Random Rules: Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers

Random Rules: Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers

The shufflers: Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny, who cover mandolin and banjo duties, respectively, in the progressive-bluegrass outfit Punch Brothers. Singer-composer Thile has been recording on his own and with neo-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek (now on hiatus) since 1993, but the 27-year-old mandolin virtuoso recently teamed up with Pikelny and three other young bluegrass/acoustic-music notables (Gabe Witcher, Chris Eldridge, and Gregg Garrison) to record as Punch Brothers. Their recently released debut, Punch, melds bluegrass instrumentation, jazz improvisation, and classical composition, and features a tour-de-force 40-minute suite in four movements called "The Blind Leaving The Blind." The bandmates took turns shuffling through their iPods, revealing the amalgam of influences packed into Punch.

"Song For A Young Queen (Live)," Punch Brothers [Chris Thile's iPod]

Chris Thile: Uh-oh, this is bad. This is a live recording of us playing a song I wrote when I was like, 17. It's from us playing live at one of our first shows at a place called the Living Room in New York, and I remember we were struggling to come up with a whole set. It was one of the first things we ever did, we were doing it to help pay for the whole trip. We had just started rehearsing "The Blind Leaving The Blind" from our new record. I guess Noam, you had learned some of "Young Queen" from the record, and I think Gabe, our fiddle player, knew it pretty well 'cause he's a big Stuart Duncan fan, who's on the original track. So three of us knew it already, so it was a prime candidate for that set. Sadly, that's what comes up first, I'm embarrassed. [Laughs.]

"Faded Love," Vassar Clements [Noam Pikelny's iPod]

Noam Pikelny: "Faded Love" is one of the most over-overplayed fiddle tunes; I think it might be a Bob Wills composition, and it became a showpiece for almost all violinists. Vassar Clements is a fiddle player who has played with all kinds of people—John Hartford, Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck—and one of the real amazing progressive minds in bluegrass and acoustic music. Probably out of all the musicians that have come through acoustic music, Vassar Clements is the most singular sound. The tone of his fiddle and his phrasing, if you put on his records for one second, it's obvious immediately that it's Vassar Clements. I think this album, I got off iTunes. It was one of those albums they only released digitally, and I picked it up to check it out, and he's really a monster. A lot of people call him the Miles Davis of the fiddle, and we sadly lost him about two years ago to cancer.

"Voltaic Crusher," Of Montreal [Thile's iPod]

CT: This is the second track off Of Montreal's EP that's associated with Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer?, called Icons, Abstract Thee. "Voltaic Crusher," in which he says, "Please, please, please, God, don't be a bastard." [Both laugh.] "She could use someone nice for a change," and I guess he's referring to his lost love, and he hopes next time, she gets someone a little more together than he is. [Laughs.]

The A.V. Club: You seem to find that humorous.

CT: I just love the guy's song titles, and that he'll say things like that. I've tried playing it in the van, to little or no avail. Nobody else really enjoys it. I actually eat a lot of shit for my Of Montreal fanship.

"The Snow Is Dancing," Debussy [Pikelny's iPod]

CT: Oh, that's a good piece.

NP: Yeah, it's an amazing Debussy piano work. A lot of these pieces are very, very famous, and you can't grow up without hearing them. Unfortunately, they're played at a lot of restaurants or even elevators, even though they're some of the most amazing works, the most beautiful pieces of music. There was an album called Perpetual Motion, which was a Béla Fleck classical album produced by Edgar Meyer, and there was a track on there, a kind of rearrangement of a tune from Debussy's Children's Corner called "Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum." I was just blown away, and it's one of my favorite recordings of Béla Fleck, so I started searching into some of these solo piano works. Unbelievable music.

"Nothing, Then/It'll Happen (Studio Mix)," Punch Brothers [Thile's iPod]

CT: This is a mix the boys sent me from New York of the last two songs on our record. We went over our budgeted time and everyone else met in New York to put the finishing touches on the mix, and I was not there and mighty lonesome about it, so the boys sent me the latest versions of the mix. I remember being very happy with this one; I'd imagine it's the final mix.

"Beaumont Rag," Bryan Sutton [Pikelny's iPod]

NP: Bryan Sutton actually played on tour with us for about a year while our current guitarist, Chris Eldridge, was finishing up his duties with his band, The Infamous Stringdusters. Bryan Sutton is kind of the tour-de-force of flatpicking these days. He's pretty much been given the torch from Tony Rice, the previous king of flatpicking, and Bryan Sutton is just an incredible, incredible guitar player, playing with all types of bands. He won a Grammy last year for his album; he actually beat us. We were on tour with him the night we were going up against each other for the best country instrumental Grammy, and he took it; it was a come-from-behind victory, we think.

CT: We pulled up lame, I'm afraid.

"Loomer," My Bloody Valentine [Thile's iPod]

CT: I love the first song on this record [Loveless], which is called "Only Shallow." The rest of it, I could kind of take or leave. I like the overall feeling of the record, but I guess I just feel they're a little too heavy on the subtle use of the whammy bar. I actually mean that in all seriousness, they're not whaling on the whammy bar; they'll be holding the chord and they'll press it just a little bit, and the guy will overdub like, 10, 15 guitars on each of these tracks, and when all of them do that, it sounds like the tape is warped or something. It's a cool sound, but—

NP: Hey man, don't knock it till you've tried it. You gotta get your mandolin outfitted with one of them.

CT: You're absolutely right. I was in an indie-rock record store in Athens, and I said, "All right, tell me what record in here you can't believe I don't have, 'cause I don't have any of them." And they said, "Oh my God, how do you live without My Bloody Valentine?" And I really did like the first song, it just gets old.

AVC: Did you pick up any more My Bloody Valentine after that?

CT: No, I can't say I was compelled to pick up more of their records. I love me some good rock, and I felt like this was pretty good, but this gave me an idea of what it was, and that was all I needed.

"Goldbrickin'," The Del McCoury Band [Pikelny's iPod]

NP: This is a mandolin instrumental written by Ronnie McCoury, and it's a fast number. It's a pretty amazing song. Del McCoury Band is definitely one of the greatest bands out there, period. I'd put them up against a lot of rock bands. They are a bluegrass band, but they really rock, they're incredible. They go onstage and just use a couple of mics and dance around the two of them, they mix themselves, and it's the most amazing playing and singing. And of course the vocals are ridiculously good because they're family members, so they sound almost identical, and the harmonies are incredible.

"Goldberg Variations: Aria," Glen Gould [Thile's iPod]

CT: One of my very favorite things in the world just popped up, Glen Gould playing Bach: The Goldberg Variations. This is the early version, the one he cut when he was 23 years old. It's an absolutely spectacular performance, and the piece of music couldn't really be better.

AVC: Some of Punch's arrangements seem to be influenced by classical music. Were you listening to a lot of classical while you were writing it?

CT: Oh yeah. Most of what I've been listening to lately is classical music, mostly just because I've been having to play catch-up with it. I didn't really grow up with a lot of classical, and I've become obsessed with the whole world of "the great composer." Those guys are my heroes right now, I find them infinitely interesting. And Bach, he's the granddaddy of them all.

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