It might seem kind of unlikely for a guy from the North Shore of Chicago to become a world-class banjo player, but that’s exactly what Noam Pikelny did. After taking up plucking at age 10, he took lessons at Old Town School Of Folk Music, started jamming with people much older than him, and joined a few bands. Flash forward a few years, and he’s been nominated for a Grammy for his work with Punch Brothers, and has just recently been awarded the Steve Martin (yeah, that Steve Martin) Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass. Not too bad for a kid from Skokie, Illinois.
The A.V. Club caught up with Pikelny to talk about this weekend’s Grammy Awards, his start in the Chicago bluegrass scene, and what Mr. Steve Martin’s really like.
The A.V. Club: First, how did you get started in banjo? Chicago’s not a real big bluegrass hub.
Noam Pikelny: That’s true. Most people would expect that I came from North Carolina or Nashville, but there was quite a good scene in Chicago, really. It’s a good community to get involved with.
Really, how I started is that my brother heard a bluegrass band at his school as part of this rotating “arts in the schools” program they had there. They were called The Buck Stove And Range Company, and he fell in love with the mandolin and started taking lessons from a teacher in Evanston. For two years, my mom and I would drop my brother off at his lesson, and then I would go play catch at the park. Eventually, I started to get jealous of him, so when I was around 9, my mom said I could learn another string instrument, and suggested banjo because she thought maybe we could play together.
So, anyway, I started taking lessons at the Old Town School Of Folk Music, and back then—I don’t know if they still have this—they had this thing, Mr. Coffeehouse, on Friday nights. It was a huge jam-session song circle in the lobby. This is at the old location on Armitage. We used to go every single week, religiously. I just fell in love with the whole scene, and more specifically the banjo. It wasn’t something I knew much about or had loved the sound of before, but I just kept with it.
I started playing old-time banjo, but when I was 10 or 11, I got turned on to Bela Fleck And The Flecktones by an employee at a Coconuts recore store. I just heard this strumming, and this was around the time his first record came out, so, to me, it was just otherworldly hearing these sounds out of a banjo, like all this progressive and jazz music. Before that, all I’d heard was folk music. I couldn’t even understand how his sounds were being made. It was good timing, though, because within the next month The Flecktones were playing at Navy Pier. I needed to go see them so I could see with my own eyes how he was picking. Everyone told me it was this three-finger style like Earl Scruggs, but I didn’t believe it. So, I went with my family, and saw that, yes, indeed, he was playing like Earl Scruggs.
So, anyway, I started taking bluegrass lessons, and I really fell in love with that traditional bluegrass banjo, even though it was the Flecktones record that really convinced me to start learning that style.
AVC: Do you and your brother still play together?
NP: My brother still plays a little bit of mandolin and some bouzouki, but he doesn’t play professionally. We did play together, as my mom hoped, when we were younger. We did one performance together when I was 10, at Old Town. They gave us a slot together, and we went up and did a song called “Spanish Fandango.”
Actually, there was a journalist in the audience that night writing a piece about Old Town for some Chicago magazine, and that was one of the concerts they covered. We were referred to in the press as the Spanish Fandango Brothers. I regret that we didn’t go pro right at that moment. That name really broadcasts success.
AVC: It’s never too late.
NP: Yes! The Spanish Fandango Brothers reunion tour. Maybe we could play the Vic.
AVC: I’m sure Old Town would be glad to have you.
NP: That’s not big enough. Spanish Fandango Brothers are huge. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them …
AVC: Seriously, though, it’s kind of amazing that your parents were so committed to driving you all over town when you were 10 and playing a banjo.
NP: It was kind of a perfect situation with them being so encouraging, but you also have to not gloss over the fact that this may not have happened without that arts in the schools program. If my brother wasn’t subjected to that bluegrass band ... it changed his life, and it changed my life. Not to say that it never would have happened, but my parents weren’t really bluegrass fans. My dad had played some guitar in college, but he wasn’t into bluegrass. Then, all of the sudden, he has these kids who are interested in bluegrass, and for him, it was really exciting because it was an outlet for him to get involved in music again. He would bring a guitar to those Old Town jam sessions until I told him he couldn’t play anymore because he was ruining it.
Oh, so, I stopped taking lessons at Old Town when I was in my sophomore year in high school, and started taking lessons from Greg Cahill, who’s this incredible banjo player in Chicago’s only really national bluegrass band, Special Consensus. He got me hooked up with the first band I ever played with, and they were out of Valparaiso, Indiana. They were called Lora Hebert And The Hoosier Prairie Band. We had rehearsals every Sunday in Valparaiso or Chesterton, Indiana, and my dad would drive me every week, which was a real commitment.
Our first gig was absolutely ridiculous. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and it was supposed to be at the Porter County Park Festival. So, my dad went to synagogue in the morning, and came back to pick me up, and we drove to the fairgrounds. It turns out it was actually the Porter County Pork Festival, which was highly entertaining to me, though I’m not sure how my dad felt about it at first. He was definitely the only person there who’d been in a synagogue five hours earlier.
AVC: Now, you’ve just recently won the inaugural Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass. Can you talk a little about that? What are you going to do with the $50,000 in prize money?
NP: I’m still trying to determine what I want to do with the prize money. I might start my own banjo award. It would be good publicity. I could give it to Steve Martin, hopefully on a late-night TV show. I mean, I got such good press out of this whole thing, and I got to go on Letterman and everything. So if I could somehow stay involved with the process, and give it back to him, ideally on a different late-night show, and then maybe he could give it back to me again on another. I guess at some point, though, I’ll probably just have to spend it on a sports car.
AVC: Or a gold-plated banjo ...
NP: Or a sports car with a banjo painted on it. You know, something tasteful.
AVC: Had you met Steve Martin before this whole process?
NP: Last year was just the craziest year for us. We did get to go out on the road and open shows for Steve Martin. We’d met him in L.A., playing a concert with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra almost a year ago. He and his wife came out to see the band, and they invited us over for lunch and to play music. It was so nice, and we got to meet Eric Idle. We even played songs of his, which was really special.
AVC: You’re nominated for two Grammys this year. Are you going? Are you excited?
NP: We’re actually not going. We have a gig that night somewhere that was on the calendar long before we were nominated.
It is our first nomination as the Punch Brothers, but four-fifths of us played on the Chris Thile record a few years back, and this song “[The] Eleventh Reel” was nominated for that record. We lost to Bryan Sutton, who we were actually touring with at the time, and we found out at a gig in Burlington, Vermont that he’d beaten us.
It’s kind of funny circumstances this time around because the song we’re nominated for [in the country instrumental performance category] isn’t on our actual album. We made a late-night decision to record a Norman Blake bluegrass standard in like 20 minutes, and just do a couple passes at it, and it didn’t fit on our record. We ended up using it as an Amazon exclusive track. We should have known that the most surefire path to commercial success would be to record a cover of an obscure Normal Blake instrumental. Now it all rolls in.
Actually, the other Grammy nomination we have, that’s for a U2 cover of “Pride” we did with Dierks Bentley and Del McCoury, which we’re really proud of, but, again, it’s just weird. It was fun to hear Del belt out that Bono part, though.
Oh, so we’re trying to think of who we can get to accept our award on our behalf. A lot of people on our shortlist aren’t able to go to L.A., but I’ve really been pushing for [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarek to accept on our behalf. It’s good publicity, right? He would at least be somewhat in exile if he accepted our award—at least conceptual exile, considering it’s a country instrumental record. It’s just an ideal. It’s not politically motivated. We just need someone there just in case.
AVC: What about Steve Martin?
NP: He’s too controversial. Mubarek would be better.
AVC: You’re working on a new solo record, yes?
NP: I’ve started gathering more material to do another instrumental record of banjo music, yeah. It’s been five years since the last one. I really feel like it’s time. I mean, I need another album out just to redeem myself from the cover art of the last one. If anything, if there’s any real reason to get a project out there, it’s to make sure that the most currently available record doesn’t feature a picture of you playing a banjo in the forest.
Even if this new album doesn’t come out, I might just sell new artwork for the old one—maybe stickers people can put on top of the old cover.
We’re also deep into working on new music with the Punch Brothers, and we’re going back in to the studio in July and August to do a new record. That’s the main focus for all of us.
It’s weird, though, because there are still a bunch of places we haven’t played Antifogmatic. It’s confusing because, to a lot of people, it’s still our new record. We played Boston a couple of weeks ago, and it was our first time through on that record, but to us, some of the music on there we’ve had for almost two years now. We’re just eager to be working on new things, but that’s always something we have to keep in mind.
AVC: Last question. You guys do these P-Bingo nights in New York where you just play a bunch of random covers. They sound kind of great, though I haven’t been to one. What songs would you want to cover in the future that you haven’t yet?
NP: The thing with P-Bingo is that we have these rules that have made it kind of complicated to put a new show together. We always have to start the show with a cover of a first song off an album that we like. We’d done enough P-Bingos last year that we exhausted the short list of first songs off records that we’d had. So, our last one, we got an idea to do the first track of Sufjan [Stevens]’ Illinoise record, “Concerning UFOs,” something-something-something-long-title. That was a trip to work up with our instrumentation. We’re huge Sufjan fans, and that was the first song that we’ve ever worked up as a band where we’re not all playing on it. The recording just features him, some singers, a piano playing, and all these flutes doing these really fluttery parts. We worked it up so the banjo was doing the piano part, and the bass and violin were doing the fluttery ethereal parts, and then Chris Thile and Chris Eldridge didn’t even play. They just sang.
Who knows, that might be a glimpse of where things are headed? No, that’s not true. There’s plenty of mandolin playing in our future.
We’re doing a bluegrass version of “Paperback Writer,” actually. We’re also covering an incredible band from Sweden, Vasen, this incredible band from Sweden that we worked with on one of their instrumentals. They make original music based on these Swedish folk instrumentals, and I’d highly recommend them to anyone who likes acoustic music. They’re also one of the tallest bands you’ll ever see.
I’m not sure what’s really next for our next P-Bingo. That’s part of the fun. We’re all in this room with our computers playing songs for each other and trying to figure out which covers to do.
One song that we covered for P-Bingo that I think is going to become a part of our set and be on the next record is this song by Josh Ritter, “Another New World,” off his latest record. It’s this story song that’s just gorgeous.
One thing that’s on the list to happen eventually is for me to sing “Bone Machine” by the Pixies, but that hasn’t happened yet. We’ve also made a promise that we’ll debut a new genre at P-Bingo that’s a fusion of our new favorite scenes—gospel and goth rock. It’s called “Gothpel,” and there’s lots going on behind the scenes with that, at least in terms of figuring out how much makeup we should wear.