Interview: A conversation with Punch Brothers

Back in 2007, ukbluegrass interviewed Noam Pikelny at Sore Fingers Week. In April 2013, Noam was back at the bluegrass camp along with fellow Punch Brother Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge. Thanks to Trevor Hyett of the BBMA, we were able to have an informal chat with them both.

UKBG: What’s happening with Punch Brothers? Apart from a few festival dates, 2013 looks set to be a year off for the band.

Chris: We were on tour for almost all of last year, and the entire fall of 2011 we were playing pretty much the entire time. And in the four years leading up to that we’ve been working pretty full time, so we just kind of got to a place where we’d finished the album and done all the touring and we felt like we should take a little breather. We’re all a little older now too so…

Noam: …except Paul Kowert. He doesn’t age at all.

Chris: Yeah, he doesn’t age. But we now value our time at home a little more. So that’s one side of it. And the other thing is we want to give ourselves plenty of time to write a record that we can really be excited about rather than just rushing through it like we’ve sort of done in the past.

Noam: Yeah, I think we’ve been touring so non-stop for the last few years that we had to sneak the time in to make the records happen. We’re really happy with how they turned out but there was a sense early on when we first started, that if we had time, we could really create something new with each other and discover some new music too. We had that when we first started when we did The Blind Leaving The Blind and How to Grow A Woman From The Ground.

The music is no less ambitious now but we had more opportunity to let things gestate at that time and I think we want to return a little bit to that kind of situation where we can see each other, work on music, go away and let things evolve, let people internalise things and work on things and not have this sense of meeting a deadline to get a record together.

The only way to do that would be to push a record further and further down the road or decide to tour less. We’d essentially got to every place in the world where we could play this record and most of the cities and towns we’d been fostering since the beginning we’d hit in the last couple of years since we started this tour. So it seemed like a natural time to stop.

Everybody else has projects on the side they want to work on and we have this desire to be home and working on music and come back here with more of a vengeance.

Chris: Having time away from the band and having other projects to work on is a really healthy thing. I’m doing a project with Julian Lage, who’s this really incredible guitarist, and as soon as I got off the road I just started woodshedding – practising 6 or 7 hours a day, which is something I haven’t done since I was in college. It’s been years. And just to have something very different, and very challenging, it’s a way to get really invigorated and really invested in our own personal relationships with music. And hopefully we can bring that back to the collective of the band.

Noam: It’s amazing how strange our lives have become from the constant touring. It really became all-consuming as evidenced by the fact that after we got home for a couple of weeks in February I bumped into Critter and I said, “How are you doing? What’s it like being home?”. And he said, “I’m really enjoying it but it’s really expensive. I spend $50 on food and then four or five days later I have to go buy food again.” And I’m like, “That’s called buying groceries! That’s how life and the world work!”

But we’d been gone for so long, and always on the go, that these normal activities had somehow been erased from our daily routines.

Chris: Yeah, it’s normal, that is normal, that is how it works! I’ve been washing my dishes; I make my bed every morning…it’s domestic bliss. It feels good!

Noam: Soon we’ll be spending a week every six weeks working on music. We are playing some festivals this year and we’re scheduling these little writing retreats around those dates. So the first one is a festival in South Carolina called Spoleto, which is in Charleston and we’ll stay for a week after that and start working on music which will be really exciting.

UKBG: Are you writing everything together now? Because originally it was just Chris Thile.

Noam: Yeah, Chris wrote The Blind Leaving The Blind but on the subsequent albums everything became more collaborative. At this point it really is open for anybody to bring what they want to the table. Chris is still the lyricist of the band and he is the de facto musical leader of the group, but it really does feel like a situation where everybody can contribute material-wise, arranging-wise.

What we do is really determined by the five of us. On some songs the material will lean in one direction towards one of the band members – maybe it was their initial idea. But a lot of the music really incorporates so many ideas from so many different people. They go through so many different interpretations that sometimes we lose track of where it started.

It’s really neat to have a group of guys to bounce things off and work with an idea that maybe you’ve exhausted and you’re not sure what to do with it. That’s what I think is the best part of the band, when you’ve run out of ideas for what to do with something and you can’t see how to connect the dots, you can bring it to the band and this group of fresh ears and we always seem to find a way between the five of us to see something through.

It’s a great situation. It makes it a little intimidating to do stuff without the band after seven years of having this cast and crew there. As you work on solo projects and stuff, without having everyone else in the room, you’re not used that feeling, it’s a little foreign. But it’s a good challenge and I haven’t fully overcome that in the sense that I’m still collaborating and playing with the guys in various ways – Gabe produced my record and I toured with some of the band for my last record….

Chris: Well, I have been fired from the band…

Noam: You quit! He quit from Noam Pikelny and Friends.

Chris: Noam Pikelny and Friends and Me. We had to rename the band.

Noam: Noam Pikelny and Friends…and Chris Eldridge. That’d be good. You told me, I think your words were, “You’re living a lie”. I think that’s what you said to me when I was talking about calling the band Noam Pikelny and Friends. You said “Stop living a lie”.

UKBG: What solo projects will you be working on during your time off?

Noam: I’ve got a few things in the works. I’m touring a few dates with Bryan Sutton, Ronnie McCoury, Luke Bulla and Barry Bales which as a collective is a group that has never played together before. But there are connections within the group; I used to play with Luke Bulla in the John Cowan Band; I played with Bryan Sutton with Chris Thile in the How To Grow A Band when Critter had his Stringdusters duties and Ronnie McCoury we worked with when he oversaw our recording of How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. He’s listed on the record as the “bluegrass guru”. And I’ve always loved Ronnie, he’s one of my favourite players in the world.

Chris: Did you ever come up with a band name?

Noam: We came up with a few different things…we were thinking of calling it The Dixie Crime Syndicate. That got vetoed. My favourite was Equal Billing featuring Noam Pikelny… And in May I’m working on remaking a Kenny Baker album of Bill Monroe tunes…

Chris: …don’t give it away…

Noam: …don’t give it away?

Chris: The title.

Noam: Oh, ok. Well I guess I shouldn’t, but the record’s going to be called Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Gabe Witcher is going to be producing that record with Stuart Duncan, Ronnie McCoury, Bryan Sutton and Mike Bubb playing.

UKBG: Are you going to be playing the Kenny Baker parts?

Noam: Oh yeah, this is going to be my debut as a fiddle player! Yeah, I’m going to be playing fiddle and we’re going to be using it as the soundtrack to the exhibit at MoMA in New York where Tilda Swinton is sleeping in a glass case. And I’ll be playing my fiddle interpretations of Kenny Baker interpreting Bill Monroe…

No, I’ll be playing banjo but with all the intricacies of the fiddle. I’ve just been on a big bluegrass kick over the last year or so on the Punch Brothers tour. Just playing a lot of bluegrass when we’re off the stage and listening to a lot of it. So it seemed like a fun project and something I could do in the short term and get it into the studio sooner rather than later.

Chris: I’ve got this project with Julian Lage coming up. I’m actually flying direct from here to record with him. And we’re going to be doing some touring over the summer. And I’m planning on trying to make a solo record this fall. That’s my plan. And I play a bit with the Seldom Scene when I’ve got free time. I love playing with those guys, but that’s as much about getting to hang out with my dad. It’s kind of a great excuse…

Noam: …I should say, I love my parents as well…

UKBG: Anything else you’d like to say before we finish?

Noam: Sherlock! I’d like to thank the British people for Sherlock.

UKBG: For Sherlock? Is that where you’ve developed the dress sense from? Or is this just a coincidence?

Noam: Oh, the hat? I’m wearing this because it reminds me of the fragility of life. This hat was bought in Salt Lake City and has been on for most days of the last six months of this neverending winter. It was on the Punch Brothers bus and I put it on a halogen lamp. The lamp was off. I woke up the next morning and got my hat and put it on my head and it smelled really funny. And I looked at it and I saw there was a hole in it and all these burn marks. And I said, “What happened to my hat?!” and they said, “Oh yeah, your hat caught on fire this morning.” They didn’t tell me, they waited for me to smell the charred remains of this thing. And so, I decided to not fix it and it’s like a war scar of my time with the Punch Brothers. And that’s the truth.

Chris: That is the truth.

Noam: That’s not a lie.

Many thanks to Noam and Chris for taking the time to speak with us, and special thanks to Trevor Hyett and the BBMA for organising the interview.