Noam Pikelny is a young banjo player making waves in bluegrass circles. He is part of Chris Thile’s How To Grow A Band who will soon become string quintet the Tensions Mountain Boys. Noam spoke to us at Sore Fingers Week where he was teaching.
This was Noam’s first time in England, and he certainly seemed to enjoy it. He got the hang of the Sore Fingers concept quickly, not just teaching in class but socialising and jamming in the bar in the evenings as well. This way of running camps, where the focus is on the social aspects as well as teaching is “starting to catch on, but is still a fairly new thing” in the States, he says. He compares the week to the Augusta camps in Virginia which were the original inspiration for Sore Fingers. Noam has attended as a student and, like the British equivalent, Augusta has one or two teachers for each instrument and encourages socialising amongst the students and similar activities such as forming scratch bands.
He says that Sore Fingers is “a gold mine for students to be around other musicians. Talking with students, some people live in areas where there are no teachers or other musicians that they can jam with. In the States in most towns or cities you could find a couple of people or some teachers.”
He believes the standard of playing in the UK is first rate. “People here are just as capable if not more so than the students and players in the States,” he says, adding that if he was asked to return, “I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Noam’s current project is Chris Thile’s new band. Comprised of Thile on mandolin, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Greg Garrison on bass and Noam on banjo they have gigged for the past year or so as the “How to Grow a Band”. Bryan Sutton has guested on guitar when Eldridge was playing with the Infamous Stringdusters. Their debut recording How to Grow a Woman From The Ground was released last September to critical acclaim and combines a traditional bluegrass feel with more progressive ideas. However, the plan for the band was never to be a bluegrass group but in fact a classical ensemble.
“Chris wanted to write a string quintet, a piece for the five bluegrass instruments and voice,” Noam says. The band got together through existing friendships. “Chris has known Gabe for years and me and Chris got introduced a couple of years ago at Telluride,” explains Noam. “I introduced Greg to Chris, and I knew Chris Eldrige very well from Nashville and festivals.”
The band clicked from the first moment they all played together. “We had the chance to all jam together and a light-bulb went off in Chris’ head – ‘here’s guys who could actually bring this music to fruition and play some of my ideas’. Not to suggest we’re the only people who could do it, but I think Chris had a feeling that we had the potential to do it. We were also his age and so could be there – just spend a month rehearsing.” he continues. “The likes of Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck and Mike Marshall are very established musicians and wouldn’t have the time to do it. He already had some ideas for the piece in his head and once we started jamming together he started writing out the piece with us in mind and us playing it.”
The music is not strictly classical but is “striking a marriage between folk music and formal music. He’s got into it mostly by working with Edgar Meyer – he’s started studying composition with Edgar and he’s really taken Chris under his wing.”
Chris is also relying on the other band members to contribute through improvisation and their own understanding of the music. “He could write a melody for us that we take and apply on our instrument in a way that’s idiomatic. For example, he would write a slow moving melody or something he could sing or hum to you. Then you have to take it and play it on your instrument and play it like a banjo player would play it, not just play the same melody,” he explains. “That’s combined with stuff that’s really highly composed and orchestrated – he’ll send us a score for the music and essentially it reads like a string quintet. There’s sections where he’s written out for two whole minutes every 16th note that you have to play and there’ll be sections where it has chords just like a bluegrass chord chart and it says ‘improvise’ or ‘roll’ or ‘play back-up’.”
However, it soon became clear that the band would not be able to launch straight into this new project. They met to record a demo of the first part that Chris had composed. “He didn’t have the piece finished, and we had really intense rehearsals for two weeks on 10 minutes of music just to see if we could do it,” says Noam. Unfortunately, those initial recordings did not go to plan and “we realised that we should play some simpler music together to help get to know each other. That’s where the idea for the How to Grow a Band came from.”
As the How to Grow A Band they have performed and recorded as a bluegrass band, but over the next few months the classical piece will be added to their set. However, they will continue to play other music as part of the show. “Tensions Mountain Boys will not be a strict classical ensemble,” he explains. “The piece is about 45 minutes, it’s in 4 movements and it is called The Blind Leaving the Blind. That will be half of the show and the other half will be a collection of songs – bluegrass and some original, some fiddle tunes.”
The Blind Leaving the Blind will become the main focus for the group later this year. “It became clear that this is what we wanted to do full time so we had to figure out how to make that a reality,” he says. “Later this year, late fall, it will be transitioning into a full time band. It’ll be running on all cylinders by January.” When they recorded the first CD the whole band stayed at Chris’ one bedroom apartment in New York which was not an ideal situation. This time the whole group will be moving to Chicago to devote all their energies to the music. “We will become the Tensions Mountain Boys once we have the piece recorded and we start touring with it as part of the show. The plan is to record it in September and it should come out in January next year.”
“We got to play it for the first time as a whole piece in New York at Carnegie Hall in March” he says proudly, saying that this was a “very stressful place to play for the first time.”
Asked about the band name, Noam says they were destined to become the Tensions Mountain Boys from the start. “All these events kept happening – everything kept going down with an extreme amount of stress and tension,” he says. “For example, when we were trying to make the first recording just as a demo we were working on it for two weeks, and three or four days and nights of trying to record it. It was about two in the morning on the last night in the studio and we all thought ‘we still don’t have it’. We were really stressed that it hadn’t been done and the tension was mounting!”
Such events were not restricted to the music and Noam recalls a moment when things nearly went very wrong. “Chris and Gabe bought some candles to put on the floor of the room we were working in. Being musicians they’d never unwrapped a candle before and didn’t realise you had to take the paper wrapper off. So they lit these candles and put them down on the floor then late that night we were going back into the room and there were the candles in flames sitting on the end of an oriental rug with tassles. Another two minutes and the whole rug would have been on fire and we would have burned down the place. At that point we thought ‘we really are the Tensions Mountain Boys, we really have to call ourselves that!'”
Similar bad luck has plagued them ever since. “When we tried to get to New York for the gig at Carnegie Hall our flights were cancelled due to bad weather and there was no way to get there,” he says. “We flew to Baltimore and tried to drive to New York which is usually a 3 hour drive and it took us 11 hours with all the snow. We were not enjoying it and we thought we had picked the right band name.”
They will almost definitely be coming to the UK to tour. “Chris loves coming here and he almost feels that the audience here understands him better in some ways. He’s always had a great response here with Nickel Creek.” In fact, the band almost made it across the Atlantic earlier this year. “He was so excited about bringing this ensemble here that he almost tried to fly the whole band over for the BBC Folk Awards show but we couldn’t do it because of scheduling. But it’ll happen sooner or later – it’s part of the plan.”