The progressive acoustic outfit teams up with a legendary producer to create the band’s most wildly interesting album yet, The Phosphorescent Blues.
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!
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.
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.