Guitarist Chris Eldridge and mandolinist Chris Thile dig in during a show in Brooklyn, NY on June 30th, 2011.
Photo by David Andrako
The Punch Brothers aren’t a bluegrass band. They aren’t an Americana band. And they sure as hell aren’t a country band. They are a quintet of forward-thinking virtuosos with a singular mission of breaking boundaries and crafting a sound that owes as much to Gustav Mahler as Bill Monroe. Even though they share the instrumental makeup of a classic bluegrass group, the Punch Brothers ethos has always been to look beyond the songbooks of their musical forefathers for inspiration and bring the influences of their own generation into the fold.
The Phosphorescent Blues, the band’s latest album, is an ample summation of their journey to this point. Even the order of the songs doesn’t follow norms. “I just said fuck it. Let’s open the album with a 10-and-a-half-minute song,” beams mandolinist and vocalist Chris Thile. That opening statement, “Familiarity,” combines the preciseness of a Mahler string quartet with the earnest storytelling and undeniable musicianship that make the Punch Brothers, well, the Punch Brothers.
Other songs offer pop-oriented takes on the issues of the day (“I Blew It Off”) and traditional bluegrass (“Boll Weevil”). Both Thile and guitarist Chris Eldridge possess impressive bluegrass pedigrees: Thile is a founding member of Nickel Creek, and Eldridge was in the original incarnation of the Infamous Stringdusters. (Eldridge’s dad cofounded the seminal bluegrass band Seldom Scene, which Chris later joined.) But even with these roots, they have the courage to add their own influences—such as Radiohead, Pavement, Bach, and even Justin Timberlake—to the mix. It’s this adventurous musical spirit that gets the band gigs at bluegrass and hipster festivals alike.
After a series of writing retreats, the band met up with famed producer T Bone Burnett at Ocean Way Studios to begin recording. “His genius is helping you stay out of your own way,” says Thile. “We basically presented him with what we wanted to do, and he kept us honest on that.” Burnett broke the band free from any idea of what they should sound like and even incorporated hints of electric guitar and drums into the music.
We caught up with Thile and Eldridge on the early part of their European tour to discuss their approach to writing, getting heckled, and how collaboration is the only way to go.
I’m sure there’s always a weight off your shoulders when you finally finish an album.
Chris Thile: Yes, not that any of the five of us have any experience, but it seems an awful lot like giving birth. At least what I would expect giving birth to feel like.
Chris Eldridge: Yes, except it’s sort of like reverse birth where labor happened nine months ago and now it’s the happy time.
Thile: That’s true, now that the record is out, that’s all you do. [Laughs.]
Where did the seeds for this album come from?
Eldridge: Well, we toured so hard behind the last album and after maybe 12 or 14 months of steady touring, we looked at each other and said, “This is crazy.” We need to remember our real lives, so let’s plan some time for us to actually sit down and take our time writing a record. Which is not a luxury we really had before. In the past, it was just this machine that was always cranking and churning. We’d write when we had a few days at home in New York, or we would find really little chunks of free time.
“One of T Bone’s greatest contributions to this record was making sure that we didn’t sail past the realization of our own goals.” says Chris Thile. Photo by David Andrako.
That time-out strategy must have relieved some of the pressure.
Eldridge: Yeah, there definitely wasn’t as much pressure put on everything, and I think that informed the music in a really nice way. When some seeds appeared, we were able to water them a little bit and let them germinate to see if they would actually turn into anything.
Thile: It really allowed the theme of the record to develop organically as well. Generally for us, music comes first. The sound of the music suggests little bits of a lyric. I may start singing a line and then mumble the rest. Then, come to find out, that line I’d been singing actually has enough to where I can start building a lyric around it. The conversations we had with each other after a day’s writing really influenced the thematic direction of the lyrics. We talked a lot about the impact of social media and smartphones, and how the omnipotent internet has affected everyday life, and how we might make it work for us to better our existence rather than detract from it.
Is that what you were describing in “I Blew It Off?”
Thile: Absolutely—it’s a perfect example of where the music suggested the lyric. You know what started the idea for that lyric? “I Blew It Off” has a very familiar harmonic pallet ... it’s downright poppy, really. I came up with the first little bit of that on this tour I did when I was playing a bunch of Bach in concert on the mandolin. I was yearning for something really simple. That song came out while I really should have been practicing the B Minor Partita. As I was playing this riff, I started to sing and I was actually blowing off practicing the Bach for this relatively simple, comparatively pedestrian little bit of music. When I showed the boys the first little dribbly idea, I was worried that they would dismiss it as just simpleton and not interesting at all. But I think we found a place for that and it provided some relief in the context of the work that we do.
Musically speaking, how much does a new song morph and transform as you work on it?
Eldridge: It totally depends on the song. When Thile brought “I Blew It Off” to us, most of the musical meat was already there. It was really more a matter of arranging.
Thile: The funny thing was, I had those three parts, but I wasn’t putting them together properly. We all put our heads together on the actual form.
Eldridge: It’s a much smaller idea that initiates a song, and it really only starts to turn into something when we’re all sitting together.
Thile: “Julep” developed very linearly. It came from that basic riff and we just kept developing it from there, but everything that happened to it, you could have predicted, I think. Maybe you couldn’t have predicted the almost fiddle tune-ish thing that happens in the middle, but to me, even that seems encoded into it in a way. But think about “Forgotten” and the odyssey that song went on!