Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny on What Makes the Grammy Award-winning Band Tick
On Sunday, March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—The Music Hall’s historic theater hosts the return of the Punch Brothers, one of America’s most heralded bands. In February 2019, their album All Ashore was awarded a Grammy for best folk album. They first joined us on the very day that Grammy-winning mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile earned a MacArthur Genius Award. Since that time, Thile was anointed host of the popular radio broadcast Live From Here (formerly A Prairie Home Companion) on NPR, and the band has continued to tour and record. As well, all of the award-winning musicians in the band have launched successful solo careers. What makes the quintet of mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny, and violinist Gabe Witcher unique? Deputy Programming Director Thérèse LaGamma recently caught up with preeminent banjoist Pikelny to get the update.
Thérèse LaGamma: You’re the recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. How did this come about?
Noam Pikelny: I was the first recipient of this award nine years ago. The voting came from a private board of banjo players and historians. I was completely blindsided by the news. The publicity and recognition I received have been immeasurable. And it’s been a wonderful thing for the bluegrass and banjo community. Since that time, seven others have gone on to win this prize. It’s been a great shot in the arm for the banjo.
What’s it like performing on live radio as part of the wonderful Public Radio broadcast Live From Here hosted by Chris Thile?
The show is really Chris’s baby. Every three or four months the Punch Brothers check in. It’s been great to see how Chris has reinvented this radio show. It’s an embarrassment of riches as far as the talent he has on every week. When you are part of the show, it’s an intense couple of days because everything comes into focus between Monday morning and the late Saturday afternoon broadcast. It’s a pressure cooker in the best way and I’m always happy to be there.
Have the group dynamics changed since Thile’s role as host for Live From Here?
No. Punch Brothers has always been something that we do out of the pure joy of creating music with each other. It’s a band that from the beginning has been driven not only by musical exploration and common ground, but also unbridled curiosity. The dynamic hasn’t changed now that Chris is on the radio every week. Maybe that wouldn’t be the case with other musicians but you have to remember when Punch Brothers started Chris Thile was selling millions of records with Nickel Creek and so if anything his career is in steep decline and he is holding on for dear life, hahaha.
What’s the songwriting process like for the group? Do you write as a collective?
It’s extremely collaborative, the likes of which I haven’t experienced in any other band. It’s important that we are all in the same room creating; a painstaking and tedious process. This means that making records together can’t be a yearly event because the songwriting process requires several retreats of us all being together.
Ideas for songs can come from anyone. At the beginning of these writing sessions, we’ll pitch ideas—a seed for a song or something more fully formed—that go through the Punch Brother’s grinder. The organizing principle is that everything has to pass the test of all five members. We end up working as each other’s editors, often in real time. Chris is the lyricist of the band. He’ll rewrite the music with the instrumental side of things first, and after he’s worked on the lyrics we edit them as a group.
Tell us about the songs on your latest Grammy-winning LP All Ashore. What distinguishes this album from previous recordings?
Every record we make is a natural extension of the individual and cumulative experiences we’ve had since the last one. The reason to keep making music is to explore new ideas; with each record there are always new processes, new inspirations, and new revelations we haven’t explored before. From a technical standpoint, this is the first record we have produced ourselves. When the band goes quiet at certain times of the year, each one of us produces records solo. We felt we should be able to muster the strength to do this for the band.
Otherwise, our lives are quite different now, compared to how they were when the band first started. Thematically, things have changed significantly both in our personal lives and in our country. The album is an exploration of how our lives have changed from when we were footloose and fancy-free single guys in our twenties. Three of us in the band are married or involved in serious relationships. There are kids in the picture. The music explores this while simultaneously grappling with how things have changed in this country in the last three years. Regardless of what side of the aisle you are on, this feels like a time of turmoil and division. This was definitely on our minds when we were discussing what we wanted the album to be about. We refused to make an album that didn’t acknowledge how things have changed both in our personal lives and in our society.
What goes into preparing for a tour?
Everyone has their personal preparation as far as getting the music back under our fingers and getting up to speed. I go through intense electroshock therapy just to simulate the experience of standing next to Chris Thile onstage! Usually for tours like this, we’ll get together a day or two before to start rehearsing. And depending on how much time has passed, we can accomplish a lot during very long soundchecks of working the material back up and adding some new material for the tour.
What are you most looking forward to in regards to this tour?
I am most looking forward to reconvening with everyone. We toured throughout Europe in early November and when we reconvene in March, it will be the first time we have seen each other as a band since then. It feels like a holiday in the sense of getting together with your family for Christmas or Passover or Thanksgiving. There’s such a sense of being a musical family. It feels important and necessary to see each other. We have a vested interest in each others’ lives. We are also so lucky to have an incredibly loyal audience that we’ve built up over the years and is a crucial part of the picture. It’s about the community within the band and the community we share with the audience.
What can fans of Punch Brothers look forward to when you take the stage in March?
For people who haven’t seen the band before—we hold bluegrass instruments but sure don’t sound like traditional bluegrass from the 1940s. We always focus on our most recent project. This will be our first time in Portsmouth since the release of All Ashore, and nothing has changed in terms of our world and our country since we wrote and recorded those songs. We’ll be focusing on that music, supplemented with music from all our other records as well as covers of our favorite songs, whether Norm Blake or the Strokes or Radiohead.