Chris Thile Talks Strumming Through the Apocalypse With Punch Brothers

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.

What sort of preparation goes into getting ready for a long national tour? With such intricate arrangements, I imagine the full-band rehearsals are quite intense.

There’s a great deal of practicing both individually and communally. We’re trying to figure out a way to make the arrangements stand out on stage, which can be done in a lot of ways. Honestly, that part isn’t terribly interesting to me, it’s just playing the stuff over and over and over and over again. We’re trying to get it so that the music is almost easier to play it than it is to not play it. That’s where we’re hoping to get it to. We’re still at the beginning of the tour, so we’re still hammering the songs every soundcheck. It’s like that Malcolm Gladwell truism: We just need to get our hours in.

Don’t get me wrong, just because I don’t think it’s interesting doesn’t mean I don’t love it. Because I do. Oh my god, I love playing this stuff over and over again. There’s almost an OCD aspect of it. I think you kind of have to be a little obsessive to dig that part, and I think all five of us do, thank god. We’re rehearsers, we like doing that.

We’re all very proud of this batch of songs. Actually, it’s not really a batch of songs. In a way it’s like one big forty-three minute long meditation on committed relationships both romantic and platonic in our current, unprecedentedly politically loaded time; at least in my generation’s life. We’ve been thinking a lot about those things. So I think there’s an aspect of getting these songs in shipshape that’s cathartic, given everything that’s going on, because the record is kind of about everything that’s going on.

Did the state of our world impact your relationships in such a way that you had to think through these ideas musically and find an outlet for the expression of these thoughts? How did relationships become the focal point of All Ashore?

The concepts on this record exist in two layers. These are things we were discussing with each other on the road touring the last record, when we all got together. It’s the conversations that started during the second round, the first was reckoning with these issues and the second is almost an act of escapism. We’ve been thinking a lot about tiki bars lately just because nothing wears its aims on its sleeve like tiki culture does. I find it particularly interesting right now. They’re making a huge resurgence and I think it’s pretty conspicuous that it’s making a resurgence at this time. It was created and then imitated nationally on the heels of the Great Depression and on the heels of World War II. The country was in a bad, bad way, as was the whole world. It’s interesting that tiki culture seems to be coming back right now.

The boys and I would go to these bars, whether it’s the Tiki-Ti in Los Angeles or Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, and lap up American escapism, at first ironically, for me, and then actually with urgency and total sincerity.

You can’t look directly at the sun, so we make these pinhole cameras. Right now, a good tiki bar is like the pinhole camera through which I can finally start thinking about all of this crazy stuff that’s in our world. That’s the macrocosm of everything, with the microcosm being how that’s affecting our relationships. We’re not young men anymore, we’re just men. I have a wife and a little boy, our fiddle player Gabe [Witcher] has a wife and two little boys. Our banjo player [Noam Pikelny] just got married and the other two guys [guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert] are in committed relationships. We’re starting into that kind of a thing.

The work of being in love and trying to do what’s right for your family is deeply affecting us. How do you balance work and love? Are you worried about missing your kid growing up while we’re out touring? Those things come up on All Ashore. On top of that, how does this toxic Nationalism that’s mutating before our eyes, growing stronger and stronger all over the world, where is that coming from? Why are we falling prey to that again, given the lessons the two World Wars taught us? Pride and country, I’m so for it -- I love being here and to be an American. But I’m more proud to be a human being. We are human beings and citizens of the world first and foremost.

It’s interesting that the band has been attracted to tiki bars because I find that resurgence to be a nice parallel to the Punch Brothers -- namely, updating a retro style for a modern age. Is that what gravitated you towards tiki culture?

Huh. I hadn’t even thought about that. You might be right. Certainly the ensemble that we exist within as Punch Brothers is something that… at least the aesthetics are throwback-y. It’s all acoustic, and it’s this ensemble that was developed in the late ’40s. There are some parallels there. While it’s a very real thing, I don’t tend to think much about how we’re a bluegrass band, and our legacy within the context of bluegrass music. I certainly love the bluegrass ensemble, I think it’s a powerful tool, but I don’t think it’s more than a tool. I tend to discount the importance of genre, especially in conversation, because it really does seem to be a question of aesthetics instead of the real core of what’s going on in a given piece of music.

With that being said, are you irked or annoyed with how Punch Brothers are always referred to as a bluegrass band, as opposed to just a band? Bluegrass seems to be a limiting qualifier in that description.

It used to -- it really used to. But now it doesn’t at all, because if someone comes in contact with us and that’s the root they get, who am I to say that they’re wrong?

What has irked me the most in the past, but doesn’t really seem to be happening much anymore, is when people evaluated the band based on the extent to which we accomplished the goals that they had for it given what we looked like. Basically, it was as good as it sounded like what they thought we looked like was supposed to sound like. That was really infuriating for a little while, but we’ve really moved past that.

I think the accomplished music listener is a little less concerned with the aesthetics of things than maybe ever before. Of course, they’ll notice stuff, but they should! It’s a part of the puzzle. Us playing the exact same notes as a band that’s totally electric and programmed and quantized -- by the way, I’m not knocking that at all. A ton of the music I listen to is that. It just happens that what I’m best at wielding, what the five of us are best at...the rock band textures are not the colors on our palette. But we love those colors, and we’re heavily influenced by them. Aesthetics are not nothing, it’s just for me, as a musician, they’re rarely the beating heart. They’re more like the skin and the hair color.

What went into the decision to self-produce this album?

We just knew what we wanted this time around. I think we heard a very distinct sound in our heads. We’ve never been a band that leaned on an outside producer to provide artistic direction. But this time we had an even clearer picture of what we wanted. We were just waiting until what what we heard on the speakers in the studio matched what we heard in our heads.

How has working on Live From Here seeped its way into the album if it has at all?

Oh, it definitely has. For one, the whole concept of Live From Here -- writing a song every week -- was like composition bootcamp. I’ve always considered myself a writer, I love writing. But I have never done it this much. And I love doing it this much. I came into these writing sessions a more confident musician.

It really is an exercise at times. I felt compelled on certain weeks to write about what was going on, and would always analyze the results afterwards to be like, ‘Okay, what stands the test of time in terms of topicality?’ I had some time to see what felt evergreen and what sort of faded in relevance after the fervor I was writing about died down. So I certainly approached this concept that the boys and I have been developing with less fear and trepidation that I otherwise might have. I felt like I could get in there and be topical without being perishable.

With this record, I’ve never written more personally or from perspectives further away. It’s a dichotomy that helps propel the record through its 43 minutes. It’s a striving to understand that works its way into the record, from “All Ashore” into “Angel of Doubt” on the personal side to “The Gardener” and “All Part of the Plan” on the impersonal side -- both people I empathize with and people I have a very difficult time empathizing with. I find that throughline of striving within all of these characters.

Most of the musicians I’ve spoken with from 2016 until now have basically fallen into two categories. On one side, are true escapists, who see music as a way to stop thinking about the world for a bit of time, and on the other, artists who are unable to see a creative path in which they’re not reckoning with these themes. Were you always intent on having a conversation about global politics and nationalism with this record, or did that idea develop more recently?

Interestingly, I’d say that my first instinct was to run from all of this, but also to maybe talk a little bit about the running from it, with that as a way of addressing it. The way we’d express ourselves would be to document our escape efforts. We wouldn’t necessarily talk about the stuff going on explicitly, but more from a periphery or focusing on the symptoms and not the ailments. Increasingly, I just couldn’t stay away from it. The more that the boys and I talked about it, the more it consumed our thoughts. I’ve been alive for 37 years, and this is decidedly the most intense political period I’ve ever experienced.

Hats off to musicians who just want a pure escape. I have a lot of fondness for pure escapism. I don’t feel like it’s irresponsible, I think sometimes you really need to take a breather. I totally understand that. But for us, at a certain point, it wasn’t possible. The art didn’t feel sincere. Both on the micro level, with our personal relationships, and on the macro, getting in there and talking about things more explicitly. It was on our minds and you always have to shape what’s there. That’s what was in my head, and from there, it’s my job to develop those ideas in such a way that they can be of use to people other than myself.