By Dennis Cook
I met Chris Thile backstage at a Hot Buttered Rum show in February. Gently rumpled in several respects, he'd thoroughly blown me away with his sit-in, and in speaking with him afterwards, there was zero doubt that he's completely and madly in love with music. His vigor and vast knowledge equaled that of the audio dorks that form my inner circle. After an hour of animated yakking about The Beatles, New Grass Revival, and The Strokes, watching his restless hands illustrate his points on his omnipresent mandolin, a friend pulled me aside and asked if I knew who I was talking to. Unbeknownst to me - a guy who sees few videos and only strays onto commercial radio when there's no other option - Thile is one-third of Nickel Creek, a young trio that's sold millions of albums (two of them produced by Alison Krauss) and is a staple on VH1 and the Country Music Channel. Nothing about him, from his threadbare jeans to his hugely inviting manner, suggested an undeniable celebrity. From that day on, I've been smitten with Thile in a way that only happens once in a blue moon. I like a lot, but I don't love it all. This guy I love.
"I'm just so interested by all the various musical forms I come in contact with, particularly those that strike me as achieving some sort of balance," offers Thile. "Almost everything I love, musically – well, kind of everything - always interests me if it's balanced. I have a theory that people enjoy art that exhibits qualities in abundance that they are possibly deficient in. I think it might be true. I am definitely not a balanced person. I'm the kind of guy who's all on or all off. I need things to be in black or white. It's just how I am. I'm just totally obsessive and hyperactive and that sort of thing. And yet, almost all the art I enjoy, or the food or the coffee or the wine or the sports, I want it to be balanced. Form is key in inducing that kind of balance in a creative motif."
Beneath his artfully tousled blond hair lays a super-serious mind, capable of technical daring-do and a subtlety that emerges most often in his lyrics and arrangements, like those on Nickel Creek's new release Why Should The Fire Die?. Their third time at bat reveals a band unconstrained by any style. There are bits of traditional string band stuff ("Scotch & Chocolate"), Aimee Mann-style modern pop ("Somebody More Like You" and "Best of Luck"), the dusty charm of old 78s ("Anthony"), classic singer-songwriter fare ("Jealous of the Moon" and "Doubting Thomas"), and a choice Dylan tune ("Tomorrow Is A Long Time") sung beautifully by Sara Watkins, who along with her older brother Sean Watkins, forms the rest of Nickel Creek.
What it doesn't sound like is bluegrass. The band was marketed heavily in their early days as the next wave of bluegrass musicians. Even though the core instrumentation (Sean on guitar, Thile on mandolin, and Sara on fiddle) suggests cornpone, that description has never been true, and their latest, easily their finest set to date, declares that fact in no uncertain terms.
"We actually feel like more than a bluegrass band that stretched out. We are a band that incorporates bluegrass into our music," states Thile. "There's been a problem in perception. 'Bluegrass band leaves the fold' (uses a news announcer voice). No, no, no, no, no. Actually, it's a band that incorporates a little bluegrass into whatever the hell kind of music they play. I get a little bit upset about being admonished for betraying bluegrass, which is something I used as a tool. It's never been what I'm working on. I used it to work on what I was doing."
Nickel Creek by Danny Clinch
"I feel like on this record it was used no less than it was on the last record. Yeah, the first one was maybe kinda bluegrassy, and the second one... (I jump in to point out it had a Pavement cover, which catches Thile's thought mid-flight). Wouldn't that raise the red flag for people? The second record, even though I feel it's even less bluegrass than the new record, is a lot more polite and kind of passive and a little more fairy-ish, which I think somehow conforms to people's idea of what bluegrass is, probably because Alison's music is so beautiful and comforting despite being depressing. With this one we went in with the idea that we wanted to make a record that was more urgent and more aggressive. So even when it's calm or sad, it's intensely so. All our favorite records reach out from the speakers and pull you in."