The Punch Brothers have an enviable summer. After playing Carnegie Hall in early May, they’ll visit Charleston to perform at the College of Charleston Cistern, two days shy of a decade since they last played that venue. In June, they’ll play the thin air of Telluride, Colo., before departing for a residency at the Blue Note in Tokyo, Japan.
“That sounds like a pretty exciting life to live,” laughs Chris Thile, the band’s mandolinist and lead vocalist, on the phone during a family vacation in upstate New York.
Amidst such esteemed venues — and Thile’s regular gig hosting Live From Here (his evolved adaption of A Prairie Home Companion) in the country’s most prestigious theaters — one might assume that playing Spoleto Festival USA is just another show among many for the band. Since their 2009 gig at the Cistern, they returned to Spoleto in 2013 at TD Arena, and have performed in Charleston several times since, most recently at the Gaillard.
But upon recalling that first gig at the Cistern, Thile is overcome with reflective emotion. Ultimately, that show and the band’s subsequent experiences in Charleston helped to shape the way they play music together. In his own words:
“The Cistern — that show we played there — oh my goodness. That was one of the most magical nights the Punch Brothers have ever had.
It was early in our adventure with our bass player, Paul (Kowert), which is basically when the band really became itself. I think it might have been the first or second tour we did with him, so the music was just congealing in this really breathtaking fashion for us. The boys and I were finally hearing the songs and sounds that we had dreamed we could make together, and we were starting to write new songs. For instance, I think that show was one of the first times we played ‘Rye Whiskey’ outside of New York. It seems like we haven’t played a show without that song since.
It was also one of the first times we really connected with an outdoor crowd. We had been kind of this boutique-experimental-chamber-grass project, and all of a sudden something about that night, and the people that came, and that glorious yard, and we were connecting with like 2,000 people outside. We realized, we don’t just have to be this weird music geek situation. We can actually connect with people who are there to have a nice night, which I think probably changed our self perception a little bit.
That’s also a testament to the wide-open ears that your average Spoleto attendee possesses, which is thrilling. Those are the sorts of people we like making music for. Hell, the second time we were at Spoleto, we wrote the beginnings of our song, ‘My Oh My’ at soundcheck. And then we followed up that show with a week of writing songs (in Charleston) for Phosphorescent Blues. So, a ton of our music has Charleston’s gorgeous fingerprints all over it.”
A large portion of the 2009 Cistern show was made up of “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” Thile’s 40+ minute opus that follows the dissolution of his marriage. Today, he’s remarried and has a four-year-old son, but thematic, suite-like compositions are still the band’s hallmark.
Their latest release, 2018’s All Ashore, draws from the parallels they see in their own relationships and America’s current divisiveness and unwillingness to see eye to eye. Unlike previous efforts that Thile pre-composed, the band came together to write quickly and efficiently, drawing on Thile’s experience composing weekly songs and debuting them days later on Live From Here.
The album takes veiled jabs at political figures, including “Jumbo,” a song that references an Instagram picture of Donald Trump Jr., holding the tail of an elephant he killed in Africa. Its lyrics include, “Sure, I guess he got off to a hell of a start/With his grandpa’s money and his daddy’s heart/But you oughta know privileged is a pretty hard thing to be.”
Thile’s heated, tongue-in-cheek lyrics were rewarded — All Ashore won last year’s Grammy for Best Folk Album, a genre that, done well, doesn’t shy away from making statements.
“People call the (American) situation today the Cold Civil War, which seems fairly apt,” says Thile. “We’re having a really hard time connecting with each other. It feels like, gone are the days when you can have a drink with someone and talk it out, and have a difference of opinions that doesn’t mean the end of a friendship.”
All Ashore addresses that climate, backed by virtuosic bluegrass instrumentation, and tackles it head on.
“It’s not that we’re having disagreements over insignificant topics — we’re having them over the most significant topics,” Thile explains. “Maybe things have been bubbling under the surface for a long time, and now they’re being dealt with and creating rifts. Basically, All Ashore is a meditation on all of that. It’s a period of unprecedented American political turmoil, in our lifetimes, and it feels like fertile territory in which to grow some songs.”
But Thile doesn’t intend to take the stage at Spoleto with any agenda. It’s not like “Jumbo” has inspired walkouts at Punch Brothers shows, at least that he’s noticed.
“I’m deeply interested in how our audience is interacting with the music,” he admits, explaining that he looks out at the crowd and imagines an individual listener. “I’m there as a fifth of the Punch Brothers, but I’m also there as a person trying to interact with the world around me, and so are the people listening, so I’m thinking of us as two individuals and we’re all hanging out.”
Likewise, Thile recognizes that even as he translates his own observational feelings into a song, he understands that he doesn’t have universal answers.
“I wrote a lyric recently where I used the cliché that there are no stupid questions, and I followed it up with, ‘Only stupid answers,'” he reflects. “You’re in dicey territory if you feel like you have an answer to anything that life throws at you. I don’t think human beings are good at answers — we’re way better at questions. And I think that most lyrics I don’t end up liking, a lot of the time, it’s because, ‘Oh, look at how wrong your answer turned out to be.'”