Chris Thile thinks that he and his band, Punch Brothers, are more than hitting their stride -- he sees a bit of downright swagger these days.
"We kind of suspect now that the music is finally getting to where people hoped it would be," said Thile, on the road from Carefree to Phoenix, Ariz. The band plays at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden on Saturday.
"Especially when one member of a band has a known history, it takes a while for people to accept what they are doing," said Thile, who hit the big time with his former trio Nickel Creek.
"A lot of times, that band has to wade through a bog of preconception that really colors the music in a funny light, versus when you burst on the scene doing whatever it is you do. I think finally, after four or five years of doing it, people are going, 'Oh, wow. I get it now.' That fact is putting a charge in the band. It's causing us to redouble our efforts."
A new challenge
Thile was a child prodigy, making his first album at age 13. He is widely praised as being among the best mandolin players of his generation. He first joined siblings Sara and Sean Watkins in Nickel Creek when they were preteens. The band won a best contemporary folk album Grammy in 2002 for "This Side." The three played a mix of bluegrass, jazz and other styles, making an impact in pop music few bluegrass-based bands ever had.
But after nearly two decades with the Watkinses, Thile admits, things had gotten a bit routine.
"I get bored very easily. You can imagine the level of boredom I achieved after 18 years in the same band -- not that I don't love playing with Nickel Creek, I absolutely do. But inevitably, you get into ruts, doing things over and over again. We got in sort of the control of the machine that was Nickel Creek. At a certain point, I think we kind of lost the creative push -- we no longer found the fire, the momentum."
His new direction became clear when he started playing with the guys that now call themselves Punch Brothers.
"At first, it was just going to be a side project, because I had written this piece, 'The Blind Leaving the Blind.' And then with these guys in mind, I said, "We'll do this tour, and then we'll go back to our normal lives.' But when we started rehearsing the piece, it was so exciting and so challenging. And for me, I thought, 'I want my normal life to be this. I don't want it to be a side project.' "
The band's latest album is "Antifogmatic," which arrived in 2009. The title comes from an old-fashioned cocktail said to have an influence on the weather. The songs on "Antifogmatic" are credited, at least in part, to the collective Punch Brothers.
"They were very quick to catch on to my vision," Thile said, crediting his fellow Punch pals, Chris Eldridge, (guitar), Paul Kowert (bass), Noam Pikelny (banjo), and Gabe Witcher (fiddle).
"What was longer in coming was to establish a mutual vision -- for the band to evolve, it needed those guys to come up with a vision for us as well. They were quick to say, 'I see what you are doing.' But I wanted more than that from them. I have lots of outlets to play my music, and occasionally we will still do that, but that is what we have to offer -- this very unified vision, a collaboration. We have a really great, creative working relationship."
The band mixes together the traditional instruments of bluegrass, but by no means limits itself to the style. All members are versed in several styles -- jazz, classical, folk, rock and more.
"We are all pretty omnivorous so far as music is concerned," Thile said. "When we listen to music, we are listening to 12 notes grouped together in an unusual way that intrigues us -- not so much the aesthetics of the thing. We never go into it saying, 'I want a couple dashes pop, and two parts bluegrass.' Instead, we imagine the way we sort of want something to taste and then are mad scientists experimenting from there on out as to how to put it together."
Thile explains that it's not like they try to fuse unheard-of styles of music just to do it, with no thought to the overt musicality of a piece.
"It can go bad if you do that. Like, I can remember when this place in the East Village that was a Mexican/Tuscan place -- two things that work really well, but not so much together. Don't do that just for the sake of doing it.
"For me, the things that work the best are when it is a really inspired combination of ingredients that makes you hit yourself on the head and say, 'Why didn't I think of that before?' Music works the same way. The boys and I have the challenge of being the ones who actually think of that."
Chris Thile may be best known for his work with Nickel Creek, a band he played with for 18 years, starting when he was a preteen. He put together Punch Brothers to make the 2006 album "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground." The side project soon became his main gig. He named the band after a short story by Mark Twain called "Punch, Brothers, Punch!" The tale is about a meme-like jingle that haunts the protagonist for several days, until he is able to pass the viral verse onto another person.
Paul Kowert is a bassist from Madison, Wis., who graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Kowert has performed with various orchestras as a soloist and a section member. He has played with Edgar Meyer's Carnegie Hall Workshop and recently played in the Verbier Festival Orchestra of Switzerland. He also works in Big Trio with mandolinist Mike Marshall and violinist Alex Hargreaves.
Noam Pikelny -- yes, that's his real name -- is from Chicago. He first picked up the banjo at the age of 8. He studied at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. During high school, he played all over Illinois and Indiana with several traditional bluegrass bands. Pikelny also studied music theory at the University of Illinois. In 2002, he became the principal banjoist of Leftover Salmon and also played with John Cowan before devoting himself to Punch.
Gabe Witcher, from Southern California, started playing at age 5, working on both classical and bluegrass fiddle styles. He went pro with his dad's band at age 6. In his early teens, he joined the The Laurel Canyon Ramblers, and by the time he was 17, he was working in the studio for people like Randy Newman, Bernie Taupin and Don Was. He has since contributed to more than 300 records and countless movie and television scores, including 2006 Oscar winner "Brokeback Mountain." Over the last five years, he has also played progressive acoustic music with Jerry Douglas.
Chris Eldridge plays acoustic guitar, though his first love was the electric version of the instrument. His father was the banjo player for the popular bluegrass band The Seldom Seen. Eldridge was educated at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory, where he earned a degree in music performance in 2004. There, he studied with Tony Rice. Eldridge also helped found the band the Infamous Stringdusters before joining Punch Brothers.