Punch Brothers: The Naturals (Cover Story Excerpt)
We open the new year with a Punch Brothers cover feature. On January 27 the group will release their latest studio effort, The Phosphorescent Blues. Writer Stacey Anderson crossed the country to catch up with the group in Portland, Ore., Nashville, Tenn. and New York City for her piece, which we excerpt below…
Seated in his favorite neighborhood coffee shop in Portland, Ore., shielded from the unseasonable snow flurries that have descended on this November day, Chris Thile is marveling at the paradoxes of modern communication. He grins animatedly as he digs into the dense topic, rapping his fingers on our table with a swift percussion that transcends mere caffeination.
“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them,” says the Punch Brothers singer and mandolinist, pulling his own iPhone from his dark jeans and waving it emphatically.
“I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share
things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”
Thile’s on such a passionate tear, and I don’t have the heart to interrupt, even to corroborate his point: Some 10 feet away, waiting for her order, there appears to be a bundled-up young woman surreptitiously snapping photos of him on her phone. At her disadvantaged angle, she can only grab at best a profile shot of the slim, blonde musician and maybe a snatch of his gray cardigan. The result almost certainly won’t catch the new silver braces on his teeth, nor the encouraging smile of his bandmate, Gabe Witcher, who sits adjacent. She’s serving as an almost perfectly synced example of Thile’s narrative, electing to capture a detached, distant record of these events instead of participating in a more immediate exchange—inching closer to overhear the conversation, perhaps, or sidling up to the gregarious Thile and speaking with him.
“The new record is about, to me, the beautiful human instinct to connect and to form a network of people that you love and care about—a network that enriches each of our lives,” Thile continues cheerily. “We will, by hook or by crook, construct that in our lives—with the aid of these devices, or with whatever is available, or despite whatever is available. That’s a beautiful thing and it can be totally scary.”
The woman grabs her drink and, apparently satisfied with her digital archive of Thile’s left ear, heads into the snow. It’s a shame, because he—and Punch Brothers themselves—are really only getting started.
As one might guess of a string band that derives its name from a Mark Twain short story, the five young men of Punch Brothers share the distinct impression of being old souls. (The story, “Punch, Brothers, Punch!,” is about a relentlessly catchy tune that gets stuck in the protagonist’s head to his eventual mania.)
They’re also an unusually well-suited union of prodigious musical talents to the point that they are frequently called a “supergroup”—both in the austere bluegrass and classical scenes the members rose in and within the more mainstream folk/rock audiences they increasingly appeal to. All members are in their late 20s or 30s but have the discographies of seasoned veterans, and likewise have reaped awards from the Grammys and the International Bluegrass Music Association. In 2012, the MacArthur Foundation bestowed Thile, who also co-founded the precocious progressive-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, with an estimable “Genius Grant” fellowship.
“They’re the smartest bluegrass band on the planet; every guy in the band practically has a Ph.D. on his instrument. It’s really astounding,” says the roots/country singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, whose work the group often covers. Moments later, she amends this statement. “Actually, I’ve decided they’re the smartest, funniest and best-looking bluegrass band.”
Punch Brothers’ sonorous, contemporary alchemy of bluegrass, classical, folk, jazz and rock elements has lately demonstrated crossover appeal with more mainstream rock and folk audiences. Their third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012), was their most pop-leaning endeavor yet—notably in a flashy cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” in which squealing, scraped treble strings yielded both cacophony and resolution atop ruminative bass. That same year, they contributed a song, “Dark Days,” to the soundtrack of The Hunger Games.
Now, the band aims to merge their virtuosic abilities with more emotional resonance. Their latest album, The Phosphorescent Blues, set for a January 27 release, marks the string quintet’s most ambitious studio effort yet, a sweeping song cycle prompted by Thile mulling over interpersonal connection. Some moments are downright minimalist in comparison to the band’s past catalog; Thile obliquely ponders death over unhurried, mostly unadorned bass (“Julep”) and makes some libidinous intentions clear atop a terse, country-rock stomp (“Magnet”).
“We wanted to make sure that our ambition didn’t get in the way of our narrative this time. That has been a problem with us for all of our other records,” explains Witcher, clad similarly to Thile in a gray cardigan, jeans and newsboy cap. The fiddle player of the group, and an instrumentalist/producer who worked on the scores for Toy Story and Brokeback Mountain, he is also a new father to an infant son (the first “Punch Baby,” in his bandmates’ fond parlance). Witcher has a more serene air than the zealous Thile, which may or may not be attributed to his admitted sleep deprivation. “But it’s an exciting thing when the five of us get together because we know that whatever idea anyone comes up with, no matter how crazy, we can probably pull it off.”
“It’s hard not to [include] something if you can do it,” adds Thile, whom The Guardian once likened aptly to “a cross between Jude Law and Jonny Lee Miller.” “We understand much better now what we should do, versus what we can do.”
The album marks the first instance of drumming on a Punch Brothers release, a telltale imprint of its producer: T Bone Burnett, the celebrated hand behind a myriad of country, rock and folk stars. Burnett has championed the group publicly for many years—once calling them “one of the most incredible bands this country has ever produced,” and Thile “a once-in-a-century musician”—though this marks his first full record with the band.
“T Bone said this first: On all our previous records, the music was informed by the playing, and then the stories came later,” Witcher recounts. “On this record, the stories came first and that informed what the music should be.” The album’s surrealist cover art also fits the narrative: The 1928 René Magritte painting The Lovers II, which depicts two heads shrouded in veils, kissing through the fabric, is another stab at intimacy despite physical distance.
Pick up the latest issue of Relix to read all that follows, including bowling with Paul Kowert and Noam Pikelny, New York stories with Chris Eldridge and much more on the creation of The Phosphorescent Blues.