[8 April 2014]
Before the recently slew of wildly popular “roots pop” came along—The Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and the like—there was Nickel Creek.
All these bands draw on American roots music (country, folk, or bluegrass) as a core sound, but they have shot to popularity by having a divining rod for what a crowd wants to hear, a great melodic sense, a group of vocalists who harmonize with power and beauty. It has been an interesting development in a world of increasingly robotic, machine-driven pop music: bands that feature stand-up bass, banjo, mandolin, and generally acoustic instruments and find a vein of interest in a public that might just need some raw humanity again.
But while The Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons have been surging in record sales, the three members of Nickel Creek have been on the sidelines, recording solo projects, waiting for the time to be right. How could the time be more right than today?
Singer and mandolin wizard Chris Thile has been touring and recording with a brilliant “chamber bluegrass” group called Punch Brothers. Sara Watkins (vocals and fiddle) and her brother Sean Watkins (vocals and guitar) have been playing with The Watkins Family Hour in LA, supporting Sara’s solo record, or working in other various bands. The trio last recorded as Nickel Creek in 2005 and held a “Farewell (For Now)” tour in 2006-07. In pop terms, they haven’t worked as Nickel Creek in a couple of eons.
But there was always something slightly different about Nickel Creek, even as they became well-known through acclaim from Time Magazine, National Public Radio, and The Tonight Show. After all, their background was mostly in bluegrass, the dorky dark horse in the pantheon of US folk forms. When they first appeared on Leno, they played the delicate, almost insistently quiet “Reasons Why”, making the audience lean forward to hear them. Leno actually said, “Very pretty voices” to them—hardly the sign that they were going to sell a bunch of records.
But, based on some astonishing talent and killer songwriting, Nickel Creek did gather a big following. Not a Mumfordian mountain of fans, but maybe something better: a group of folks who could fill a large rock club or theater in just about any city, excited fans who knew all the words but also loved the notion that Chris Thile is, essentially, the John Coltrane of the mandolin.
A Return to Action
Now, Nickel Creek is back with a new recording and tour, headed back out on the road with a fresh mixture of picking, keening vocal harmonies that mix an Everly Brothers pop sensibility with Bill Monroe “high lonesome” echo, and a dose of young adult angst.
Popmatters got a chance to ask guitarist Sean Watkins about the hiatus, the comeback, the new record, and how the heck a bunch of kids who grew up winning bluegrass picking and fiddling contests actually “made it” in the cutthroat music business of the new millennium.
“We grew up playing bluegrass, it’s true, or a bastardized form of bluegrass, I guess,” Sean says. “But the band we grew up taking lessons from did Beach Boys covers, so we always thought you could do anything with it and didn’t want to limit ourselves. We take the attitude that anything is possible.”
Nickel Creek started playing 25 years ago when Sean was 12 and Chris and Sara were just 8 years old. Their hiatus beginning in 2007 was never termed a break-up, so this reunion is one that fans have been expecting. “We always thought we’d play together again,” Sean makes clear. “We’d played together for so many years.”
The band initially planned to just do a few gigs, but one thing led to another. “Last year we started talking about the fact that this year would be the 25 year anniversary of the band starting. So we decided to do some shows, wrote at Chris’s house for about a week and the writing can very fast—so we decided to make it a real record. It was so easy—it just happened naturally.
“The reason Chris, Sara, and I have notoriety on our own is due to Nickel Creek. We’re grateful to have that. It feels really good to be doing it again. Anytime you build a band you’re building a brand name. We know that.
A Dotted Line, the New Record
The result of the time that the Watkins spent writing at Thile’s New York home is a full-length record that sounds just like the band’s best—though the new songs may represent some refinement, some subtlety, and some interesting departures.
“We hadn’t written in a long time, but it felt like no time had passed,” says Sean. “All we did is sit down and play. We tried to let the songs dictate everything.” How is this recording different from past discs, to him? “You’re defined by what you think is good for the songs, but you can also learn what your strengths are as a band. In making this record, we realized that we view as one of strong points is our three-part harmony. So it became clearer than ever that, if we can find sections of the songs that use that, we should do that.”
The first two tracks on A Dotted Line certainly hew to that truth. “Rest of My Life” has a gorgeous melody for Thile’s lead that includes a set of stacked up high harmonies on the chorus. But as “bluegrass” as that is, the bridge is Beatle-esque, with a set of plucked quarter notes in a string quartet style, alternating with finger-picking before the band heads back to those chorus harmonies. “Destination” sets up a chugging rock figure in the guitar and mandolin for Sara’s pretty but biting vocal. But the jewel of the song is the brief a cappella break in the middle taking advantage of those great three-part harmonies.
The bandmates’ time apart informs this new recording too. “We’ve all grown and matured, and we know what we want,” says Watkins. “We also know what we’re good at and the things that aren’t our strong-suit. We were going for this—not trying to showboat. That’s something you do when you’re young, it’s cool, but now we just want to do it when we need to.”
Playing with Maturity
The new recording has two instrumentals. The first, “Elsie”, is all subtlety, no showing off. “The Elephant in the Corn” sounds a bit more like those pre-teens who were winning bluegrass concerts, though. “This is the most technical song on the record, but we thought of it more as cartoon music, not just an example of how tricky we can be.” Mostly, the disc is thoughtfully contained, more subtle in many ways.
This is certainly true of Sean’s features. “Christmas Eve” is a melancholy ballad, and then “The 21st of May” is more of a straight country song. “I have a solo record coming out in June,” explains Watkins, “and this one was going to be on that record. I’ve been playing it since 2011, and Chris had played it with me before. When we were writing that week, we decided this would be a great song for Nickel Creek. I know this sounds more old-timey, and I thought lyrics about the Rapture, ‘the end is drawing nigh’ idea, worked with the old-timey sound.”
“Love of Mine” is a Thile feature that stays utterly inside itself, with a brief instrumental break at the mid-point that gives both Sean and Chris a short, sensitive instrumental moment. Sara gets a very tender feature in the closer, “Where is Love Now?” With imagery about being left behind, the song might be an unusual choice to leave in listener’s ears at the disc’s end. But the impossibly beautiful three-part harmony on “Where is love now / Out here in the dark” is certainly enough to make you wish for Nickel Creek not to stay away too long next time.
Playing with Pop Fire
But every Nickel Creek collection also turns on some real rhythm and groove. “You Don’t Know What’s Going On” is actually funky— with a bass line that thumps in syncopation and the guitar and mandolin interlocking in polyrhythm. Then the chorus kicks to double-time and we seem to be pretty far away from bluegrass or country.
“I think we actually played variations of ‘You Don’t’ Know What’s Going On’ a long time ago—maybe on the last Nickel Creek tour. Chris had this idea when we were still touring. We fleshed it out. Chris wrote all the lyrics, and it ended up being on the more poppy side.”
The last two Nickel Creek collections have featured at least one song that was significantly more aggressive, driven by a percussive attack. Here, that tune is “Hayloft”, by the Vancouver-based indie-rock band Mother Mother. Nickel Creek recreates this rock arrangement, adding the only percussion you’ll hear on this record.
“When we were writing, we were just playing songs for each other, stuff we liked,” Watkins says. “Chris had this song, and it was cool, almost a prog-rock thing, very different from what we normally do. But the subject [an angry dad coming into a hayloft with a gun, looking for his daughter and her boyfriend] kind of fit the bluegrass/old-timey thing. We weren’t trying to pick it to be an outlier. but it ended up being the most poppy song on the record.
“The last one we did like this [“Best of Luck” from Why Should the Fire Die] was recorded without the drums first, then we brought them in later. We wanted to make sure that we would still be able to play these kinds of songs live with conviction.” “Hayloft” is driven by percussion, and a lick that sounds synthesized on the record, but the essence of it is a stuttering rhythm that isn’t all that different from what Nickel Creek creates when all their strings are muted and their feet are stamping on a wide stage like the one at DC’s 9:30 Club, where they’ll play in May.
“We’ve always loved the vibe at the 9:30—it’s really one of the best rock clubs in America,” Sean says with enthusiasm.
Does the band purposely choose to play venues that are more likely to attract younger audiences, as opposed the the music halls that might host someone like Emmylou Harris? “Yes, we do think about that consciously. We would much prefer to play a venue where people are standing up front. A long time ago we settled on a particular kind of place we like to play—and that’s where we’re playing on this tour mostly.”