Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile and Gabe Witcher Unpack the Inspiration Behind Their Music and Latest Album ‘All Ashore’
A band like no other, progressive bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers excavate long-lost sounds and retrofit them for the modern world with a singular vision and compelling craft. Their songs display technical virtuosity, and ring with passionate immediacy, striking a rare balance between the cerebral and the instinctive. The band has self-produced their latest record, “All Ashore,” making it possibly their most thoroughly realized work to date. The album explores the anxieties of committed relationships in an uncertain age, with a lyricism that is, at once, deeply personal and broadly relatable.
Singer and mandolinist Chris Thile and fiddler Gabe Witcher spoke with Entertainment Voice to dive into their latest album, unpack the subject matter, explore the group’s songwriting process and share musings on the world at large.
Sometimes, when a bygone style of music is revived, the excavated sound brings with it a certain romance, a certain energy, a different pace of living — a bit like time travel. Without thinking about it too much, what is the feeling that your signature strain of music generally triggers in you?
Chris: One thing I would hasten to say is that this is just the music that we make. I’ve been playing the mandolin since I was five years old, listening consciously, studiously, since I was two, and for Gabbers it’s about the same. He started playing the fiddle when he was four. So there’s nothing throwbackey about it for me. It’s just, kind of, my life. I listen to everything, and certainly hear all of the options as being equally viable. I guess electronic instruments are newer because electricity is newer, but acoustic instruments have never really fallen out of favor. For me, nostalgia doesn’t really play a part in the creative process. With certain songs of hundred year old traditions, I’ll maybe get images in my head of people before the motor car, and cleaner air, simpler times, but that’s not really what Punch Brothers is about.
Gabe: For us, this music has been our life since as long as we can remember. We didn’t start somewhere else, and venture into this as some, sort of, nod to bygone eras. This music is, to us, thoroughly modern and forward-thinking.
How did you both come to begin playing instruments at such a young age?
Gabe: Parents. We were interested in music, and it happened to be something that was around and family-friendly, and something that we gravitated naturally towards.
Chris: I know I was begging my parents for a mandolin since I was two, and they finally relented when I was five.
Gabe: And they always provided supplementary energy, but they weren’t steering the ship. You hear about young musicians, and you think about tennis parents, like, “Practice!” My parents weren’t like that. They were trying to get a read on how serious I was, and they were equally serious. They’s remind me to practice, and I’d be like, “Oh, right,” and next thing you know, the whole evening would be gone, and I’d be sitting in my own little dreamland.
One quality of your music that often draws attention is that it’s extraordinarily intricate, yet also always seems heartfelt and primal, unlike a lot of music that seems to, say, lose its soul in technical drivel. How do you manage the balance?
Chris: I do think it’s something really important to us that we feel something from our music. The band has evolved. I think early on, we were excited about everything we could do.
Gabe: When we finally got everyone together, it was the feeling of, “Oh my god, any one of these guys could do anything anyone asks them to do, and we could do it together and make a coherent sound.” There was an excitement of, like, “Let’s take this puppy out for a test drive, and see what we can do.”
Chris: Just pedal to the metal, and everything pretty ornate and elaborate, and maybe not always totally connected to the heart, to the gut, but maybe rather a little more to the mind. It’s sort of, maybe, an intellectual hedonism. But now, the collective ability is treated like a tool in a toolbox. Our aim is to transport and enable. I think art should enable the creative instinct in the people that encounter it. When you fill up all the space, there’s no room for anyone else’s imagination. Sometimes, with the five of us, we’re guilty of just taking all the space, and not really leaving a lot of room for the listener. Now, there’s so much beauty in the space.
Gabe: Also, technical prowess should only be used as a means for deeper expression. If it’s used as an end in of itself, you’re left with little more than a parlor trick, especially now that we’ve gotten to the point where machines can play something “perfectly.” I don’t want anything we make to sound hard (laughs,) like we really have to try to play this stuff. If it is intricate, and if there’s a lot to it, it has to be toward an artistic end. At the end of the day, you should feel transported.
This is the first album that Punch Brothers produced yourself. How did the choice to take creative control end up influencing the final sound and nature of the record?
Gabe: We always maintained creative control, and the role of a producer, to us, is helping us realize our own vision. We’ve never had anyone dictate anything, creatively or musically, to us. Our first producer, Steve Epstein, produced classical records, and our next producer, Jon Brion, is a man who wears many hats, everyone from Fiona Apple to Kanye. And T-bone is obviously unparalleled in his world. Having learned from all those folks, we felt like we had tools and the vision, on this record, to know what we want, and go in there and get it.
The new album’s first song, “All Ashore,” has the lyrics, “Momma cuts through the morning like a man-of-war / Daddy burns through diversions like a meteor,” which convey the idea of getting caught in the grind, and living mechanically, whereas the last song, “Like It’s Going Out of Style” has the lyrics, “I love you like it’s going out of style.” Is the importance of slowing down to appreciate one another a theme of the album? And if so, what led you to explore this theme?
Chris: Yeah, I think there’s unprecedented franzy in our lives, just the speed of life. And there’s also so much fear, and we’re unprecedentedly unsure about the context in which we’re living right now, as a society. The record keeps toggling between micro and macro focus. Both Gabe and I, for instance, are newish fathers, so there’s a whole new set of considerations since our last batch of material. There’s the work of being in love and staying in love. There’s the work of shepherding a new preacher through a particularly stressful period in our nation’s and our world’s history. And then, there’s the modern malaise — I know everyone in Punch Brothers has it — which is just, “produce, produce, produce.” You must be productive. You’ve got to do stuff. People just expect so much of themselves these days, and give themselves so little time to realize those goals. For instance, social media is a time drain. I think most people feel it’s a necessary evil at this point. I’m not sure how much pleasure most people take in it. It’s forced socializing. (Laughs) I remember, growing up, the importance of being seen in church on Sundays — not social obligations, but actual professional obligations like, “Oh that guy’s got a shop. Maybe I should shop there.” And people use social media like that. They use it a lot like church, this kind of semi-autonomous way to interact with your fellow man, and, kind of, go like, “Hey, I’m here. See, I’m doing stuff. I’m being productive.” Meanwhile, you don’t have any time left, and so when you are in the midst of that, you’re doing that to the exclusion of everything else. It’s all tricky, and especially now, with how concerned everyone is with the direction in which the world is headed.
The song “Angel of Doubt” is a real lyrical standout, with tons of detailed, vivid material crammed into it. Please expand on the idea of this song.
Chris: If “All Ashore” introduces a lot of the topics that are going to be discussed, that one really dives. It’s almost like the camera really zooms into this very specific struggle that that character is going through. There are multiple perspectives, this kind of temter/temptress, and the guy is, sort of, in a cold sweat, before he drifts off to sleep, about all the choices. Basically, with everything I’ve done up to this point, what if I’ve made the wrong choices at every fork in the road? This time around, I feel like the lyrics were more collaborative.
Gabe: Yeah, absolutely. To that end, “Angel of Doubt” was probably the most complete lyric. When I heard it for the first time, I was like, “Oh yeah, I can absolutely relate to that.” We’re going through the same phases in our lives, and working through the same issues and problems.
Chris: Everyone I know in a young family situation is trying to figure out how to balance everything. And late at night, I don’t know a single person that doesn’t lie awake and wonder if they’re getting it all right.
You’ve mentioned that the present political climate was a factor in the lyrical theme of your new record. The song “Jumbo” has the lyrics, “‘Cause we’ve just about had our fill / Of wondering what is and isn’t rigged.” You seem to have really put your finger on a thought going through people’s minds with this lyric. With everything seemingly so contrived and convoluted, and everyone seeming like a shill for a cascade of other shills, have you had any luck figuring out what exactly is rigged?
Chris: (Laughs) Well, of course we have our suspicions. And that song is not delivered from our perspective, I think pretty obviously. We almost always descend into one of the conversations in which we’re just trying to figure out what the hell people are thinking, and so, writing a song like “Jumbo” is, kind of, a tongue-in-cheek way of getting inside the other side’s perspective.
Gabe: Yeah, a way of discussing and touchin on a subject in a way that can spark some conversation, but it’s not dictating right and wrong, a la the way Randy Newman would approach that kind of song. There’s a song called “Rednecks.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it, but you should listen to it. By the time you get through the first verse, you’re going to be like, “Oh shit!” and by the time you get through the end verse, you’re like, “Ohhhh shit!” He completely turns around, and it makes you think. You think he’s saying one thing, and he is saying it, but he’s also saying another thing. By the end, you’re like, “Ok, everyone needs to step back and think about what the hell is going on.” And he also approaches it from the perspective of a character. It’s not him. There’s this whole meta thing, and it’s a really powerful way of approaching these kinds of things in song form. It’s entertaining and illuminating, and it makes you feel something and think about something. And that’s what we were hoping to do.
What’s the process by which your songs usually come together? What typically comes first, and what kind of sequence is there, if any?
Gabe: It’s kind of a unique process for every song, really.
Chris: I think if you’re rigid about your process, and about what an idea goes through to get realized, that’s where writers’ block stems from. I think there, kind of, need to be as many processes as there are ideas for songs. I think sometimes writers’ block stems from basically trying to put a square peg in a round hole, as far as process is concerned. I have this feeling that a song’s development is uniquely encoded. You have to, kind of, scientifically get in there and see how it wants to develop itself, how it wants to evolve.
Gabe: If an idea is interesting and unique, it will have the code to expanding it built into what that little nugget is, and it’s our job to figure that out.
Chris: Kind of go into Sherlock Holmes mode, trying to figure out what the thing is, where it comes from, and where it’s headed.
What do you feel about the current state of music, specifically about the trend toward minimalism? Do you ever feel as if it’s incumbent upon you to reverse the trend, and come through as preservers of culture?
Chris: (Laughs) You know, one thing I think is that there’s always been a whole lot of dumb music in the world. In fact, there’s always been more dumb music than good music, and I think the reason it’s easy to get worried or nervous about the state of music in the present day is that the music that we remember from the days of yore is all the very best stuff.
Gabe: We haven’t had the luxury of time melting that stuff away yet.
Chris: Exactly. I think in fifty years’ time, we’ll be having the same thought of, “Oh my god, pop music is in such horrible shape, and don’t you wish it could just be like the 2010s again?” And we’ll call out what seems like an endless amount of brilliant music being made in this time, the same way that we can call out an endless amount of music from the 1960s or before. Time is the best critic and the best arbiter of taste. It ultimately knows what’s good, for the most part. And don’t think I don’t join you in your occasional periods of utter despondence about the state of current music, but if I think about all the stuff being made right now that I love, it’s a lot of stuff. And I’m only one person, and I’ve discovered what I’ve discovered. It’s easy to look back to a magical period, like when The Beatles were constantly at the top of the charts, but if you listened to a lof the other stuff coming out then, it was not very good. There were a couple things that happened that were great, and they were popular, and there’s a bunch of stuff now that’s great and real popular — and I actually don’t think it’s less either. We’re so aware of everything going on right now. And if we had been this aware, in the ‘60s, of everything going on, we probably would have added our voices to the multitudes, saying, “Music has never been in a worse state than it’s in right now.”
Gabe: To answer the other part of your question, I think the greatest benefit we receive from not playing commercial music is the fact that we don’t have to play by those rules of radio or any of that stuff, and it allows us to do the thing that we want to do. We’re like, “Fuck it, let’s do it,” because we’re not going to be on the radio anyway. It’s liberating to be able to write what we want to write, and go as far out as we want to go, and know we’re not cutting our leg off all of a sudden by doing so. If Mumford & Sons chose, suddenly, to do a twenty-minute instrumental jam, it would come across like in Spinal Tab, but we can do that, no problem.
Chris: (Laughs) Our lack of relative success is very freeing. Mainstream radio may be getting less and less adventurous, but then also, consider that one of the biggest acts in the entire world right now is Kendrick Lamar, and that is pretty complicated music.
Gabe: Yeah, and as adventurous as it gets.
Chris: And radio doesn’t seem to be having a really hard time playing that. I think there’s always hope, and that we never discount the ultimate preference for quality. What we, as musicians, all have is a mandate to think originally. We have to not be repeating ourselves. We have to not be regurgitating our influences, and we have to not go for the easy connection. We have to not be satisfied with meeting our audience’s expectations, but we have to aim to exceed them, which can occasionally be perceived as not meeting expectations, and we have to be okay with that.
What’s one artist you listen to that might really surprise fans?
Gabe: Well, the obvious answer is Kendrick Lamar, but a deeper answer is a band called Breastfist.
Chris: I’ve been loving this Swedish instrumental trio called Väsen. I think they’re incredible. I’m really excited about what our colleagues I’m With Her are doing. That’s a really amazing trio of musicians. I’ve been devouring the Benjamin Britten opera recently, “Peter Grimes.” It’s a piece of music that has really captured my imagination.
Your band name, “Punch Brothers,” comes from Mark Twain’s “A Literary Nightmare,” in which the narrator finds himself overwhelmed by an infectious jingle, and needs to to pass it on to someone else, in order to free himself of its hold. Richard Dawkins referred to this same story when coining the term “Meme,” which has become commonplace in our language today. What do you think about “memes?”
Gabe: (Laughs) Memes, as the original definition that Dawkins intended, a nugget of cultural information that is passed from person to person, and down through generations, and evolves over time — yeah, I mean that’s what the entirety of human culture is built upon. But what it’s been narrowly defined as in pop culture, I think its as ridiculous as anything else (laughs) — sometimes funny, usually a waste of time. Yeah man, memes. Right on.
Chris: (Laughs) Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Finally, what can fans expect from your upcoming tour?
Chris: Oh, we’re really happy to have this new music to play, and we’re proud of it. It’s so much fun every time you add a new movement to the discography. Of course, everyone’s free to develop their own opinion, if they care to, about this music in respect to our other music, but we feel like we’ve taken a leap forward. What we tried to do versus our perception of what we actually did, I think, has never been more similar, in our own estimation of things. We had a more clear idea of what we wanted to do this time around than ever before. I think it’s just always exciting. For me, any band that I love, I always make sure and check in with them live during a record cycle to see, how does the new material play ball with the old material? That’s always fascinating to me, even in our own band (laughs.) Because we don’t know. We’re not sure until we start playing the set.
Gabe: Writing and making the record is only half the process, and the other half is performing it in front of people, and doing it night in and night out. Only then can you really assess what it is you’ve got.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Chris, Yeah, everyone should feel free to bring Tiki paraphernalia to the show (laughs.) I don’t want to burden my bandmates with the title obsession, but I am totally obsessed with Tiki culture, and it definitely plays a role on the new record. Both the instrumental numbers are titled after great Tiki drinks. It’s a theme running through. If anyone has any Tiki paraphernalia that they’d like to donate to our stage setup, they should feel free to bring it, and we will start incorporating it that very night if they bring it early enough.