Interview: Chris Thile & Chris Eldridge

Chris Eldridge and Chris Thile on the morning we spoke for this interviewWith the release of the new Punch Brothers CD only a week away, Chris Thile fans are eagerly awaiting the latest entry in his musical diary. This one has been a long time coming.

I had the opportunity to speak with Chris, along with guitarist Chris Eldridge (a.k.a. Critter), last week and ask them about the new CD. We spoke in the early morning hours (11 AM) the day after a show in Vermont. The pair were on their way to Starbucks for a cup of java while we chatted.

The new CD coincides with the new band name, Punch Brothers, and is named simply, Punch. Scheduled to be released next Tuesday, February 26, 2008, the recording is centered around a Thile composition over a year and half in the making, The Blind Leaving The Blind. The work is presented in four movements, each a separate track on the CD.

Brance: Chris, tell us about the composition of The Blind Leaving The Blind. It seems quite an ambitious project to write something that large in scope, for performance by a bluegrass band.


Yeah, it’s big. I spent a year and a half writing it. Not that I worked on it every day, but I probably spent about two and half months worth of days in actual composition, over the course of that year and a half. I worked with a music composition software called Finale.

The finished piece is about a 70/30 mix, through composed material vs. something that looks more like a jazz lead sheet or a written out fiddle tune. My goal was to fuse the formal disciplines of jazz or classical composition with the vibrancy of bluegrass or folk music song writing.

When I started composing, we were still doing the Nickel Creek thing. I was having trouble with certain aspects of the work because I didn’t know at the time who would be playing it with me. So parts of it had to be put on hold until I had put the current band together. The composition is absolutely colored by the players.

Brance: The finished work is in four movements totaling over 42 minutes of music. Do you perform it as one continuous piece of music, or do you take breaks in between the movements?


No, we don’t perform it strait through, for a couple of reasons. For one, we need a chance to tune occasionally! And our audience, for the most part, isn’t accustomed to sitting and listening for 12 minutes (the longest of the movements) let alone 42 minutes. Everyone needs a break. So we pause, tune, talk to the crowd, check on them and make sure they’re doing ok.

Brance: So how have the audiences received the piece?


The reception has been very warm and encouraging. The fans seem to enjoy it as much as we do, and that’s important to us.

Brance: About the fans. Who are they? Bluegrass fans? Nickel Creek fans? Are there any classical music fans coming out?


I think it’s a mix of all that, the old fans and the new. There are definitely some bluegrass people who are coming out, along with Chris’ Nickel Creek fans, and the association with Nonesuch has brought in some fans that might not have listened to us otherwise.


Yeah, Nickel Creek took a folksy/pop turn along the way and we lost the interest of many of the instrumentally minded fans. I’m glad to see them coming back now.


You know, the fans, no matter what their background, have to be aware that the show is going to be different than what they’re used to.


Yes! You’ll need to be open minded to accept what we’re doing. In fact, we CRAVE the open minded!


Critter just threw a snowball at me!

To be continued…

Eldridge came by the nickname Critter some years ago as a young man. Spending time with his dad and the Seldom Scene, he got to hang out with many high profile bluegrass artists. He was dubbed “Critter” by his guitar hero Tony Rice.

More with Chris and Critter: Part 2