A conversation with Chris Thile reveals that he, no doubt, notices things others don’t.
Talking with him about his Sunday performance at The Egg, where he will play with his new project, the Punch Brothers, Thile says he’s happy to return to the Albany venue. He says it’s the perfect place for his new 40-minute, four-movement suite. “It’s an intimate setting and really quiet there and really acoustically balanced,” he said when reached earlier this week in Knoxville, Tenn., where he was having his mandolins tuned before heading out on the road.
And here, he reveals his own working knowledge of the venues he plays, noting something the average concert goer might not recognize. “It’s also quite dry in that room. So you’re actually going to get a lot of definition, although it doesn’t totally suck up the harmonics, which is nice as well.”
If you know anything of Thile, such professional knowledge might be expected. He started his career at age 8 with what became the celebrated bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. He made his first solo album at 13, and has since released four more (that’s not counting Nickel Creek’s recording output). And as he turns 27 later this month, it’s a given in music circles that the child prodigy has turned into a virtuoso.
While Nickel Creek went on indefinite hiatus following last year’s farewell tour, Thile is back with the Punch Brothers, a quintet that will release its debut album, “Punch,” on Nonesuch Records on Feb. 26. And at the heart of “Punch” is that 40-minute, four-movement suite, “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which the band will most likely play in its entirety Sunday alongside other work. The lengthy piece is Thile’s attempt to marry elements of folk and classical. He sees it as a classical work with bluegrass instrumentation: mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle and guitar.
“Even though it’s a through-composed piece,” he explained, “it’s still written with folk form and structure and discipline in mind. So there are sections of the piece that look like a jazz lead sheet, even though most of the sections look more like a classical string quintet as far as the score is concerned. But at the same time, my goal is to try to blend the folk and formal composition techniques. In folk music, you kind of come up with a melody and some chord changes and let your boys loose on it. In classical music, everything is in its right place.”
There is some room for a little improvisation, however. And “his boys” have the chops and backgrounds to pull it all off. Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge founded the Infamous Stringdusters and sits in with his father’s band, the legendary Seldom Scene. Bassist Greg Garrison and banjo player Noam Pikelny have played with notable progressive bluegrass/jam band Leftover Salmon. Violinist Gabe Witcher is a lifelong friend of Thile whose sought-after session work can be heard on the “Brokeback Mountain” soundtrack; he was also in dobro legend Jerry Douglas’ band for six years.
Music asking questions
Though Thile composed “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which takes up a good portion of the new album, he insists he’s a “fifth of the band,” making the project a collaborative effort. The other tracks on the new album, in fact, are co-writes involving the rest of the Punch Brothers.
Even so, he admits that starting new presents a challenge after Nickel Creek had built such a recognizable name and sizable
following in the bluegrass community and beyond. The Punch Brothers, by contrast, are essentially a new brand, a bit unrecognizable without the “featuring Chris Thile” that typically follows on the marquee.
“It’s certainly taking a step back as far as the number of people you’re going to sell records to and play for,” Thile said, “but it’s also nice getting back into more intimate settings and having a more hands-on relationship with your audience.”
As he continues, he turns to thoughts on what he and the band are after with this music when it comes to its audience. “This music we’re making now,” he added, “requires the focus you can only have in a more intimate setting. . . . I for one am tired of music that just happens to you and the audience doesn’t have to participate in. They take it as it comes. I’m more interested in music that demands that the audience participate, that they have to put some effort into the listening. Hopefully, if we do our jobs, this is music that will ask questions. It just doesn’t shout at people.”
And there have been celebrated receptions of Thile’s new direction. When the Punch Brothers debuted “The Blind” at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall last year, he called the reception a “storybook reaction.” In the next breath, however, he said there has been some backlash from bluegrass purists.
In Glasgow, Scotland, for instance, one man in the audience yelled that the Punch Brothers would be best advised to just play bluegrass. Thile is OK with that and warns that anyone coming to see them these days shouldn’t expect to hear solely bluegrass. It’s not that he and the band don’t like it; it’s just that they’re stretching into new territories.
Even so, Thile said, the Punch Brothers are shying away from making a music that’s so technical that it’s pedantic.
He explains: “The music is designed to be paid attention to. But at the same point, music has to be entertaining and pleasurable. We feel like we want to skate that line. We want to be interesting and engaging and provocative, but we never want to do away with making a meaningful connection with an audience member.”
Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile
Where: The Egg, at the Empire State Plaza, Albany
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
How Much: $22
More Info: 473-1845, www.theegg.org, www.punchbrothers.com