punch line

punch brothersThe first thing to be stressed is that The Punch Brothers is a band.

Well, above that, actually, is the fact its members aren’t really brothers, except in spirit. But we also need to understand that, despite mandolinist Chris Thile’s initiative in bringing this new generation pack of progressively minded, bluegrass bred string players together, The Punch Brothers is not some fleeting project or pick up unit the now-former member of Nickel Creek has chosen to spearhead.

“The band is definitely a band,” Thile said. “It’s not my band. It’s our band.”

Admittedly, though, it took a big slab of Thile music and two other ensemble names to get The Punch Brothers off the ground.

It all began with a four-movement piece titled The Blind Leaving the Blind. Then came a Thile solo album called How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which offered a mix of traditional, contemporary and altogether disassociated bluegrass styles. The ensemble Thile organized to bring this new string music to life was formally dubbed The How to Grow a Band following the album’s release in the fall of 2006. The group became The Tensions Mountain Boys this time last year and premiered The Blind Leaving the Blind at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall. 

Now we have the Thile opus on a record along with four shorter, group-composed pieces that maintain bluegrass instrumentation but leave string music tradition behind in favor of classical, jazz and New Grass-style inspiration. The record is aptly called Punch. And the band? Well, it was now The Punch Brothers, of course.

“The new record revolves around The Blind Leaving the Blind,” Thile admitted. “But that’s actually the result of how we came together. I called everybody and asked them if they wanted to be involved with this project – a project that, at the time, consisted of only recording this one piece which was already long enough to be its own record. But once we realized how special this group of musicians was, we figured out we should be doing this music full time.”

Of course, that initially meant getting a performance grasp of The Blind Leaving the Blind. On its few scattered vocal segments, all of which are sung by Thile, Nickel Creek’s wistful, almost poppish melancholy emerges. Aside from that, though, the stylistic barriers fall fast. There are organizational traits of a string quartet in terms of tonality and tempo, areas of dizzying instrumental runs that would shame the most practiced of bluegrass pickers and a jazz-like sensibility, especially in the bass work of Greg Garrison, that opens the music up.

The Punch Brothers now have enough of a handle on the piece that it can be performed, in its entirety, as part of the band’s current stage repertoire. But getting it that way wasn’t easy.

“At first, this music was so difficult and so foreign to us,” said Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny, who has previously forged new compositional ideas out of string band sounds as a former member of Leftover Salmon (as was Garrison) and The John Cowan Band. “There were just some really, really challenging things in the piece.

“Maybe we were all just getting caught up in our own parts for awhile, because it seemed like any progress at all was a victory. Of course, we were forgetting that we still had to put it all together as an ensemble and play the piece as music and not just a series of technical challenges.

“So people would ask us after they heard the piece at a show, ‘How did you guys memorize all that? How do you keep all that music in your head?’ And my response was, ‘Because this piece has been part of our lives for the past three years.'”

Thile gave a laugh at the remark – not one that insinuated Pikelny’s reflection was at all inaccurate, though. No, Thile was in solemn agreement that The Blind Leaving the Blind, a composition in part inspired by his 2004 divorce, was devilishly difficult to get into performance shape.

“But it’s finally been tamed,” Thile said. “Not that it’s perfect night in and night out. But I think we’re making music out of it now rather than just pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Maybe it’s my own experience with it, since I’m not just trying to hold life and limb together while I’m playing it anymore, but I think it’s easier for audiences to listen to now – especially since it’s easier for us to present.”

There also has been be a simple logistical reason why life as a Punch Brother is a slightly more relaxed ride than life as a Tensions Mountain Boy or a How to Grow a Band member. Specifically, when the group first convened, Thile was just getting ready to launch a year-long farewell show with Nickel Creek (which played the Singletary Center last fall). Similarly, Pikelny was wrapping up dates with Cowan while guitarist Chris Etheridge was finishing commitments to the award-winning bluegrass troupe The Infamous Stringdusters.

While there will continue to be outside projects to juggle – such as, in Thile’s case, an upcoming duo album with bassist Edgar Meyer – the driver’s seat of these five active string music careers now belong to The Punch Brothers.

“I had so much on my plate there for a couple of years,” Thile said. “I was trying to get this band off on the right foot while trying to do right by my bandmates in Nickel Creek. It was a stressful time. But this is so worthwhile.

“You always want to be in a situation where you’re making music with likeminded people who are all in a similar place just as far their lives are concerned. I feel like we’re in that place right now. So it’s time to go to work.” 

The Punch Brothers perform at 7:30 p.m. March 26 at the Singletary Center for the Arts. Tickets are $22 (University of Kentucky students, faculty and staff) and $25 (public). Call (859) 257-4929.

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