Chris Thile Talks Strumming Through the Apocalypse With Punch Brothers

Chris Thile
Brantley Gutierrez

Chris Thile

If you’re looking for Chris Thile -- principal songwriter of the Punch Brothers, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and the best mandolin player in the world -- chances are you might find him at a tiki bar.

Thile’s conception of the throwback drinking spot is different from that of millennials -- namely, kids who associate anything tropical with house music, oversized bowls with noxious alcohols spilling over the top, and all night pool parties. Rather, Thile is attracted to the tiki bar as an anachronism, an extreme example of escapism that also serves as a valid first response during this era of tumult and national rage.

“Maybe you can look at these things happening in our world directly if you have a form of escape to view it from,” Thile explains to Billboard over the phone before his band hits the stage in Charlotte, North Carolina, the first leg of a sprawling national tour.. “Tiki culture is one of those things, and I hope our record is as well.”

This idea of escapism is the principal concept Thile and his bandmates -- Gabe Witcher (fiddle, drums, and vocals), Noam Pikelny (banjo, vocals, and steel-bodied guitar), Chris Eldridge (guitar and vocals), and Paul Kowert (bass and vocals) -- first started toying with in preparation for their fifth LP, All Ashore, out Friday (Jul. 20) via Nonesuch Records.

But, as the band members, all now fathers and husbands or in serious relationships, grappled with expressing the need to escape, they felt pulled towards its opposite pole. Namely, diving head first into the deep end and examining how our political landscape affects personal relationships, parenthood, and interacting with other humans who may believe in everything you find abhorrent. “Having small children, you start thinking about how everything in your life revolves around doing the best you can for this little being, trying to make a good life for that person,” Thile relates. “I think it’s so important for us to keep in mind that that’s what everyone is trying to do,”

This is the first Punch Brothers album in which the band serves as the sole producer (acclaimed Americana producer T Bone Burnett produced their last album, 2015’s stunning Phosphorescent Blues), and it’s a sign of the growing confidence and maturity that many bands seem to grow into around the responsibilities of bringing a child into the world. “We’re not young men anymore, we’re just men,” Thile offers.

The Punch Brothers are in a unique position, because they’re arguably the most successful and popular bluegrass band currently performing, but bluegrass popularity doesn’t bring much mainstream success, especially in coastal areas. Sure, there are diehard fans, but for being as talented as they are, their skill vastly outweighs their recognition. There’s also a stark divide between the people that traditionally consume bluegrass music and the men in the Punch Brothers. This is red-state music made by liberal men. This is something Thile is interested in on All Ashore, trying to find some sort of common ground between the world he occupies and the others he occupies it with. “There’s stuff on this record that’s both very close to home and very, very far from home, but it all comes from this place of trying to figure it out, trying to come to terms with what’s going on both personally and globally,” Thile says.

With all of the change in the lives of these men, as well as the world around them, this is still very much a Punch Brothers record. It’s a bluegrass album, but to label this quartet as anything at all is severely limiting. They’re just the Punch Brothers, a great band figuring out how to exist in a decidedly not great era.

Below, Thile talks to Billboard about running away from politics, being in a band full of parents, and the limitations of being called a bluegrass band.