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HUFFPOST Entertainment Conversation with Chris Thile

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Chris Thile: Mike, how are you doing?

Mike Ragogna: Oh, I'm doing well, how are you doing, man?

CT: I'm doing great, just sort of galavanting around Portland, Oregon, right now.

MR: Good for you, nice, hope you're having a greattime. So Chris. Bach: Sonatas & Partitas Part 1. What's going on here?

CT: I know, I know, I know, Crazytown right? I was exposed to Bach when I was fifteen or sixteen by a trio of relatives including my maternal grandmothers. I have two through divorce. Grandma Celia gave me a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos and Gradma Sal gave me Glenn Gould's second recording of the Goldberg Variations, and then my Great Aunt Rosie, also on my mom's side, gave me recordings of Bach's Double. It might have been Grandma Celia who also gave me shortly thereafter Yo-Yo Ma's recording of the cello suite. So it could have all happened at once. It was Gould's recordings of Goldberg that really provided me with a way in, with a foothold, because up to that point, I had thought of, for lack of a better word, "classical" music as being something that was fairly rhythmically disconnected from the body. It didn't make me move, it didn't make me just leap out of my chair, but all of a sudden, here's Glen Gould just bringing it home like John Bonham or something. I was just hooked. It was because of Gould's almost pop-like approach to the rhythm of those pieces--and when I say pop-like, I kind of mean metronomic only with so much soul, which is kind of what's so fun about pop music. You can count on it, rhythmically and physically speaking, you can count on pop. So then can you count on Glenn Gould to deliver a danceable experience with the most complicated Bach music. That was my way in. I could hear it, instead of just switching off and saying, "This is just," I don't know, "music for people with wigs." So that started it. That's why there's Bach for me. I gradually got interested in tons and tons of classical music, but certainly Bach still stands above everyone else, and I think he does for a lot of serious musicians. It's like he was a little one-man musical enlightenment.

MR: Bach has had that effect on a lot of people, and it was almost like the pop of its era, too, I think maybe that's why he keeps getting revisited. As a composer, I think Bach understood that, and I think the best interpreters of Bach are the lively ones, sort of like you mentioned.

CT: Right.

MR: Now obviously, Nickel Creek did not play Bach Sonatas, and Goat Rodeo doesn't really go there and Punch Brothers don't really go there...

CT: ...well, Punch Brothers actually have gone there. Not a whole lot, but we played the third Brandenburg Concerto together, but never on record. That's been sort of a special treat for a live show here and there.

MR: Right on. My point is Chris Thile, right now, might be looking at this kind of music as the basis for his solo career.

CT: I think that I'm so curious about what I perceive to be an historical separation between an intuitive and learned approach to music, that the two have been unnaturally separated for hundreds and hundreds of years. I think initially, the separation made sense because it was a question of class. If you had money and you were musically inclined, then you would pursue a learned approach to music and you would go study it, and if you didn't have the money but you were musically inclined, then you would just make music. So I kind of hope that all of my activity henceforth is sort of wrapped up in earnestly seeking a dissolution between those distinctions.

MR: And you have historically done that, for instance with Goat Rodeo. That's a blend of all of your flavors including folk and classical, like you were saying.

CT: Right, that's kind of the idea, and Punch Brothers are searching for that kind of music, music that hits one in the body and the head and the heart to where you hopefully can disarm all of those areas and then get people to just kind of feel. I know for me when I listen to music that starts to feel purely visceral then my mind gets a little skittish. It's like it's a little overactive. But if only my mind is being appealed to then my body gets bored, I get listless and I can't pay attention. But when both of those things are engaged, that's when I feel like my whole body can go limp and all of a sudden, I'm possessed by the music. It's almost as if a new camera in the documentary that is my life gets switched on and I have a wholly new perspective.

MR: Beautiful. Chris, of all these songs that you recorded for this Bach project, which possessed you the most?

CT: I feel like he's almost always striking that natural balance between viscerally and intellectually charged or viscerally and cerebrally charged, if you like. So I can't even tell you; I was just engaged from start to finish. We were having these epic days in the studio in the Berkshires, in this beautiful old hotel called The Blantyre, and we'd break and then head to the studio and play Bach all day long and then go back to The Blantyre and have to put on coats and ties for dinner. It was so awesome. They were magical days. To get back to the question, though, I suppose that of the stuff that I recorded, I would get the most lost in the A minor fugues. But every now and then, we'd be playing one of those slow, meandering movements. Actually, one that was really fun was the Siciliana in G Minor. On the recording as it transitions, you can hear, all of a sudden, this wind picks up, so after we'd gotten done recording the fugue and we went into recording the siciliana, this incredible wind was whipping all around the studio and there was no way to not get that to show up on tape. Initially, I was really dismayed about that as I was listening to the tracks, but I've come to really enjoy it, and it was so much fun to play that piece.

MR: Obviously, this being "Part 1" opens up the possibility for a second volume, but what about taking on the works of some other classical artists? Are there any others that move you in a similar way?

CT: We're definitely going to do a second volume and finish this music up. Punch Brothers just had a writing session for its next project and there's some Debussey piano music that I would love to try and explode into a Punch Brothers song. I'd actually take a little bit more liberty with the music, hopefully, doing nothing that all collides with the screw ups. But just to get it from the piano to a five-part piece in a really satisfying way, I'm excited to try a couple things like that. Certainly, I love playing Bach with the Punchies. I've also always wanted to do a band transcription of the second movement of Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, which is a piece that I just find to be endlessly delightful.

MR: Chris, what advice do you have for new artists?"

CT: Oh, let's see. My chief advice right now would be to have periods of both voracious listening and complete silence. Listen, listen, listen, listen, be so honest with yourself about what you love and what you don't love about what you're hearing and then, in those periods of silence, think about what it is really that you want to hear yourself do and actually be informed both by the things that you love and the things that you don't love. With the things you love, be like, "Why?" and with the things that you don't love, why do you not love them? What would you have done differently? Often in that amalgamation of the learning process of why you love this and why you don't love that, often times, those are the two primary ingredients in a unique sound. The reason that you love all of the various things that you love, I guarantee you that you're the only person who loves all of those things for that reason and also on the negative side of that, all of those things that you don't love, you're the only person who doesn't love them for all of those reasons. I think if you're really paying attention to how music makes you specifically feel--and granted, you learn so much from other musicians and from observing other people's cases and having deep discussions about music you can learn a lot--but I think the most important thing is to be really, really in touch about how music makes you feel.

MR: Beautiful. You're going to be touring for the album, right?

CT: Yes. This is my first proper solo tour in America. I've done a couple of different solo tours in the UK mainly because Punch Brothers couldn't afford to tour over there, but this is the first time that I'm touring behind a solo record by myself on tour. I think it'll be really fun.

MR: Are you going to be joining your fellow goat Yo-Yo Ma with his Silk Road project at all?

CT: Not that I know of, although Yo-Yo and Stuart [Duncan] and Edgar [Meyer] and I have some plans. We're just starting to talk about plans for some more Goat Rodeo activity, which I'm really excited about.

MR: I remember when I interviewed both you and Yo-Yo for Goat Rodeo, you both said, "Yeah, we think it's a one shot deal, we may do a live album." But you guys got hooked, didn't you.

CT: We got hooked. We got hooked, especially with this last tour. It was just so much fun and to play like that for audiences like that is just addictive. You don't want to give that up.

MR: Nice. Hey, all the best, Chris, it's always fun talking to you.

CT: Thank you so much, Mike.

MR: You've got it. Bye Chris.
 

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne