The Punch Brothers rock out on bluegrass

Elton John’s favorite band brings its country instruments and ‘punchy’ sound to the Tel Aviv White City Festival.

The Punch Brothers 370 (photo credit: Danny Clinch)
The Punch Brothers 370
(photo credit: Danny Clinch)
It’s kind of gotten lost amid the stellar names appearing at the Tel Aviv White City Festival and the upcoming megashow by Madonna at the end of the month. That’s probably why most local music lovers aren’t aware that one of the most acclaimed and upcoming young American bands is performing here this week, a group that that Elton John has proclaimed his favorite and that Rolling Stone magazine has crowned one of the “20 hottest things” happening in music right now.
Pretty lofty accolades for a band led by banjo, mandolin and fiddle, but then, The Punch Brothers are not your ordinary band.
Amid a folk/country/bluegrass revival that manifested itself last year when Bob Dylan was joined at the Grammy Awards by young upstarts like Mumford and Son, The Avett Brothers for a rousing hootenanny version of “Maggie’s Farm,” The Punch Brothers are neither bluegrass revivalists nor traditionalists. Just listen to their swirling cover of Radiohead’s synth-driven “Kid A” for proof of that.
“We haven’t set out to keep any traditions alive or preserve anything historically for the sake of any kind of musical style or pastime,” explained the band’s 31-year-old banjo player Noam Pikelny during a phone conversation from Philadelphia, ahead of the band’s two performances at the festival – May 9 and May 10 at Hangar 11.
“We don’t really see ourselves as torchbearers or preservationists in any sense of the word. Whether we play bluegrass in our show or a Radiohead cover, we’re not doing it because it’s good for the soul or for preservation purposes, we just think they’re great songs. We love this music and it all happens to be part of the band’s DNA.”
Their DNA, described by The New York Times ahead of their recent sold-out show at Town Hall, consists of “an all-star bluegrass band, five virtuosos led by Chris Thile, the mercurial mandolin player, but their songs smash the three-chord harmonies and blazing march rhythm of bluegrass... They write dramatic, labyrinthine pieces that straddle genres. Sometimes they sound like a progressive art rock group going acoustic, sometimes like an avant-garde jazz combo with an Earl Scruggs-style banjo mixed in and sometimes like down-home pickers at a county fair.”
That hard-to-pin-down eclecticism, encompassing strains of everything from alt-pop and classical to discordant electronica and classic rock – and let’s not forget, bluegrass – has been the lifeblood of The Punch Brothers since they came together to back front man, vocalist and lyricist Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, on his 2006 solo album How to Grow a Woman From the Ground.
Since releasing their 2008 debut Punch, the group’s music and electricity-filled live shows have attracted a legion of celebrity accolades like Sir Elton, who’s compared them to The Band and Little Feat and offered to work on a joint album, as well as sometimes-collaborators (O Brother Where Art Thou musical director) T-Bone Burnett and Elvis Costello.
Their current, third album, Who’s Feeling Young Now?, along with the contribution of a song “Dark Days” to the soundtrack to the blockbuster The Hunger Games as well as the Rolling Stone plug has created a buzz around the band that’s usually reserved for guitar heroes and pop singers. It’s a development that the band is taking in stride, said Pikelny.
“It’s quite remarkable that Rolling Stone and other media are giving so much attention to a band with no amps or drums onstage,” he said. “It was news to me – and quite surreal – that we were on their list, or that Elton John wants to record with us, but we’ll take it. It would be fun to collaborate with him, but finding the time to make a project like that happen is an epic task. We’re more concerned right now with getting our music out there and making sure we get around to play everywhere But it’s quite an honor to read such compliments about us from Sir Elton John.”
FOR PIKELNY, rock & roll stardom is a long way from his origins in Skokie, Illinois, where he was schooled in Chicago’s longstanding folk tradition. When his brother began to learn mandolin, Pikleny jealously asked his parents to also learn an instrument, and chose banjo.
“In the mid-1980s, there was a very healthy bluegrass and folk scene in Chicago, built on the framework that Steve Goodman has forged in the ‘70s,” said Pikelny. “A lot of it was focused around the Old Town School of Folk, the largest independent arts school in the US, which was like a clearinghouse for a lot of great musicians.”
By the age of 11, Pikelny had discovered his two banjo role models that would shape his musical life – the legendary Earl Scruggs, who died last month, and progressive banjo player Bela Fleck.
“A lot of banjo players have been asking themselves the past month existential questions of what would I be doing with my life if it hadn’t been for Earl Scruggs,” said Pikelny, who is affectionately called by his last-name derived nickname Pickles.
“He really defined the role of the banjo and was a tremendous influence. Originally, I was playing old-time folk style banjo and then in 1989 I heard a record by this so-called modern banjo player Bela Fleck. I went to see him in Chicago because I couldn’t believe the sounds he was getting out of the banjo.
“I had to see with my own eyes that he was using the same three-fingered picking style that Scruggs used, but putting his own stamp on it. I wanted to learn how to do that and was told that to get to that point, you have to first learn the fundamentals.
And the fundamentals of five-string banjo and three-fingered style are undeniably Earl Scruggs.”
After practicing for a while in the Scruggs style, Pikelny got caught up in bluegrass and gave up any pretensions of becoming a progressive player. Infatuated by the music, he spent much of his teens traveling the Midwest going to folk festivals and eventually playing in a succession of bands.
He finally found kindred spirits in his Punch Brothers colleagues, including besides Thile, Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass), who shared not only his love of acoustic rural music but also grew up in the world of guitar-oriented rock & roll.
The result, The New York Daily News concluded, uses “all the classic components of bluegrass – sawing fiddles, jittery banjos, flinty guitars, and flickering mandolins. But no hearing person would mistake the way the Punch Brothers play those instruments for the Appalachian pickings of Earl Scruggs or Ricky Skaggs.”
That’s partially due to the band’s wideranging choice of material, which veers from quirky originals to bluegrass standards to covers of everything from The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” to The Cars and The White Stripes.
“We gravitate toward songs that we like, but also songs that we think we can actually do something different with,” said Pikelny.
“I think it’s a neat thing for people to hear interpretations of songs they know, and it’s exceptionally fun for us. Looking at music from other bands, be it Radiohead or Beck, and trying to simulate the textures of their music really expands our toolbox when we come back to our own music.”
And The Punch Brother’s own music is a toolbox in action, darting back and forth between modern and old, rock and bluegrass, experimental and traditional.
Despite rejecting the “preservationists” label, Pikelny readily admitted how important a role musical heritage plays in the band’s outlook.
“I feel a personal connection to traditional music – so much of my being and musicianship has been impacted by it, and much it true for the rest of the band,” he said. “We were brought together because we shared these common backgrounds and know how to lock together as an ensemble due to the history of where we came from. But what really inspired us to make music as a full-time band was the fact that despite having these traditional acoustic instruments, we were very interested in creating new music in the present, incorporating all of our musical influences, but being very much of the moment.
“On paper or in photographs, we look like a bluegrass band, and if you see a band with those instruments, you would assume they were making a style of rural music that was crystallized in the 1940s. But we don’t fit into any box. I think its great if we can be a conduit for people to discover other kinds of music, but we’re not setting out to do that.”
And that’s one way you become one of the 20 hottest things in music in 2012.