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Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile Embraces ‘Relative Incompetence’

Danny Clinch

Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile has the demeanor of a world-class pitcher. While upon the mound of his Brooklyn, N.Y., progressive bluegrass outfit, he clutches his mandolin, fingers across the frets like the stitching of a baseball, waiting to release the heat. The mandolin virtuoso has spent thousands of hours practicing perfection, much like his idol, pitcher Greg Maddux. His entire youth has been documented on tape, from a childhood nabbing trophies at bluegrass competitions to his days in the Grammy-winning Nickel Creek.

In this exclusive interview with our friends at Spinner, Chris talks about the Punch Brothers’ latest album, ‘Who’s Feeling Young Now?,’ which includes a haunting cover of Radiohead‘s ‘Kid A’ among its musical curveballs.

How has age affected your songwriting from the time you were in Nickel Creek to Punch Brothers?

For me, having come of age on record, it comes down to that classic cliché: The more you know, the more you don’t know. And I definitely thought I knew everything when Nickel Creek’s first record came out. I was 17 when we recorded it and 18 when it was released. That music … especially from the first two Nickel Creek records — it just sounds unbearably smug to me. The know-it-all kid in class … it’s hard for me to listen to it.

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Really? Even Pavement‘s ‘Spit on a Stranger’ you put on ‘This Side?’

Oh, particularly that. I’d love to publicly apologize to Pavement for that cover. I mean, we didn’t even get the words right. [laughs] So embarrassing!

I’m 30 now. I was 19 when Nickel Creek recorded that second record, and we finally were starting to work with a bit more humility and awareness, in this huge and powerful and endlessly inspiring arena of music. At 30 years old, I’m newly convinced of my relative incompetence. I’d like to think I write music with a lot more humility and a lot more love. I deeply, deeply love music and am honored to just be a participant.

For bluegrass players, instrumental prowess is so important to the legacy you leave behind. What type of legacy are you building?

I look at mandolin as the one tool I have, that I have some idea how to use. But no more. To me, I’m not interested in pursuing the perfection of mandolin. It’s just that I want to be as handy with that tool as I can. Being good at the mandolin isn’t interesting in and of itself. Being good at music is very interesting to me.

We have a tremendous amount of respect for our predecessors on this group of instruments, which is commonly associated with bluegrass, but we’re not interested in being museum curators of their work. Rather, we want them to influence our work. They weren’t debilitatingly beholden to their predecessors, and neither should we.

‘Movement and Location’ is just stunning. From the repetitive nature of the banjo to long notes you sing over the top. What do you see when you close your eyes?

That song is about Greg Maddux. And it’s also obtusely about the impact that seemingly disparate elements have on each other. Like, for me, I’ve always garnered an intense amount of inspiration from sports. Greg Maddux, to me, is one of the great artists of our time. And Federer, even though he may be in his decline, I’ve probably had more hours practicing fueled by watching Roger Federer rather than even watching great mandolinists.

We have to ask. How’s the love life now?

It’s real good. I’m dating a really wonderful girl by the name of Claire [Coffee]. She is a sweet, sweet girl. We have a good thing going. A lot of mutual respect. And she’s very patient. I’m afraid I take anyone’s patience that’s around me for too long.

Read the complete interview with Chris Thile at Spinner.

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