ASPEN - How do you become the most ambitious string band ever - or a group that, as super-producer T-Bone Burnett put it, "one of the most incredible bands this country has ever produced," pointedly leaving out the limitations of a stylistic category?
For Punch Brothers, it wasn't so much about growing into their ambitiousness, but about starting out as ambitiously as possible. The group first came together to play "The Blind Leaving the Blind," mandolinist Chris Thile's four-movement, 41-minute suite. The piece was written for the instruments of the standard bluegrass quintet: mandolin, banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar and upright bass. But "The Blind Leaving the Blind," inspired by Thile's divorce, in 2004, when he was 23, isn't limited to bluegrass in sound, feel and certainly not in scope. The suite winds together chamber music, jazz harmonies, Appalachian folk and indie rock, plus something new, visionary and unnamed. It was debuted in March, 2007 in Carnegie Hall.
"That was the first thing that put us in the room, that incredibly ambitious piece," Noam Pikelny, the Punch Brothers banjoist, said.
As much of an accomplishment as it was, "The Blind Leaving the Blind" was merely a starting point, a template for what Punch Brothers could become. "That lightning-round rehearsal session became part of our band DNA. It established what we aspire to; that was our mission statement from early on," Pikelny said from Bend, Ore., where Punch Brothers had just begun a West Coast tour that lands on Saturday at the Wheeler Opera House. "Instantaneously, it was such a gratifying experience. But we didn't know then how far it could extend, that it would extend beyond being a sounding board for Chris Thile's mission. We all saw limitless possibilities if we were all contributing."
There was a real chance that the ensemble could have been limited to being a vehicle for Thile's vision alone. The pre-Punch Brothers era began with the 2006 album "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground," which was credited solely to Thile, who wrote all of the original material and produced the album. But the group - guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddle Gabe Witcher and bassist Greg Garrison, plus Thile and Pikelny - soon decided to become a band, taking the name the Tension Mountain Boys before settling on Punch Brothers. When the debut album, "Punch," was released, in 2008, the centerpiece was Thile's "The Blind Leaving the Blind," but the other four tunes were credited to Punch Brothers.
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Thile, who grew up near San Diego and as a teenager co-founded the acoustic trio Nickel Creek, had long wanted to form a bluegrass-style quintet with his childhood friend Witcher. But the first real stirrings of Punch Brothers came at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, when Thile heard Pikelny, who was playing with the Colorado jam band Leftover Salmon. Thile has been quoted as saying of Pikelny, "Every note he played was something I wish I'd played."
When Pikelny was a kid in Chicago, his older brother's class was visited by a bluegrass band. Inspired, his brother began studying mandolin, and the routine was that Noam and his mother would play catch in the park while his brother had his music lessons. For whatever reason - maybe Noam got bored throwing a ball around with his mom, or he became infatuated with the music his brother was making - Pikelny decided to get a bluegrass instrument of his own. His mother suggested banjo and he gave it a go, first trying out the clawhammer style of banjo, associated with old-timey music. Not till he first heard the adventurous banjoist Bela Fleck did Pikelny get interested in the three-finger style that is a foundation of bluegrass.
"I had to figure out, How was he getting these sounds? It was hard to realize he was getting sounds with the same three-finger technique [bluegrass pioneer] Earl Scruggs used," he said. Turned on to the three-finger style, Pikelny got interested in bluegrass - "I saw what a perfect ensemble, a perfect pairing, the bluegrass ensemble was," he said - and then turned his attention to the progressive wing of string players. "Bela, Sam Bush, Mark O'Connor were really starting to open doors about what a string band could be. Strength in Numbers" - a band that included Fleck, mandolinist Bush and fiddler O'Connor - "I couldn't believe my ears. The respect for tradition was there, but there was so much more music to explore through that. I was always attracted to the people who were pushing the boundaries."
In the early '00s, Pikelny joined Leftover Salmon, which was more than progressive; they used bluegrass instruments to play amplified rock. From there he moved to being a sideman for John Cowan, the bassist and singer who had played with Fleck and Bush in the influential string band, New Grass Revival. All the while he paid close attention to Thile, who was the same age as Pikelny, and who was doing groundbreaking work with Nickel Creek and various side projects.
"I was always curious where he was going to take it," Pikelny said. "When Chris first called upon me and the others to play 'The Blind Leaving the Blind,' it was almost too perfect. Exactly what I was looking for."
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Of course, what Pikelny was looking for was impossible to define. Punch Brothers was looking to do new things when it began, and it continues to look over the creative edge. The band members are notably young - Witcher, at 34, is the old man of the group; Thile and Pikelny are 31; Paul Kowert, who in 2008 replaced Garrison as the bassist, is in his mid-20s - and still demonstrate a youthful adventurousness and flexibility in their approach to the music.
"That initial focus and mission statement stayed the same," Pikelny said.
Over four albums and an EP, Punch Brothers haven't just moved forward; they seem to expand in various directions. They seem to have a genuine interest in the past; "Antifogmatic," the title of their 2010 album, is taken from a dated term for an alcoholic beverage used to ward off bad weather. (Alcohol is a consistent theme around the band; a short article in The New Yorker earlier this year focused largely on their drinking habits and preferences.) The group, based in Brooklyn, also has a thing for Radiohead, having recorded several of the rock band's tunes and adding even more to their concert repertoire. An appropriate choice for Saturday's concert, coinciding with the anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon, would be Punch Brothers' thrilling cover of the Beatles' "Paperback Writer," with Witcher on lead vocals. (Or considering that McCartney was the singer on "Paperback Writer," maybe Punch Brothers could work up a song with more Lennon flavor. Personally, I'd love to see what they could do with "Nowhere Man" or "I Am the Walrus.")
For "Antifogmatic," the band used producer Jon Brion, who is known for his work with Kanye West and Fiona Apple. "Who's Feeling Young Now?" released this past February, was made with another pop producer Jacquire King. The album traveled through swing and contemporary rock; it featured a Radiohead-inspired original, "Movement and Location," as well as a cover of Radiohead's "Kid A." There was also a cover of a song by the Swedish folk band, Vasën. The closing song showcased Punch Brother's sense of humor; "Don't Get Married Without Me" is the title. Also this year, the band released a five-song EP, "Ahoy!"; contributed a song, "Dark Days," to the soundtrack of the film "The Hunger Games," and did a take on "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" for the Christmas album "Holidays Rule," where they appear alongside mostly hip young rock acts.
Punch Brothers are one of the few acts who have earned the privilege of a mainstage appearance each year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and each year the band sound fresh, reinvigorated with new material and new ideas. This past summer, they were joined for a segment of their set by violinist Rob Moose and they launched into a portion of J.S. Bach's beloved Brandenburg Concertos that Moose had arranged for them a few years ago. (They have also played the Brandenburg Concertos, in an arrangement for 15 musicians, with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.)
Earlier this year, Thile was awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, good for $500,000. It also means that Thile could be seen as a certified music nerd; MacArthur grants are basically reserved for the most high-minded musicians. But Pikelny said that the Punch Brothers are less concerned with knock-out technique than with making accessible music. The goal now is to prove they are not just musical geniuses.
"We're making a concerted effort to make music that moves people not only in a cerebral fashion, but can have a visceral impact on an audience," he said. "We started with something that was so abstract and required such technique. We fell into the trap of thinking we always had to impress. And the easiest way to impress was showcasing these intricate parts.
"Early on, we were able to keep everybody's hands busy all the time. Now the parts aren't consistently pushing people to the end of their technical abilities."