By: Dennis Cook
Chris Thile is poetry in motion. Furiously controlled hands fly over his mandolin and his whole body leaps stanzas and links couplets. Lots play instruments but Thile is a music maker, a rare being that carves beauty from the air with inspired meter and verse. Thile mines human truths in a way that never fails to genuinely move me, a palpable, irrepressible energy that carries through each concert, each jam session, each new album and informal backstage symposium. It's like the difference between handwriting and calligraphy – one just gets the job done and the other does so with flair, skill and a flash of something gloriously humanizing.
Since 1989, Thile has been immersed in Nickel Creek, a smart acoustic driven trio with siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. An infectious mix of Beatles and bluegrass, Nickel Creek have garnered Grammy Awards and pop/country chart success. After three progressively interesting albums, the trio is moving towards an indefinite hiatus to allow their almost hyperactively creative members time to focus on other projects. In Thile's case, this means the How To Grow A Band band, a cheeky name Shel Silverstein would've dug. It's derived from Thile's latest release, How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, a dazzling, emotional album grounded in bluegrass and roots music but lifted by wax wings towards an angry sun. Partially inspired by Thile's recent divorce, How To Grow uses the pain of that experience to explore life's darker side in what turns out to be a surprisingly enjoyable, eclectic hayride.
Comprised of Thile (mandolin, lead vocals), Leftover Salmon alumni Greg Garrison (bass, vocals) and Noam Pikelny (banjo, vocals), L.A. studio ace and Jerry Douglas collaborator Gabe Witcher (fiddle, vocals) and guitarist Chris Eldridge (The Infamous Stringdusters), this aggregate just plain soars. Drifting through classical, pop and folk currents, they possess abundant confidence, charm and cleverness that makes one think they're capable of anything. A good deal more dangerous than Nickel Creek, HTGAB is devastating live, potentially one of the great acoustic ensembles of our time, and their studio debut is merely the calling card of guys that, according to Thile, aspire to create a string band version of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue.
How To Grow A Band
Thile sat down to discuss this new band, faith, his divorce and how it played into his art and more on his wayward musical journey. I treasure any talk time with Thile. Like his music, his mind is fertile, erudite and quick. To engage with such a soul is a gift my craft brings me and I'm happy to share it with y'all.
Chris Thile: I realized if I was going to make as ambitious a recording as [the Kind Of Blue revisioning] I needed to make sure my foundation was in place. If what you're trying to do is instigate some sort of evolution of a form or an ensemble you need to make sure what it's built with. If you're gonna add onto the house you need to be sure of the structure. That's kind of what [How To Grow A Woman From The Ground] is.
JamBase: This sounds like an ensemble that's going to last for a while.
Chris Thile: This is my pride and joy right now. I am so excited to be working with these guys. I feel like there's a connection that's obviously from us all being so young but also there's a unity of intention and purpose that I've never really experienced before. These guys are such amazing players but it goes way beyond that.
JamBase: You can feel something coming into being in the room when this band plays.
Chris Thile: If you'd been there [during the sessions] all of us were insufferably excited, and we still are. We can hardly shut up about it! The bluegrass ensemble is really an incredible thing and it's been under utilized. I feel you're just starting to see musicians like Bela [Fleck], Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, those folks, who've blown the doors off. And now it's time to see what's on the other side.
JamBase: That's the intrinsic problem with modern music. There's this orthodoxy to jazz, bluegrass, folk music, and you don't have a lot of people willing to step outside those Catholic standards.
The reason they don't is they're not assured of an audience on that other side. But nobody who really cares gives two shits about that or they'd never make a serious difference. You always keep your audience in mind. Art is half expression and half entertainment. If it were just expression you'd write it down or tell somebody and that'd be it. It would be bare bones, this is how I feel, this is why I feel that way. But, by making art you're making a commitment to entertainment. So, I believe it's really important to keep that aspect in mind BUT it needs to be a healthy percentage of the process. Too often, as much as 75 or 80-percent is worrying whether people are going to like it.