There is a moment on prog-bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers' most recent full-length album, Who's Feeling Young Now?, when it sounds like mandolin hero Chris Thile has gone off the musical deep end. But Thile, who made his name at a young age fronting the eminently poppy and seminally indispensable newgrass band Nickel Creek, hasn't lost the beat — he's just indulging in a bit of music-school experimentation.
Gabe Witcher, Thile's longtime friend and violinist for the Punch Brothers, says Thile's off-kilter passage from the opening track, "Movement and Location," was the basis for the entire song. In the final product, it's a technically intriguing breakdown, with Thile's mandolin strums landing on the offbeats to bassist Paul Kowert's driving beat. But in the beginning, it was just a quirky scrap that Thile desperately wanted to make into a song. "[Thile] kept trying to do things with it and juxtapose onto it. It was cool, but it was really kind of music-nerdy," Witcher says. "I don't think anyone but us would want to listen to it. So we just kind of stuck it in our back pocket for a long time."
Finally, Witcher says, when the band was wrapping up recording for Who's Feeling Young Now?, guitarist Chris Eldridge asked Thile to bust out the mandolin part for producer Jacquire King. "Play that one thing that you have, the real weird thing," Eldridge said. King loved it, and the band soon anchored the song with guitar and bass parts before adding lead passages for Witcher on violin and Noam Pikelny on banjo.
"We're always searching for something interesting, something that interests us, and something that's new and you haven't heard before," Witcher says. "I think the evolution of the band has been finding the balance between that and making it something that also feels really good, that hits you in the gut and makes you want to move and dance."
Following the Punch Brothers' Spoleto performance, Witcher says the band plans to stick around Charleston for a few days to begin writing the next album. He's not sure what direction the material will take this time, but if the progression of the band's first three albums is any indication, fans can expect to hear high-brow musical concepts made even more palatable than before. "It's like hiding your vegetables inside the meal," Witcher says.
According to Witcher, the band's most music-nerdy song to date was the third movement of "The Blind Leading the Blind," a 40-plus-minute opus from their 2008 debut album Punch. The movement sets up two different rhythmic pulses simultaneously, he explains, creating an effect that music degree holders know as metric modulation. "I like to think of it like a calculus derivation, you know?" Witcher says. "It's this weird process. You put it through this process, and it comes out different on the other side."
You won't hear any drums or electric guitars on a Punch Brothers album, but that's not due to any hidebound notions of bluegrass purism. Witcher says the band just appreciates the versatility of acoustic instruments, and they're not interested in pounding out the rhythm on a drumset. "Drums are like a fascist regime," he says. "Once the drums are in, that's basically all you hear."
Bluegrass is certainly where the Punch Brothers find their roots, though. Banjoist Pikelny got his start in the Zydeco-grass jam band Leftover Salmon, and his solo release Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album this year. And Witcher, like Thile, got his start as a wunderkind on the Southern California bluegrass circuit. Witcher's parents bought him a violin for his fifth birthday, and by the time he was six, he was playing regional gigs with a grown-up band called the Witcher Brothers. He even recalls the first time he met Thile, at a festival where the Witcher Brothers were playing. Witcher estimates he was nine years old, putting the mandolin prodigy Thile at age seven or eight. "The way he tells it is he saw me onstage and said, 'Oh my God, there's another kid that plays this kind of music. I've got to meet him,'" Witcher says.
The band pays its respects to bluegrass godfathers like Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt, but they're not trying to recreate the genre's golden days. "People like Del McCoury can do that, and they kill it, and that's who I want to hear do that," Witcher says. "But most people don't capture it, and I don't think that we capture it — not honestly, anyway." Instead, the Punch Brothers beg and borrow from other genres, often churning out tracks that sound more like the work of a classical composer than a back-porch picker.
Famously, they have also worked out some genre-defying cover songs, from folk-rock songwriter Josh Ritter's "Another New World" to the Strokes' "Reptilia" to Radiohead's electronic masterpiece "Kid A." Recently, Witcher says the band has been playing material from the Beach Boys' psychedelic years. In a way, he says, they're doing the same thing Monroe, Scruggs, and Flatt did. "What's interesting to us is the fact that those guys were creating something new," Witcher says. "They were taking influences from all around, everything they could get their hands on, and jumbled it up into this thing that came out as bluegrass. So that's what we're trying to accomplish."