By: Dennis Cook
We live in a global age for music. Not only can we listen to the latest sounds from our own time, our own country, but also virtually anything since recorded music began from every time period, every continent, every culture. While we can blast the latest from Tom Petty we also have the option of turning up '60s Turkish garage rock, Gambia music from Senegal, sweaty '70s Dutch disco, Icelandic jazz and more and more and more. It's overwhelming, especially if you've got big ears, and they don't come any bigger than the Punch Brothers, a mind-blowingly talented acoustic quintet that got their starts in the bluegrass and pop worlds but has diligently forged into mysterious waters. Mandolinist Chris Thile (Nickel Creek), much sought after violinist Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge (Infamous Stringdusters) and ex-Leftover Salmoners Greg Garrison (bass) and Noam Pikelny (banjo) are sonic citizens of the world creating a unique sound that couldn't have emerged at any other time in musical history.
"So how do you assimilate all these choices? That's the question that we're asking ourselves as a band. What do we do with this pool of influence? Punch (their debut released February 26 on Nonesuch) is our first crack at it," says Thile.
Built around a lengthy four-movement suite titled "The Blind Leaving The Blind," Punch is a mixture of high and low culture, where a lyric might be something as blunt and colloquial as "He's still a mess" but the music strains and reaches for the stratosphere or down into the far below. There's no judgment in these juxtapositions, and the confluence of disparate elements is charged like the power cables in Dr. Frankenstein's lab, the possibility of new life (potentially powered by an abnormal brain) hanging on the edges of each passage.
"That's something I very consciously tried to interject into this piece, to have lots of moments where there could be a real bonehead lick in the music and something loftier in the lyric. And certainly, there's plenty of instances where it's the other way around. It's just trying to find a place for awkwardness," says Thile. "You have to be so honest about where you're coming from. I'm not a poet. I'm not going to be able to write like Yeats – boy, that guy is a motherfucker! – and I think very few people my age are going to be able to sell that level of literacy. It's not gonna be genuine for many of us. So, we have to struggle and I think we're both going to benefit and suffer from this period of awkwardness and what it is to be a participant in this time. This is a strange time to be around and be a lover of music."
Ready For Anything
"This band has made me rethink who I am as a musician. These days if someone asks me what style of banjo do I play, well, my musicianship right now is more about serving the goals of this band. Answering a question like that is hard. To be able to play music like this in an ensemble like this, to have no limitations as far as a group or song idea, is a really rare thing to have. Everybody in this band is willing to work on music where if everything goes correctly everyone's parts will kind of disappear into one bigger thing," says Pikelny, highlighting the vast difference between Punch Brothers and the solo-centric world of traditional bluegrass. "It's very edifying to be part of this experience. You can only say so much when you're trying to say it through your own instrument, your own voice. I think everyone here has been most touched by ensembles where the sum of the parts was so much greater than the individuals involved. It's a fun and really exciting thing to be involved in. It's what I dreamed of years ago when I imagined being part of an ensemble where everyone's skills would serve something greater than one song or a solo."
"We've been able to conquer some stuff that at first seemed impossible, technically and conceptually. It's a willingness to work hard and take a lot of time," adds Pikelny. "It's a really interesting thing to play music where the return on a rehearsal is two years down the road, where we're not necessarily going to be showcasing or nailing something for a long time. It puts things in perspective on how we should all be spending our time, and it keeps us very motivated to keep furthering ourselves and honing in our personal skills so the next time someone brings a song to the table we're more prepared."
Punch Brothers are developing their own way of speaking to each other in their own self-defined musical context. Each guy seems to be stretching himself and the boundaries of what can be done on their instrument, taking the banjo, mandolin, etc. outside of established corridors and seeing where else it might fit.
"It's been a very natural musical development, the most natural I've been a part of," says Thile. "Five guys is a lot of musical personalities to wrangle but everybody fits together really well. I can step back and sort of relinquish control – and I'm such a control freak by nature – which has been a wonderful learning process for me to get out of that mode. Some big personalities in this band, and one has to defer occasionally."
During the four movements of "The Blind Leaving The Blind," there's a group synergy that carries the music along but also conveys a sense of shared gravity, each member's efforts pulling the others forward and outward and inward, shifting from instrument to instrument, personality to personality, and subtly affecting the music as it moves.
"We had to learn how to do that. In a great ensemble a certain amount of that should happen naturally. If you're meant to play music with each other then it'll happen right away but usually only with music you're comfortable with. We decided right from the start that this would be an ensemble that wouldn't be comfortable unless we were uncomfortable," laughs Thile. "Those parts are very demanding and very consuming, so we have so much individual times in our parts in this piece that it was easy to lose track of the ability to lead and follow. It took a lot of rehearsal and just talking about our approach together to allow us to be swept away. It's hard as a musician when it's not 'Saint Anne's Reel' or some other beautiful fiddle tune, where as you're being swept away you know this music like the back of your hand. With this, it's like falling backwards into the arms of a buddy."
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