The five-man string band known as Punch Brothers has become one of the most lauded bluegrass groups of their generation.
From their beginnings as the backing band for Chris Thile’s 2006 solo album, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground, followed by an adventurous Thile-composed four-movement suite (“The Blind Leaving the Blind” from 2008’s Punch), the band has also evolved into a much more democratic ensemble.
Their third and latest album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, has only raised their profile further, building on the band’s reputation for avant-garde composition and arrangements while also — neat trick — drawing praise for their artful simplicity.
Mandolinist Thile and banjoist Noam Pikelny recently called in to CMT.com to reflect on their globetrotting year and their evolution as a progressive-bluegrass-or-what-have-you musical unit.
CMT: It seems like Punch Brothers have had a rather busy year. I understand you just got back from Europe.
Thile: Yeah, man. Three weeks in Europe. I think we were in seven countries, and most of those countries are quite muddy right now.
Thile: Muddy! But it’s been really fun. You know, the interesting thing about playing in Europe, for a band like us, is that how “bluegrass” we are isn’t really part of the listening equation. Compared to what they’re normally exposed to, we are really bluegrass. Over here in the States, I think that’s a point of some contention and can actually color the way that people listen to us. But in Europe, it’s a moot point. We look like a bluegrass band, and we’re more bluegrass than anything they’ve come in contact with, so all that really is out the window. It’s just whether they like the music, not really whether it meets their expectations for what bluegrass “is.”
Is playing in Europe as the Punch Brothers a relatively new experience, then?
Pikelny: We’ve probably been there five or six times, but it seems like this was the third or fourth time this year. We’ve been going much more frequently. As people who make their living touring around the country — around the world — getting to a new city, playing for a new audience is just a wonderful change of pace. It informs our music, and it gives us new things to think about and write about and ponder. So when we come back to our normal stomping ground, we have something new.
Your contribution of “Dark Days” to The Hunger Games companion album was a high-profile moment this year. Is the band seeing any influx of younger fans?
Thile: Our audience seems to have gotten progressively younger since we started six years ago. But it’s a nice balance of people. We’re kind of — mostly subconsciously — trying to cultivate a demographic-less listenership. I’m personally quite wary of creating music that’s “meant” to appeal to a certain kind of music listener. It’s too limiting. It just seems commercially-minded in a reprehensible way. And I think our contribution to The Hunger Games wasn’t exactly the teenyboppin’-est thing that ever was. (laughs) But it was actually really fun to do that.
I’ve read where you’ve said the songs on the new album are more succinct and direct than some of the band’s earlier work may have been.
Thile: I think we’ve realized as a band that we gravitate towards music that makes a clear, concise statement. … It’s like having a thesis statement for your essay. I think in past records, we’ve been occasionally guilty of maybe using the musical equivalent of fine prose, without really having that clear thesis statement.
Pikelny: I think there were certain things, early on, that we shared as a band that came so naturally to us that we assumed it wasn’t of as much merit as something we’d have to slave over. We felt like we weren’t doing this project justice if we weren’t reinventing ourselves with every single song. Part of the maturation process is realizing that those things that drew us to each other were not things that we should have necessarily censored as much. We’ve started to embrace some of the spontaneity inherent in our live shows and in the writing sessions, rehearsal sessions and tried to inject that back into the process of putting the record together.
There’s a theme that sticks out as I listen, too. You’re dealing with the realities of growing older, confronting your limitations and asking “What is my contribution to the world going to be?” There’s a certain humility to it.
Thile: Oh, good! I’m glad that that comes across. You know, this a good group of guys that are … trying, ultimately, to do the right thing. We’re around each other all the time, and we’re having shared experiences or experiences that are shared shortly after.
And I do think, with everyone in their late 20s, early 30s, we’re experiencing less structure overall. Maybe an unprecedented lack of social structure. People are being left to fend for themselves in a way that maybe hasn’t been seen for a long time. And we’re all fending for ourselves with different levels of success, but it becomes increasingly obvious that you are going to leave a mark, and that mark may be positive or negative. And often it’s negative (laughs), and you apologize for those things, try to make amends. So the record deals a lot with that, and I think it’s a rich ground for musical development.