This feature originally appeared in Songlines #106 (March 2015) p25. Download a pdf here.
The virtuoso bluegrass quintet speak to Alexandra Petropoulos about their new album and human connectivity in a digital age
There’s no arguing that Punch Brothers are the premier alt-bluegrass band. These five string virtuosos – Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass) – are well-known for their jaw-dropping virtuosity, for always delivering excellent live shows and for their intelligent mix of genres. They also create beautiful, cerebral music; music that asks you to stop in the midst of your hustle and bustle.
I don’t mean ‘cerebral music’ of the exhausting type, something you have to devote time to in order to understand; and understanding still doesn’t mean you’ll like it. No, the music on Punch Brothers’ latest album, The Phosphorescent Blues, is as enjoyable as always, but when you allow yourself time to become lost in its sonic world, you will be vastly rewarded. “Musically speaking, we set out to create a world that the five of us could inhabit together but also invited other people to come and hang out with us,” Thile explains. “All five of us are very interested in the idea of micro-creation, the idea of constructing little worlds for people to roam around in, the way a great novel does.” And indeed the album is full of expansive soundscapes and ideas that coax the listeners into connecting with the music.
That connection was precisely the aim of the album. “The record revolves around connection in a time when it’s very easy to take being connected for granted,” Thile continues. “We feel connected, but to what extent are we really connected to one another?” But he is quick to add, “it’s not an indictment of technology, it’s more about just pondering where we are right now. What are we going to do now that it’s not essential that we physically be together to connect with each other?”
The album has captured the band musically pondering these questions, but they are very clear that it is just an aural reflection, free from righteousness and preaching. “We’re just as guilty of this stuff as anyone,” Witcher admits. “We’d get in these long conversations while writing the music and we realised that if we can’t come to any conclusions, we certainly can’t tell anyone else how to do it. But what we can do is create these stories about how it feels to connect like this; these little vignettes.”
Dutifully each track tells an individual story of human connectivity. Opener ‘Familiarity’ is an epic ten-minute piece that drifts through pained moods and is almost three stories in one. ‘Julep’, which Thile explains, is “the fantasy of deep connection… hoping yourself into a deep connection by imagining it vividly enough to make it so.” Conversely the apathetic narrator in ‘I Blew it Off’ actively avoids connection. While each track is an individual vignette in its own right, the thread of connectivity keeps them all, well… connected.
“I want to feel like there is a life to be lived inside a piece of music,” Thile says. “So if you’re going to make a record you should present people with a world that they can go live in that has the vitality and interest of our world.” And if ever a band delivers, it’s Punch Brothers.