Eldridge relied on several guitars for the album including his 1937 Martin D-18. Photo by David Andrako
Tell us about it.
Thile: “Forgotten” went through a much more complicated thing. The way that that song started, it was almost funky and much faster. Remember what that was like?
Eldridge: Almost like a Radiohead vibe.
Thile: But we couldn’t get it to go anywhere. We would have fun playing it for 30 seconds, and then we would be so bored.
Eldridge: I remember at one point we tried turning it into a Justin Timberlake song. It wound up way on the other end of this spectrum.
Thile: That’s the benefit of having these writing sessions. We had that demo lying around and after listening to it, we completely shelved that tune. The band realized that we wanted something down and dark. Once we slowed it down, it became weirdly folky. And after we paired it with the “Hey there, it’s all gonna be fine, you ain’t gonna die alone” lyric, it really came together. I wrote that after a super-stressful day, and I was just trying to comfort myself with that chorus. The kind of darkness and paranoia that was encoded into that first half, to me, was sudden. I had that answer lying around and when we slowed it down, it became the question to that answer.
How much of your songwriting consists of developing existing ideas band members bring in, as opposed to working with improvised sections that are born out of rehearsals?
Eldridge: Most songs start with somebody coming in with something. You can bring something to the group and think it’s cool, and after you play it for them, they think it’s cool for a completely different reason. Everybody has their own perspective on this little thing and everybody’s perspective has the potential to shed light on an aspect of it you might not have paid attention to—and that’s a huge thing. Once a song gets in front of everybody, new information about it surfaces.
“Familiarity” goes well beyond conventional pop or bluegrass forms. How does something of that scope come together?
Eldridge: That was a lot of work, man.
Thile: It’s interesting because, in a way, “Familiarity” is like picking the thread of “The Blind Leaving the Blind” [from 2008’s Punch] back up. “The Blind Leaving the Blind” was a piece that I wrote for us, whereas “Familiarity” was a piece we wrote for us. It does have that kind of structural rigor that’s really interesting to undertake as a group. It requires a lot of discipline, as far as slowing the writing process down enough for everyone to know—at all points—what’s happening. There’s not a thing we’ve done that I am more proud of than “Familiarity.” The five of us got to a place that I couldn’t get to by myself.
That’s the whole point of playing in a band, right?
Thile: Yes, that’s the whole point of playing in a band. Again, it wasn’t something that I sketched out and then we filled in. I might have had the leading ideas, but we sketched them together. We came up with the form as a unit, and it’s better for it.
What instruments did you end up using on the album?
Eldridge: I played a bunch. I played my 1937 Martin D-18 and also my D-28, which is a 1939. Then I played a bunch of T Bone’s old Gibsons. There were a couple of Nick Lucas models and an old Roy Smeck from the ’30s. T Bone has a stable of guitars, so I got to experiment a bit on the record. Changing instruments can really bring a different vibe and voice to a song. In the past I might have played a part on my D-18 and we would have tried mixing it differently to get a certain sound, whereas T Bone goes straight to the source and suggests just the right guitar. That was really cool, I have no idea what that guitar was on “Julep,” but I love that thing. It made my part—I was really happy with what it wound up sounding like.
Thile: Of the two Loar mandolins I have, I used the older one, both as far as my time of ownership and also by the serial numbers. If it’s got any flaws, it has maybe a touch too much of the extreme highs, but that also really works in the band context because it helps fill out the sound spectrum.