Punch Brothers: Gunning for Transcendence


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By Dennis Cook

The Punch Brothers are currently out on their Spring 2011 tour. They play tonight (3/9) at the Aladdin Theatre in Portland, OR and then a three-night run at Alyeska Resort in Alaska (3/10-3/12). Full tour dates are here.

Usually, evolution is not something that can be willed into being. It's a process of interacting with the environment, DNA and other factors outside one's control. However, from time to time, we encounter an entity that seems to grow and thrive anew powered mainly by some internal source, a surge strong enough to effect things in real time and not on evolution's traditional slow march. Together only about four years, Punch Brothers have leapt from strength to strength, a band capable of top-end bluegrass, credible Radiohead covers, Bach recitals and considerably more. There seems to be no ceiling on their potential or any boundary they won't cheerfully transgress in their forward motion.

If they aren't simply the best small acoustic music ensemble today, they are definitely the most ambitious. While a maintaining a healthy respect for tradition, Punch Brothers don't play to expectations of any kind. Anyone expecting something akin to Nickel Creek because of Chris Thile's presence are destined for disappointment. While his silvery mandolin and clear, powerful lead vocals remain, they ring out in wholly new ways befitting the gnarlier compositional bent in Punch Brothers. Joined by Chris Eldridge (guitar, vocals), Gabe Witcher (fiddle, vocals), Noam Pikelny (banjo, vocals) and Paul Kowert (who replaces original bassist Greg Garrison), Thile charges into unknown territory with Punch Brothers, who seem endlessly up for anything and everything, taking their instruments WAY far away from the bluegrass scene they all cut their chops in. Today, the band has much more in common with sonic iconoclasts like Akron/Family, Subtle, Nels Cline and Tom Waits than any string outfit with similar instrumentation. The road they walk is theirs alone, and as such, a touch rocky but always endlessly rewarding for listeners seeking something beyond the norm. With Punch Brothers, unpredictability is a charm not a detriment.

We had the great pleasure of pinning down guitarist Chris Eldridge to discuss what makes the Punch Brothers tick.

JamBase: The Punch Brothers are carving out their own language. You don't fit neatly into any genre or category. You can play the bluegrass circuit but you're not a bluegrass band. Your songs have pop elements but you're sure not typical radio fare. In short, you folks are unique.

Chris Eldridge: We are, but I wouldn't say that's the goal. That's more a result of the fact that we all love all kinds of different things. We all grew up with lots of different kinds of music. Bluegrass is good as an instrumentalist because it prepares you a lot. It's just incredibly technical music, so we're lucky that we all grew up in that tradition AND we have good hands that can do other things. These days, just as listeners, it's not that we're tired of bluegrass but there's a lot of other things we find rewarding. Our music is just a result of us trying to draw out the elements of all the musics we really love. And in Thile we have someone who is just so fearless and gung-ho. He's like Christopher Columbus. The rest of us are, too, but to have him pushing so hard is great. Hopefully what comes out is the product of all these things we love.

JamBase: I often think of Thile as an instigator. He's a great catalyst to other musicians, moving them into spaces they've never been before, testing their limits.

Chris Eldridge: Totally, totally! He's utterly fearless. The other thing about him that's incredible is how he believes ANYTHING is possible. There's no sense of impossibility for him, and that spirit is the catalyst for other musicians.

One of the first things he said to me when Punch Brothers solidified was how he no longer felt anything was impossible, and what you're saying confirms that feeling has continued. Standing next to someone like that has to be empowering, and thus far this band has shown no real limits or barriers to anything you've set your minds to.

Well, we work really hard. For me personally, I've never been in a situation where I worked this hard. Growing up I really viewed music seriously, but I also grew up with the Seldom Scene. Their whole thing is so loose and the music is great and fulfilling but nothing about it was super disciplined. The singing was beautiful and the playing was fantastic but it was ever super disciplined. One of the exciting things about getting into [Punch Brothers] was getting to playing with Noam and Thile and at the time, Greg, and now Paul. It was great to have to work my ass off [laughs]. I'd only ever gotten to that place in a self-directed way, say when I heard Tony Rice's music and had to learn it. So, the band itself is very inspiring as a source in and of itself.

Discipline is not a small part of this. The pieces you're writing and playing could easily send musicians skidding off into the dirt if you're not tight in the corners together. Some of the twists and turns of your debut, Punch (2008), are mind-boggling, some of the most complex acoustic music to come along in 20 years. You can't approach that lightly.

Right, and with �Blind� [i.e. the four-movement suite at the center of Punch titled �The Blind Leaving the Blind�] we started working on it a couple of years before the record came out. It was in Thile writing that piece of music that resulted in us coming together and discovering each other. We realized what the possibilities could be in the process of realizing this music. Playing �Blind� right out of the chute was really rewarding and made us feel part of something really special. It was great to be one of the guys to play this ambitious music that no one had really written before for a full ensemble of these instruments.

You were able to accomplish this massive, difficult thing, and that frees you up to do almost anything afterwards.

In a way, having gone through this experience has freed us up. We didn't like it because it was difficult and complex, but it freed us up to record an album like Antifogmatic, which draws way more from pop and rock music, which I'm way more into listening to these days. I'm currently completely obsessed with of Montreal. We have this wide-open space to explore all these different things.

Coming out of the gate with Punch, it gave many the impression that this is a �serious band,� but your follow-up has plenty of songs about girls and getting drunk.

We're all in our late twenties—Paul's a little younger, Gabe's a little older—but all that [lifestyle] stuff is totally true for us and a necessary counterpoint.

Acoustic music in America has long been associated with people carousing and gathering to tie one on and dance and try to get somebody to go home with you. This music, at least its roots, come from that world.

Absolutely! I've been getting into old-time music lately. My girlfriend plays old-time, and I've been enjoying that whole scene. It's such a communal music, unlike bluegrass, which is a great community of people who play together but the music itself is somewhat maverick-y. You get your chance to play a solo and it's an opportunity for everyone to see what YOU can do. What's fascinating about old-time music is it really is a form of communal music. It was dance music and a social gathering point; this thing that people would rally around.

It comes from a time when you had to make music yourself if you wanted to hear it, experience it—there were no radios or record players—and that alone makes it more personal. You have to bring people together if you want the music to happen, which is a sharp contrast to now where we carry our whole record collection in our pocket and listen to it on headphones anywhere, anytime.

With old-time, I wouldn't even want to listen to a record of it. It's not what that music is about. And in the Punch Brothers, we always want our music to stand on its own, but I feel like that spirit, that communal thing, is part of what we do.

We do these shows called P-Bingo Nights, and it's where we get to try out lots and lots of ideas, but we have to do it in front of an audience and make it entertaining. We always try to have a lot of new material for Bingo Nights, and we can't always have a ton of new original material. So, we do a lot of covers, some of which we make our own, others we just try to learn what the [original artist] did, which offers insights and puts more tools in the toolbox. It's been super fun. That's how we started doing some of the weird Radiohead songs, where we make sound effects on our instruments to try and emulate these sounds and figure out why their thing works the way it does.

The other thing about Bingo Night is we fuck around WAY more than we do in our normal shows, which is a great thing, always—we should always feel at liberty to do that but can't always make that happen. It gives us license to enjoy that whatever happens as it happens. As long as we're in it together it will work out fine. At the end of the day, that's how we'd always like it to be in the Punch Brothers but it isn't. Our music is really complex and part of it working is getting it right. Bingo Nights allow a nice contrast. Bluegrass is a little bit wild, and that's what we all grew up doing, and P-Bingo Nights allow us to extrapolate on that vibe. [Next P-Bingo Night is April 16th at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC].

Punch Brothers seem ready to have an experience with whoever happens to be there on a given night. The unfolding moment and the present tense are strong elements in this band's live incarnation, which opens up and lets things just happen. It's more unpredictable but also potentially more rewarding for artists and audiences, much like the more pop leaning elements of Antifogmatic, which move you away from bluegrass hardcores and into wider territory.

If one guy in our band likes a certain kind of music, then he'll usually bring the others along. Our tastes do overlap but I think the real common thread is—and this isn't just us, it's anyone who really loves music—a love of transcendent moments one can find in music. And you can get some of the most transcendent moments from pop music. That's almost what pop music specializes in—instant, transcendent gratification—when it works. And we're just gunning for transcendence! It's fun for us, and the goal—and I'm not sure we've ever hit it—is to unite purely, totally visceral transcendence with intellectual transcendence, to somehow sneak those two together and fully make them the same thing. Transcendence is always visceral, but not always immediately or intellectually. It'd be something to get that all in there together.

When shooting for transcendence, it's worth remembering there are a few different routes you can take to get there. For me, I get there just from hearing something that effects me immediately in my body or spirit—that's the pop music side. And there's things that take time to build and grows into this beautiful intellectual thing. People talk about [Punch Brothers] not fitting into a genre—which I think is true; genres are kind of silly—but that's probably because we're not aiming for any tradition. We're going after this transcendent thing, on several different levels. Having that as the process and goal opens up the music.

Intentions matter. You're not trying to be the next Bill Monroe or Miles Davis, and if you're not shooting for that kind of goal or horizon line, then the game itself changes. That filters into music. So much music made today can be broken down into a horrible critic's equation of “this band plus this band minus these elements equals this new band." It's always most interesting when you can't do that, when the music simply won't allow such simplicity.

If you really shoot for the stars you won't tread well-worn paths. You can't ever own another man's transcendence.

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This story appears courtesy of JamBase.
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