Chris Thile: Life Is a Variety Show

With a new Punch Brothers album, a radio show to host and a young son to raise, Thile has a lot to talk about.

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Chris Thile: Life Is a Variety Show

When Chris Thile walks out on stage at the Atlanta Fox Theatre to welcome his audience to the taping of Live From Here, the successor to Garrison Keillor’s long-running A Prairie Home Companion, he arrives to the mic without much in the way of a prepared statement. “This is where we stare into each other’s eyes for a minute and eight seconds,” he says with a nervous laugh.

There’s a looseness to his stage presence that’s very different from the sober gravitas of his predecessor, known for his wry storytelling about the colorful denizens of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average. But when the countdown finishes and the red “ON AIR” light comes on behind the stage noting that we are now broadcasting to more than 800 radio stations across the country through American Public Media, the music quickly announces that maybe this isn’t your father’s variety show.

The similarities are certainly still there. The band plays mostly acoustic folk instruments, though there’s a distinct youthfulness to its members. The fictional sponsors remain, but in place of Powdermilk Biscuits and Bebop-A-Reebop Rhubarb Pie, one of the folk instrumentals is “brought to you by Fast AF fiddle tunes.” But the biggest difference between the two shows is apparent in the bookings, evidenced by Atlanta guests Father John Misty and Neko Case.

Keillor’s show had begun to occasionally branch out beyond the traditional folk, gospel, country, bluegrass and blues at its core, but in handing the show to Thile, he opened it up to a range of more adventurous acts. And with a host who’s more a musician than storyteller, the musical moments of Live From Here—the birthday celebrations, the weekly original compositions, the local tributes, the instant song requests and the interplay between Chris and his musical guests—are its heart.

Thile released his first solo album at 13, but his career has been marked by a wide-range of collaborations. He’d already put out his first Nickel Creek album with fellow pre-teens Sean and Sarah Watkins the year before, and the trio would go on to record six albums over 21 years, including a Platinum self-titled record in 2000. He’s recorded a pair of albums with legendary mandolinist Mike Marshall; two with multi-genre bassist Edgar Meyer; one with Meyer, Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma; one with his Nickel Creek bandmates and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips; one with jazz great Brad Mehldau; and four albums and two EPs with his bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers—with a fifth on the way this summer.

So a life spent playing different styles with different musicians prepared him greatly for a gig that has him both joining Father John Misty on “I’m Writing a Novel” and playing impromptu covers on the spot at the audience’s suggestion. He seems right at home hosting a radio show he first appeared on at age 15 and has been listening to since birth.

“That’s not an exaggeration,” he tells me the next morning over coffee at Dancing Goats, just down the road from the Fox. “I’ve listened to this show most Saturdays since I was born. And so it formed a lot of my stage presence. How I conduct a performance owes a lot to the way that Garrison conducted those shows.”

But no matter how much every jam session and musical partnership prepared him for this moment, he never imagined that he’d one day be hosting. “Garrison called me and said yeah ‘I think I may be done with the show in the next year, and I think maybe you should be the host,’” he says. “I’d been on the show 10 or 12 times at that point, but there was never like a conversation—‘Chris, did you ever see yourself on radio?’ or like anything that at all. So it was just as surprising to me as it was to anyone who heard about once it happened.”

Ultimately what convinced Thile to take the job was partly due to the opportunity and partly what it would mean for his family. “That blank canvas?” he remembers. “The idea of a two-hour kind of meeting with the country? It’s available to you if you have a radio—not that everyone’s tuning in, but you know, it’s certainly more people than I would ever get to commune with on a regular basis as a touring musician. And then it also coincided with my wife being pregnant. I’m thinking, man, probably a show on Saturday, where I could prep it at home, see my family at night, then go off and do the show. I’d still be gone, but maybe be able to have my cake and eat it, too. Because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to wring that travelling bug out of me.”

Thile hosted as a trial run back in January of 2016 with his Punch Brothers in tow, along with Brandi Carlilie, Ben Folds and Sarah Jarosz—a fairly safe line-up for the regular crowd at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn., except for the surreal and extraordinary humor of comedian Maria Bamford. A week later, Thile stretched his wings covering Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” about police brutality, which didn’t go over with everyone on social media.

“I learned early on in this process that people definitely do not want to hear me rap, which makes me a little bit sad personally because I enjoy it so much,” he says.

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On October 15 of that year, Thile officially took the reins from Keillor. His first episode in charge of A Prairie Home Companion featured Jack White and Lake Street Dive. Since then, he’s had tUnE-yArDs, Courtney Barnett, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Angelique Kidjo, Brad Mehldau, The Shins, The Avett Brothers and Jim James perform on the show. And in the show’s birthday segment in Atlanta, the musical omnivore and his band covers everything from Robert Johnson to Janet Jackson to Irish fiddlers, Josh Homme and Martha Wainwright, approaching it anywhere from faithful interpretation to complete reimagining.

Live From Here gives Thile a different approach to doing the same things that won him a MacArthur Genius Grant back in 2012. “I love music so much,” he says, “it’s like the one thing I’m good at. So if I can help people experience music in a way that I feel is uplifting or has been like a positive force in my life, I can go and play shows for however much it averages out to—1,200 to 1,500 people a night with Punch Brothers, which I love that and that personal face-to-face connection. But it’s also nice to have that more abstract connection with a couple million people on a regular basis where I can work on that idea of music as a necessity of life in the way that food is.”

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A Prairie Home Companion was six-and-a-half years old when Chris Thile was born in Oceanside, Calif. Eight years later, he would meet the Watkins siblings and eventually settle into mandolin as his primary instrument. His parents and Sean and Sarah’s parents all loved bluegrass music and passed that love down to their children. But Chris’s family moved him across the country to Murray, Kentucky, when he was 14.

“I’d listened to bluegrass all my life and got there and like kind of immediately started to pretend I had the accent and stuff,” recalls. “And then this weird separatist streak or this weird desire to be different—because in California, if you’re into bluegrass and you play the mandolin you’re so different. But in Kentucky, if you’re into bluegrass and play the mandolin, it’s kind of like ‘Oh yeah that’s a Kentucky thing to do.’”

It was during his teen years in Kentucky and Nashville that his tastes began to broaden, even as he was winning acclaim from the bluegrass community with Nickel Creek and as a mandolin player. Listening to Béla Fleck helped him discover that his love for the traditional string band could take him in more directions than just bluegrass. “Béla was one of my early non-mandolin heroes,” he says. “He kind of got me thinking like, ‘This is just one instrument but it’s not like the end game. It’s not like you’re a mandolinist; you’re a musician.”

Fleck took him down a jazz path, while another big influence, Edgar Meyer, opened him to the world of classical music. And then came Radiohead.

“I’m just done downplaying how much I love Radiohead and how massive of an influence they are on what I do, because it’s pretty obvious,” he says. “So, there’s no use trying to be cool about it.”

That sense of enthusiasm is clear every week on his show, as he’s constantly in awe of his guests who often return the sentiment. “He sits there and is just extremely delighted,” says pianist and longtime APHC music director Rich Dworsky. “You see him like a kid, with his hands in the air and buckling over like he just doesn’t know how to contain himself. It’s so pleasurable, and I think his mission is to just share that pleasure with the audience. I don’t think that it’s more thought out than that. He’s having fun, and he wants to share that fun with everybody, so it’s pretty cool to sit in the middle of that and watch it go down.”

Dworsky first appeared on APHC in 1980 and has been full-time on the show for 25 years, but he shrugs off his title. “Chris calling me music director at this stage is extremely generous,” he says. “He’s kind of the director and music director and star, plus the primo guest—all wrapped into one.”

When Thile started doing his instant song request at the break each week, he and the band would go backstage, maybe listen to some of the suggestions on iTunes and come up with what Dworsky referred to as a “sloppy cover.” Then they asked themselves, “What are we accomplishing here?”

“We’d lost the feeling of spontaneity,” Dworsky sasy, “like if you were just sitting around a room and somebody said, ‘Hey, remember that old Beatles tune?’ And people would just start doing it off the top of their head with a level of casualness that was missing from trying to prepare it. Luckily, Chris just started to bring his cellphone out on stage and, kind of with the audience cheering in an applause meter to ‘How about this?’ or ‘How about that?’ And when he thought it was a cool idea, we’d just do it. Now, luckily, Chris just has the knowledge of stuff, so he’ll direct us and show us the chords onstage: ‘It starts out in C then you go to the F and then the D minor.’ Then we just play again.”

In Atlanta, this results in an impromptu band rendition of the 1875 orchestral composition “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” but listeners are just as likely to get something from Stevie Wonder or the cantina band in Star Wars.

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Last November, as the #MeToo movement was gaining steam, Minnesota Public Radio cut all business ties with Garrison Keillor after allegations of inappropriate behavior. Keillor owned the rights to the Prairie Home Companion name, forcing Thile’s show to come up with something new. After two episodes of the generic Show with Chris Thile, the name was changed to Live From Here. For Thile, the program had already evolved into something very different from the folksy entity captured in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion movie.

“He’s always been amazing to me and was super available but not super involved in the development of the show after the first spring, leading up to the first season and putting the pieces in place,” Thile says of Keillor. “And then basically he kind of stepped away from it really naturally… When all this went down, which was just completely bewildering, pretty instantly after I heard the news which was the evening before it broke, it just became very clear very quickly that it will not behoove me to think about this at all if I can help it. It’s not going to improve my work. It can only distract me from doing what I can do about this situation, which is just trying to put on a good show. I feel for everyone involved.”

One area that Thile wasn’t as prepared for was the comedy portion of the show. But it was part of what attracted him to A Prairie Home Companion as a listener, and he’s brought in more guest comedians, including Hari Kondabolu, Kevin Nealon and Tig Notaro. “One thing I always loved about being on the show, before it was mine, is how the contrast between spoken word content and music aids both causes and that you laugh for a little bit and then you get some gut wrenching three or four minutes of music,” he says. “There’s something about a variety show, I think, that disarms us as consumers of something. We’re laughing, and there’s this sense of anything goes, anything could happen.”

But while he might not have arrived with much acting experience, he brought in a ringer to help. His wife, Claire Coffee, is an actor known for her roles on West Wing, Franklin & Bash and Grimm and has served as director on several Live From Here episodes and performer in many of the sketches. “It’s been amazing when Claire can actually be there; the whole notch goes up a little bit on the sketch front. I still feel like for me the show works best when all of that stuff is happening.”

“I’m so outside of my expertise as far as far at that’s concerned that I’m a consumer,” he adds. “So, there’s this at least eight minutes of the show where I am in no different situation than anyone listening to the show, I’m just up there like laughing.”

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In 2006, just before Nickel Creek announced an indefinite hiatus, Thile put together a band for his fifth solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground. It consisted of Thile on mandolin, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Chris Eldridge on acoustic guitar, Gabe Witcher on fiddle and Greg Garrison on bass, before Garrison was replaced by Paul Kowert. Everybody sang. The camaraderie of the five men was captured on the documentary How to Grow a Band, and The How to Grow a Band became the Tensions Mountain Boys and eventually Punch Brothers. Thile speaks about the band’s bonds with the same enthusiasm that’s on display in the film.

“Obviously we’re brothers only in name,” he says, “but at this point, they are family. I mean, I got down-right choked up when Pickles got married a couple weeks ago. Now that’s three of us, and certainly it’s all happened on each other’s watch. We’ve been in this band now for 12 years, and—which is crazy, crazy for me—it’s been 12 of the most significant years in terms of personal development for all of us.” Punch Brothers have released four full-length albums since How to Grow a Woman from the Ground with a fifth, All Ashore to be released July 20.

The band hasn’t slowed down his other projects or solo work—he just released a compilation of his original works from Live From Here called Thanks for Listening that captures a year in the life of a fractured and increasingly anxious America. But Punch Brothers seems to be what grounds Thile as he in spins in the dizzying directions of family life, public radio and touring.

“The fact that I’m a fifth of Punch Brothers… that’s lucky for me because I feel like I get to operate in the context of one of the great string bands,” he says, “There’s just not another string band I would rather be in, and i’m just compelled to make music for and with string bands. It’s what I know, and it’s kind of like who I am.”

In the past, the band has worked with A-list producers like Jon Brion and T Bone Burnett, but this is the first Punch Brothers record that the band produced themselves. “I feel like the five of us were pretty locked on to the same vision for this thing so that a producer didn’t even feel necessary or we felt like we could be that five-headed producer,” Thile says. “T Bone Burnett, who produced our last record [2015’s The Phosphorescent Blues] led us to a sonic state of being that we really vibed with. We kind of knew that we wanted to start there sonically, and that takes an enormous amount of pressure off of us. We always had a pretty clear musical vision, but I dont think its ever been as clear as when we went into the studio for this.”

At first, Thile and his bandmates thought it was just going to be a record about escapism. Thile has become enamored with tiki bars as both the ultimate metaphor for escapism and his prefered means to escape. But the release came more in the form of anger, as in the thinly veiled “Jumbo” (“Whoa! Here comes Jumbo with a knife and a tan / And an elephant’s tail for his Instagram / Grown up brave on the fat of the land of the free”), or restlessness, as in “Angel of Doubt” (“Take me away, dear family / I feel like I’m losing the thread / When I’m alone with my vanity / I go back to striving after wind”).

“‘Angel of doubt’ for me,” he says, “it’s those moments in the midst of your life where you’re about to fall asleep and all of your fears, everything that keeps you up at night—what if everything you’re doing is wrong? What if you’ve made all the wrong choices? What if you were never supposed to become a family man and do any of that kind of thing, you were only supposed to do your work and go the tortured artist route? Or what if you were just supposed to be a family man, not be on this hamster wheel and do something awesome when you’re not that awesome? Maybe you’re missing your kids. Maybe you’re a shell of a partner for your significant other and so on and so forth. Those kinds of things when you just lie awake.”

“I feel like I’ve had enough conversations with people that I’m close to,” he adds. “Most everyone I know has the same types of thoughts, and it almost does feel like your mind is under attack from some outside force, and that sort of relates to how we’ve gotten into the situation that we’re in as a country. It’s kind of sneaky, sneaky circular reasoning that doesn’t really hold up and just attacks all of what many of us consider fundamental truths of existence or presets of being a good human being. They’re just under attack all the time. People have the sense of being whispered to all the time.”

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Punch Brothers launch a two-month American tour on July 12, just two weeks after playing the final Live from Here show along with Lake Street Dive and Aoife O’Donovan. Thile is no longer the non-stop road warrior he was in his twenties when he was happiest touring. “But I do still really love it,” he says. “I love getting to check the pulse of the country all over the place, you know? See how people are feeling in Atlanta as opposed with how they feel in New York as opposed with how they feel in Paris. And I really dig that it’s a way to put your work through its paces.”

For now, he’s happy to balance family and the show and the Punch Brothers and whatever other projects tug at the Macarthur fellow. Keillor did his hosting job for four decades, and I ask Thile if he could see himself keeping at this long-term. “I think I can,” he says. “There are still aspects of it that are being tested for me. I think as a person in the world you have to be constantly analyzing the cost and benefit of everything you’re doing. I think there are very laborious aspects of getting something like this off the ground, and there are euphoric aspects of something in its beginning stages, as well. All those things are ramming into each other all the time, and it’s certainly not as simple a life as I’m used to where basically I make music and then I go give it to people. I don’t think there’s much more that I’m supposed to do besides make music. I think so far the show is a good way for me to do that and particularly a good way for me to show people music that I love.”

Thile closes out his Atlanta show with an instrumental duet with Live from Here guitarist and Punch Brother Chris Eldridge. If Thile’s love for his job comes through nearly every minute he’s on stage, he’s downright giddy trading licks with Eldridge on Norman Blake’s “New Chance Blues.” Even after the “ON AIR” light goes off, and he’s alone again with his band and the audience members at the Fox, he keeps the jam session alive for several minutes.

“It’s cathartic at the end of a night like that to be able to do that,” he says. “It’s all fun but the very most important thing to me is to make music for people.”

Josh Jackson is co-founder and editor-in-chief of PasteMagazine.com.

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