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THILE - Chris Thile, feature (Bluegrass Unlimited, June, 2007)

June, 2007


By David Royko

It’s a late morning in the late summer of 2006, and mandolinist/singer Chris Thile, on tour with his group, Nickel Creek, is sitting alone on the band bus somewhere in the northwest United States. Over the phone, Thile is gushing about his new CD, the musicians that are helping him achieve his bluegrass dreams, the end--at least for now--of Nickel Creek, his future plans, the trouble with his generation, and his ideas on what makes a great album great.

Thile exploded onto the national bluegrass scene with his 1994 instrumental solo debut, Leading Off, on Sugar Hill records (the label home for all of Thile’s solo and group discs to date), an album that would have been exceptional if it had come from the fingers of an adult, let alone a 12-year-old kid. In 1997, Thile released his follow-up, Stealing Second, which continued the baseball metaphor, the sport being music’s only real competition for Thile’s affections. In 2000, Nickel Creek released its first Sugar Hill album, which became a surprise phenomenon thanks to a combination of factors, including the massive success of the acoustic roots soundtrack to “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” the band’s youth and photogenic looks, exceptional musicianship, and a unique sound that blended bluegrass elements with pop, jazz and newgrass sophistication.

The following year, Thile fulfilled the stratospheric expectations that come with being a prodigy with Not All Who Wander Are Lost, an instrumental newgrass masterpiece that found him collaborating with the heaviest of hitters, such as Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, and Edgar Meyer. 2002 brought Nickel Creek’s This Side, which ventured further from bluegrass toward acoustic pop, with a wink and a nod to the Revolver-era Beatles.

In 2003, Thile collaborated on Into the Cauldron, a disc of mandolin (and related mando-family) duets with Mike Marshall. This fruitful recorded relationship with one of Thile’s few peers on the eight-string continued in 2006 with Live: Duets, and featured a batch of fresh compositions by the pair. By 2004, Thile virtually abandoned bluegrass altogether with Deceiver, a solo album in the Stevie Wonder tradition, with Thile playing all the instruments, including piano, drums and electric guitar, and singing on his solo album for the first time. Mutual Admiration Society, a collaboration between Nickel Creek and the leader of the late pop group, Toad The Wet Sprocket, Glen Phillips--a long-time musical hero of the band’s--was also released in 2004, and brought the band into the orbit of one of their major pop influences.

The lyrical themes and relatively introspective musical profile of Nickel Creek’s 2005 release, Why Should the Fire Die?, displayed the band’s growing maturity, while the title perhaps suggested, in hindsight, that the band was due for a break. A best-of collection, Reasons Why--“We had nothing to do with the selections chosen for that,” says Thile--coincided with last year’s notice of the band’s impending hiatus, announced early enough to give fans a chance to see the band in person before taking their break from one another.

Captured with minimalist mic’ing live in the studio over three days, Thile’s new record--“I always refer to it as a record [as opposed to a CD], says Thile. “That’s the most appealing description of it; it is a record of what you’ve been working on and writing”--is titled How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. It represents a new approach to writing, producing and recording for Thile, and joining him is a new band that former New Grass Revival lead vocalist John Cowan has dubbed the Legion of Acoustic Superheroes, consisting of banjoist Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge (son of the Seldom Scene’s Ben Eldridge), fiddler Gabe Witcher, and bassist Greg Garrison.

“I took the musical development of the [record’s] fifty minutes far more seriously than I took the lyrical development,” says Thile. “In fact, at a certain point, I became aware that a story was being told. Then and only then did I make sure that it was consistent throughout the record. The pacing is always first and foremost in my mind and I’ve actually been very surprised that people don’t sequence before they [record], because I personally can’t tell you how vastly my approaches to the individual songs differed based on where I knew the song was going to appear [on the record] and what preceded it.”

If this sounds like the opposite of the iPod standard of isolated, context-free tracks and singles, that is no accident.

“I think,” continues Thile, “musicians are paying the price for their lack of foresight. They are thinking in terms of songs, and so now people are buying in terms of songs. Musicians can’t complain about lack of record sales when all they are thinking about is three minutes. A record is 45 minutes and so if you are not molding your entire project to make sense as such, then how can you take issue with people saying, ‘You know what? I’m just going to spend 99 cents on this song which is only 3 minutes, which is all I can identify with.’”

Thile has nothing against a well-crafted single, however.

“A 3 minute song can be really, really exciting, if that was your focus. Like Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic.’”

Thile is doing more than name-checking the seemingly incongruous Spears. Nickel Creek has actually included “Toxic” in their live shows.

“I love that song,” says Thile. “But it also packs everything worthwhile about her entire existence into 3 minutes, and so that would be like a sprinter, [and] a sprinter is not going to make it over the course of a marathon.”

How to Grow a Woman From the Ground became Thile’s marathon.

“That was my first attempt at really trying to make a record,” says Thile, “as opposed to a collection of songs.”

Like the crack of a starter’s pistol at the beginning of a race, Thile’s instrumental, “Watch ‘at Breakdown,” opens the album with a barn burner that serves as both overture and homage to a musical hero. Thile describes it as “a direct tribute to the opening of Drive,” banjoist Bela Fleck’s classic 1988 album.

“To me,” says Thile, “‘Whitewater,’ on Drive, is one of the most successful first tracks of any acoustic record I’ve ever heard. I think acoustic records have a hard time starting off in a way that competes with a great rock [album’s] first track. If you think about [the Beatles’] “Taxman” or “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” or “2 + 2 = 5” from Hail to The Thief, Radiohead’s last record… It’s so hard to compete with cacophonous moments like that, but ‘Whitewater’ was just so powerful. To have Sam Bush just coming in there and showing you right where it is, and Bela playing that incredible melody… I just imagined what I wanted to hear, you know. I tried to be an audience member. I tried to figure out, ‘OK, what’s going to make me excited about this record.’ And I could not get ‘Whitewater’ out of my head. Eventually, [‘Watch ‘at Breakdown’] ended up being quite different from ‘Whitewater.’”

The curtain now raised, Thile begins his protagonist’s saga.

“You get a brief blast of this guy’s previous relationship with [the White Stripes cover] ‘Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground.’ It’s obviously sort of tumultuous, even if it’s exciting. Then you get the breakup song [‘Stay Away’]. Then you get the meandering ‘Wayside/Back in Time,’ because the guy gets broken up with apparently in San Francisco, and then moves to Nashville and starts drinking too much. I did have that period of, at least for me, relative debauchery, which is not very debaucherous, so I really enjoyed that song. The character gets over himself, and then there’s ‘You’re An Angel and I’m Gonna Cry,’ which is his fantasizing about the next relationship, and taking that all of the way to ‘How To Grow a Women From the Ground.’ He’s ceased to fantasize about something that exists, and I think that, because he is so immobilized by his idolatry of womenkind, actually proposes to fashion himself a love interest.”

This title track, written by Thile’s friend, Thomas Anderson Brosseau, is the darkest song on the record, exploring themes that are enhanced by the haunting ambiguity of the music.

“I almost considered taking the last bridge out. There’s a slight tinge of suicide to the whole thing,” says Thile. “Isn’t there? I mean, at the end, ‘I sewed up my wrists and sewed the ground with my blood, stained up my clothes pretty good and turned that dirt to mud. I couldn’t help but close my eyes and lay my body down ‘cause I heard it takes forever to grow a woman from the ground.’ Before it takes that super dark turn, I can actually really relate to the character’s desire. I’ve gotten to this place where I, too, am kind of immobilized by the sense that women are purely better than men.”

“The Beekeeper” follows, providing a respite from the troubled lyrics that preceded it, though this instrumental’s contours hint at an underlying agitation.

“At first, Noam thought I was the beekeeper. He made constant references to me being a tyrant, or a beekeeper, or something like that during rehearsals. But then we also were stir crazy, we were losing our minds at this point. We were rehearsing so feverishly for this project. We started imagining the beekeeper. ‘He’s suiting up. He’s putting on his funny hat. He’s going out in the fields.’ And we were giving him a soundtrack.”

After three serious songs, Thile recognized the need for a break, or in this case, brake, as in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues.”

“That was a pretty heavy 12 minutes of music,” admits Thile, “so to me, it was like, ‘We need to present this other side.’ We are going to pretend that the guy came really close, but he sewed up his wrists just in time. It takes a light turn, but also, it kind of takes a less sweet turn. It’s time to do a little swashbuckling. I love [‘Brakeman’s Blues’] last verse. It wasn’t on the Bill Monroe version of that song, that I heard anyway, but I heard a recording, I think it was a Jimmie Rodgers recording, and he had the gypsy verse there.”

Thile is referring to the line, “I went to a little gypsy at a fortune telling place; she read my mind and then she slapped my face.” Score another point for debauchery.

“But then,” continues Thile, “whiskey takes it right down.”

“If The Sea Was Whiskey” is performed a cappella by the quintet at a languid, if not downright deathly pace, with full value given to the cavernous rests, sounding like the boys can barely stand, before they finish with an instrumental verse that suggests they’ve surrendered to gravity and are playing while collapsed on their respective backsides. The truth is, they almost were.

“That was the very final thing we cut for the record,” says Thile. “We started cutting that about one in the morning on our final day of studio time. We knew we had the rest of the record [finished]. We were so happy, and we were doing a bit of celebrating that was very much in keeping with [the song]. I believe I can hear it in all of our voices. There is 10 minutes [on the master tape] of us trying to sing that song and being completely debilitated by laughter. There had been so much focus to get through 14 songs in three days, recording it all live.”

Next up is a Paul Shelasky instrumental, “Cazadero.”

“I think our boy gets something figured out during that part,” says Thile. “I think he’s somehow flushed some of the recklessness out of his system, right there. He gets things back together during the course of ‘Cazadero,’ then comes back with ‘Heart in a Cage.’”

“Heart in a Cage” represents the most controversial act so far in Thile’s career, not because it is a cover of a current hit by the garage-rock band, The Strokes. It’s because he delivered the tune straight, with no censoring. The opening line of the song goes, “I don’t feel better when I’m f***ing around.” This has not gone unnoticed by the bluegrass community.

“My apologies for the strong language,” offers Thile, “but ‘Brakeman’s Blues’ and ‘If The Sea Was Whiskey’ is the ‘f***ing around’ section, when our character is being blown by the wind, and then comes back with ‘Heart in a Cage,’ the first lyric being, of course, ‘I don’t feel better when I’m f***ing around.’ That tied that section all together for me. I think [the song’s composer, Julian] Casablancas finds a way to represent the frivolous plight of my generation. My generation has so many options. We are so affluent. We could go to college. We could study any variety of things. I think we are rendered ineffective by how many choices we have. Obviously, there are many notable exceptions, [but] I think Julian has found a way to communicate that in song. He writes in this intoxicated impressionism what I would say. He’s drunk, but he’s communicating in a very artistic fashion and I really enjoy it.

“There was something about covering a song from a peer like that that really helped the boys and I just adopt that song and make it our own,” Thile continues. “I think that song is actually better suited to bluegrass than it is to rock, quite frankly. I think it was born to be a bluegrass song. [The recurring banjo lick] is electric guitar [on the original version], loud and distorted. The minute I heard it I said, ‘That’s a banjo line, this is a bluegrass song.’

“And then, lyrically,” says Thile, “the story ends with the guy turning around and ready to try again. You know, ready to try another relationship, which of course is what got the whole thing started in the first place. We heal, we move on, and we put ourselves out there for another round of it.”

The album’s penultimate song is “I’m Yours If You Want Me.”

“It was the second to last tune that we cut, right before ‘If The Sea Was Whiskey,’” says Thile. “It was premeditated to do it like that. It’s also the last song [with a vocal] on the record, and so there was the feeling of finality in that last G that I play down low. I think we all felt it.”

But the album is not quite over yet--a fiddle tune encore is provided as an aural palette cleanser.

“Because I felt like the story ends there, ‘The Eleventh Reel’ is almost like credits rolling. You know what I mean? It’s kind of this ‘Everything’s gonna be okay’ feeling to it. I feel like it’s proof that whoever that girl was that our character is proposing an increased seriousness of relationship with, I think she’s trying it out. I think she’s giving our boy a chance.

“That also was the last bit of original material I wrote for the record,” says Thile. “And I keep coming back to the rightness of the well constructed fiddle tune. I feel like it speaks volumes to me, a good fiddle tune does. I was just in England, at the Cambridge Folk Festival, and the last night had this six hour jam with a bunch of these wonderful Irish and Scottish musicians. It was unbelievable. Tune after tune after tune, these are the kind of guys who seek out the more remarkable fiddle tunes. There’s certainly the popular ones, and there’s all those mailed in ones, and then there’s quirky ones. We played those for six hours. It was just unbelievable. The fiddle tune to me is always a lovely way to end, and then also there’re some of the funny bits of arrangement in there that was actually a great moment of collaboration.”

Speaking of collaborating, hearing Thile talk about his new band puts one in mind of a kid finding everything he ever wanted under the tree on Christmas morning.

“We have this huge body of material in common,” says Thile about his new bandmates, “and the last generation, Bela [Fleck], Edgar [Meyer], Jerry [Douglas], Sam [Bush], Stuart [Duncan], those guys, we hold them in such high esteem and have all studied their music very thoroughly. But in addition, a guy like Edgar has pointed the way to the classical thing. A guy like Bela has pointed the way to the Jazz thing. And we’ve all gone in those directions and seen what they were listening to and have taken that to heart. And each one of these guys [in Thile’s group] has an area in which they are far more proficient than the rest of the band. So you combine that with all of the common vocabulary and I feel that’s what’s making this experience so delightful for me.”

Banjoist Noam Pikelny, 26, has held the 5-string spot for guitarist Slavek Hanzlik, the defunct jamgrass juggernaut Leftover Salmon, and perhaps the greatest singer to lend his pipes to newgrass music, John Cowan. He has released a solo album on Compass Records. Even so, Pikelny’s talent had escaped Thile’s notice until the summer of 2005.

“Let me tell you, there is no experience in the last several years that transcends that moment at Telluride when I re-met Noam,” says Thile. “I guess I had met him a couple times and it had never really sunk in, and I was aware that he was a good player but that’s kind of it. It was a Saturday night. I was walking around going, ‘I still want to play.’ I knew that Yonder Mountain String Band was at the Sheridan Opera House. They’d invited me to come down so I decided I would. I went over there, and I hadn’t seen what that scene was like so I figured I’d just go and pop my head in. I walked on stage and there was Noam. We started playing, and every note that Noam played was something I wished I’d played. [Thile thought,] ‘Where on earth did you come from? I thought I knew about all you guys. I thought I had a bead on this music.’”

“And right then,” recounts Thile, “this project I’m working on now started to come into focus. I knew I wanted to do something with some guys my age. Gabe [Witcher] and I’d been talking about trying to get a band together, but what kind of band it was going to be didn’t come into focus until I met Noam. I realized then what I wanted to do was start to put my stamp on the traditional bluegrass ensemble.

“Noam and I went back to my hotel room that night and played until 7 or 8 in the morning,” says Thile. “Just tune after tune and I just could not believe that this guy existed and I didn’t know. And, he was kicking my ass! It was an amazing experience. We played fiddle tunes. We played Radiohead. A little bit of classical in there. Jazz. It was just fun as hell. After that, I began plotting the course that this ensemble would take.”

In Pikelny, Thile had found a kindred spirit.

“I get this feeling from Noam that I envy,” admits Thile, “that ultimately there is really nothing that Noam can’t do. Even if he can’t do it right now, he’ll be able to. There’s a diligence that I find to be utterly remarkable about Noam’s musicianship. A lot of times that diligence comes in the absence of talent. You know what I mean? It’s like, a lot of times people are that diligent because they have to be. Whereas Noam is one of those rare musicians who is that diligent in addition to being ludicrously talented. I’m writing this piece and I can completely disregard assumptions of what’s possible on a banjo. And I have. I’ve absolutely thrown it to the wolves. I have written crazy stuff and gotten a call from Noam going, ‘Um, I don’t know if this is possible.’ And eventually he goes, ‘Well, I’m gonna give it a try,’ and then a week or two later I’ll get a voicemail of him doing it at 150 beats per minute. And [Pikelny doesn’t] just come back with it, but comes back with it and sheds light on its worth.

“And that’s another thing about writing for this ensemble,” Thile continues. “What you write has the potential to be so much greater than you. This is no slam on classical musicians whom I respect at least as much or more than any other kind, but these musicians are always looking into things and seeing how it can be developed--whether the material is pointing to anything else, and most importantly, whether it is pointing to their supplementary composition. That to me is what is so wonderful about this new trend of formal music written for folk musicians.”

Thile is referring to projects such as Mark O’Connor’s Appalachian Waltz and Edgar Meyer’s Uncommon Ritual, music that blurs the distinctions between classical and non-classical forms.

“As folk musicians become technically capable to do this kind of thing, where maybe it’s fast, maybe it’s not diatonic, maybe it’s incredibly rhythmically complicated, you know, whatever it is--its what folk musicians have always been so wonderful at, composition on the fly, making sure that the moment has the chance to impact the piece. In classical music, when every note is written out, way more of the experience is more [pre-ordained] than I’m comfortable with. I feel like one of the most exciting things about music is its ability to express the moment in the moment. You’re starting to see that in this new movement of the fusion of folk and formal. I get so excited about it.

“I would go so far as to say Edgar is at the head of this kind of revolution, and I would consider him to be my mentor,” says Thile. “I’ve studied a lot with him and really, really admire him in all respects. And guys like Noam are what are making the dream come true. He called me up a couple days ago and goes, ‘I’ve got the double from the second movement of the B-minor [piece by Bach], I finally got it all the way through.’ This is such a difficult piece. I mean, I’ve got it but it was written for instruments tuned in 5ths. It’s a little different playing it on the old 5-string. So, he calls me up and he’s going, ‘OK, I’ve got it. Now, I’m wondering if you have any tips on playing harder with your right hand without squeezing harder with your left.’ You know, independence of energy expended between the hands. And this of course is something that is a very urgent need because the motion that you use in your right hand is bigger, it’s less stressful for your muscles. They’re designed for that kind of motion a little bit more. That really intricate stuff, it just can’t sustain high pressure for very long, especially as fast as this piece needs to go. So, he’s calling me up, and in my mind I’m going, ‘This is a banjo player calling me up with this question!’ And what’s more, he’s a peer; he was born exactly one week after me. I was born February 20, 1981, he was born February 27, 1981. I was just thinking to myself, ‘Is this heaven? Is this actually happening? One of my best friends who plays the banjo is actually calling me up asking me about independence of energy expended during the course of the double of the second movement of the B-minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is absolutely too much.’”

And then Thile gets to another important matter.

“And I doubt that there is any other musician, certainly any other bluegrass musician, who has more Ryne Sandberg cards than I do.”

Thile and Pikelny, it turned out, share more than musical obsessions.

“Noam is as I am--a fanatical Cubs fan and in particular, a Ryne Sandberg fan. I have 250 Ryne Sandberg cards. Not counting doubles. Noam has 700 Ryne Sandberg cards. We were talking about this one night. He knew I was a Cubs fan and I was delighted to learn that he was and that Ryne Sandberg was his favorite player. I thought I would impress him about my baseball card collection. No impressing was done with my number.”

The Cubs, in fact, are one of the reasons Thile will be making another move later this year. Having grown up in California and living in Kentucky, Tennessee and New York, Thile is planning on relocating to Chicago, which is also where Pikelny and Greg Garrison are from.

“I’ve had a wonderful time in New York but it’s time to live in the same city as my favorite baseball team,” says Thile. “I absolutely love Chicago. I think that the scene in Chicago, musically, is more open ended than just about any scene I can think of, and I think the people are going to embrace this kind of project. I feel like they’ll accept it as their own and they’ll support it, and it’ll be an interesting sound for the rest of the country to know is coming from Chicago. Do you know what I mean? It’s a very, very vibrant place. Also, ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted to live in Chicago because of the Cubs. So, I’m very excited. We’re all very thrilled.”

All of this leads to the big question: What about Nickel Creek?

“I’ve been in [Nickel Creek] since I was eight years old, and I’m sure you can tell from my enthusiasm about this new project that it needs to be explored more thoroughly.”

It’s really that simple. Thile and the band have been clear that there has been no blow up, no angry declarations of independence, and no ugliness. It is time, after being together for almost 20 years, to, at the very least, take a break, but only after giving their legion of fans fair warning--if you want to see us, do it now. Their final touring will happen in 2007. As they have stated in a press release, "We wanted to do this in a positive way and take that last lap before our break. We want to see our fans one more time…”

After that, Thile will be dedicating most of his time to his new band, which he has named The Tensions Mountain Boys. If that leaves you scratching your head, say it out loud a few times and the wordplay should reveal itself. The name, like Thile and his boys and the music they create, succeeds on more than one level.

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