I think that’s such a beautiful thing, and that’s worth focusing on.”
For all his liberal anger, Thile is clearly more interested in building bridges than throwing stones
So can we expect a Trump protest song on the next Punch Brother’s album? “If you are to make some sort of statement, it can’t get past your ‘is this good art?’ filter. It doesn’t get a pass on that. As a creator of things, you have to subject any political statement you feel like making to the same codes of quality that you subject every other idea you ever have to, and I think sometimes it’s easy to get fired up and you want to add your two cents to the political wishing well, and sometimes, all of a sudden, you bypass your own sense of what is truly good.”
For all his liberal anger, Thile is clearly more interested in building bridges than throwing stones. Coming from the deeply conservative, rural tradition of bluegrass music, he understands Trump voters better than most.
“On my new radio show, I haven’t fully run from it. I have written a couple of songs that reference things in certain ways, but the important thing is for us all to be having a dialogue, and be making earnest attempts to understand one another.
“I was raised in a household that was basically the polar opposite to what I feel now, so I’m particularly inclined to try and believe that even people I disagree with very much, are at root good people trying to do good and so I need to listen to them.”
That radio show is A Prairie Home Companion, one of the most venerable institutions on US public radio, started more than 40 years ago by Minnesota author and humourist Garrison Keillor. Thile first appeared on the old-school two hour variety show at the age of 15, and has been a regular guest ever since, but he never expected to end up presenting it.
My mind started racing, thinking what can I do with this format, and all of these ideas were exploding
“It’s still a little but of a blur to me. Garrison really called me out of the clear blue sky a little over two years now, and just started in, saying ‘I think I’m done and I think you should do it when I’m gone’. I just stood there on the other end of the line, with my mouth hanging open.
“My mind started racing, thinking what can I do with this format, and all of these ideas were exploding, a little like I feel in the writing room with Punch Brothers. When I’m with Punch Brothers, I feel like I can turn on the tap and music comes out. And I felt like that when I was thinking about using the format that Garrison created.”
Since presenting his first show in October, Thile has been true to his word, writing a brand new topical song every week. And while he’s clear about staying true to the homespun values that have endeared the show to millions (it regularly attracts 3.5 million listeners), the show’s producers might be hoping that Thile’s youthful vigour will bridge the gap between A Prairie Home Companion's traditional listeners and a younger, more politicised audience.
“You know, with the virtual disappearance of record royalties, musicians have to find other ways to make a living, obviously, and so far all there is is live performance.
“You start thinking ahead, and I don’t want to have to be gone 250 days a year and miss my kids growing up. I think we’re all hitting it awfully hard on the touring front, and I see a lot of burnt out travelling musicians. I’ve been one of those, you know, and you shouldn’t have to get to that point.
“It’s not like I want to start taking it easy. I want to make music and I want to share it with people. [The radio show] actually is eliciting more content from me than I think I have ever created.”
I come from the British Isles fiddle tune tradition, and from Irish music in particular
In the past, Thile has been described as a genre-hopper, a term he abhors, but he is open to cross-fertilisation. As well as renovating the bluegrass tradition twice over, he has garnered praise for his interpretations of Bach, and his collaborations with Mehldau and others. But he is in no danger of losing touch with his roots.
“Well, you know, for all of my omnivorousness as a musician, I come from the British Isles fiddle tune tradition, and from Irish music in particular. It was this banjo player called Tony Furtado, when I was 14 or 15, who told me to listen to Planxty, and my mind was blown. In part, it was because all of this shit that I thought was ours – it’s not ours, it’s yours.”
Like Keillor before him, Thile likes to sign off his radio shows with a phrase that has particular resonance in these dark times. “Thanks for listening,” he told listeners at the end of a recent show, “and not just for listening to the show, but for listening, period. For not shutting down, sticking your fingers in your ears and adding to the din. All you listeners out there, God bless you.”
Chris Thile plays the National Concert Hall on March 21st. nch.ie