A conversation with Frank J. Oteri
October 27, 2008—10:30 a.m.
New York, NY
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Videotaped by Randy Nordschow
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
If it’s difficult to describe the music that Chris Thile has been making since before he reached puberty, that’s just the way he likes it. But even by his standards, the projects he’s gotten involved with in the past couple of years completely confound expectations.
Thile grew up in a household where music was presented to him on a level playing field, and he quickly got interested in all of it—except for classical (which to him sounded too much like “I’m going to talk to you now”) and pop (“the sound of making money”). By the time he started playing mandolin and singing in Nickel Creek (at the age of eight), he had completely absorbed influences ranging from mainstream country and hardcore bluegrass to a wide range of jazz and folk traditions, eventually creating a body of work that was somehow an amalgamation of all of these things. But toward the end of Nickel Creek’s run and in his subsequent solo career, his music has veered into terrains ranging from indie rock and almost full-out pop to classical and perhaps even avant-garde.
Now everything and anything is possible, and Thile voraciously seeks out new sounds from all possible sources. “The last Radiohead record gets listened to with the same filter that I’ve got for Simon Rattle doing Mahler Nine with Berlin,” he exclaimed during an early morning talk we had just before he had to rush out and rehearse with bass legend Edgar Meyer in preparation for the Carnegie Hall debut of their duo. A few days after that performance, I ran into him at the Metropolitan Opera where John Adams’s Doctor Atomic was being staged. “It’s all one thing no matter how different it may sound at first,” Thile explained. “It’s all melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure.”
Frank J. Oteri: Most of the people we talk to for NewMusicBox tend to come out of the tradition of either classical music composition or jazz improvisation. But to a person, they pretty much all hate the words classical and jazz. Ultimately neither of these words says very much about the music.
Chris Thile: None of these words do. They’re arbitrary distinctions that have just sort of been sprayed on all sorts of music by people who know how to make money. It helps them sell things, I guess. But I meet very few accomplished musicians who are excited about putting any sort of a label on what they do. Not because they would love to be un-label-able, but just because it doesn’t really make sense.
FJO: That’s certainly true for the kind of music you do, going back to the very beginning. You were only eight years old when you started in Nickel Creek, but despite the music you were playing, you guys have adamantly said that you were not a bluegrass band.
CT: That’s just self-protection.
FJO: But you did describe the music as bluegrass influenced. So it does beg the question: What is bluegrass?
CT: Well, it depends on who you talk to. The very vocal bluegrass purists would say that it’s Bill Monroe’s band from this certain period. I don’t remember exactly when it is, something like the early ’50s. That’s real bluegrass. And only something that sounds exactly like that should be allowed to call itself bluegrass. I’m sure you find purists of that sort in any corner of the musical world, but I’m most familiar with those because they’ve been harsh with me throughout the years.
FJO: What I find so interesting, though, is that none of those classic early bluegrass bands sound exactly alike. The Stanley Brothers didn’t feature a mandolin, and on and on.
CT: You’re exactly right and, of course, neither was Bill Monroe adhering to any sort of tradition rigidly. So I’m not exactly sure what those sorts of people have to say for themselves when they consider how that music that they love so much came into being. It wasn’t that strict an adherence to what came before.
FJO: In one of Monroe’s early line-ups, before Earl Scruggs joined the group, there was even an accordion in the band for a while.
CT: Yeah. And they had a snare drum at the Opry a couple of times. It’s a matter of taste and the way you exercise that taste. And some people choose, I guess in the literal sense of it, not to exercise their taste, and not to develop it. “I like this right here, and I’d prefer for it not to change at all. This is what I like, and I’m not really interested in ever learning to like other things.” It gets frustrating when people get frustrated with you for not playing by those rules.
But I understand. Every now and then, I’ll get locked into the way musicians that I love sound. And they might put out a record that no longer fulfills that place that I’ve allocated to them. And temporarily—before I come to my senses and go, “Oh wait, that’s what I’m always doing”—I go, “Wow, I just want them to do that thing they did [before]. Oh, it’s so nice. Why are they doing this other thing?” But then I remember it’s because things change.
FJO: For you, it has constantly been about changing and evolving. The different projects that you’ve done since Nickel Creek have been all over the map. But to get back to these definitions—even though I know you don’t like them—when you were describing what bluegrass is, you were talking in terms of what the audience thinks it is. But on one of your records there’s a credit for a bluegrass guru—whatever that means—so you obviously have a sense of wanting to be a part of bluegrass.
CT: The bluegrass guru that you refer to was for How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, which was actually the first record that I put out with Punch Brothers. We had actually begun recording this big long piece that I wrote for them called The Blind Leaving the Blind. We’ve always been intuitive musicians. All five of us are not people who read first and this was all stuff that we were reading. And when we got about half way through that we realized that it had turned almost instantly into a band and not a project of mine. We enjoyed playing together so much and felt like we had something to say as a quintet.
So we cut this record How to Grow a Woman from the Ground which was more bluegrass-y than what I had done for awhile, and the bluegrass guru was Ronnie McCoury of the Del McCoury Band. It wasn’t actually me wanting the project to get any more bluegrass or the boys wanting the project to get any more bluegrass or anything, but just to make sure that we didn’t cut something that sounded like a caricature of bluegrass to a guy who knows about it. And so it was great. Occasionally he was like, “That there’s going too far; that sounds a little silly.”
FJO: So he reined you guys in.
CT: Every now and then. Yeah.
FJO: He told you to stop playing those 13th chords all over the place.
CT: Well no, it wasn’t so much that. I’m a Southern Californian. And then another guy is also from Southern California. Two of the guys are from Chicago. One guy grew up in Virginia; that’s Chris Eldridge whose father, Ben Eldridge, started The Seldom Scene. So he’s got cred; he’s legit, although The Seldom Scene certainly had experienced the slings and arrows of the bluegrass purists. But none of us really come by bluegrass honestly. So if we got something close, something that was pretty straight ahead, sometimes I think we could pop into something that’s like, “Oh yeah, bluegrass time.” And Ronnie McCoury could go, “Actually, you don’t need to go there.” Whether it was a certain kind of mandolin chop, banjo roll, or bass line combination, he’d go, “It’s a little overdone.” Or “This over here is nice.”
FJO: So to take it back to Southern California, what’s a kid from outside of San Diego growing up in the ’90s doing listening to old time music and bluegrass?
CT: The thing about my musical upbringing is that it was so mercurial. (Is that the word I want? I’m not sure if I’m saying it right. I’ve seen it before. I’m home-schooled, so I’ve seen a lot of words, but I haven’t necessarily heard a lot.) It was very difficult to pin down the sort of things I was listening to. My parents had spent tons of time in Southern California which is a melting pot of melting pots. There’s just nothing pure, nothing that really has recognizable roots any more. So the bluegrass that I grew up with was already pretty inundated with everything else, which is just how I related to music and have ever since then. I could really understand most of it, except for classical music and pop music. They seemed like distinctly other kinds of music to me. But all sorts of folk and the jazz thing, and the way people made distinctions in those areas, I just really never could hear. It all kind of sounded about the same to me.
FJO: So what did classical sound like, and what did pop sound like? And why are they not part of this?
CT: To me as a little kid growing up with folk music, classical music, regardless of whether there was singing or not, always sounded like, “Rawwwh, reawwwh, I’m going to talk to you now. Let’s have a conversation.” I’m sure it was just how it was being presented to me: powdered wigs and things. Maybe I also heard early on the sort of learned side of it or that there was a lot of thinking going on. And maybe I wasn’t used to as much thinking. But certainly in the bluegrass that I was listening to—guys like Béla Fleck—there was a lot of thinking going on. But it was just different. There was a wonderful fine arts high school in the little tiny town that I grew up in, and they always had really great shows. My parents tried to take me to some, and I remember just kind of doing impressions of what I thought it sounded like. I would just play nonsense and land on a big note. That was kind of what it sounded like to me.
And then from an early age I just felt like pop music was too big of a club. Even as a little kid I had this desire to do something that was a little different, at least in my perception. Pop music sounded like what I heard went I went to friends’ houses and watched Nickelodeon. We didn’t really have TV in my house, but if I’d go to a friend’s house and turn on the TV, there was pop music on the TV.
It took me awhile to tear down that bias. It was like there was this sort of this music of pure, honest intent. And then there’s this other stuff. There’s this music that’s full of itself. And then there’s this music that’s completely sold out. But I think those were my young perceptions.
FJO: So in your early perceptions, would country or rock be part of pop, or would they be part of this weird, murky middle ground that included everything else?
CT: I would probably put country with the sound of the TV music. But as a young kid, I loved commercial country music. The more streamlined the better, and the happier I was with it. We’d listen to it in the car. I don’t know, maybe it was just that the southern accents helped me out ’cause I’d listened to so much bluegrass. I got it, but there’s nothing I hate more now.
Something I still can’t really deal with is what I would perceive to be the sound of money making, the sound of wanting to make money. That’s a sound that I just can’t get into. Well, actually that’s not true, because there’s Britney Spears’s “Toxic.” That song is the sound of money being made, and by people who really understand how to make money. And they just did it so well. I guess music has to be evaluated based on the extent to which it accomplishes its own goals. “Toxic” was made to make tons of money and it did, and that I can actually really appreciate. I love hearing that song.
FJO: Well, as long as we’re talking about pushing boundaries, in your own work I’m thinking of some of the songs you wrote, like “Can’t Complain” or “Helena” from the Nickel Creek era, which are sort of inching toward country, maybe alt-country. One of them sounds like it is inching toward alt-rock, maybe even pop.
FJO: But then The Blind Leaving the Blind is sort of inching toward classical music. It’s an extended suite; it even has movements. And you said that you had prepared materials for it which everybody was reading from. So clearly those two ends that remained outside that murky middle ground—pop and classical—are both now fair game for you as well.
CT: It’s all one, exactly. It’s all one impenetrable bog. And that’s what I love about music. At this point, I am not evaluating anything that I hear any differently than anything else. So, the last Radiohead record gets listened to with the same filter that I’ve got for Simon Rattle doing Mahler Nine with Berlin. It’s freaking me out right now. This is an unbelievable piece of music. I couldn’t sleep this morning and the last movement of Mahler Nine finally calmed me down enough to be able to sleep again. And I love the last Radiohead record. And I think I love them [both] because the use of melody, harmony, rhythm, and structure appeal to me. But that’s what it all is, whether it’s a Louvin Brothers song or A Love Supreme. It’s all the same stuff. It’s all notes and chords and rhythms and a satisfying sense of structure. There are just lots of different ways to go about that. And I think that none is more valid than any other. Obviously no one gets it right every time. But there are people who get it right a lot of the time, at least the way that I look at it.
Something like “Helena”—I’m glad you bring that up, that’s one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written—and The Blind Leaving the Blind is the thing that I’ve worked the hardest on ever. But it was, again, written with the same starting spot. “Helena” was a character study of me only without any sort of limiter. Like what I thought I was capable of if I just let myself go. I wrote lyrically for a little while having nothing to do with what actually happened, just exploring the possibilities of what it’s like to do what I did. And I’m kind of more interested in what I didn’t do and what could have happened. You know, that alternate reality, which is something that I think music is just so good at portraying. It’s transcendental, and that’s kind of the point.
FJO: You’re talking about the music and the lyrics as though they’re the same thing. Did they happen at the same time?
CT: With “Helena” that was definitely something that happened at the same time. I remember coming up with those chords and that melody and just singing the thing. I didn’t even mean to write it. There was a girl—Helena—that I met backstage at a concert while I was still married. The marriage was seriously dysfunctional at that point, and absolutely nothing happened between me and this girl, but all of a sudden there was just this like, “Wow, you seem really nice.” But it was off limits. No matter how screwed up, this is a committed relationship; can’t go over there. I don’t feel like my way of going about it is necessarily any more defendable than anybody else’s way of going about it. But I realized that if that if I wasn’t the kind of guy that I am, if I was of a different ilk, and I tried that because this is screwed up, the situation would have ended in something letting go to a very harmful extent. So the story evolved very naturally.
The Blind Leaving the Blind is taking that sort of thing, which I suppose is my most natural lyric/music combination songwriting process, and maybe giving it some more overview. It’s far more deliberate. I actually wanted to try and tell the story of my divorce and the aftermath, then the spiritual things that are called into question and then the appreciation for friends and family that it left me, which I think I hadn’t been paying as much attention to because the relationship was so dysfunctional. Musically I think the same sort of thing was happening. I had gotten into 20th-century classical music for the first time, and it stopped sounding like math music to me. I really started to understand that the breaking down of tonality was a logical step that was being taken. I’ve never totally gotten on board with the complete abandonment of it, because it seems like music evolves in a certain way and you need not throw [it all away]. I think Ives said, “I see no reason why I need complete tonality, but I also see no reason why I need complete atonality.” And I think that’s very, very wise. You need all of these things. And I think that’s what Ives was saying. Why can’t we just have all of these things?
FJO: Your tune for “Punch Bowl” is polytonal; it’s probably even more harmonically out there than The Blind Leaving the Blind.
CT: It is in a way. Especially because it sets you up to want something. The structure of Blind sets you up to be less reliant on tonality, even though Blind is totally a tonal piece. There’s no doubt about it. Maybe to a bluegrass fan it sounds real funny. I think bluegrass fans think it has more to do with Schoenberg than it does with Bill Monroe, which is so not the case. But, whatever; it’s fine. Tonality is in the ear of the beholder, I guess. But “Punch Bowl” is a song. I mean, it’s, you know, 3 minutes and 30 seconds or something like that. And it starts with a lick that gives you a hint that you’re going to have two [different] thirds throughout and, and that they will be used sort of interchangeably and simultaneously. But the texture indicates that you would be getting some pretty standard bluegrass tonality. And so when you don’t, I think it’s all the more jarring. And then there’s the subject matter. The point was to somehow represent musically the danger of party scenarios, especially if one maybe has no business being in kind of a reckless party scenario based on circumstances.
FJO: So, as far as the compositional process goes, you usually write these things where music and lyrics sort of happen at the same time. But then you still have to take what you’ve worked out on your own and make it viable in a group context. So it makes me wonder how the arrangements get worked out. How to Grow a Woman is credited to you, as opposed to the eponymous Punch Brothers disc which is credited to the Punch Brothers, even though it’s the same exact band. You started The Blind Leaving the Blind first and that’s really your own composition. So if anything, it seems like How to Grow a Woman should have been credited to the Punch Brothers and the other CD should have been the one credited to just you.
CT: Interesting. The thing is that How to Grow a Woman from the Ground was a practice swing. Punch was our first sort of definitive statement as a band. And that piece is written for a very collaborative ensemble. The piece is meant to bring [together] whatever five musicians might happen to play it and hopefully bring them closer as creative musicians.
I don’t think lines need to exist, but we could make a line between informal and formal music, informal being music that’s not written down typically and formal music being music that’s completely written down. I do feel like one thing that informal music brings to the party that’s really amazing is a sense of immediacy and urgency. I get that from participating in Sheriff Uncle Bob’s bluegrass jam, down at the Grizzly Bear. And I get that from going to a Radiohead concert. You know that this is happening right now, and it’s about right now, and I’m involved and participating right now. Therefore I both listen and interact very much as a participant, as a co-creator even. I watched Radiohead a couple months ago in San Francisco with 110,000 other people who had all paid to be there. It was an amazing scene. I think each of those people felt like they participated in that concert as co-creators. That’s one of the things that makes that band so good. They enable their listeners. Their fans feel switched on in that capacity, as creators.
I don’t think that classical music has been as good at that, recently at least. There’s a huge chasm between the composer and the musicians, even, to say nothing of the audience. The musicians actually have very little to do with the music that they’re making, right down to the dynamics and the slurs. If you’re a violinist, your bowing is quite possibly being dictated by the composer, which is all fine. I understand the need for control. I mean, I’m a control freak, and I always have to be fighting that side of my musical personality. I have a band who keeps me very honest on that front, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I do feel like things could be a little different. Maybe there could be less of this dividing line between formal and informal if the musicians had a little bit more say in the actual music being made. You know, I think back to the Brahms Violin Concerto, which was written for Josef Joachim, right? I think that Brahms would send the score to Joachim and he would make all these changes and send it back—you know, “This is crap over here,” “I want to do this kind of thing over there.” He had a huge impact on that piece and no doubt played it as a co-creator. I imagine that was very exciting, and I think that probably, overall, there was a lot more of that. And then you go back even further and the performers were expected to be able to improvise, or at least write their own cadenzas. You can imagine how nice of a spin that would put on that sort of music. A buddy of mine played me one of Mozart’s piano concertos that Beethoven wrote a cadenza for. Can you imagine what it would have been like to hear Beethoven play a Mozart piano concerto? That would have been just an incredible night of music making. The more that you can diffuse the intensity of one guy dictating the music for every one, the more the audience can participate in the act of creation that’s taking place.
FJO: Now you’re in the middle of a tour with Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor joins you for some of it as well. All of you are very strong-willed people. So where’s the give and take there? All the stuff on your new duo album with Edgar is credited to both of you. Would some of those things have begun as your piece? Some his? What was the process?
CT: Generally one guy had some kind of a start. They’d be of all shapes and sizes. There’d be something that was basically done, that just needed the basic stamp of approval of the other guy. And then there was some stuff that was just a vague idea that probably ultimately got obliterated by the collaboration and turned into something way different than the original idea. Those are typically the most satisfying experiences, because you start with this germ of an idea that actually turns into something lovely and different and bigger than you. Again, that’s that idea of transcendence. That’s what all of this is about. We all know our little corner of the world, and I think music for me is the easiest way into somebody else’s corner of the world, to see what it’s like to be this guy. I’ve gotten so much of that from Edgar. Over the years, he’s been so generous with his time and knowledge and has treated me with so much respect. I would feel comfortable asking him just about anything, no matter how stupid it may sound, just because Edgar would still think I was a decent enough musician to hang out with.
FJO: All through the history of Nickel Creek, you guys always played with a bass player but there was never a bass player who was an official member of the band. And now you’re in this duo with a bass player.
CT: Right—with a bass player who is definitely an official member of the duo. That situation with Nickel Creek I think came because my dad was the original bass player, and I think it’s very difficult to replace one’s father in any capacity. We looked around for someone to make a full partner, and it just never felt quite right. Maybe if we had happened upon Mark Shatz earlier it would have come down that way, just because Mark is such a great player and such a wonderful guy. I do think that you can’t replace your dad in a band, but Dad just couldn’t keep doing it because he’s a family man. Nickel Creek really started to take off, and there was just no way for him to be with my two little brothers and my mom and to be in a band that was really starting to happen.
FJO: It’s interesting that you started out playing music with your father and now you’re playing with somebody who’s also from an earlier generation, yet you’re still able to be equal somehow.
CT: I think that’s a testament to the generosity of Edgar’s spirit, musical and otherwise, in that he really likes this setting; he feels comfortable in it, and is willing to open himself up to a very, very equal collaboration. I do think there’s something very homey about it to me, because I grew up playing with my dad. So bass and mandolin duets are ground zero for me, square one. It’s what I feel most comfortable playing, just mandolin and bass. There’s tons of space, too, just on a practical level: mandolin is up high; bass is down low. And the way Edgar plays, the bass is an incredible sustaining instrument—he uses the bow and it’s gorgeous. And the mandolin is kind of an attack instrument. So they balance each other out. It’s a really nice situation for both of us. And we have a lot of overlap, but not like a musically incestuous amount of overlap. If you get two people whose backgrounds are too similar, then you’re not going to have that transcendence. It’s not going to be more than the sum of its parts. Edgar has a substantial background in formal music, and mine is predominantly in informal music, but our interests really sort of meet in the middle of that. You know, again, I think that there need not be a divider between the two camps. Not to paint in too broad a stroke, but I think that’s the foundation of our collaboration.
FJO: So a final question. There are three mature Nickel Creek records, and they’re all on Sugar Hill, which is essentially a bluegrass label.
CT: Essentially, yeah.
FJO: So first you released music which is not really bluegrass on a bluegrass label, and now you’re recording music which in some ways is more clearly bluegrass derived, at least in terms of its instrumentation, for, of all labels, Nonesuch.
CT: The label-less label.
FJO: Nonesuch started as a classical music label specializing in early music and really hardcore contemporary stuff and then became branded with recordings by the Kronos Quartet and composers like John Adams, Steve Reich, and Gorecki. And then they started putting out albums by Wilco and Stephin Merritt. All of those people are now your label mates. So even though you yourself might not put a label on what you do, other people will. And perhaps by being a Nonesuch artist, the label they’ll give you is “new music”, whatever that is.
CT: Right. The great thing about Nonesuch is that tons of my favorite records are on Nonesuch. I always looked at it as a place where you could go and be defined by your work and not by other people’s work, or so it seemed to me. You’ve got guys like Reich and John Adams and Kronos, and when I started to pay attention they had just signed Wilco. And they’ve got Randy Newman and Brad Mehldau, who’s one of my favorite musicians in the whole world. There are just a lot of tremendous artists who are most at home not having a home. So it just feels great to me to be here. There’s encouragement to just see whatever that idea is that I just can’t see past. Whatever it may be, regardless of how commercially viable it is, they always seem to encourage me to just take that to the mat to figure out what’s there. They were so helpful with The Blind Leaving the Blind. I was just so nervous to even finish it and put it out, and they were really helpful. I don’t feel the pressure to do any one thing. I think they feel the same way about it that I do: That it is all one thing, no matter how different it may sound at first. It’s all melody, rhythm, harmony, and structure. That’s all it is. There are just different ways to put it together.