Punch Brothers: The Undiscovered Country
Photo by Dave Vann
All in their thirties, the Punch Brothers have a mix of new school and old school bluegrass. Banjoist Noam Pikelny played with New Grass Revival singer/bassist John Cowan and Leftover Salmon after the latter band decided to press forward after founding member Mark Vann died in 2002. Fiddler Gabe Witcher, who’s been friends with Thile since his Oceanside days, has collaborated with everyone from dobro master Jerry Douglas to alt-rock figurehead Beck. Guitarist Chris Eldridge was a member of The Infamous Stringdusters. Paul Kowert—who replaced original bassist Greg Garrison in 2008—studied under Edgar Meyer at the Curtis Institute.
At the center of the Punch Brothers 2008 eight song debut, simply named Punch, is a four-part, 40-minute movement written by Thile called “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which is based on moving past his divorce and his consequent social and religious meanderings. (A year earlier, the band debuted it at Carnegie Hall in New York.)
Musically, Thile describes “The Blind Leaving the Blind” as sounding between Nickel Creek and a mandolin concerto he wrote titled, “Ad astra per alas porci,” which translates to “to the stars on the wings of a pig.” With heavy classical influence from composers such as Brahms and Debussy, there are still little pockets to improvise in like in a traditional bluegrass tune. Its genre-melding and slippery classification was a harbinger of what was to come.
2010’s Antifogmatic benefited from the band’s extended time together on the road to the degree that they performed all of the material live before going into the studio. The music itself, while more melodically accessible than the previous record in many respects, remains highly technical and dense with little breathing room. While it’s fun, the songs still tend to shy away from typical song structure.
With the previous two records in mind, the band made a conscious decision not only to refine and simplify the music but also to, ideally, make the lyrical content and themes more accessible.
If the jubilant Antifogmatic is about the band’s collective acclimation to life in New York City—and the overtly complex Punch is ostensibly about Thile’s divorce and religious upheaval—then the more succinct and diverse Who’s Feeling Young Now? centers on coming to terms with being a responsible thirtysomething male in matters of the mind and body.
The slinky title track, for instance, is about the “impossibility of casual sex,” according to Thile, who is responsible for all the band’s lyrics but writes in them in a “very collaborative” fashion with band members. “It’s about that awkward period where you’re really not use to having to deal with the consequences of living.”
Witcher rephrases the sentiment: “That weird period where the stakes are higher and you haven’t settled that yet. You’re denying full force.”
(When asked if they intended there to be such a striking R&B flavor to the song, the band replies in the affirmative, noting that the inspiration was Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.” Additionally, Thile says that he realized, after the fact, that “Hundred Dollars” was influenced by the short-lived girl group Dream’s “He Loves Me, He Loves You Not.”)
The wobbly and woozy “Patchwork Girlfriend” is, in part, culled from the problem of having a significant other if you’re traveling all the time. It’s also about the time in between relationships where “you’re not seriously playing the field,” says Thile. “[In your head], you’re constructing a workable relationship out of many people.”
Elsewhere, the classic newgrass of “Clara” makes an appeal for in-person communication in the wake of the digital age of communication, while the old-timey “Soon or Never” is an archetypal (if oblique) tale of searching for one’s true love.
“Previous to this record, our music and our lyrics have been fairly personal and communal in an insular way,” confides Thile. “What I’m proud of about this record is that it marks a departure in the sense in that its something that is—quite sincerely—a call to community and musical fellowship.”
As Thile began writing material for the record, he also did so with greater studio production in mind than the band had previously used. “To continue to deny that side of the studio experience, it might have actually started to become insincere instead of being a hurdle to be proud to have jumped over,” he says.
Up until this point, the band had never used any—any—effects on their instruments. “We had an idea of wanting to use the studio as an instrument but didn’t have any idea of how to proceed beyond that general idea,” says Eldridge. After some amount of discussion, they decided to reach out to the Nashville-based producer Jacquire King.
While King’s recent production credits include Norah Jones, Kings of Leon and Cold War Kids, it was his work on Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Alice and Blood Money that caught the band’s ear, particularly Thile’s. “As far as combination of reality and fantasy sounds, that’s the gold standard,” he says of the Waits’ albums.
Compared to how they cut Antifogmatic, Witcher says that the approach to Who’s Feeling Young Now? was the complete opposite: “The idea [on Antifogmatic ] was for [producer] Jon [Brion] was to capture the band in all its naturalness and showcase that. Which is what we did, why we setup the way we did and recorded it the way we did.”
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