Punch Brothers are not a bluegrass band.
While you might be fooled into thinking otherwise by their traditional instrumentation and blinding picking chops, a quick listen will prove they are a highly evolved mutation of Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys.
Led by mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, the group takes influences ranging from Radiohead to Bach to Earl Scruggs and combines them into a strikingly unique brand of acoustic music.
I had a chance to speak with Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge about his background in bluegrass, the evolution of the band and their new album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which set for release February 13.
GUITAR WORLD: Your dad played in the seminal newgrass group Seldom Scene. What was it like growing up in a musical environment, and how has that influenced you as a player?
Both of my parents are banjo players, so I always lived with the five-string banjo. My mom, being a very musical lady, had wide-ranging musical interests. When I was young my mom and I would take road trips and we would listen to anything. Bluegrass was only a very small part of what I was reared on musically. I was really lucky in that I heard as much Glenn Gould playing Bach as I heard Flatt and Scruggs. Growing up backstage at Seldom Scene shows was also a really important experience for me, just to be around musicians in the flesh with that kind of integrity. It made it seem very natural to be involved with making music.
It seems as though that open approach to different musical genres reflects what you do with Punch Brothers.
Yeah. The thing about Punch Brothers is we all grew up within the bluegrass tradition, except for our bass player Paul, who grew up very much in the classical tradition. But for the rest of us, my hero was Tony Rice; Bela Fleck was Noam (Pikelny’s) hero and Stuart Duncan was Gabe (Witcher’s) fiddle hero. We all studied that music a lot and it was a real commonality that we all shared which was important when we were starting the band. We also all shared a similar outlook on where we wanted the band to go. We all love Radiohead just as much as we love the bluegrass heroes of our youth.
One of my favorite things about bluegrass guitar playing is the rich bell-like tone players are able to achieve on an acoustic instrument. Can you describe how you go about cultivating your tone?
I’m a big believer that tone start in somebody’s mind and then moves to their hand and then to their instrument. It’s important just to listen the music a bunch. My acoustic guitar hero, like I said was Tony Rice, and he had this beautiful, rich, powerful and extremely rhythmic sound. So once I started trying to play within the bluegrass style, I had a really clear sound in my head that I wanted to emulate. As far as technically, we all use pretty stiff picks. You won’t find any bluegrass guitar player that uses anything less than a heavy gauge pick. That’s a really important thing. If someone’s looking to dabble in bluegrass and plays electric, they might have a Fender medium lying around, but it simply can’t create that powerful, robust sound. You need a good stout pick. And also a setup that allows the guitar to really ring and resonate without any fret noise.
Do you have any recommendations for a guitarist looking to get into bluegrass playing?
Well, it all has to start with listening; it all has to start with music. Any serious guitar player can find a lot to love in admire in the playing of Tony Rice. There’s a record called Church Street Blues, which is just a solo record. Listening to that record and hearing the elegance and power that’s possible can be inspiring. There’s another Tony Rice record called Manzanita that’s an essential listening record. The interesting thing about Tony is that learning his note choices is actually pretty easy. He plays in a lot of positions that are familiar and there’s a lot of home turf that he’s operating on in a really beautiful rounded way. The notes aren’t the hard thing about learning his music. Any semi-accomplished guitarist can do that. The thing to work on and dive into is the sound he makes and his sense of timing and sense of rhythm. Studying the soul behind the notes will get you a lot closer to the essence of what can be cool about acoustic music.
Listening to Who’s Feeling Young Now?, I noticed the band seems to be moving further away from its bluegrass roots, not just in terms songwriting but also in breaking with the tradition of how each instrument is excepted to sound. Can you talk about the band’s progression from more of a bluegrass sound to where it is now?
I think of our first record as How to Grow A Women from the Ground, which was released under Chris Thile’s name. That record was about getting to know each other as a band and the immediate thing we all shared was a background in bluegrass. We started there in this comfortable place, and the next step was Thile’s crazy 42-minute through-composed beast of a work (Punch) that was very grounded in a lot of bluegrassy, fiddle tuney themes. Even though there was a really rigor to the composition and execution of that music it still gave the illusion to the listener of still being grounded in that bluegrassy thing. With Antifogmatic, that’s when things really opened up.
As a band we were exploring what else these instruments could do and what kind of textures we could create. I think the difference between that and the new record is that we have a lot more time under our belt and a lot more tricks up our sleeve. We’ve spent a lot of time learning some of our favorite band’s music and appropriating their styles onto our instruments but still trying to be true to, for example, why a Radiohead song sounded good in the first place. That was a really important thing for us to do. We’ve done it now with a lot of contemporary bands, rock bands a lot of them, and have gotten a lot more comfortable playing together outside the paradigm of the bluegrass tradition.
I noticed there is some production on this record, reverbs, filters and over-driven sounds, which I haven’t heard on any of your previous albums.
Yeah. Jacquire King, who engineered it and mixed it, that was his domain. We got him on as a creative partner about six weeks before we went into the studio, so he was really inside the songs. A lot of those treatments were his own ideas. He was re-amping a lot of the mic signals, taking the signal from my guitar mic and running it to an amplifier in another room and recording it. He did that for everybody. We heard that in our headphones when we were recording and were able to play to that a little bit. There are a couple songs with a tiny bit of light distortion and other effects, especially on the bass tone. We weren’t afraid to get into the atmospherics on this record.
On Antifogmatic, our goal was to emulate all these sounds we had been studying from all these other bands and present them in a completely pure and stripped down way. The sound of that record is each of us sitting in front of a Telefunken 251 mic and playing live. There were no overdubs and no mixing on that record and we were strictly puritanical in our approach. On this record we felt more liberated and wanted to make the most interesting music we could make. We felt like it was time to open up our sonic pallet and explore.
What is it like to be in a band with a player like Chris Thile, as well as other such talented and forward-looking musicians?
It’s incredible. Being in this band really is my childhood dream come true, to be in a band of people my own age, who are like mind and totally brilliant. Thile is obviously an enormous talent and is as good as anyone out there. He may be our merry crazy leader, but all the guys in the band I completely look up to. They’re all among my favorite musicians in the world. To get to play in a band with four guys like that is utterly inspiring. There’s not a night that goes by where Noam doesn’t play something that drops everybody’s jaw on the floor. The sense of surprise and amazement never goes away and I’m very grateful to get to be in the middle of that all the time.
Look out for Who’s Feeling Young Now?, which is out February 13 on Nonesuch Records. Check out the band's official Facebook page.