Music  |  Features

Nickel Creek

A Mandolin With No Country

August 1, 2005  |  12:00am
Nickel Creek

Bluegrass’s red-headbanging stepchild leaves the crotchety purists even farther behind, teaming up with Smash Mouth producer Eric Valentine to record a harder-rocking (but still drumless) alterna-pop record. Paste catches up with the band at its beloved L.A. home venue, Largo, and around the kitchen table of its bachelor crashpad. Wine and cheese, anyone?

It’s Tuesday night in West Hollywood and the six-foot bunny rabbit on stage looks depressed. Not quite suicidal, but easily down in the dumps. Slouching on his drum stool behind a lonely snare, saucer-like eyes red and unblinking, he sniffs out catharsis in a quasi-elementary rat-a-tat drum figure while blistering techno beats pour out of the club’s speakers. He occasionally reaches down and presses a pedal on the floor, twists a few knobs, alters the supplementary track and returns to his own pounding. A miniature keyboard nearby loops a sequence of chiming melodies, topping off an already dizzying sonic collage—a psychedelic rabbit hole we in the audience gladly tumble down.

This is just the opening act, granted, but I still have a hard time believing there’s bluegrass (however pop-infused) on the menu this evening. Then again, it’s my first time catching a show at Largo, a trendy Fairfax Avenue music venue that cares not for pigeons nor the constricting holes in which they dwell. The club books its fair share of acoustic singer/songwriters but—likely inspired by the ubiquitous presence of mad-pop-scientist Jon Brion (producer behind soundtracks like Magnolia and I Heart Huckabees), who enjoys a weekly Friday-night residence—artistic exploration and inter-genre collaboration are encouraged.

Our friend in the bunny suit eventually plods backstage holding his drumsticks, making way for the most recent installment of The Watkins Family Hour, a semi-regular Largo gig that Sara and Sean Watkins (two-thirds of celebrated newgrass trio, Nickel Creek) have been playing for a couple years now. The sibling pair takes the stage with a host of friends; only “family” in the musical sense but no less close, having played numerous shows together over the past several years.

If these relatively young bluegrass musicians don’t mind sharing a bill with an experimental electronic artist, they care even less about trying to look the typical bluegrass part. Sara’s fellow fiddler tonight, Gabe Witcher, sports a neatly coifed Mohawk and his dobro-shredding brother Michael wears glasses and has a wallet chain snaking into his back pocket. No one’s wearing cowboy boots.

Despite the absence of the Watkins’ usual partner-in-croon, mandolin guru Chris Thile—who has a gig with Jon Brion here Saturday night and won’t arrive in L.A. for a few more days—it becomes readily apparent why Nickel Creek has inadvertently rankled many of the bluegrass purists among its fanbase. Tonight the Watkins are just as likely to cover Radiohead (a convincing rendition of “Nice Dream,” though much airier due to Sara’s lead vocals), as they are a 1920s Tin Pan Alley tune.

Rigid bluegrass tradition is the sacred cow being mischievously tipped this evening, as the musicians onstage lovingly reinvent pop songs both old and new to fit their unapologetically elastic template. It all comes down to a wildly inclusive love of music, and there’s plenty of room for diversity with this bunch. When Jackson Browne hops on stage later in the set to join in for a few songs, the mob of twentysomethings falls right into sync with the moppy-haired L.A. luminary. Fiddle, dobro, acoustic guitar—it’s all just rock ’n’ roll, and it takes all kinds.

Fast forward to Saturday. It’s almost midnight and Chris Thile’s sitting in the passenger seat of my rental car, sweating profusely, running one hand through his spiky shock of blond hair, and stringing words together the way he typically plucks notes on his mandolin—absurdly fast, with unrelenting forward motion.

He’s buzzing for good reason. The show that just wrapped up went swimmingly. The crowd gobbled up his cover of The Strokes’ “Alone, Together.” He nailed all four movements of the Bach Sonata in A minor, despite copious disclaimers beforehand (“If I break into a fiddle tune halfway through, just go with me, OK?”). He whipped the room into a frenzy with a song he’d written about how girls, after they’ve finished ripping out your heart, should be obligated to set you up with one of their friends. But he had no problem dialing the gravity back up with Dylan’s “Masters of War.” And the tunes sounded so full, so big, that you constantly forgot he was coaxing them from the unassuming eight-stringed instrument dangling across his chest.

So we’re pulling out of the parking lot behind Largo and Thile’s going off about how he can’t wait to break out the wine and cheese he picked up on a recent tour stop in France. Without pausing for breath, he launches into an abbreviated history of the Rhone Valley and how he feels its wineries are criminally underrated. And this isn’t some Pinot-sipping fad he picked up amidst all the Sideways hoopla; Thile is the type of person whose enthusiasm compels him to pursue all interests to the aficionado level. It’s this singular level of sustained fascination that’s allowed him to achieve a near-peerless plateau in his mandolin playing at such a young age.

The road is surprisingly deserted for a Saturday night as we follow Sara’s red Mini Cooper down Fairfax toward the band’s L.A. apartment, which (conveniently) isn’t more than five minutes from Largo.

As I’ll soon find out, the members of Nickel Creek call many places home. Sean’s got a house in Carlsbad; Sara, an attached apartment at their parents’ home in San Diego. Originally from Southern California, Thile now lives up the coast in San Francisco. And then there are the band’s two different homes in L.A.—the cozy little club we just left and the apartment we’re pulling up to now, which is set about 100 yards off the road at the end of a long, narrow driveway.

Stepping through the front door into the living room, I’m reminded of every bachelor pad apartment I frequented during college. A ready-for-crashing futon stretches out along the near wall. The room accommodates a large bean-bag chair, about six or seven heavy-duty touring instrument cases which fill an entire corner and a 15-inch television sitting atop a pair of empty wine crates, CDs and empty jewel cases haphazardly piled beside it. The décor is minimal—a Nickel Creek tour poster beside the kitchen entrance and a large rectangular black frame above the TV showcasing an almost-blank ream of white paper; you don’t notice the handwritten “BEATLES” in the lower-right-hand corner until you step in closer.

In the kitchen, softly glowing white Christmas lights have been threaded along the counter and window. While Thile lights a few candles and prepares the wine-and-cheese spread on the kitchen table, Sean cooks a hot dog on the stovetop, spears it with a fork and savors each bite with a squirt of gourmet mustard.

Hmmm.... French wine and cheese. Pan-seared hot dog.

These three musicians welcome the incongruence. Even though their childhood years—filled with devoted practice, frequent touring and interaction with adult instructors/performers—forced them to grow up mercilessly fast, the lack of a rigid 9-to-5 job and frequent late-night performances requires a healthy tolerance for frivolity.

Settling in around the table with the band—Sara and Thile just 24 years old, Sean 28—it’s hard to believe they’ve already been performing together 16 years. In that amount of time most bands have already formed, broken up, cut their VH1 Behind the Music, appeared in a FOX reality show where several washed-up celebrities cohabitate in some quirky location (a convenience store?), and re-formed to take one last retirement-funding lap around the world. But Nickel Creek just kept doing its thing.

“We went through a lot of stuff when we were really young,” Sara explains. “I don’t know that we ever thought of breaking up. It’s more like, ‘I’m 12 and this really sucks. They’re being really mean and rude, but this is what I do so I guess we’ll just go play basketball now.’ Sometimes it would last longer than that, but [playing music] is just what we did.”

Thile chimes in: “I think we worked through a lot of stuff that kills bands when we were nine.”

Nickel Creek’s story is as long and winding as the latter half of its name suggests. The Watkins met Thile in 1989 when their respective parents began carting them to a weekly bluegrass show at That Pizza Place in Carlsbad, Calif. They began taking lessons from the same instructor, and it wasn’t long before the trio was born. They began playing shows around San Diego and the odd summer-festival date.

As music became a bigger and bigger part of their lives, some adjustments had to be made. By the mid ’90s, all three were being home-schooled to accommodate the band’s touring schedule. “The school wasn’t really cool with us missing the first two weeks of school and the last week of school,” recalls Sara, “just because there were some really great festivals back east.”

But the years of hard work paid off. In 1998 Sugar Hill Records (who’d released Thile’s first solo album four years earlier) signed the band and Alison Krauss agreed to produce their first national release, the self-titled Nickel Creek. That record, released in 2000, has sold nearly a million copies and its 2002 follow-up, This Side, went gold and netted the band a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category.

Even though Nickel Creek’s style traces its roots to the bluegrass music on which its members grew up (and still love deeply), each new album further underlined the group’s unwillingness to sit around and rehash all-too-familiar bluegrass formulas. They’d already evolved musically and didn’t care much how easily their music fit into a particular radio format. In case there was any question, This Side featured a jaunty cover of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger.” Not exactly a Merlefest chestnut.

But Nickel Creek could cover Cannibal Corpse and people would continue bandying about the “bluegrass” label because of (1) the band’s traditional acoustic instrumentation—mandolin, fiddle and guitar, and (2) its one-degree separation from the “Kevin Bacon” of bluegrass music: Alison Krauss, who produced Nickel Creek’s first two Sugar Hill releases.

The band’s newest album, Why Should The Fire Die?, strays into even more unclassifiable territory and features a new producer, Eric Valentine (Smash Mouth, Third Eye Blind, Joe Satriani). Working with someone coming from such a markedly different musical background proved to be just what the band needed to explore the aggressive potential realized in its live performances.

“I think it resulted in a more congruent project overall,” says Sara. “Everything works, meshes together really well. Because we went at songs without having to worry about dodging cries of being a bluegrass band.”

“We were just trying to figure out what we do best,” Sean adds. “And then just going for it and not caring about the ramifications.”

The band reminisces on one particular story from the recording process that signified its course into grittier sonic territory.

Sean: “I’d been borrowing this guitar from Tony [Berg], our other producer, but he took it back to his house over one of the breaks. And he was recording for somebody else so he had to change the strings for that. Anyway, when it came back, it had these new strings and it was bright and shiny-sounding and it had none of the original character.

“So we were playing around with it and Eric said, ‘We need to figure out how to make these strings sound dead. Hmm … greasy fingers, rust, dirt … OK, take those strings off.’ So I took the strings off and he takes them into the kitchen, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Buttering them up!’ He took a stick of butter and rubbed it all over the strings. I watched him do it. And then took it out in the alleyway, got a bunch of dirt and just rubbed dirt on the strings for like 10 minutes.”

Sara: “Like soot, alleyway soot.”

Sean: “Just nasty. So then he said, ‘Put ’em back on.’ So I put them back on, I’m playing guitar and my hands were black from all the junk. It was just disgusting but they were still sounding bright; we still couldn’t kill them. So I ended up having to call Jon Brion, who’s really into cold, dead-sounding guitars, and borrow one from him.”

Chris: “Before this experience, we would have strings sound clean and new as possible.”

But this change is also evident in the album’s lyrical content, which ventures into darker, more austere subject matter. The driving opener “When In Rome” contains lyrics like, “Grab a blanket sister we’ll make smoke signals / Bring in some new blood it feels like we’re alone / Grab a blanket brother so we don’t catch cold from one another,” while other songs investigate shattered lives and relationships, infidelity, loneliness and spiritual failing.

“It evolved, you know,” says Sean. “We’re older now and more stuff has happened.”

This sentiment may ring truer for Thile than any other single member of the group. Having just recently endured the agonizing process of finalizing a divorce, it’s difficult to listen to the album without being struck by the raw-nerved emotion in his vocal delivery. Even though he assures me the infidelity alluded to in “Can’t Complain” has no autobiographical basis in his marriage, the demise of the relationship colored other songs on the album, at least emotionally.

“Things started to unravel towards the end of the writing process,” Thile explains. “So it snuck in there on a couple songs. But mostly I think it was more of a performing thing. It was like all of a sudden some of the stuff I’d written in a theoretical way took on a whole new life for me, a bit more urgency. For some of the vocals I felt like, ‘I really need to sing this song now and I need it to sound this way.

“Like ‘Helena’ for example. It was a theoretical song but then we actually sang the vocal and I felt a lot more like that guy. It was interesting to see how that worked. And certainly singing ‘Why Should the Fire Die?’ was intense. But all that’s good.”

It’s about 3 o’clock in the morning, but Nickel Creek’s members are creatures of the night and don’t show any signs of slowing. Sean’s just gotten a text message and is heading out the door to meet a friend for coffee. The rest of us make our way into the living room. Not able to help himself, Thile reaches for a nearby acoustic guitar and cradles it in his lap as he reclines on the futon. Sara opens a nearby case, pulls out her violin and settles back into the beanbag.

Sara asks him what he feels like playing. Thile glances at his watch and says, “Well, it’s now officially Sunday morning, how about some gospel?” Without another word, he eases into a rolling guitar figure. Sara draws out her violin bow and contributes subtle string accents. The Los Angeles night crouches outside the window, eerily quiet—no police sirens, no dogs barking or raucous car stereos. Inside, the pair’s harmonies glide effortlessly along as they sing of a stone being rolled away. It’s a story of hope. It’s the story of a fire dying, only to flicker gently back to life.

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