Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile takes control on his latest record
By Scott Nygaard
There are few musicians with as much talent and drive as Chris Thile. Anointed at age 13, when his first solo record was released, as the next great bluegrass mandolin player, Thile has gone far beyond those initial expectations. Subsequent solo albums revealed a musician searching for new ways to do everything, technically and musically, and his band Nickel Creek, which combines bluegrass instrumentation with a thoroughly modern conception of lyrics, songs, and arrangements, has become one of the most successful acoustic acts on the circuit, due in part to Thile’s magnetic stage presence, infectious energy, passionate lead vocals, and, of course, his his jaw-dropping mandolin chops.
Though Nickel Creek has been getting progressively deeper into contemporary song form, Thile’s other projects, including a duo with multi-instrumentalist and fellow mandolin virtuoso Mike Marshall, have remained focused on the mandolin. So it was a surprise to hear that Thile’s fourth solo effort, released last November (2004), would be a true solo album, in which he played a variety of instruments and wrote all the music, mostly songs. Even more surprising, however, is the album itself (Deceiver, Sugar Hill), a brilliant, intense art-rock exposition full of abrupt twists and turns and a probing harmonic sophistication combined with cinematic lyrics that unabashedly reflect Thile’s youth.
The theme of the record, as Thile admits, is one of identity and perception: who you are, who you think you are, who other people think you are, and how those perceptions change as you evolve. It’s a lyrical counterpoint to the effect the record will likely have on people’s perceptions of the artist. But anyone who has witnessed Thile’s intense live performances, with Nickel Creek and others, will know that he is always searching for new ways to understand and express himself and the music that his fertile mind produces. It’s just that on this record, instead of exploring the outer reaches of mandolin technique, he’s decided to focus on the music he hears in his head and burden himself with all the musical decisions and responsibilities. This led him to play instruments—piano, drums, bass, strings, electric guitar—he’s not that familiar with, and though this often meant long hours in the studio, the results are as thoughtful, adventurous, and masterful as his mandolin and acoustic guitar playing. Recorded chronologically, with producer/engineer Gary Paczosa, renowned for his pristine work with Alison Krauss and others (including Nickel Creek), the short, 34-minute recording is exhilarating, dense, surprising, beautiful, naive, and above all, musical.
I met with Thile at Caffé Trieste in San Francisco, California, where he has recently moved, and our conversation, fueled by sublime cappuccinos, explored the conception and execution of his new record as well as how he expects it to be received.
You said when you walked in that you just want people to listen to this record five times before they dismiss it. Do you expect people to go, “What the heck is he doing?”
THILE Yes, I made the record with that in mind. I don’t like easy listening records. My favorite records are the ones I have to really dig through before I feel acquainted with and happy with the experience. Our deepest listening experiences are when we’re really familiar with something and yet still discovering. Like a great conversation with somebody you know inside and out but then you find something new about them. I wanted to make a record that would have interesting enough layers to dig that deep. And that’s why the record’s so short. I want people to put it back on and give it a chance, because there’s a lot going on. I’d kind of like to sit everyone who buys it down in my living room and walk them through the entire record, going, “Yeah, I know that’s weird, but here’s why. Here’s why I think it’s OK for it to be weird.”
I really wanted the music to go along with the words. I’m somewhat of an obsessive person, so if a song has anything to do with me, it’s going to be fairly obsessive, and the music that accompanies thoughts like that in my head is pretty . . . well, jagged, schizophrenic. Having a lot of things flying around in your mind all at once is exciting. It’s fun, and the music that accompanies it needs to match. In a song like “The Wrong Idea,” the arrangement is what a soundtrack to those thoughts, if there was a movie, would be. “I’m Nowhere and You’re Everything” is kind of sleepy logic in the morning in an airport. It was written in an airport and it’s talking about that. It’s this very disjointed dream-like narrative. So it’s the longest song on the record, and the arrangement kind of plods through the chords.
The record may surprise some people, but if you listen to the four songs you wrote on [Nickel Creek’s last CD] This Side and then Deceiver, it seems like a natural progression.
THILE That’s how I feel, that it’s not that radical a departure. It’ll strike some people as odd, I suppose, that it’s not an instrumental record, but the people that know Nickel Creek know that I sing and write. And I feel that people will be expecting something, so that’s why I say listen four or five times before pronouncement. That being said, though, I’m prepared to completely lose people. It’s a record that takes a lot of chances. And there are some things that people are going to listen to and go, “That’s just friggin’ over the top. You completely lost me there.”
Why did you decide to play everything yourself?
THILE That had a lot to do with the layering I wanted. I could have hired guys like [fiddler] Stuart Duncan, but it would seem a waste if I just told them what to play. When I work with my favorite musicians, I want to utilize their most intense attributes, which happen to be improvising and contributing on a spontaneous level. I wanted to see what would happen if I controlled every note but composed in more of a folk way. Some of the parts were written out and preconceived, some of them were not, but the idea was for there to be a lot of folk counterpoint. And playing instruments I had little or no experience with provided the time to work these parts out. I couldn’t go in there and immediately lay something down. I had to agonize over every note. But as that was happening the part would develop and be affected by what was there, so there’d be a deeper level of conception than if I just wrote everything out. Hiring musicians would have made it a completely different record. It would have been a lot less anal—some people would like it more—but I was after a certain level of organization and balance. And then, because balance was so important, there needed to be some abandon provided by the things that I’m better at playing.
So you haven’t been studying piano for years on the side or playing drums in your basement. Did you work on some things before you went into the studio?
THILE Kind of. There were certain parts, like the opening piano part [on “The Wrong Idea”], that I wrote out. When there was a more demanding thing I would work on it, but most of it was seat of the pants. I’d been thinking a lot about different piano sounds and approaches that I’d heard on records that I liked. And by assimilating those kinds of ideas and getting into the studio with them I felt I could achieve some sort of balance.
I had a real fear that I would go in and squeeze all the life out of everything—that I’d be too perfectionistic and obsessive-compulsive. And I wanted there to be a balance between getting it right, getting a great part, and letting some crap on. Because none of my favorite records are perfect. You don’t want perfection—that comes from machines. The finest Hilary Hahn performance has blemishes, slight blemishes. But that’s just the way humans work. So, a certain way to avoid perfection is by playing instruments you’ve never played before [laughs].
The opening cut goes from solo piano to string quartet to solo acoustic guitar to full-on rock ’n’ roll band. How did you put all that together?
THILE It started with a click track, it had to. But obviously I didn’t obey the click track at all. Then I would play mandolin or guitar or something, just to get the shape of the song—to make sure that as we were cutting things we had the whole song in mind. And then we’d go in and cut sections. On that song, first we got the piano, which was a keyboard triggering a MIDI program. That took forever, just to get something to listen to, and we eventually replaced that with real piano. Then we cut the strings. Doing something like that, I would start with something I can do reasonably well, so that was violin. And then we laid down the viola, another violin, and the cello. It’s a standard quartet. That part was fairly composed, but there’s always some improv going on, because, as a young composer, there are problems with the parts I write, when they’re put into practice. So there’s a certain amount of free-falling. And then I just went chronologically through the song, going “that builds into this.” A lot of times I’d have a game plan—to do this first, then this, and then this. Keeping in mind what could be played to.
What about “The Believer,” which has more of a straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll groove?
THILE That started with mandola, which is, along with the drums and the vocal, the first thing you hear. It’s not really recognizable as mandola because it’s too far out of its element. That went on first and then the drums, starting with the kick, snare, hi-hat. All the while keeping in mind things that could be added and laying down different options for toms or overheads. So we had this rock ’n’ roll track with mandola and drums [laughs]. And then we added guitars and bass. Throughout the whole record, I tried to keep independence on the bass. That’s one thing that’s really missing in a lot of folk music, and pop for that matter, an independent bass line that doesn’t just follow the guitars or the vocal. I wanted to make sure that the bass didn’t just play the rhythms of the kick and follow the harmony of the guitars, so that was always something that came on early.
Cutting “Believer” or “Empire Falls” was definitely easier, because it’s in those songs’ character to stay somewhat constant. That being said, nothing was that easy. It was all a struggle, just to make sure that none of the ideas were the first ones. Unless it just felt really right.
I know that growing up, your parents were always very concerned that you not overshadow the people you were playing with, and the Alison Krauss–produced Nickel Creek records are very neat and clean. But with this record it sounds like you just wanted to let loose and do whatever came to mind, without worrying about what someone else was going to think about it.
THILE That’s definitely the case. The record had no rules, at all. Well, it had no rules from the outside. Any rules that were there were inflicted on me by me. And because there was no limitation, other than my own ability with these instruments, it was wide open. So I could put really heavy guitars on a mandola-based track or two solo mandolin instrumentals in the midst of it. On those, I’m sure everybody’s going to say, “What is this doing here? It has no relation to anything.” But for me they act as a palette cleanser. It’s instead of having three minutes of silence.
On a solo record–when it’s one guy, and one guy playing everything, and writing everything, and accountable to one guy, although Gary [Paczosa] and I were a production team—the only one it can hurt is you, so I felt it was time to act like a circus. It was very, very liberating to go, “Yeah, why not an orchestra on this song? We’ve got a million tracks. Let’s fill some of them up.” And it was very cleansing to have gotten some of that out of my system.
But if it was so much fun, then obviously you’re going to want to do it again.
THILE Yeah, but there’ll be different ways of attempting a similar thing. It’ll happen again. It’s too much fun to try to put a mandolin player’s mind into the drums or to go back into the control room and hear me playing keyboards knowing that I have no idea what I’m doing but getting something down that I’m after. Obviously, the thing that’s missing is camaraderie, but working with Gary provided that. It was like a duo. He provided not only a second set of ears but companionship throughout and the feeling of a little band—him recording all the sounds and me making all the sounds. It was enough to keep it from being too much me.
You played a lot of instruments you’re not so familiar with, but you also played a lot of guitar and mandolin, which you obviously play very well. Did the way you were approaching the piano and drum parts affect the way you played mandolin at all?
THILE Playing mandolin, too often I can make something that sounds good without really diving in as deep as I should. But on this record I got into a pattern where I was diving in that deep with everything, because I had to—we had time and no other way of getting it down. So that also got applied to the things I could do quicker. The mandolin parts usually took just as much time as everything else, because we’d gotten into the habit of slaving over the parts and making sure that the part was exactly right. We wouldn’t just come up with something and the minute it was good enough put it down. Because I was playing instruments like piano, it got established early on that it was OK to take that much time. And that was really fun to apply to instruments that I can usually get down quickly.
Are you still as excited about the mandolin as you have been?
THILE The mandolin is an ever-increasing obsession with me. There were just these songs that I had for too long, clogging the works, as it were. There’s also just been, on the mandolin side of things, a lot of reinvention, as far as the way I approach the instrument technically, to where I didn’t feel it was the right time to make an instrumental record. I need to complete this process before that happens. But it still occupies a lot of my time. There’s just so much to do—so much music to listen to and mimic and then reinterpret and hopefully create something. The sheer infinite qualities of music are mind-boggling. And the technical exploration of the instrument always rubs off on how I sing and how I write—everything, even vocal melodies. I find myself playing them and then trying to sing them like that. I want to be a musician first, but the way I communicate is through the mandolin, and while my fingers are still relatively young is the time to go as far technically with it as I can.
And it helps me understand all the musical concepts I’m learning. I’ve been loving the third movement of Debussy’s string quartet lately. I’ve just devoured it. I can’t even stand how good it is. What I’ve been doing is picking a part to sing and a part to play and reading through the score, marking the various things he’s doing that I’m observing. And then listening again and trying to write something, even if it’s just four bars, that’s a total dupe of it. Getting it into my fingers on the mandolin helps me understand it more.
Speaking of learning other music, are there specific musical things that influenced this record?
THILE I really fell in love with Radiohead. That’s very deliberate experimentation—a lot of time taken fishing. I love that. To listen to Radiohead and hear that fishing—and where they stopped with their fishing—was so inspiring. That, mixed with more preconception, is where I want to go with what I do. It’s all about balance. In my music I want there always to be two sides that are either fighting or getting along, I don’t really care. Obviously, certain Beatles songs are a case in point of that kind of thing, a balance between conceptions and spontaneous musical thought.
I’m always listening to and trying to absorb as much Bach as I can. More recently, I fell in love with the off-handed vocals of Julian Casablanca of the Strokes, just that he sings like he talks. There’s never a compromise made for singing. Like Tim O’Brien, he just won’t sing it the way he wouldn’t say it. Dave Rawlings’ soloing has been a big deal to me lately. He says he plays backward. That’s not it, but it’s amazing. There aren’t many musicians who surprise me more frequently than Dave. As far as writing, I’ve listened to a lot of Randy Newman lately. I just love Randy Newman, there’s so much skill there, so much . . . anger [laughs], anger and humor. He could seemingly write a great song about anything and consistently use his sarcasm to great effect.
Did you have an instrument in hand when you were writing the songs? Did you make demos?
THILE It was mostly note-taking. I mostly had a mental picture and I’d kind of lay out an arrangement as things were being written. On “This Is All Real,” for example, I definitely heard the strings doubling the melody toward the second half, as a building block. And since it was a more ethereal song, I knew it would probably not have drums, not have bass. From very early on, I wanted “Wrong Idea” to be sort of a thesis statement: we’ll be covering this material in this record. And the lyric content can kind of refer to the record and not a girl.
Lyrically your songs aren’t really narratives, they’re more impressions of characters and relationships. Is there something you’re trying to do lyrically in your songs?
THILE I try to think of songs like movies to a certain extent. There’s a danger when writing a lyric to make it either poetic or like a book. but they’re meant to be heard and not read. I like trying to develop characters in a cinematic way, where you don’t necessary get a narrative, you get little pictures of character.
I always try to write songs that I feel like I have the right to write, as a young person. I try to use my youthful perspective as an asset. I can’t look at my favorite songwriters and imitate what they do. I need to stick to things that I’ve experienced and not really look super-big picture. Unless it’s an isolated thing, I’m not going to come out with songs about world hunger or peace or something. As a young songwriter, it’s unflattering to try and act like you know something. “This Is All Real” is as far in that direction as I’ll go. That story is from the point of view of a young band that’s acted like it knew what it was talking about, from the point of view of somebody in that band that got burned by this certain way of thinking and is advising others not to listen.
So your songs stem from things you’ve experienced or observed and yet they aren’t overly personal.
THILE Another thing I hate with young writers who’ve realized that their personal experience is all they really have, at this age, is that it then turns into couch time for them, and you get lyrics like “save me from myself” and things that nobody should ever have to listen to ever again. We’re storytellers and if you write a song, it has to mean something to somebody.
So in a song like “Wrong Idea,” no matter who you are, you have experiences that are unique and interesting and you have feelings about them that are irrational and more interesting than how you represent yourself. And “Wrong Idea” is definitely an inner monologue coming from an amazingly naive person about a very early relationship. That song is about how incredibly illogical you can be. It’s not really me but there are things in there that I’ve thought. I try to build on an experience and tell a story that may or may not be personal but is hopefully interesting. That’s all I ever ask of a song—that it be interesting. It doesn’t necessarily need to have a point, but it has to make you feel something.
Will you be playing these songs with Nickel Creek?
THILE We’ll definitely play songs off the record.
“On Ice” perhaps?
THILE That would be Nickel Creekable, for sure. There’s a couple we already know: “Empire Falls” and “Locking Doors.” “Believer” is going to be the first single off the record. We’ll see what happens there. It’s going to be a stretch lyrically, as far as what you’re used to hearing on AAA radio. But I wouldn’t mind if people liked it.