Punch Brothers Serve Up A Bluegrass Cocktail The bluegrass supergroup led by mandolin player Chris Thile has released a sophomore album titled Antifogmatic, named for a type of drink that staves off the effects of bad weather. Together with Noam Pikelny on banjo, fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge and bassist Paul Kowert, the band combines bluegrass instrumentation with elements of classical music and rock 'n roll.
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Punch Brothers Serve Up A Bluegrass Cocktail

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Punch Brothers Serve Up A Bluegrass Cocktail

Punch Brothers Serve Up A Bluegrass Cocktail

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(Soundbite of song, "This is the Song")

PUNCH BROTHERS (Music Group): (Singing) This is the song where I listen. This is the song where I sit still. I called the dogs off all the things I'm missing. And to everyone but you before us sets sail. I'm sick of love...


This song, called "This is the Song," is one of 10 delectable tunes on the newest release by Punch Brothers. The CD is called "Antifogmatic" and the music - well, I can't do any better than to quote Jim Fusilli of the Wall Street Journal: It's bluegrass with the discipline of classical music and the unexpected angles of rock.

In all, in one tidy package of five musicians - all five of whom we have -Chris Thile on mandolin, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Paul Kowert plays bass, Noam Pikelny, banjo, and Gabe Witcher is a fiddler, and they all join me from Michigan Radio. Hello everybody.

PUNCH BROTHERS: Hello, hello.

LYDEN: So, there's really very little on this CD, you guys, other than the instrumentation that says bluegrass to me.

Mr. CHRIS THILE (Punch Brothers): Yeah - this is Chris Thile, the mandolinist, talking - it is very bare. It's just banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass and then singing. And I think it's a challenge that we've presented to ourselves to do as much as possible with those instruments that we grew up hearing and playing.

LYDEN: I want to ask about your collaboration in just a moment, but let's listen just to a little bit of the first song on the CD. It's called "You Are." It doesn't have any bluegrass sound to me. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song, "You Are")

PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) About a year from now I wake up in the arms of who I want. Without the need to hide our nakedness and pure, unholy thoughts...

LYDEN: You've got that bridge in there that's kind of like a rock screamer.

Mr. THILE: Yes. That was fun. We were all sitting around in my apartment and we had that verse lying around. And Gabbers started singing what was to be the melody, and everyone just went, ooh, it'd be nice to have a song like that...

(Soundbite of song, "You Are")

PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) (Unintelligible) out my mind. (unintelligible) my keys through the gate. (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: Gabe, how did you and Chris Thile start playing together? I know you've been playing for quite a while.

Mr. GABE WITCHER (Punch Brothers): Yeah - well, this is Gabe Witcher speaking now, AKA Gabbers.

LYDEN: When I heard Gabbers, I thought, OK, good. It's one and the same person. There's not a sixth guy.

Mr. WITCHER: Yeah, we met in 1986, maybe something like that, at this tiny bluegrass festival in the mountains just north of Los Angeles. It was a pretty small place, so, you know, there weren't that many kids our age playing this kind of music. I think I was maybe eight and you were...

Mr. THILE: Yeah, I was six or seven.

Mr. WITCHER: Seven? OK. So I must have been nine. And it was just kind of like, hey, I play the fiddle. And Chris said, hey, I play the mandolin. Said, great, you want to go play some baseball?

Mr. THILE: I saw Gabbers before he saw me, because he was playing with his dad's band - they were called the Witcher Brothers. They just play gigs in L.A.

Mr. WITCHER: Every now and again.

Mr. THILE: And Gabbers was easily half as tall as anyone else. And so they put him on a...

Mr. WITCHER: Being nine years old and all...

Mr. THILE: Being nine years old and all that. They put him on a chair.

Mr. WITCHER: To reach the microphone.

Mr. THILE: And so, like, for everyone else it was cute; for me, I was like: I see why they did that. Now he's as tall as everybody else. I was like, oh, that must be great for him. I wonder why I don't get to be on the chair when I play with my dad.

Mr. NOAM PIKELNY (Punch Brothers): That actually ended being a key component to our setup on "Antifogmatic," 'cause then Gabe Witcher had to play all of his parts standing on a chair.

Mr. WITCHER: That's right.

Mr. PIKELNY: That's how it all began.

LYDEN: I'm speaking with the Punch Brothers about their new CD, "Antifogmatic." Let's listen to another song. This one is a different sound and it's called "Alex."

(Soundbite of song, "Alex")

PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) Alex, short and sweet. Leave your (unintelligible) at home and the drinks are me next week. He seems like a real good guy. But you're only good as (unintelligible).

LYDEN: As loud and rocking as you are, the song was - is - "Alex" is really soft and it (unintelligible) the listener a couple minutes in. I read somewhere that the music you write is full of trap doors and I'd have to agree.

Mr. THILE: I think that's something that all of us crave as musicians, just as life-livers. I think there's a tendency towards boredom if anything kind of stays the same for too long. And...

LYDEN: You think?

Mr. THILE: Yes, yes, I do. I'm always looking for that - a buddy of ours, Gary Perchosa(ph), calls it the Punch Brothers patented patent flap. Where you lure someone in, aww, how you doing? Bam. And so, you know, something like "Alex," where it's going along and it's sort of ambiguously island style and then all of the sudden the chorus is, you know, loud, downstroke kind of a thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Alex")

PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) What do we do? Where will we go? Alex, (unintelligible). When will it end? Where are you wanting to, Alex?

LYDEN: Nothing really seems off-limits to you guys musically.

Mr. THILE: I guess - that is certainly at least what we'd like to...

Mr. WITCHER: Like to believe, yeah.

Mr. THILE: Project.

Mr. PIKELNY: I haven't...

LYDEN: And who's speaking?

Mr. PIKELNY: This is Noam Pikelny, the banjo player. I haven't gotten the opportunity to sing lead vocals on a song yet, so a few things are off-limits.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: When you did go to record, you went out to L.A. and you worked with Jon Brion, who's recorded, what, Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Sean Lennon. What's that like? Trying to record acoustic music can be tricky.

Mr. THILE: It's incredibly tricky, because the instruments are so, they're so nuanced. This is Chris, the mandolinist, again. You know, I think Jon realized that from the start. And he sat us down in the control room. He would sort of crouch down in all sorts of awkward ways in the middle of us and try and find where he was, where he was hearing the evidence of what we were actually trying to put through the instruments.

Mr. PIKELNY: And sometimes there's an amount of - a certain amount of edge that comes off of these bluegrass instruments that I think in modern recording techniques people have tried to smooth that over a little bit, maybe in efforts to make it more palatable.

But Jon kind of, I think he really heard the aggression coming out of these instruments on some of these songs and really felt like it was his mission to capture that.

LYDEN: Let's play one more song from the CD before we finish up.

(Soundbite of song, "Welcome Home")

PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

LYDEN: That's "Welcome Home" and it almost sounds like an orchestra in the background. Sort of reminiscent of the Beatles.

Mr. WITCHER: Thank you.

Mr. THILE: Oh, awesome. I like that. Little George Martin string part there, kind of, yeah. I'd go there.

LYDEN: Well, before we part, tell me about the title, which I really like, "Antifogmatic." I want to make one.

Mr. THILE: Oh yes. You should - you should make an antifogmatic for yourself. It's an antiquated term for a bracing beverage, alcoholic. Generally rum or whiskey that you would have in the morning before going out to work in rough weather to sort of warm yourself, stave off any ill effects.

Mr. PIKELNY: Different times, when you would make yourself a cocktail before going out to work in the morning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PIKELNY: (Unintelligible) recommend to have public transportation.

LYDEN: Well, listen, it really has been fun speaking with you. The Punch Brothers.

Mr. WITCHER: Likewise.

Mr. THILE: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: Chris Thile, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert, Noam Pikelny and Gabe Witcher. Their last CD is "Antifogmatic" and they spoke to us from the studios of Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor. And I want to thank everybody. It's been bracing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WITCHER: Excellent.

Mr. PIKELNY: Thanks so much.

Mr. WITCHER: Thanks.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: You can hear the Punch Brothers live in concert as part of our coverage of the Newport Folk Festival. Listen live with your NPR Music iPhone app or at our website, NPRMusic.org.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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