CHRIS THILE: GROWING IN MY TIME

By: Dennis Cook


Chris Thile
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.


How To Grow A Band
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.

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
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.

 
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.

-Chris Thile on How To Grow A Band

 

Too much thought about the product and not enough about the art.


Chris Thile by Tobin Voggesser
Right, right, right. Who's gonna sell it? Who are they going to sell it to? Honestly, it's a cliché but the most success you're ever going to have as a musician is pleasing yourself. You can only really please one person and that's you. You can only count on that. Those are the only ears you have control over satisfying, and if you haven't satisfied those ears then Lord help you.

It's hard to satisfy anyone else in the world...

...in any respect! Relationships don't work when all you're considering is the other person. You can try and try and try to cater to someone else's needs but if your own needs aren't being met no one wins.

Without being too forward, I've been through a divorce, too. I wondered how that experience impacted your music. There's tendrils of this situation on How To Grow A Woman.

For me, woman has always been a mysterious, almost angelic entity. I had one and I loved her, and I loved being with her. I was completely sold on the relationship, and was actually making artistic compromises to a dubious extent that really weren't healthy. It's probably one of the reasons it didn't work out. Ultimately, you'll resent some of that and it'll never be enough. The way it showed up on the record was interesting to me. I never really took a vindictive approach to the breakup even though it wasn't my idea. [Pause] Our banjo player, Noam Pikelny, just walked into the room. He's checking to make sure I talk enough about the approach to banjo tone and timing, and how we understand there's not enough banjo on the record [laughs]. He says he didn't get enough solos.

You can fix that on future releases [laughs].


Chris Thile
The approach I took to the divorce on this record was the deification of woman and the subsequent immobilization of the worshipper or follower, which is a character in this story. Certainly, I've taken a lot of liberties with my portion of the story, which is only partially autobiographical.

Sure, in fact, you use other people's words to help tell this story.

And to color it and make it more universal and exciting. Something like Tom Brousseau's "How To Grow A Woman From The Ground" is about as disturbing as you can be. You're left wondering at the end if the guy killed himself. It's only that it's in the middle [of the album] that convinces you he didn't [laughs]. But, that's not how I wanted to use it for this story, where it serves as the low point for this fellow. After that, he devolves into a party animal with whiskey and [Jimmy Rodger's] "Brakeman's Blues" he kinda goes the other way for a while. Only with [The Strokes'] "Heart In A Cage" does that period of hooliganism come to an end with him saying, "I don't feel better when I'm fucking around."

Fuck is a great word and you sing it well.

I would imagine that's the first time it's been said on a bluegrass record [laughs]. I'm not proud of that nor am I ashamed. I'll be damned if I'm going to change somebody's lyrics.

It's just one element that makes this, at best, a less-than-pure bluegrass record including a Strokes tune and a White Stripes song ["Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"].


How To Grow A Band
Both of those songs, from the instant I heard them, they were bluegrass songs in my mind. I thought, "Oh hell, that's a no brainer!" I'm really surprised no one got to "Dead Leaves" before I did. This is a bluegrass classic.

The first time we met you played me a Strokes tune.

I played "Whatever Happened" off the second record.

You brought me around. Now I respect that band.

It was so hard for me to like them. They aren't likeable because they're so damn good looking and rich and come from art school. There's nothing rock about it until you actually give the music a chance then you see they're a great band.

 
After playing with these guys I don't remember what it's like to think that something's impossible.

-Chris Thile on How To Grow A Band

 
Photo of How To Grow A Band by Tobin Voggesser

I like how your records hang together. They're fully fleshed albums in the classic sense. This one in particular has a narrative that carries all the way through.

I didn't want to hit people over the head with the narrative. I wanted it to be a malleable narrative you could approach on your own terms. One thing that helps with that is instrumentals. When you have instrumentals on your side they can do any number of things for you. They can propagate a storyline or they can defuse any unwanted narrative intensity. I'm always in danger of presenting art that's too intense. I'm pretty intense myself. You don't want to be so much yourself. There's an art to keeping people in the dark to a certain extent. Sam Bush told me something Jethro Burns told him, which is never show everybody everything you've got, always hold something back. Now, I'm really bad at that. I always feel like I'm just throwing up on my audience and hoping for some strange reason they like it. As I get older, I'm getting better at it. For one thing, while there's some virtuosity present on the record it doesn't go all the way. When you see us live you're gonna be surprised at what these boys are capable of.

No kidding, man. There's some serious muscle and imagination to the How To Grow A Band band. Shifting gears, I really love your instrumentals. On Deceiver, it was "Waltz For Dwayne Pomeroy" that entranced me. With the new album it's "The Beekeeper." It's just the perfect intersection of acoustic music and modal jazz.


Noam Pikelny
Thank you so much! The C-section or development section, whatever you want to call it, where it actually sounds like a bunch of bees, was definitely influenced by that kind of thing. It's funny because that part didn't exist until we were in the practice room. I wondered, "What would happen right here if we went into this different kind of thing?" Of course, these guys are never scared of anything hard. So, Noam just started trying to learn it. I said, "Oh jeez, I don't think it's a banjo lick." Next thing you know he's working on it. You should see him play it on the banjo! He kicks that lick off! It is the most ridiculous thing you've ever seen to play that figure. Then Gabe [Witcher, violinist] started to do it, and I realized we could play this lick in three-part harmony [laughs]. Hallelujah, we're gonna do it! My life with these guys is kinda like that.

It's great when you have companions that rejuvenate your interest in the thing you already love. They expose a new aspect of it to you.

It sounds really really cheesy to say but after playing with these guys I don't remember what it's like to think that something's impossible.

That's so awesome. It's weird, too, because that dynamic seems at odds with the lyrics that often times struggle to find things to believe in. That's one of the things I really suffered in my divorce, that awful lack of faith in things – not just in God but in everything.


Chris Thile
Yeah, everything. I totally understand. That was my experience exactly, wondering what is good? What I came out of it with was a knowledge I could count on music. And that's another part the instrumentals play is that idea and abstraction, that you can take solace in human ingenuity. Religion is so difficult to pin down as a source of comfort and inspiration. Often times it's so vindictive

It's great for providing a general super-structure to hang things on and give some sense of your position in the universe but on a day-to-day basis you're often shit out of luck [laughs].

You're right, and particularly when something goes wrong like a divorce. That's just not supposed to happen, and none of it is good after that. You're trying to figure out what to do with the leftover love. You're trying to do something productive with the hatred, the actual hatred that's there...

...the resentment over wasting thousands of kisses on this person...

...having wasted all that energy and love that you thought was valuable, which now feels like it's been chucked in a dumpster, and trying to re-ascribe value to that love, trying to find someone who will help you do that without hurting them in the process. It's so difficult and through it all art shines forth this honest side, this good side of humans that you begin to doubt during a divorce.


Chris Thile
I also found myself reattaching myself vigorously to baseball and things like it that helped get me away from me and care about something else. So, when the Cubs lose I lose but I liked that. I don't have control over it. And that's one of the beautiful things about relationships, we are forced to let go of control. It is dark but what you can verbalize during that time tends to be dark. But an intelligent person doesn't totally give into those feelings. For me, there's always been a feeling that things will be okay and always have been. But those feelings are so ambiguous during these huge moments that they came out for me in the form of instrumentals. There were no love songs or happy endings to be written.

I'm not sure your love songs are ever happy, Chris [laughs]. I've spent a lot of time with Deceiver, which is problematic at best on the subject of love.

It's true but so is love. Love is this amazing, epic thing that will always be flawed. And it's all the more upsetting for it to be flawed because it's so wonderful. It's something we have to live with. Life is flawed and love is flawed but there's all this good floating around. For instance, the joy I have being able to play music with these guys and having an audience that cares to hear me. It's an amazing thing.

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Comments

BHK starstarstarstarstar Tue 5/29/2007 06:10PM
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BHK

Chris Thile and How to Grow a band was the best intimate acoustic show I have ever seen in LA and probably anywhere else in the country. DO NOT MISS THEM!

Marcsmall Tue 5/29/2007 06:13PM
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Marcsmall

Chris Thile is the man...I've been seeing him since he was about 13 years old.. I cannot believe how he's matured...One of the best mando players on the face of the earth

Climb To Safety starstarstarstarstar Tue 5/29/2007 07:35PM
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saw him at stagecoach festival in california. great time, played on the same stage as yonder.

kaiserbun starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/30/2007 07:42AM
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best mandolin player i've seen. i know a lot of people that don't like nickel creek. this project is extremely different, its fully bluegrass based. check it out. i thought bryan sutton was the guitar player? anyone know what's going on there?

snappy Wed 5/30/2007 07:50AM
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snappy

Chris played on the album and tours when his committments to the Stringdusters allow. When he can't make it Bryan Sutton plays guitar.

soulgrass Wed 5/30/2007 07:58AM
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Great article! snappy, you mean Gabe Witcher played on the album, but with the Infamous Stringdusters the majority of the time. Bryan Sutton fills in, and rather well. Get "How to Grow a Women from the Ground" if you don't already have it. It is a fine, fine album.

chrisprice Wed 5/30/2007 08:31AM
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This was an excellent article. I have often thought that Thile lacks the soul and emotion that many musicians have. As far as technical skills, he is one of the best mandolin players around. It was interesting to read that even he admits struggling with virtuosity and controlling it to make it easier for an audience to digest. The times I have seen Chris play he blows your mind with highly technical solos but there seems to be little soul to the music. He seems to be struggling with this himself and getting better at it everyday. I love the HTGAB album and the other musicians on the album are all amazing as well. Chris is definitely experiencing changes in his life and I look forward to seeing how these changes manifest in his music over the next few years.

snappy Wed 5/30/2007 08:41AM
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snappy

No, I was talking about Chris Eldridge not Chris Thile in the comment. Eldridge plays guitar for The Infamous Stringdusters, which he was part of before this band formed. And thanks for the good word on the article. Always appreciated.

soulgrass starstarstarstarstar Wed 5/30/2007 08:43AM
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Damn, I totally f-ed that up, sorry man. Yeah great article though!

kaiserbun Wed 5/30/2007 10:30AM
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thanks for clearing that up, i'm not sure why i thought sutton was a full-time member.

amashhoo starstarstarstarstar Thu 5/31/2007 06:05AM
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I never really liked Nickel Creek 'til I saw them live at Merlefest a couple years back. I was totally ignorant to the whole bluegrass scene at the time but I kept thinkin' "Damn, this mandolin dude is freakin' rockin!" Since then I have learned a lot about bluegrass and Thile. Saw him and the HTGAB in Atlanta and in San Francisco. My friends who came with me to the SF show had never been to a bluegrass show, and to this day still won't shut up about how phenomenal the show was. The most exciting thing for me, is what he will come up with in the years to come. There are no boundaries for this guy.

Whoopster Thu 5/31/2007 10:28AM
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I enjoyed the story!
Go Cubs!
Go Greegor!

OysterDead starstarstarstarstar Thu 5/31/2007 11:41AM
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OysterDead

Diggin' the album....is an understatement!

Robusto Sun 6/3/2007 02:49PM
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Robusto

Best interview I've read on Jambase. Kudos.

aronsylvan starstarstarstar Mon 6/4/2007 05:20AM
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Just saw these guys last night at The Iron Horse... Amazing!! The article is spot on, don't miss them if you get the chance.

gr8fulsj starstarstarstarstar Sat 9/8/2007 06:17PM
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gr8fulsj

Heard of Nickel Creek, could take 'em or leave 'em, not really bluegrassy enough for me,but always thought Chris should venture out...saw them at High Sierra this year...AMAZING...haven't listen to much else since. What they did with Heart in A Cage just blows me away. Noam plays great with LoS, but I like much better with HTGAB.