Punch Rock

Blending bluegrass with a range of styles, mandolin player Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers are pushing the boundaries of acoustic music

photo: C. Taylor Crothers

Left to right: Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher, Paul Kowert, Chris Thile, and Chris Eldridge

The Punch Brothers sound like a bluegrass band. They look like a bluegrass band. Hell, they drink like a bluegrass band. But don’t try telling Chris Thile—the Brothers’ mandolin player, vocalist, and driving force—that he’s in a bluegrass band. “We’re a band. We play the same twelve notes,” says the affable Thile from his apartment in Brooklyn. “It doesn’t bother me to be associated with bluegrass, not in the least. I just think it’s misleading. People come to our shows and their eyes and ears don’t agree. Our music is not black and white; there’s a lot of gray.”

For most of his life, Thile, twenty-nine, has been pushing the creative boundaries of what bluegrass is perceived to be. He was a fountain of talent from an early age, cofounding the forward-thinking acoustic trio Nickel Creek with childhood friends Sara and Sean Watkins when he was only eight. After eighteen years and five albums together, the band went on hiatus in November 2007, and Thile turned his primary focus to the Punch Brothers (the name comes from a Mark Twain short story, “Punch, Brothers, Punch”). This summer, the “boys,” as Thile affectionately calls them—fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny, guitarist Chris Eldridge, and bassist Paul Kowert—are releasing their second album, Antifogmatic, an intoxicating blend of songs clearly influenced by bluegrass, but also mining classical, chamber pop, and country territory.

It can be a challenging listen at times, slowly revealing the intricacies of the arrangements, but one that could sound as comfortable next to English art-rockers Radiohead as it does next to Bill Monroe. “There’s a very legitimate pursuit of imitating the masters,” Thile says. “We need people preserving traditions and beautiful moments. [But] I personally am not interested in curating Bill Monroe’s music. I love it, but I’m more interested in creation. For me and the band, we’d rather spend a lifetime failing at trying to create something new than rehashing other people’s material.”

photo: C. Taylor Crothers

A joyful jam session

Although Antifogmatic—the title is a reference to a bracing beverage, usually rum or whiskey, consumed before going out and working in rough weather—is the successor to 2008’s Punch, Thile considers it to be the band’s proper debut. While the playing on Antifogmatic is as precise as a top-shelf bartender’s pour, the album feels looser and more from the hip, the result of five close friends who would gather in the afternoon to jam for hours before heading out into the New York night in search of a well-prepared cocktail. The other members of the band have the musical bona fides—all are in-demand solo artists in their own right—as well as Thile’s penchant for self-discovery. “There were some late nights,” Thile says, laughing. “The manhattan has found favor with us. What better thing to do than go out, have a drink, and talk about life, girls, and music?” The carousing is most evident on the stomping highlight “Rye Whiskey,” but there’s also a level of maturity present as the song turns from a hooting-and-hollering drinking ode into a warning of the fleeting effects of booze.

Thile is universally considered one of the best mandolin players of the modern era, with epithets like virtuoso and prodigy tossed around like blurbs in a movie ad. He was introduced to the mandolin by his father, Scott. In the early days of Nickel Creek, Scott Thile would double as chaperone and string bass player as the trio toured, playing countless gigs at clubs and bluegrass festivals around the country. Chris Thile’s talents have since been sought out by a diverse array of artists—from Béla Fleck to Dolly Parton—and by the classical music world as well. He recently performed Ad astra per alas porci (Latin for “to the stars on the wings of a pig”), a mandolin concerto commissioned specifically for him by a group of orchestras around the country.

Through his work with Nickel Creek, his solo albums, and now with the Punch Brothers, Thile has already succeeded in opening minds to what acoustic music can be and where it can go. While he doesn’t completely rule out a Nickel Creek reunion, his focus for now is on the Punch Brothers. And whether it’s touring—the band will be on the road for most of the year—or already working on the next record, the “boys” will enjoy the ride. “I’m always going to be spouting off ideas left and right, and I’m thrilled that they’re going to the Punch Brothers,” he says. “The boys and I have so much shared experience. We’re just a band of young gentlemen celebrating life.”