Former Nickel Creek-er and ace mandolinist Chris Thile has found a new home with Punch Brothers, he tells CORMAC LARKIN
THE LAST TIME Chris Thile played Dublin, it was a solo show. It wasn’t meant to be that way but just hours before their duo gig at Whelan’s last September, guitarist Michael Davies had to fly back to the US for a family emergency. At that point, most musicians would have cancelled, and no one would have blamed most musicians. But Chris Thile is not most musicians.
In fact, when the news rippled through the audience that Thile would be taking the stage alone, the reaction says a lot about the mandolinist’s reputation. This, whispered one well-known Irish folk musician, is going to be even better.
And so it was. For two hours, with just eight very short strings and one microphone, Thile held a packed Whelan’s enthralled, moving easily between traditional bluegrass, his own gnarly originals and dazzling instrumentals that sent the jaws of all present dropping to the floor. As the evening went on, he even threw in a flawlessly executed Bach partita – not something you hear every day in Whelans – before calling for suggestions from the room. “Anyone want to hear some old fiddle tunes?” he asked. Shouts came up from the knowledgeable crowd and soon Thile was reeling off classic fiddle tunes on his mandolin as if he’d been rehearsing them for months.
“That was probably one of my favourite solo shows,” he tells me. Thile is in Telluride, Colorado, where his new band, Punch Brothers, have just headlined the town’s legendary bluegrass festival. “For me, music is a very urgent thing. I need music, and it feels to me like Irish people need music too. So I feel a big kinship with Irish folks. Right away, when you kick into something, you feel an intensity. You feel listened to.”
Shucks Chris. Onstage and off, Thile is all charm and self-deprecation, but it feels genuine enough. Certainly the kinship with Irish music is real – as a kid, he says he wore out a copy of Planxty’s 1973 classic, The Well Below the Valley, and he clearly appreciates the link between the Irish tradition and his own.
But the nice guy thing is for real too. Despite the immoderate critical praise and the shelf-full of Grammys, Thile is a man who seems particularly grounded, at ease with himself and the world, a feat that is all the more impressive given that fame and adulation came to him at an age when most of us are still getting to grips with solid food.
“Yeah, I was five when I started playing the mandolin,” he says, almost apologetically. “But I had a brilliant teacher, John Moore. I was this little kid and I was getting a lot of positive feedback, but John was like ‘OK, that’s fine, here’s the next thing’, which was really good for me because I feed on attention, and I don’t necessarily think that’s good for me. I actually operate better when I experience a little bit of resistance.”
Resistance from the rest of the world has proved harder to come by, however. By his teens, the southern California native was surfing the wave as one third of “progressive bluegrass” trio Nickel Creek, with siblings Sean and Sara Watkins. Their eponymous 2000 album, produced by Alison Krauss, sold more than a million copies and made stars of its three young creators.
But as the childhood friends grew up, they began moving bluegrass in new directions, incorporating elements of pop and rock, and writing psychologically probing songs about love, loss and lighthouses (really) that, in the fiercely conservative heartland of bluegrass, were not always greeted with unalloyed approval.
“We kind of cornered ourselves. We were still having a good time playing our newer material, but that’s not what people were coming to the shows to hear. It got more and more frustrating, so we said ‘lets put this to bed, at least for now, and do something where people have lower expectations’.”
What Thile is far too charming to say is that, as time went on, his instrumental prowess was also beginning to eclipse his bandmates. Though Sean and Sara Watkins are no slouches themselves, Thile was simply blowing them off the stage every night, and on the records, it’s Thile’s tunes that stand out.
Even before the band broke up in 2007, the mandolinist was already spreading his instrumental wings, doing side projects with masters of contemporary American folk music such as Union Station guitarist Jerry Douglas and bassist Edgar Meyer, and releasing a string of critically acclaimed solo albums, including Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001) and How To Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).
But, as he admits with typical candour in the song Green and Gray (from Nickel Creek’s 2002 album, This Side), a life spent “in a roomful of people all hanging on one person’s breath” can be isolating, and when he began playing with the musicians who make up Punch Brothers, he saw an opportunity to create something more collaborative. Now on their second album and rapidly building a reputation for their live shows, Punch Brothers are taking bluegrass to a whole new level – instrumentally, lyrically, and commercially – drawing inspiration particularly from contemporary rock and indie music, even if the traditional string band line-up would still look entirely familiar to Bill Monroe and the other founders of bluegrass.
“To me, its always made sense to look forward when it comes to making music of any kind. For one thing, Bill Monroe and those guys weren’t trying to sound like anyone. They were trying to create something new, and that’s why their music is so important to so many people. I just think it’s so funny when people decide that what we do isn’t good because it doesn’t sound like Bill Monroe. It’s like saying that a zebra isn’t a very good rhinoceros.”
As he enters his 30s, Thile has already spent a lifetime playing (and clearly practising) his mandolin. If he’d been a child actor, he’d be going through a messy hard drugs and third divorce phase around now, but he insists he’s just happy doing what he’s doing.
“You know,” he says reflectively, “It’s what I want to do. I want to write music, and I want to perform it. And those two things make me very, very happy.
“So, I guess I have it set up pretty good,” he adds, laughing, “because that seems to be how things are going.”
Punch Brothers play Whelan’s on July 17