Thile owns two mandolins made by famed builder Lloyd Loar. On the album he favored an F5 made on February 18, 1924. Photo by David Andrako
Tonight you’re playing in Glasgow, Scotland. In the documentary How to Grow a Band, that was the city where you were heckled rather brutally. Since that tour, have European audiences grown to appreciate your brand of American music?
Thile: We’re steeped in American music, because we are from here, but we aren’t consciously donning the mantle of traditional music or anything like that. First and foremost, our duty and responsibility is to the music—just playing music. We’re trying desperately to contribute meaningful music, and I think as we grow as a band, we’re getting closer. We’re able to strip away some of the artifice and some of the pretense, because we had big ideas when we started the band and sometimes we would let our big ideas get in the way of what we actually had to say.
We’re not bringing five personal agendas to the band anymore, nor do we have a unified band agenda. I think at this point, the five of us simply love music. We want to be able to do for other people who love music what the love for music has done for us. That’s the only thing that’s important to us at this point, whereas when the band started, it was almost like we wanted to show people things. Now when we put out a record, it’s more like the work of the record can begin and people can start participating in this music with us.
We hope they enjoy it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it, and when people come to a show, to me, everything is coming to fruition with us playing this music for the people in the room. No longer do we feel like we’re showing them something. It’s like, we are going to have a moment together, and moments together are so rare these days. You guys are here, the show is going to be different because you are here, you are a part of the show, and you are a part of the band right now. I think that’s what Punch Brothers is about now. Punch Brothers used to be about Punch Brothers, and now it’s about music and people who love music.
How did you connect with T Bone Burnett?
Eldridge: I guess we met T Bone about four years ago, and there were various connections with guys in the band before that. We just got on with T Bone really well. Everybody who works with T Bone, loves T Bone. There’s no one better at making you feel more comfortable when you are trying to do the very difficult and daunting thing of recording and making a record. There’s so much stress and anxiety that goes into making a record, and a lot of times that can have a negative impact on what winds up getting produced. To work with T Bone is just to feel really safe and trusted. It’s like this warm blanket, and you can get in there and do what it is you’ve been working on without worrying about how it’s going to turn out.
It seems that T Bone gets dramatic results without being heavy-handed.
Thile: The reason for that is that T Bone isn’t about T Bone. T Bone is about the music he is working on, and bringing it back to the agenda concept, he just doesn’t have a personal agenda. Music is his agenda, and the propagation of music that he likes is his agenda. In an effort to perfect something, musicians are apt to squeeze all the life out of it. 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.
Was it his idea to bring in the drums?
Eldridge: Yeah, it was. Can I tell a funny story? Paul [Kowert, the band’s bassist], Thile, and I walked to a place across the street to get some coffee and sandwiches to fuel up for the day. As we walked back to the studio, I remember Thile said, “You know, there is just one thing about Punch Brothers. I don’t think we’re ever going to have drums on a record.” Later that morning we were cutting “Magnet.” We had been playing that song live and kind of had a vibe going for it, but T Bone was in there and said, “You know guys, this is really good, but I just think we ought to call [drummer] Jay Bellerose, he’s in town.”
Thile: And we knew and loved Jay.
Eldridge: Jay was actually one of the drummers in [Burnett’s] Speaking Clock Revue, so we all admired him for so long. He is so sensitive—one of the only drummers I can think of who doesn’t act like a drummer. He really interacts with the other musicians he is playing with, rather than being like a dictator.
Thile: Yes, he is not trying to assume a higher rhythmic responsibility in any given ensemble. He will take as much as he needs to, and that’s rare with any musician.Eldridge: So Jay came in and we started playing this song and it was like okay, there’s the song. I liked it before, but now I really like it. We all just kind of had to eat our hats. [Laughs].
The band rips through a pair of more traditional cuts from The Phosphorescent Blues during a recent appearance on A Prairie Home Companion, which was hosted by Chris Thile.