Nickel Creek’s hiatus wasn’t so indefinite after all. Seven years after putting the band to bed, the trio have reunited for a new tour and a new album celebrating the 25th anniversary of one of the most influential acoustic bands of the new millennium.
Nickel Creek made its debut at a small San Diego pizzeria in 1989, back when its members were mere moppets. Chris Thile and Sara Watkins were both 8 years old, and Sara’s brother Sean was a veteran at 11. Theirs was a modest start, but the trio attracted the attention of Alison Krauss, who not only mentored the kids but produced their first two albums.
After touring behind their 2005 album Why Should the Fire Die? the trio embarked on new solo and side projects. Thile formed the Punch Brothers, Sean Watkins founded Fiction Family, and Sara Watkins recorded two solo albums (one with Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones).
Speaking from the green room of The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, Sean Watkins spoke to CMT Edge about growing up, writing songs about apocalypse cults and recording at a lightning pace for their just-released album, A Dotted Line.
CMT Edge: “21st of May” sounds like doomsday gospel. Is that song about Harold Camping, the Christian radio broadcaster who predicted the world would end in 2011?
Watkins: That’s the guy. I was living in Hollywood, and there were these weird signs all over the place that just said something like, “21st of May. Repent.” He must have spent millions of dollars on that campaign. I had had a melody floating around for a few years, but I couldn’t find the right words at all. I was driving around on May 20 when I saw that sign, and all of sudden, it hit me. That’s what I should write about.
It’s odd to hear that kind of fringe spirituality explored in a gospel song, which typically is associated with more mainstream Christianity.
There’s a lot of old-timey bluegrass and gospel songs about heaven and hell and the Rapture and all that stuff. I figured it would be fun to write a modern version of one of those songs. When we play it live, I always give a little banter before the song and talk about how it was a close call … but, thank God, we made it.
So you’ve had that song sitting around for a couple of years now, right?
I wrote it in 2011, and I’ve done it a lot in my solo shows since then. My sister and I have a duo residency at Largo in Los Angeles, and we’ve done it there a bunch. Chris knew about it and heard it a couple of times. He even played it with us once. I was going to put it on my solo album, which is out this summer, but it just seemed to work better with Nickel Creek.
Why is that?
I don’t know. When we’re together, we try out different songs, and that one just seemed to work really well. We just want to have fun and we want it to sound good, so we’ll try anything — a weird cover or a new song. A lot of things don’t work, but every now and then, something comes together. This album feels very Nickel Creek to me, but we did try to do some things we haven’t done before.
Like “Hayloft.” That song is like hip-hop played on bluegrass instruments.
Chris’ little brother played the original [by Canadian band Mother Mother] for him. He thought it was a cool song, so he played it for us. It sounds very prog, but we just started messing around with it, doing different parts, and it seemed to work with our instruments. Also, lyrically, it’s appropriate. It has a hayloft and a dad with a shotgun. Very bluegrass but a little more on the experimental side.
That song stands out because so much of the album sounds so stripped down — mostly just the three of you.
We didn’t have anything in mind when we recorded. We just wanted it to be a good version of who we are as a band. We set up in the studio just like we did on previous records — the three of us in a room separated by about 15 or 20 feet, surrounded by a bunch of great mics. There’s fewer overdubs than there were on the past record. It seemed like the songs were there, and we wanted to speak on our own without adding too much extra stuff. Also, we didn’t have very much time. Just 11 days. We’ve never spent that amount of time on a record. We’ve always had the luxury of working on it for a couple of months. We had to show up knowing the songs and hit the ground running, which was fun.
Why was your schedule so constrained?
That was the only amount of time that we all had free. We’re all busy, and those 11 days were the only time we had off. After we finished up, Chris had to leave, but my sister and I spent a few days overdubbing and fixing a few things. But most of it was done in those 11 days.
You’ve all been so busy with solo and side projects since Nickel Creek went on indefinite hiatus in 2007. How have you changed as musicians in the seven years since you last recorded together?
When you’re in a band for a long time — and especially when you’ve grown up in a band — it’s easy to lose track of who you are as an individual musician. I don’t think we had lost track, but in taking that time off and doing things on our own and with other people, we were forced to come to terms with our own music. We had to learn to be individuals rather than part of this larger organism. We all had to do a lot more singing. That’s one thing that we all felt had improved over the years.
Will we have to wait until 2021 for the next Nickel Creek album?
I have no idea. We’re just taking this for what it is right now.