Interview: The Punch Brothers Talk

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Wednesday April 25, 2012

From The New York Times

Punch Brothers Talk About Music, the Lower East Side and Greg Maddux

It has always been hard to pigeonhole Punch Brothers. They are an all-star bluegrass band, five virtuosos led by Chris Thile, the mercurial mandolin player, but their songs smash the three-chord harmonies and blazing march rhythm of bluegrass. They write dramatic, labyrinthine pieces that straddle genres. Sometimes they sound like a progressive art rock group going acoustic, sometimes like an avant-garde jazz combo with an Earl Scruggs-style banjo mixed in and sometimes like down-home pickers at a county fair. Above the music floats Mr. Thile’s clear tenor, singing deeply personal lyrics, usually about love’s collateral damage. It is restless music, by musicians so preternaturally talented they get bored easily with fiddle tunes. ‘We take a lot of delight in various music tricks,’ Mr. Thile said. ‘Above all we like music that surprises even as it satisfies.’

[…] Q.
Who is the audience for this music? Your songs chart on the bluegrass and folk charts, but the music is way out there.

Thile: I think we are honestly looking for ears that don’t really distinguish between genres that in my mind are only distinguishable by aesthetics, by things that don’t really matter that much. We live in an era where the world’s record collection is at our fingertips and to curate it in a similar manner to a Barnes & Noble or something just doesn’t make sense to me: to say this is bluegrass, this is classical and this is pop. It’s only helpful commercially really. Not artistically.

What are these songs about? When I listen to this record, I feel as if I’m wandering around the Lower East Side on a Saturday night and entering into people’s dating dramas.

Thile: You’re not far off there. Wandering through the Lower East Side on a Saturday night, getting a glimpse of the way people behave badly in the hopes it really won’t leave a mark on them or anyone else. It’s folly to act thusly. And that’s what the record is about. The title is ‘Who’s Feeling Young Now?’ There is a sense when you’re young that you can just take a Mulligan all the time, and the more things that happen to you and the more you cause things to happen to others, the more you realize the things you do count. You can do hurt to people that can’t be undone.

Pikelny: I would defer to Chris on the meaning of the lyrics, since he is the chief lyricist of the band. These are all things we have been witnessing hand in hand as we spent the last six years around each other. ‘Movement and Location’ was one of the most unexpected songs. We put that song together quickly. We rescued this one rhythmic idea that Chris had on the mandolin and surrounded it with a stable and formidable guitar and bass part. Chris kind of wandered off and the next thing we knew we had these lyrics, and the title of ‘Movement and Location’ is a reference to the great Cubs pitcher, Greg Maddux. Chris and I share this torturous passion for the Chicago Cubs.

Read the whole interview here