Timo Ellis of Netherlands is a staple figure in New York’s arts and music scene who’s appeared on more than one hundred albums, including notable recordings and collaborations with Yoko Ono, the Melvins, John Zorn, Ween and Gibby Haynes, just to name a few.
About three years ago, I randomly came across a YouTube video of a youngish guy playing Bach violin sonatas on the mandolin. I was stunned by the sensitivity, feel and utterly ferocious technique of Chris Thile, who, until then, was unknown to me. I immediately went on a research binge: Chris was a founding member of Nickel Creek, he formed Punch Brothers (usually overly simply described as “progressive bluegrass”) and also has collaborated and recorded with Yo Yo Ma, Michael Daves, Edgar Meyer and many others.
Discovering a new artist wouldn’t normally be that big of a deal for me, but Punch Brothers had suddenly inspired in me a species of fandom that hadn’t happened since grade school. What this meant is that beyond deeply investigating their whole catalog, I also ordered a bunch of their merch online and started following Chris’ wife on Instagram (!)…which even raised my own eyebrows, so to speak. It’s hard to describe, but I felt oddly reverent about PB; I noticed myself hoping that they would be around for years to come, that nothing bad would happen to them. (What was going on here?? Was this infatuated geekdom?!?)
Also around this time, I spotted Chris walking on St. Marks in New York City and noticed that I felt a little starstruck. (I actually froze for a second!) It was in this moment particularly that I started to wonder if some other subterranean emotions were being prodded to the surface. So after a bit of soul-searching, I came to these (slightly less fan geek-y) conclusions, which relate to the raw joy of practicing and playing music (or trying to) prior to cultivating the discriminating awareness and all the musical “preferences” that naturally develop as one gets older (or goes to college, etc.). But before I get to that, let’s take a brief look at what started all of this.
I really don’t feel qualified to do a real musical analysis of the Punch Brothers catalog, but I’ll take a macro shot at it. Their debut record, 2008’s Punch, features a beautiful and complex multi-movement piece, “The Blind Leaving the Blind” that suggests twentieth century avant/mod-classical more than bluegrass per se. Beside being gorgeous and super ambitious, this record strikes me as being an expression of a new group (also) flexing its conceptual and technical muscles, as in: “ATTN! We are comprehensively interesting and bad motherfuckers, so take note.”
It was this record that caused my inner musical geek to go nuclear.
The next three albums (2010’s Antifogmatic and 2012’s Who’s Feeling Young Now? and Ahoy!) use a more traditional songdriven approach, but still convey a huge amount of musical and tonal variety. There’s prodigious technique, dynamics, humor and introspection throughout, along with several excellently done covers (Radiohead, Mclusky, Jason Ritter, the Strokes, Gillian Welch…). Their latest full LP, The Phosphorescent Blues (produced by TBone Burnett) musically, technically and emotionally coalesces in a truly soulful and gorgeous way — and, for me, brought their whole phenomenon to another level. It is a near-perfect record, and I think an amazing achievement in terms of its intensity, delicacy and musical scope. It was this record that caused my inner musical geek to go nuclear; I listened to it constantly for about eight straight weeks (at that time, only Aphex Twin’s amazing Syro, a completely different animal, was having a comparable impact).
My perspective started to splinter in various ways around it: Punch Brothers’ musical evolution also seemed to generally reflect my own evolution from being obsessed with (mostly) technique-based guitar rock music as a teen/new guitarist toward, eventually, a greater interest in narrative, concept and minimalism in various genres. The world is full of shredding virtuoso musicians, but it seems relatively rare when an entire (western, non-classical, non-metal) group has master-level skills, doesn’t (semi-constantly) show off and, in Punch Brothers’ case, is genuinely musically diverse and has good taste!
Ironically I found my inner metal geek kinda wishing that they (especially Chris) actually would show off and “solo shred” a little more often…but OK, OK, restraint is good/important, etc.
But how amazing would it be if a band this insanely talented had some kind of communal, drug-fueled break from straight reality and made something akin to a Floyd/Roky Erickson/Beefheart/Flipper/Mahavishnu, nihilistic ecstatic blowout record??!
PB’s ability to balance advanced technique and genuine understatement was one of the things that intrigued and excited me most about them, and is also the place where I felt philosophical resonance with my band Netherlands (and in a lot of my solo work as well). In this context, I also started to fantasize about what might happen if the Brothers magically had some kind of no-wave/psych/punk epiphany. For all of their music’s adventurousness and beauty, there is also a level of perfection and control that (to me) can sometimes feel a little antiseptic. It occurred to me that I wasn’t really hearing any of the shaggy abandon inherent in punk rock’s genetics (which, of course, we probably aren’t meant to). But how amazing would it be if a band this insanely talented had some kind of communal, drug-fueled break from straight reality and made something akin to a Floyd/Roky Erickson/Beefheart/Flipper/Mahavishnu, nihilistic ecstatic blowout record??! (And then get David Lee Roth, Diamanda or Gen P-Orridge to guest on a few songs!) It can’t hurt to dream.
But putting aside all these interpretations and “fantasy aesthetics” and getting back the original spark of all this, I think the pitch of my particular fandom was probably a semi-conscious reaction to, and expression of, two (related) things: an awareness that my raw, unbridled exuberance for music has maybe been slightly dulled by years of over-saturation, production, criticism/crossreferencing (and perhaps also just adulthood, lack of regular exercise, etc.). The other aspect was an unexpected rekindling of the mostly dormant spark of reverence I had as a kid for those I saw as the master players, the “star athletes” of music (for me, primarily Eddie Van Halen, Tony Williams and Michael Jackson). The artists whose talent inspired me in a way that made me think that anything was possible, that made me want to learn to play music regardless of how much time and work it would actually take…to become fucking EXCELLENT at it. Of course, I’m still regularly aware of amazing players of all kinds, but somehow hadn’t felt this particular visceral spark of inspiration in a long time.
I need all you Punch Brothers to start taking a lot of LSD/DMT/PCP before you start making your next LP.
In other words, something about all of this stoked the feeling of unlimited potential. Despite my alleged “grownup” philosophy of “openness/growth” (and, paradoxically, also the ethos of ecstatic “punk rock” anti-expertise), I might have (partially) lost touch with the childlike and powerful feeling of the joy of practice (distinct in a certain way from “creativity”) as an expression of the drive needed to make musical dreams come true, and to become truly exceptional. (And, if that sounds a little corny, well, so be it.)
I see myself (humbly, I hope) as a musician/performer who is not afraid to push myself creatively, to always try to keep moving (and, crucially, to suck sometimes!) Chris + Co. had unexpectedly blasted a bit of the jaded crust off of me, and I felt the same raw hope/dream energy that I felt when I heard “Unchained” by Van Halen for the first time in 1981. For all this I am very thankful for the music’s reminding me of who I was, and thankfully still am. So, THANK YOU Chris (and of course Gabe, Noam, Chris, Paul and Greg too).
On a final note: I need all you Punch Brothers to start taking a lot of LSD/DMT/PCP before you start making your next LP so you can burn a resplendent, benevolent, Satanic fucking godhole in the universe, forever. And Chris, if I see you on the street, I’ll (maybe) say “Hi” this time.