No Concern of Yours: An Interview with Punch Brothers

Punch Brothers
Who's Feeling Young Now?

In a world where musical innovation oftentimes parallels technological advancement, it seems strangely ironic that a group relying only on acoustic instruments could make for anything that’s commercially successful, much less innovative. Even the most talented string bands are left to the side, suffering the fate of being a novel relic or excruciatingly middle of the road. But that’s certainly not the case for Chris Thile and his virtuoso companions, Punch Brothers.

Having established themselves as an overly cerebral, composition-based outfit with the release of Punch (featuring Thile’s post-divorce, four part, masterpiece “The Blind Leaving the Blind”) in 2008, it seemed as though the band would suffer quite the opposite fate of their string band counterparts. Punch Brothers were to be the musicians’ group of musicians, inaccessible to those not capable of understanding a classically oriented composition in the context of traditional bluegrass instrumentation. It was good, no one with functioning ears could deny them that much; it was simply too complex, too self-indulgent. Not exactly a novelty, but certainly not digestible enough to be served for mass consumption and, thus, not ready for popular culture’s all-important approval.

The band toured on the album and reconvened in the studio for 2010’s Antifogmatic, a record that was less progressive compositionally, yet shined in regards to performance and precision. Yet questions persisted about what the group was — are they Classical Bluegrass? Progressive Folk?, even questions of what social class they belonged to became not only relevant but necessary — almost trumping the quality they were delivering. Punch Brothers were more distracting than good, more engaging than spectacular.

It hasn’t been until this year’s release, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, that the group leveled out and was able to capture what it’s been ultimately striving for. Still engaging on a technical level (the cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” is enough to keep nerdy, musician-types busy deconstructing its arrangement), yet isn’t so much so to be fully distracting. Songs like “Movement and Location” and album’s title cut swirl with progressive and avant-garde tendencies, yet fully embrace their fundamental pop-orientation. There’s also tender moments (namely, “No Concern of Yours” and “Clara”) that provide a much-needed dynamic that’s been nonexistent — or maybe unpronounced — until now. It might’ve taken four years, but Thile and company finally achieved a record that wasn’t just good, but a record that could be shared with their audience.

With a repertoire that’s seemingly limitless (everything from Bach to Wilco to The Cars is fair game for the group), the Punch Brothers are now quickly becoming one of the world’s premier collective of musicians — independent of genre definitions, at that. Throw in flattery and superlatives from pop’s elite, a recent tour with Paul Simon, and being filmed for a feature length documentary, and the argument is clear that a daring acoustic act can find itself neatly, albeit awkwardly, on the shelf next to anything else in popular music. Chris Thile sat down with PopMatters to tell us all about this album’s journey …

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Where does the title of the new record come from?

First and foremost it comes from the song “Who’s Feeling Young Now?”, so it’s really about where that lyric comes from, I guess. That song is shrouded in nightlife. It really sort of talks about the increasingly dire consequences of one’s actions the older we get. That song in particular is sort of about the near impossibility of casual sex. It relates one way to the song, but it relates another way to the body of work that the album represents. It’s about those more dire consequences, it’s about even just the feeling — straight up: Who’s feeling young now? Are you? I’m not. But I’m also painfully aware I’ve got a lot of learning left to do. It’s about all of those things.

Who’s Feeling Young Now? is striking different than the previous two records in that it has an upbeat, more accessible, rock feel. It also moves very quickly from section to section, even in relation to Antifogmatic. Why have a new approach with the record?

I think we strove to make a more clear, concise and direct record this time around. We wanted something to explode out of the speakers a little bit. A little bit more like our live show, which is always kind of worlds apart from our recorded work as far as energy is concerned. We wanted to close the gap, even though live music is a very different medium from recorded music. But just the energy of the songs — what we wrote, what was just pouring out of each band member — when we got together to write, the music was a little more aggressive and a little mover explosive overall. So, I think it demanded a change in recording aesthetic. And [Kings of Leon producer] Jacquire [King] was the perfect man to affect that change.

We spoke back in November of 2010 for a piece in the Charleston Daily Mail prior to the group’s Mountain Stage performance and one of the things we talked about was the cerebral vs. physical ratio — or lack thereof — in the group’s music. To my ears, “The Blind Leaving the Blind” was maybe 80 percent cerebral and 20 percent physical and Antifogmatic was maybe 60-40. But I think the new record is a bit more evenly split and maybe even heavier in that physical direction. Why so and would you agree with that?

Yeah, I think maybe I would, actually. I probably wouldn’t be so bold as to apply numbers to it. [laughs] But I think you have the right idea. We’re striving for a real sense of balance in that area. I always want to listen to music that that disarms me; that helps me transcend myself and my petty cares and my self-involvement. I want to be able to do that for other people, because when a musician or group of musicians are able to do that for me, I’m so grateful. That only happens for me when all of the aspects of what’s important to me about music is being cared for. The head, the heart, the gut — everything needs to be neutralized. If I’m sitting there and I’m moving, it’s a great feat. But if my mind is bored, I’ll rip it to shreds. If my mind is engaged and my body isn’t moving, then, what’s the point in that? Not that I haven’t had fun with both sorts of music, but I’d never achieve any sort of personal transcendence in either scenario because I’ll always be on my guard. Even if non-musicians don’t actively think about those things, I think some of those values are there under the surface. I think maybe a lot of people sort of feel that thing. You have to look through the short list of music that really lasted and made a lasting impact on humanity to see a really admirable balance between the cerebral and the visceral. I’ll work ‘til I die to even achieve a fraction of that balance.

Photo: Danny Clinch

You guys brought in a new producer with Jacquire King, which is rather interesting when you look at his resume next to the previous producer’s [Jon Brion] resume. It’s seems like one might’ve expected Brion to produce the more physically reactionary record. It seems they switched roles a bit don’t you think?

I guess I could see Jon making a more sonically adventurous record than what we did. What ended up happening was more of a just an actual, literal archival of the sounds we make in a room. But as far as the way the record sounds in Jacquire’s body of work, I don’t think it’s out of character at all. Jacquire is most famous right now for having done the last couple of Kings of Leon records. But there’s Modest Mouse and he did Norah Jones’ last record. He engineered Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, and Blood Money, and Alice. I feel like this record, with the exception of not having drums, sort of neatly fits in with a lot of that. Jacquire is always searching for great sounds and he’s a master studio wielder. I think his discography is varied enough that I think this fits right in.

In a few weeks, the documentary How to Grow a Band, is to be released. On the film’s website it says that film explores various themes. But the one regarding “tensions between individual talents and group identity” seems to stick out. Do you want to comment at all about that?

I haven’t seen it. I have to admit to not being terribly interested.

Why not?

I guess I just don’t feel like my life makes for a very interesting movie yet. I watched parts of it and I found it excruciating. I think I haven’t done that much yet, and the band is a work in progress, and I felt like it’s an unfinished story that makes for only marginally interesting viewing. I’m much more concerned with how things sound right now. I’m just only interested in the music we’re trying to make. That’s just where I’m at and I’m not trying to discourage anyone going to see it.

It goes without saying that a lot of the most talented bands have had their issues with egos and things of that nature. Is there ever any kind of tensions as far as egos needing tempered within the group?

I think we have a really great working relationship, but that’s not to say that it’s devoid of tension. There needs to be tension. There needs to be friction to make something good. Just think about what it takes to make a fire; I think I’d maybe liken the creative process to that. There’s going to be a clash of egos at times. I can be very forceful or controlling or anything like that if I’m not careful. And sometimes the boys remind me to be careful. [laughs] Which is good, but they know they can and should say that stuff to me. I generally try to keep myself in line and also try to be a good leader. But everyone contributes mightily to the end result and I couldn’t be prouder of what we’re working on and what we’re attempting to do.

In the trailer for the documentary, you say during an interview, “I’m trying to be more than what I am naturally.” That begs the question: how much of what you’re doing now is raw talent and how much of it is achieved through the product of the group?

I don’t know. I think it’d probably be difficult to answer that question from the inside of what’s happening. [laughs] The boys and I are all hard workers, but talent doesn’t do anything if you don’t work at unleashing it. I’m really just trying to make the most of what I have and push myself and challenge myself while focusing on the areas of music that I detect aptitude in myself. So, to answer that, I have no idea what the percentages are there as far as what comes naturally and what I’ve worked at.

Photo: Danny Clinch

The group has had some acclaim from marquee musicians, including Elton John, who was quoted as saying the Punch Brothers are the “best jam band” he’s “ever seen.” It’s a strange compliment, but it’s also open-ended in a way. What do you take away from a comment like that?

You know, Elton John can say anything he wants as far as I’m concerned. [laughs] I’m honored that he’s check[ed] it out and enjoyed it. At the end of the day that’s totally fine. Whatever anyone wants to call us it’s completely fine. I really don’t care. I take comfort that they don’t all call us the same thing, honestly. It diffuses expectations, which is what I love word of mouth to do in regards to our band. I like people not knowing what to expect but just to be interested. For a guy like Elton to say nice things about us, it’s nice — regardless if he wants to call us a jam band or if he wants to call us a death metal band. I don’t care, it’s all fine.

He also mentioned wanting to make a record with the band. Most young musicians would jump on an opportunity like that in a heartbeat. Is the band for hire in that sense or is there some preference to building on the momentum of the group as the Punch Brothers in and of itself?

It’s lovely; it’s very flattering. Elton has made an incredible career because he’s a great musician and it’d be a joy to work with him. We’re more focused on what the five of us do as an independent creative entity, but collaborating is one of the best ways to improve, to learn new concepts, and to open doors you thought you were locked forever. But if that happens, I can only imagine us having a great time.

You were recently out on the road with Paul Simon, contributed a song to The Hunger Games soundtrack, and then the documentary will be released soon. Considering that trajectory of success, is it impossible to think of the Punch Brothers playing an arena — what scale is the cap for a group with your style and instrumentation?

I’ll tell you what, man. I certainly wouldn’t turn it down. [laughs] If that all wanted to happen I’d say, “Bring it on.” I am certainly not expecting it. I’m thrilled that we’re seemingly on the up and up after really kind of just maintaining for a couple years there as we struggled to find our identity as a quintet and struggled how to find out how to communicate with the people that were interested in listening. I feel like all of the sudden it’s getting a lot easier. I think that that’s both that we have a much have a much clearer picture of what we’re about now and I think we’re getting better at communicating that to the people that are interested — and there’s more people that are interested now. It all feels really, really good. I can’t really see us selling out arenas but if it happens, it’d really be lovely.

The group recently put together a cover of The Cars’ “Just What I Needed” for A.V. Club’s “Undercover”. It’s a really fantastic interpretation and maybe not the kind of song fans of yours might expect to hear, which I think shows the depth of the group. But as far as covers go, how do you approach them and is there anything that the group thinks you couldn’t cover — for whatever reason?

We cover things that we love and that we don’t feel like we’re currently representing in the course of our sets. So, that’s how we pick things. One of the reasons we like doing it is because it helps us get inside the minds of the people who are responsible for the song that we’re covering. Then it helps take what we learn from sort of theoretically occupying that entity’s mind into our own writing sessions. As far as the process, there are as many processes are there songs as far as how you work them up. There’s not like a set formula, the song will let you know how to tackle it. And as far have we heard things we don’t think we can cover: I don’t know. I know there are tons of things we don’t want to — but if we wanted to, I think we could.