This generation is undoubtedly experiencing history’s most expansive and diverse collection of musical genres to date. What with the boom of social media and music sharing sites like Facebook and Spotify, it’s effortless for an artist to just pick up a mic or instrument and broadcast their ideas to the world. But this phenomenon is also a double-edged sword. Due to the overwhelming amount of music, most musicians find themselves unable to break new ground. Well, that’s definitely not the case for the Punch Brothers. Although deeply influenced by bluegrass, the group experiments with different sounds. When asked to describe their music, guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge had to think about what they actually played. “We’re a string band, a bluegrass band even, that is aspiring to go beyond.”
Even to the uneducated listener, the progressive nature of their music is clear, amplified not only by the intricacy of each part but through the ways in which their parts collaborate with one another. “We’ve found that you can’t make a song just by strumming a chord on a guitar,” says guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge. “When we write, the arrangements are so dependant on the other that each part really becomes imbedded in the DNA of each song.”
The Punch Brothers, consisting of vocalist Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin, Noam Pikelny (banjo), Paul Kowert (bass) and Chris Eldridge (guitar), started out as a back up band for Thile’s solo effort in 2006. After the release of the solo album, How to Grow a Woman from the Ground, the group became a collaboration effort called the Punch Brothers, leading to their debut album Punch (2008). In total, they have released three albums and a documentary called How To Grow a Band in 2011. On October 1, Chris Thile won a “genius grant” award from the MacArthur Foundation where he will receive $500 thousand over the course of five years to pursue a creative endeavor. According to the Rolling Stone, Chris Thile says that he is considering funding a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet.
With their 2010 release Antifogmatic, the group delved into the avant-garde, each song layered with complex riffs within a dissonant texture. It was with their next and latest album Who’s Feeling Young Now? that the Punch Brothers decided to create a sound that could physically engage their listeners. “It really was an iconic shift,” recalls Eldridge. “Our producer helped us realize that we needed to create music on a more visceral level that would really get under people’s skin and make them move.” With that goal in mind, the group unconsciously expanded their sound to something that could be comparable to indie rock.
The best example can be found from the album’s opening track “Movement and Location,” a soft piece with a driving string section linked with Thile’s haunting vocals. “That track really wrote itself,” says Eldridge. “All of our different parts came together effortlessly in about 10 minutes without any agony.”
For Eldridge, this need to break from the traditional began even before the Punch Brothers. With two parents that played banjos and a father who played in a popular bluegrass band, Eldridge began experimenting with electric guitars. “I wanted nothing more than to get as far away from bluegrass as musically possible. That’s probably why I was so inspired by the Punch Brothers when I first played with them. It felt like their music was coming from a whole different place and I wanted nothing more than to pursue it.”
Although the Punch Brothers aim for new sounds, they still hold true to their roots. One of the many bands Eldridge listens to is Planxty, an Irish folk band that both revolutionized and popularized the genre in the ’70s. But his other musical interests also reveal how much the band tries to evolve like Bobby Digital, a producer who greatly influenced many reggae artists. “I think it’s important to keep looking around for inspiration,” he says. “Without an anchor, you’ll end up becoming lost in an idea on what something could or should sound like.”
The Punch Brothers come to the Jorgensen Performing Arts Center on Oct. 4 at 7:30 p.m. As the band prepares for the upcoming tour, concertgoers should expect a stronger connection to the band’s songs that cannot be captured on a CD or iPod player. “I love touring because we really get inside some of the nuances of each track,” he says. “To me, playing live is a way for us to discover a level or a deepness in our music that can only be explored on stage.”
“When I listen to all four of my band mates, I am really really amazed by all of them. And if I take a step outside it all, I feel like I am one of the luckiest people because I am able to play with such complete bad asses who are all so dedicated.”