Former Nickel Creek and current Punch Brothers mandolinist Chris Thile, on tour with MacArthur Genius and bassist Edgar Meyer, will perform their genre-blasting Bach to bluegrass explorations at Mandel tonight. VOICES asked them a few questions about their musical experiences.
Erik Lokensgard: What was like to be around John Hartford when he was alive, and what did his very different approach to bluegrass music teach you?
Chris Thile: John had musical overview [that was] pretty exceptional given his overall, you know -- the sort of music he was interested in producing himself. John… really encouraged me playing Bach…. We had a big, gathering at the Rural Festival in North Carolina. [John] had these little cards that had the music. He passed me this card that had a fiddle tune and said, “You write the second half,” and I did and he said “That’s pretty good”. And he gave it back and I have it framed now. I wish I got to hang out with him more. He, more than anything, exemplified true love for music. That man lived for music and cherished all [kinds] that were available.
EL: Recently on NPR, cellist Yo-Yo Ma – who listed your Nickel Creek album Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill 3990) among his top five favorites – was asked how he warms up and get in gear to play for an audience. How do you warm-up?
CT: I just play a bunch. I don’t have a set routine and always have my hands on the instrument and hopefully I’m prepared as possible.
EL: One time a naked, tripping fan rushed you on stage. What went through your head at that moment?
CT: I just didn’t want to get hurt, that’s all. I’ve never seen such an animalistic look in a fellow’s eyes before. It was not recognizable, he was so blitzed. I don’t know what he was on. I don’t think of [the experience] fondly.
EL: Sorry to remind you. What is your daily practice routine like when you are not touring?
CT: I get up and drink coffee and start practicing. The things that are important to me are making sure that I’m maintaining and developing my ability on the instrument. I’m always writing, composing… I try to get about as much as that as I can do, and try to be a good boyfriend.
EL: Do you view your ability at the mandolin as a result of practicing harder than anyone else, having more genetic gifts, or both?
CT: I don’t think I have more genetic gifts or practice harder than anybody else. I love playing music. Mandolin happens to be the instrument I chose when I was little. I certainly try not to compare myself to anybody else. I know lots of musicians who can do lots of things I can’t do. I try to work hard and please myself. It’s music, it’s supposed to be fun, or at least rewarding. I try to conduct myself as a musician so I’m satisfied as possible without being placated.
EL: Are there any musicians in other genres that you look to as heroes?
CT: Genre is something that I just don’t observe. I don’t think it’s important at all. Genre was introduced by people who are trying to make money, it’s not a musical thing.
There’s harmony, melody, rhythm and lots of ways to go about it, but it’s all the same stuff. I’m looking for people who use the tools in ways that are satisfying, provocative, and inspiring… I always listen to Radiohead; Thom Yorke is a fairly transcendent performer. I listen to a ton of Mahler. There’s so much music to listen to out there that’s good.
EL: If you had to pick two people up in Telluride to play with, who would they be?
CT: (laughing) I can’t do that. Thankfully, that’s not how it works… [when you learn and play there] you get to play with everybody.
EL: You’ve been playing hard with Edgar Meyer a lot recently, going on tour. What have you learned from each other?
CT: We’ve been playing off and on together for the past five years. I’ve probably learned as a result of that pretty consistent involvement. I think Edgar is probably one of the biggest influences on my musicianship and life in general. I feel like we… set a very natural connection and that that provides me, as the younger musician [able] to glean tons of valuable lessons from the way Edgar looks at music, the way it works to him.
EL: So: authenticity to the original bluegrass versus putting your own spin on it – do you ever worry about the proper blend?
CT: No, never. I don’t care. It’s totally arbitrary. Bill Monroe made music. Are we supposed to freeze it? Is it supposed to be set in stone? What rules was he observing?
It’s ridiculous to be beholden to someone else’s concept of what music is. That’s not what your heroes did. And so, as a listener, [if] you want what Bill Monroe did, listen to Bill Monroe. And he’s amazing – Bill Monroe doing his thing. And I’m certainly not concerned about making [exactly what Bill Monroe did]. And it wouldn’t be honest, me as a 27 year old from southern California, who then lived in Kentucky, then Nashville, than San Francisco, LA, then New York, would it be honest to play his songs [exactly the way he did]? No. And should I run away either? No. I identify with a lot of his stuff, and identify with it heavily. But I’m not concerned at all playing by rules that somebody set up for himself. That comes from who I am as a musician and what’s important to me.
EL: Have you taught at all, or thought of teaching?
CT: No, not really. I’m very young to teach. I don’t really feel like I have a firm enough grasp of music myself to teach anyone anything about it. I’m still the student the way I look at it.
EL: The break-up of Nickel Creek ended with a “Farewell (For Now) Tour” –
CT: It wasn’t a break-up.
EL: Fans haven’t missed the parenthetical suggestion of Nickel Creek getting back together. Any thoughts on when you might reunite for another tour as Nickel Creek?
CT: Nope, we haven’t talked about doing anything. We haven’t talked about not doing anything. That’s how we’ll keep it for the foreseeable future. We did that for 18 years, and I think people forget that… I’ve been in that band since I was 8 years old.
EL: That’s a long time.
CT: I’m sure we’ll do something again. And it’ll be when we all feel a real [impulse], our collective creative impulses leading us back to a tour
EL As a successful composer in addition to being a mandolin virtuoso, could you give any advice for aspiring composers?
CT: I just write and write and write, revise and revise and revise. I’ve got much more than that. I listen to stuff all the time. I’m constantly checking in with my favorite musicians and composers. I listen to something I like, I want to figure exactly what’s going on. Some people think that takes the mystery out of it, but that’s what you have to do – know what’s going on. Mahler’s 9th is still shrouded in mystery, but I’m picking my way through it and just starting to figure out what the structure of the piece is, the harmonic progression, thematic, that kind of stuff – nuts and bolts – what makes it so great, contrasting that with my own work. Finding where I’m falling so far behind…
EL: Does faith play a role in your music, do you consider yourself religious?
CT: Not very. I’m certainly interested in it all. My last big, so far last, compilation dealt with in part with me coming to terms with… coming to more adult terms with the face of my youth which was pretty conservative. I feel like life sounds good – the more life you live, the more you have to make music with. If music reflects life and doesn’t just…
I’m conflicted about all that. Music exists sometimes outside personal experience, sometimes reflects it, it can do both, it has an ever changing nature. My relationship with religion is complicated. I was raised very religious, the question of religion is still very important to me. I’m still tuned in when people start talking about what religion means to them. People who are sincerely seeking truth, answers, they’ll find little things. That people find all these different things… It’s very telling about the nature of truth. If you can’t say that one person is seeking truth more sincerely or skillfully. Seeking truth, one can’t say who finds it more. People looking for answers, they’ll find…
I don’t know. I’m interested, I just don’t know… Religion…
Man has an obvious need for something that’s outside of himself. I get a lot of that from music. I have a lot of really religious experiences with music that I really love. I feel that’s a little window into, I don’t know, whatever is bigger than us. Somebody tapped into something bigger than him or herself. I don’t know if anyone can really know. I’m sure that it does impact my music.
Edgar Meyer: Hello.
Erik Lokensgard: Hey, this is Erik Lokensgard calling from the UChicago Maroon.
EM: Yeah, that sounds right.
EL: Okay. Edgar Meyer, I must say it’s quite an honor to be able to speak with you today. Thanks for –
EM: It’s certainly my pleasure.
EL: Thanks for giving the time. I wanted to check, first, are you alright with me recording the interview?
EL: Okay, thanks a lot. And you’re on the bus right now, is that.correct?
EM: That’s correct also.
EL: Okay. So the first question: I was just wondering what’s it like traveling with your bass? I imagine there might be some trials carrying that large instrument around.
EM: There are. The bus is the easiest way to do it. It just gets its own bunk, and, um, it’s fairly simple. When it comes to flying, I just have to buy seats for it. And a lot of my flight choices are limited.
EM: But, it’s, you know, otherwise it’s fine.
EL: Well, I was talking to my friends trying to figure out good questions to ask, so I apologize if I’m kind of sporadic with my questions here.
EM: Oh, that’s probably good, that’ll probably be a good thing.
EL: Okay, so, first, I mean, second of all, I wanted to ask: In 1982, you were playing on the street some people and you met Sam Bush and Bela Fleck in a happenstance kind of way and –
EM: Well specifically, you know, I met Sam when the group I was in opened for the old New Grass Revival before Bela was in it. I actually met Bela in Nashville, but the first time we played together was out in the mall in Aspen.
EL: Oh, I see. What was like it like playing with those guys, then, in Aspen, and how has it changed, that whole musical scene?
EM: Well, at that time point in time, it was just fun to find somebody that – I think we enjoyed finding people, that we thought were like-minded. And, especially Bela and I – the overlap of our interests was just very large. And it extended to more than just simply playing or writing or improvising. It very much extended into anything remotely related to music and our general abilities. And you know, pursuing that, talking about it, it was something we both recognized was fairly unusual.
EL: Could you give an example of some of the other peripheral interests of what you were having conversations about?
EM: Motivations of different people, different musicians, you know, details of how instruments are built, I don’t know, anything that kind of comes close.
EL: Your musical tentacles reach very far; it’s incredibly diverse, the realms of music you’ve explored. How did you get into so much and why? And also, in particular, you created an album recently where you played all of the instruments. So what was it like? As one of the world’s best bass players – and a very good pianist as well – then also playing instruments like the dobro, which is less familiar to the rest of us, but also to you in terms of your own experience…
EM: Wait, so let me get the question clean. What’s it like to do which?
EL: Sorry, I guess I could break that into two questions. Or I’ll condense it into one which has broader reach. So, what was it like making that album where you played all those instruments?
EM: Oh, okay, and I remember the other question probably was: what it was like playing such a wide range of music.
EM: Doing a record myself was – the predominant sensation was that it was actually nice to be alone. You know, music is fundamentally social. Despite images of long hours spent alone working on it. It’s fundamentally social most importantly in the fact that almost anyone you almost ever hear, most of their vocabulary, and most of who they are musically is a composite of a lot of other people’s ideas. A lot is made about somebody being originally. But it’s patently false. Even the most original people that you’ll run into, maybe they’ll – I’m not going to try to get into percentages or whatever. I’m, not even gonna try too hard to explain it. But if you use the same twelve notes that everybody else uses, you probably didn’t think of using those twelve notes yourself. I mean, something was handed to you. The general vocabulary that people operate with, whether it’s melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, or otherwise, are things that they heard before they used it. It’s not like someone heard music and then started from scratch.
EL: In that sense are you saying that by working alone – you’re of course also reflecting on all the previous musical history, what you’ve heard?
EM: I’m not really meaning to go there, what I’m saying – it’s a long digression. The first part of which is to explain in a little more detail that music is fundamentally social. Most, even things that are done totally alone are a vigorous interaction with other people’s ideas. In my case, it’s much more, because the bulk of the work I’ve done has been with very interesting other people. And it’s inevitably, it’s wonderful, and it’s a gigantic inspiration. But it wears, and it’s really nice to be alone. And also when you’re alone you can follow digression farther than you can with other people. When you start following something that interests you and not anybody else. You just can’t do that for long or else you start slowing the whole process down when you’re working with other people. The ability to go down all those side roads when you’re alone, is, you know, that’s the only time you can do it.
EL: I really enjoy digressions so don’t worry about any digressions when we’re talking because sometimes it will be to a really interesting thing. In terms of the social aspect again: You’re on tour right now, intensely playing all the time, but do you take time to listen to other music when you’re on tour even, and if so, what would you listen to?
EM: When I’m with Chris, I end up a little bit, because he does. So last night, there was a recently, like five years old, less than ten year old, recording of Elliot Carter orchestral piece that I found extremely interesting. Chris is a little obsessed with Mahler 9, so we listened to a little of that. But in general most of my musical browsing is a little more old time. At the piano, more checking out classical composers.
EL: Who in particular inspires you right now, in terms of classical composers?
EM: [text missing], same old. And pretty much Bach and Beethoven, and Mozart. I enjoy looking through all of it, but those guys kind of give me an extra bit of… [pause].
EL: I want to go back, before you were talking about musical vocabulary, when you were talking about the social aspect. I just a video where you were playing with Victor Wooten, and it was this great performance where you both performing on one bass, where you were kind of taking turns and playing at the same time and literally walking the bass in a circle, and it was this kind of dance where you were playing the bass on your back on the floor, and slowly collapsing. And that seemed to me to be broadening the language of what is being conveyed to the audience…
When you play do you get visual images in your head? If so, what are they like?
EM: Visual images are not a huge part of it. Maybe thinking about it at times, you can get some relationship, some abstract visual images in playing, but in generally, really it’s a sound world, and it kind of exists unto itself.
EL: So what was going on then in that performance with Wooten?
EL: It was certainly entertaining.
EM: Hi-jinks, hilarity.
EL: A musical world… I talked with Thile yesterday, and he talked a little about that too: music, as existing separately from himself or anything else. It kind of verged on, I won’t say a religion, but a philosophy definitely. And, so, as you’ve chosen the life of music, how has it been different from you expected or have you always been living it?
EM: Oh. [pause]
EM: Oh yeah, I’m there, I’m thinking about it.
EM: Well, first of all, the expectations involved along with the situation. I don’t know that it’s been completely [pause] different from expected, to be honest. Obviously I’ve been incredibly fortunate, and I didn’t necessarily expect that. But, a lot of the way it’s worked has been in accordance with my expectations.
EL: I see. I guess it makes me think of… In terms of talent on the bass, would you attribute that to more innate skill – that’s not what I want to say. Do you think it’s this combination of innate skill and then sweat, the dedication of always playing with the instrument, or is not even something like that when you think about it – the success?
EM: Each person’s different. It’s interesting. In attempting to rank them, usually that’s a mistake. That being said. I would – if you had to pick one thing, it would be desire. Some people want it more. If you had to pick one, I would say that would get it.
Obviously you really need about everything you can bring to the table in terms of ability and both, fortunate circumstances, all kinds of things. But wanting it seems to be key.
Q. And maybe expecting it in some sense, would you say that as well? Not getting daunted?
EM: Well, certainly not getting daunted.
EL: When you’re playing with somebody else, it sometimes seems like you’re watching the other person more than your own instrument or music, so how do you get to the point where you can focus just as much on the other player? What does that take?
EM: Well, first thing it takes is actually knowing that that’s important. Realizing that you need to do that is half the battle. And then, generally, in improvised music, a lot of it is just simply having a secure enough sense of time and a big enough rhythmic vocabulary to understand what you’re hearing. Depending on the type of improvising, just being able… it’s a lot more than just playing the instrument. You got to, you actually need to learn to understand what they have to say. Obviously, in improvising, the first connection is rhythmic, but you really need to understand what they’re doing pretty much at every level.
EL: And, instantaneously, as they’re playing it as well, if they’re improvising…
EM: Pretty much, The key is, there, if you really understand what they’re doing, you may quickly see how they’re rearranging or putting it together. It’s not a matter of comprehending something you’ve never heard immediately from the start. In most cases, it’s already being familiar with types of things they do, and being able to put that together quickly.
EL: It’s just like getting to know somebody – you can anticipate their sense of humor, kind of like that?
EM: There certainly is a parallel to that, yes.
EL: Do you have any examples of something that went wrong on stage? And, if so, what happened and how did you deal with it?
EM: I make a lot of mistakes every night. Sometimes I deal with it well. Sometimes I don’t. Dealing with it well is not letting it discourage me, and dealing with it poorly is letting it discourage me.
EL: Is there somebody you have yet to play with and really want to?
EM: Not necessarily. I’m very fulfilled with the group of people that I work with. And there are a lot of cases of people whose musicianship I may greatly admire or really enjoy listening to but don’t feel that we need to play together.
EL: Do you have any advice for aspiring composers?
EM: Yes. To get very involved as players.
EL: What do you mean by that?
EM: To play an instrument well. I have the same advice for players, they need to compose.
EL: So it’s back and forth, one informing the other.
EM: Yeah, I feel like it’s… the most natural way to explore music is playing and writing. And, I think it’s… [cough]. I don’t love the current situation which is much more performer dominated... It’s much more natural to explore music when it’s both playing and writing…
EL: Thank you so much for giving the time, and I really enjoyed speaking with you.
EM: My pleasure.