Punch Brothers: Looking Past the Mirror

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

“I’m just really sick of being cryptic about the impetus of things,” says Chris Thile, mandolin virtuoso and frontman for the head-turning progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers. He speaks with infectious zeal, his tongue moving faster than his brain—as if his ideas are racing through his head at light speed. His band’s stunning third studio album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, digs deep into Thile’s bruised psyche—into his failed relationships, his childhood dreams, and his overall frustration with the technology and “self-absorption” that plagues modern life and distracts us from making real connections with each other.

Thile, now 31 years old, talks—a lot—about these grand conceptual ideas, and just about anything else that crosses his mind. He and his bandmates are prepping for a Baton Rouge gig, one of the first stops on their current headlining tour, and the multi-talented Thile is already in showman mode: He laughs heartily (and frequently). When asked about the vocals on his band’s funky new track “Hundred Dollars,” he responds by erupting into an extended chorus, singing in an intimate falsetto. His words spill out almost in a stream-of-conscious whirlwind, and he’s clearly not afraid to put himself on display—but every ounce of his boyish enthusiasm is genuine: Though the Baton Rogue show is several hours away, one wonders if Thile can even wait that long to start playing—or if he’ll eventually launch into an impromptu performance on a street corner in front of the venue.

If you’ve seen Punch Brothers (or Thile’s former band, the prodigious Nickel Creek) in a live setting, you know the man’s fingers work as fast as his mouth: His mandolin playing is enviably impeccable, flourishes of notes drawing as much from classical and prog as traditional bluegrass. And when it comes to writing songs, whether it’s for Punch Brothers or one of his other side projects (including the eclectic Goat Rodeo Sessions album, which features cello legend Yo-Yo Ma), Thile works at a similarly unrelenting speed, with a tsunami of ideas endlessly flowing and spilling into each other. With Who’s Feeling Young Now?, he can’t even remember when the original seeds were sewn.

“It’s impossible to pinpoint a time because I start thinking about my next project the day I’m done editing the last one. The day I’m putting finishing touches on the last one, it’s already suggesting new stuff. I’m having ideas for our next record now. So that’s kind of how it goes—it’s just a continual process.” And it’s likely that Thile’s manic pace influenced the simmering intensity on Who’s Feeling Young Now?

“This is urgent material,” Thile says. “These characters are going through some frustrating, ambiguous times. A lot of these characters are at their wits’ end, and they aren’t acting well under pressure.” Some tracks reflect that ominous ambiguity: Spine-chilling lead single “Movement and Location” casts a spooky prog glow, with Paul Kowert’s thundering double-bass pulsing under sweeping fills from Noam Pikelny’s repetitive banjo and Gabe Witcher’s ghostly fiddle. And the lyrics are representative of the album’s larger themes, even if they sprouted from a humorous source:

“My favorite bar in New York City is called Milk and Honey, a great cocktail bar. I was there one night, and one of the bartenders there, Sam Ross, is a big baseball fan—we’re both big baseball fans. And we were talking about Greg Maddux, and how ‘movement and location’ in pitching is just everything. And I started thinking about how ‘movement and location’ is very important, no matter what you do. I started thinking about it in terms of how manic our lifestyles are these days and how managing our time and our activities well is so essential to happiness and being able to function with other people. The first little verse there is talking about Greg Maddux. That night when I came back from the bar, I just started writing that lyric, almost stream-of-consciousness style. It ended up being about focusing on how that kind of thing can just sort of help you interact with people.”

The spellbinding ballad “Clara” (Thile’s personal favorite track on the album) is about as personal as songs get, originating both from vivid childhood memories and a recent failed relationship.

“That song kind of slid out of me. The name ‘Clara’ is significant in my life. When I was an adolescent and started thinking about my place in the world as an adult and growing up, I knew I would have an eventually new outlook on things and eventually meet someone and have a kid. In my mind, I was like, ‘If I have a daughter, I want to name her Clara.’ And that was from the Clara from The Nutcracker—when I was a little kid, like eight or seven years old or whatever, watching that Baryshnikov special on PBS, I thought Clara was the most beautiful little girl in the whole world. That always stuck with me, and Robert Schumann’s wife was named Clara, and she was an incredible classical virtuoso, as famous as Franz Liszt or as Paganini in that time. So I thought that was cool, and there was Clara Bow, the original siren. I didn’t know much about her until much later. But since I was little, I always thought if I had a daughter, I would call her Clara.

“And there was one of those things, an unrequited love situation, this past summer—and I realized I was just projecting all of my hopes and dreams onto this girl, and the reason I was so into her was that I was kinda checking my own dreams out. I think we all do that. And again, that’s another one of these themes on the record—that we have to rail against self-absorption in our climate with these fuckin’ phones that just turn us in on ourselves. We’re all just sitting there…naval gazing. It’s basically like the phone is causing you to bend down and check out your own goddamn belly button. We’re subjecting the people we care about to that kind of thing, and they’re doing the same thing to us. You’re basically never in a relationship with someone else; you’re only in a relationship with yourself. We have to rail against that. I’m the worst—I’m the absolute worst at that. I needed to write about that.

“And talking about Clara,” Thile continues, “I’m basically imagining or dreaming up this young family with this love interest, and there’s Clara. ‘Go back to sleep, my daughter / Go back to sleep, my wife; I’m waiting for you there’: That’s just having dreamed that situation up, and the dude wakes up still pining away for this woman. It’s this lullaby that I see in the song. It’s like this weird sort of observation, but at the end, it all comes back to the ‘Your eyes are not a window’ [lyric]. It’s like that saying, ‘Your eyes are a window to the soul.’ Right now, everyone’s eyes are just a mirror. And in this case, I just loved the idea of someone’s eyes being a one-way mirror. In this case, I felt like this girl could see right through me, like ‘You’re only into me because you’re into yourself; you can see yourself in me and this life you could have.’ That whole ‘Your eyes are not a window / They’re a one-way mirror to my soul.” I’m just trying to put names on these feelings that I think a lot of people are experiencing right now as a result of how selfish a culture we live in. We’re just confused—we don’t know how to interact with people we care about anymore.”

It’s all heady stuff, to be sure—perfect for intense introspection or a heartbroken dissolution into sound, armed with a lyrics sheet, a box of old photographs and a well-worn handkerchief. But for all of Thile’s lyrical ambitions, The Punch Brothers are, first and foremost, top-notch instrumentalists and Thile himself keeps the project commercially viable with his smooth, effortless tenor. For Who’s Feeling Young Now?, The Punch Brothers worked with Grammy-winning producer Jacquire King, veteran for mega-artists like Kings of Leon, Norah Jones and Modest Mouse. With that in mind, doubters might accuse The Punch Brothers of selling out—of following trends or striking while the iron’s hot. But Who’s Feeling Young Now? isn’t always easy listening: Even at their most playful (“Hundred Dollars,” the hooky, funny “Don’t Get Married Without Me”), these guys never take the obvious path. Though they’re all virtuosos on their respective instruments, they also never overplay, instead letting the songs themselves and the studio dictate the songs’ paths and enhance their ambiguities.

“I think just that classic ‘couple mics up, get the band in a nice room’ wasn’t going to match the intensity with which we were playing the instruments this time. We wanted the studio to interact with us a little more, like we interact with ourselves. Jacquire perfectly understood that and really took part in the music-making process in a way that, to me, is just ideal for a producer. We’ve got the music stuff largely taken care of, but he provides such perspective and helps us not get carried away in overanalyzing things or just squeezing the life out of it.

“Everything in our lives is encouraging us to turn inward,” Thile says, “with all the technology that we have available to us.” They’ve made an inward album in some respects—one that slowly simmers and gently sneaks up on you, one that knocks you on your ass before you’ve realized it. Though the material is highly personal, Thile emphasizes it was made for everyone. “Music should never be a dictatorship. It should be a symbiotic relationship between the musician and the audience. The boys and I, on the record, are really trying to convey the importance of a sense of community and of turning outward, looking to other people for support and being ready to support other people.”