Punch Brothers: The Undiscovered Country
Part of King’s condition on working with the band was that he wanted be involved early on in the writing and creation process. “He didn’t want us to show up at the studio, meet us and make a record,” says Pikelny.
“Which is also what we wanted,” Thile quickly adds.
“It’s exactly what we wanted,” Pikelny says even more quickly.
King began visiting the band in New York at Thile’s apartment where they would play him whatever they had come up with—a complete song, a fragment or something that had yet to be arranged. The band made adjustments to melodies and arrangements based on some of King’s feedback.
“The trust was established very early and he provided something we hadn’t been able to figure out—and I don’t think we would have been able to figure out on our own,” says Pikelny of the band’s confidence in King. “The experimentation and the sculpting of all these sounds into soundscapes, we could have been in a studio for months by ourselves chasing our tails trying to figure out how to make this happen.”
Indeed, by all accounts, King was the keeper of Pandora’s box over the course of three weeks of recording at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios. Wanting to capture the live nature of the band while utilizing the studio’s effects capabilities, King dual mic’d all the instruments, running one of the signals into a selection of amps in isolated booths whose effects he could then endlessly tweak. The effects were then run back through headphones that all the band members would wear.
“The topics on the record are more urgent this time,” suggests Thile. “The lyrics are more integral to the process this time and I think actually hearing some of those effects in the ears lent unintentional intensity to the performances that we hadn’t had before.”
For each song, the band would begin playing while King ran back and forth trying different amps and effects to find a starting point. “We’d be sitting there playing with our headphones on and magically something would be shifting—and you had no idea whether he brought in a new pedal or he changed a setting or there was a new amp,” recalls Pikelny.
With all this discussion of studio wizardry, one might be expecting to hear an album of radical departure. Here’s the thing: By and large, you won’t notice any of the effects. When all five instruments are going, it sounds natural. Should you isolate any one instrument, you could likely tell that its inherent acoustic sound has been augmented by something unnatural. The holistic approach gives the overall sound more—to use Witcher’s no-pun-intended adjective—“punch.”
“The most interesting phenomenon was that as soon as all the effects got right, we started playing the song a lot better,” says the fiddler.
“It gave everything new life,” chimes in Thile regarding the effects. We all sit around and work on a song and play it 50 or 100 times trying to get it right, and all of a sudden, it’s a brand new toy. You approach with this new…”
“…sense of discovery,” says Elridge finishing Thile’s sentence.
“We’ve always wanted to be able to go into the studio and somehow capture some of the energy from a live show,” segues Pikelny seamlessly.
While the Punch Brothers cover an array of artists’ songs live, they’ve yet to record any of them on album under their name until now. Two covers made it on to the proper album—Radiohead’s “Kid A” and Väsen’s “Flippin”—both instrumentals. (The band recorded three more that didn’t make it—Gillian Welch’s “Down Along the Dixie Line,” Josh Ritter’s “Another New World” and McCluskey’s “Icarus Smicarus.” Four additional originals are on the vinyl edition.)
“We had many late night philosophical conversations about why does something seem to fit so perfectly in a live show—a cover, for example—but why have we shied away from it on a record,” says Pikelny. “There’s still a debate, right up until the last minute, of what fits.”
And what fits into the Punch Brothers’ burgeoning original catalog these days does not necessarily have the same profile that it did a few years ago. “We had to get to that place of playing the most complex and crazy [material where we were] utilizing every aspect of our brains while we’re maxing out our technical ability at all times,” says Witcher of the band’s changing approach. “We did that in order to be able to say, ‘We did that. We do that when we went to. [Now], let’s try and make good songs.’”
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
Golden Bloom stopped by Relix to perform a tune from their latest EP No Day Like Today.
The Chapin Sisters share an tune from their new album A Date With the Everly Brothers.
Minneapolis-based Night Moves share a song from their record, Colored Emotions, live at Relix.
Cloud Cult share a song from their latest album live at Relix.
The Giving Tree Band enjoy a spring day on the Relix rooftop, while performing a classic Grateful Dead tune.
Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden performs a duet with his sister-in-law Lou Canon. The song appears on Us Alone his first record on Broken Social Scene’s Arts & Crafts Productions.
The Milk Carton Kids share the first song from their new album, The Ash & Clay.
Here is the new video from Serbian guitar ace Ana Popovic. “Object Of Obsession” appears on her latest album Can You Stand The Heat.
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