Chris Thile: Genius Fellow
Along with the announcement that you had won, came a story that said the Foundation had a hard time sharing the good news because you were ducking what you thought was a robocall associated with the election.
Yeah, the same 312 area code kept calling me in the middle of the day over and over again and I thought some robot was trying to get me to register to vote or something. But finally [Daniel Socolow] left a message that said he had something of importance to discuss with me, But still you know, every now and then people call you with a really important session they think you’re going to want to be a part of and I thought, “God I have too much work as it is.”
I still wasn’t going to call back, but then he left a second message saying, “Don’t tell anyone about this call.” And I thought that was pretty sketchy, that’s the kind of message you get before someone shoots you. So I found my roommate, we were on the road at the time, and I asked him if it sounded sketchy or if I was just being paranoid, and he said, “No, that sounds pretty sketchy.”
So he Googled the number and looked up at me and said, “It appears to be from the MacArthur Foundation.” And at that point, you know, I sort of realized and I was like, “Holy Shit, is it that? There’s no way…No, no no, it can’t be that.” My heart’s racing, I’m short of breath, and trying to talk myself out of it. I said, “No, they want me to confirm someone else, or recommend someone else or something like that.” But then I got my act together, called them back and it all came to fruition and has yet to subside.
Did they ever reveal who nominated you or pull back the curtain to share any aspect of the decision-making process?
I don’t think they do, and they certainly haven’t yet. No one’s come forward and said, “I nominated you.” So I don’t know. I mean there are so few actual secrets left in the world with the internet but as a recipient I can’t tell you how fun it is the way that it comes down. You know, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s like grown-up artist Disneyland.
Junot Diaz, whose writing I enjoy, also won this year. Is there a cocktail party or something where you get to meet your fellow Fellows?
I read a biography of David Foster Wallace a couple weeks ago, and it mentioned there was MacArthur Fellowship Reunion, and now being a Fellow, I’d be real keen to go to one of those. I actually did get to meet Junot on a CBS This Morning. Charlie Rose interviewed us about being Fellows, and it was pretty fun. It was the first time I got to hang out with any of the other recipients. One of the other guys just sent me an email, whose work I’m unfamiliar with, but a journalist for the Washington Post and also an author and a huge fan [David Finkel]. This whole thing is kind of mindblowing to me and really all signs point to “Get Back in the Practice Room.” I actually want to deserve this.
In terms of the Foundation giving you that original charge, what else have they said about what they expect?
They’re very clear on that call: Basically they’re saying, “Thank you for being you and do some more of it.” That’s basically the message, which is again, sort of a staggering thing. You know, and I’m still sitting there going, “Are you sure you have the right Chris Thile? I play mandolin and I sing little songs.” So the whole thing is totally overwhelming, but as far as their expectations, are all mine for myself. And so now my expectations for me have increased.
When I think of the MacArthur Foundation I think of something high-minded and cerebral, so I can imagine they’d want you to work on another mandolin concerto but do you think this will impact your efforts with the Punch Brothers as well?
I don’t make any sort of distinction between the various projects that I have, and to me music needs to be functioning on both a visceral and cerebral level at all times for it to be truly transportive. I think if your mind is left out of the equation or your body’s left out, you won’t have a transcendent experience because part of you will be hanging onto your life, your normal life, and great art takes all of those aspects of being alive and then takes you on a ride. So to me, if it’s the concerto, you know I want to make sure that still resonates in the body. And with Punch Brothers, even if it’s sort of a foot-stomper, I want it to check out cerebrally, I want it to have that sort of scrutiny.
I want it to have a positive effect on all collaborations, and Punch Brothers being my main collaboration, I hope it has nothing but positive effects on it. I don’t want to cut down on what I consider to be really valuable performance opportunities because that’s communing with music lovers and that’s what this is all about. When music making is at its best, you feel like you’re performing with the audience not for them. And so to me, that’s just as important as the conception of material.
Last question, on a slightly different topic. Earlier this year Mike Gordon released a download for Vermont flood relief, Steamroller Wheelies . It presents a number of his sessions from over the years, and you’re on one of the tracks with Mike and Jon Fishman and Jared Slomoff . I was curious if know when that’s from and in what context you performed with them?
Mike came to a Punch Brothers show about five or six years ago and invited us over to his place afterwards for drinks, and when we got there we were hanging out and he said, “Oh hey by the way I’ve got this song and would you be up for just playing it for a second?” So Mike set up and we played the song—once—and then he hit record and that’s what’s there. I haven’t heard it since then, I don’t know what’s there.
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.
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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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