Punch Brothers On Their Sound, Solo Careers And Returning To Champaign-Urbana

September 12, 2015
 
The Punch Brothers (Left to Right: Paul Kowert, Noam Pickelny, Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, and Gabe Witcher)

The Punch Brothers (Left to Right: Paul Kowert, Noam Pickelny, Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, and Gabe Witcher)

Courtecy of The Punch Brothers

The extended interview (above) ends with the full song, "Julep" from thier newest CD, The Phosphorescent Blues, and includes the full song "Little Lights".

The Punch Brothers look like a traditional bluegrass band, but their sound defies most descriptors. They're playing this weekend as part of the Ellnora Guitar Festival.

The basis of how they describe their sound, though, is acoustic. "We’re holding our palette, staring at this blank canvas, and we want to make sure we know exactly what colors we have to work with,” said Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers' mandolinist and lead singer. 

 

Though those instruments are commonly associated with … traditional bluegrass music, I think we feel like we can make just about anything that we can imagine.Chris Thile

“And electric instruments, things like that, it’s just mysterious colors to us and we’re not sure we can get what we want to get onto that blank canvas with those colors, whereas with bluegrass instruments – banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle and mandolin – those are colors that we understand fairly well.” 

Thile says the process of creating new music doesn’t feel complete to him until they are up on stage performing the songs. “It validates it,” he said. “You want to just make things for people. You want to offer them something to make their day a little bit better, and to look out into an audience of people and see that song has found some purchase in someone’s life that is sort of completing the cycle for me.”  

The Punch Brothers
Photo Credit: Courtecy of The Punch Brothers

Their newest songs, from an album called The Phosphorescent Blues, deal a lot with the increased prevalence of electronic connectivity and stemmed from conversation after conversation on the topic. “It’s an interesting experience for us as a five-piece band that’s intensely collaborative, but Chris is the lyricist of the band, he’s always been the lyricist, and we’ve found it important to make sure that we’re on the same page as far as the content,” said Noam Pikelny, who plays banjo with the group.

Pikelny says they aren’t “rubber-stamping what he has, but having a conversation about what’s going on in our lives, and I think we were all experiencing something similar as far as watching the way technology was having an impact on our friends and us. I think Chris was seeing this detachment that was running rampant as people were seemingly more interconnected.”

University of Illinois Alum

For me it’s a thrill to come back with a project I’m so proud ofNoam Pikelny

Pikelny says he is looking forward to returning to Champaign-Urbana after attending the University of Illinois for engineering. He says that he sees it as a reminder of how little we can actually predict, as he believed when attending the U of I’s engineering program over studying music in Boston that he had solidified his fate as a hobbyist musician and would never play professionally. 

“I set out to make very expensive things – or at least things that were more widely consumed than acoustic original music – but I settled on making something a little more boutique than a computer,” Pikelny joked.

He continued on a much more serious note. “For me it’s a thrill to come back with a project I’m so proud of to play in Krannert – it’s such a beautiful sounding room and I have really found memories of seeing some great music there.”  

Solo Careers

The Punch Brothers
Photo Credit: Courtecy of The Punch Brothers

All five members of the band have healthy solo careers, which Thile says he thinks has become increasingly important as the band has matured. “I think we were all more or less happy to pursue Punch Brothers fairly doggedly initially, but as we got a lot more hours under our belt and [after one particularly long tour] we realized we just needed a break; it had been five or six years of dense Punch Brothers activity squeezing any other interest into very small cracks.”

He says during their time off, they were thinking often of the material that would become The Phosphorescent Blues and when they got back to extensive Punch Brothers activity, “I think it helped us appreciate what a unique project it is and what an opportunity it is for the five of us to make some nice things for people.” 

Pilkeny's solo career as what the Chicago Tribune calls the “pros’ top banjo picker,” has earned him a GRAMMY nominiation. He has three solo banjo albums to his name. 

When Garrison asked if I would be interested in hosting when he's done, I was thrilled beyond belief. 
Chris Thile

One of the solo careers Thile is pursuing, meanwhile, is hosting A Prairie Home Companion when Garrison Keillor retires at the end of this season. “Garrison and I are giving it the ol’ college try,” said Thile. "When Garrison asked if I would be interested in hosting when he's done, I was thrilled beyond belief."  

“Some of the details are still being worked out, but I grew up listening to the show. Some of my earliest memories are hearing Garrison tell stories and these wonderful fake commercials,” said Thile. 

The Punch Brothers will be playing at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 12th at the Tryon Festival Theater. 

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Transcript for file: news150911_punchbrotherswebmixdownfull.mp3
Punch Brothers are an acoustic band with a unique sound that defies most descriptors. They’ve been gaining plenty of attempts though as they gain attention. Two members of the group. Chris Thile and Noam Pekilney spoke with me before their appearance at the Ellnora Guitar Festival about solo projects and in Pikelny’s case coming back to play after graduating from the Uof I and how they would describe that sound. Chris Thile speaks first. I think first and foremost is that we’re an acoustic band, we’re not plugging and then the reason for that is that it’s just not what we know the best. I think for holding our palette staring at this blank canvas and we want to make sure that we know exactly what colours we have to work with and I think electric instruments things like that are very mysterious colors to us we’re not sure that we can get what we want to get on to that blank canvas with those colours whereas with bluegrass instrumentation,  banjo, guitar, bass, fiddle and mandolin those are colors that we understand fairly well and though there may be most commonly associated with the music of Bill Monroe and Flat and Scruggs, traditional bluegrass, I think we feel like we can make just about anything that we can imagine. I’d say that’s sort of feel overall tone of Punch Brothers it’s this bluegrass instrumentation but not necessarily in the service of propagating the beautiful traditional bluegrass but rather to attempt to emulate the spirit of the creators of bluegrass music who, they were just they were freestyling, they were coming up with new stuff we would like to do the same. And you’ve mentioned Chris that you don’t feel like the process of putting together a record is complete until you perform those songs to an audience. What makes reforming so important to you? I think it validates things a little bit. For instance when you deliver a song and you look out into a crowd and there are people who I can tell that know that song, I just can’t even begin to express what a validating experience that is. We make things, we make things for people. That thing’s being alive is you want to just make things for people, you want to offer people something to make their day a little bit better and to look out into an audience of people and see that this or that song has had some some purchase in someone’s life that is sort of quickly through complete the cycle for me. Shall we hear a song? Awesome, yes maybe Little Lights, yes, do little Lights. All right. (Song Playing)      So your band name, the Punch Brothers. It’s kind of interesting one where did you come up with it? Everything under the sun was being trotted out as a band name after our intial idea was quite rightly rejected by the label. I just want to pointout there wasn’t anything criminal about the original band and that we had, it was just laden with puns we were very briefly called the Tension Mountain Boys. We were so proud of ourselves but the label said it wouldn’t stand the test of time. We had a song called Punchbowl on our first record that was called a Punch Brothers record and so people but I remember you said what about Punchbowl and that reminded me of this Mark Twain short story called Punch Brothers Punch and I ordered that out, and that actually won out. Well I’m glad it did. You’ve said that your newest album the Phosphorescent Blues which you worked on with T.-Bone Burnett, addresses the power and pitfalls of our super digitally connected era. What made you decide on that theme? That’s another thing that happened over kind of a long period of time we sort of working on the materia several years ago and usually in our material the music and I might start sort of mumbling lyrics to melodies that we’re coming up with and eventually something will come out that may be one of the other boys feels like you know what, that’s not a bad what was that? So maybe I’ll start running with that but we’ve been talking about technology’s impact on the way that we interact with the depth of connection that we forge and like a good day this trying to write about it not in any necessarily very negative way but just in that this is how things are and how we’re going to deal with it. And you know it’s an interesting experience for us as a five piece band there intentionally collaborative but Chris is the lyricist of the band He’s always been the lyricist, but we’ve always found it important to make sure we’re on the same page with the content. Not necessarily rubber stamping what he has but having a conversation about what’s going on in our lives and I think for all of experiencing something similar as far as watching the way technology was having an impact on our friends and on us, and Chris through was seeing this detachment that was running rampant as people were seemingly more interconnected smarter students need to do is just your frustration that was point in my life I didn’t have more Twitter followers and no when here to the you of I first rule originally for engineering. Latest crisis that out to make their extensive training for everything they did. More broadly consider to see if the original music etc Maybe something I’m going to read more than a computer what is it like for you to come back and do shows here that different at all because you spent so much time here and there’s so many students from your own the modern the audience or is it kind of a normal snow interesting experience really for so many places over the last decade. Punch Brothers and before and before Punch Brothers are a lot of places but Santana her better haven’t been one of the regular stock and so thrilled to come back with. Project I’m sure proud of different planet of such a beautiful sounding room and there are really four memories and soon. Music and you know coming back to Drew to play with to reward and I’m just so they’ll probably solidify that I feel a little we can actually control and how little we can actually see down the road you all as healthy solo careers outside of Punch Brothers is that something that’s particularly important to you to work a lot together and then go off and do your own thing I think it’s become increasingly important to me in the church and I think we were all over less happy to pursue a pledge brothers to fairly dog and nationally but as that a lot of hours under our belts project and I think that three four years ago after the torn behind who shelling out for a long long time we realized that we needed a break. It had been maybe five or six years of damn such brothers activity leaving any other interests into very small cracks and I think we kept doing things and we did have an eye towards the material that would be phosphorous employers but it was much more sporadic and give us time away from the bad and when we got back and think more than a plus for the story I think it helped us appreciate what do you mean. Project it is that and what an opportunity it is for the five of us to make some life things for people hopefully to the point where now I think we know that at least for the foreseeable future. Plus what is going to be a part of what five of us are up to doesn’t have to be all it’s the biggest part and they are going to receive the Punch Brothers can continually why Dr Ferber glad to hear that we will be getting much more Frenchmen music on the notion of so it creates though I know you’re tired of talking about it for the time being Chris but as a public radio station that aired the Perry Home Companion I have to ask you about taking over for Garrison Keillor Yes and I can give it the old college try listening to the show I mean. My earliest memories are hearing Carson tell stories and and these wonderful they come probably my earliest experiences the mandolin hearing Peter stress coach after a person on the show and the way the garrison entertain crowd I would dearly taken by as a very young man to the show’s immensely important to me and one guy said asked if I would be interested in hosting for he’s done I was thrilled beyond belief and I think it could be a wonderful opportunity and rest assured I will do my best not to screw with the show up well we look forward to seeing where it goes where we go out with one of your original songs I’m interested to know how you pick the coverage you do it. Marge mix of different types of songs is very trendy. Well we’re obviously covering news if we enjoy this music that is fun for us to play but I don’t think that it’s just that I think we have gravitated towards picking songs that we thought maybe we could prevent it in a different light that there is something that we could do a little bit differently about it that would be cool and that the process of learning. Existing version. Tend to be hard work and how we could farm those parts interest which it would be educational for us but the process of kind of changing things around so we could put it and would possibly make it something more than just the grass or twisted sex simile or something and so it’s always been something I think just out of sheer admiration for this aren’t set or whether the arrangement to cover something that we wanted to get inside but that we always have to hold up on its own that if somebody doesn’t know this cover from step but a show can’t be lost on them. Otherwise it would be just you know self-indulgent sort of the people in the audience who are already strokes fans or cargo to see heads if that’s what they call them very cool thank you very much. Shall we go out with. Your songs. Sure there’s reason to be to look at recent When I was going to suggest perfect song actually it’s rare that the first thing you hear is also actually the first thing that we heard often that the kernel from which a song sort of carry them where they are in this case is a front that you’ll expect with that’s the first thing any of us heard eventually everybody but I didn’t it’s interesting that this man was really started in large far far away from home in Brussels ended up being a song about Phish a quintessential American dream her Southern dream and so I think at that time we’re going to hundred for so long that remain out of none of the year you know one or two very thirsty. (song playing)

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