Interview: Paging Mandolinist Chris Thile

Chris Thile. Photo: Danny Clinch.

Would you believe it if you got a telephone call telling you that you’ve just won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant?” There are many stories about “the call.” One such anecdote: In 1982, when composer Ralph Shapey got the call, he thought it was a prank; he couldn’t believe that he would be given such a generous award with no strings attached.


One can understand the awardees’ surprise: after all, it isn’t every day that an artist, scientist, or author gets a half million dollars out of the blue. After highly secret deliberations, a representative from the MacArthur Foundation calls a recipient of a fellowship to tell them the good news: you’ve just been given a large sum of money to acknowledge what you do and, hopefully, enable you to engage in your work more fully for years to come.


As he relates in a conversation this past Wednesday, when the MacArthur Foundation called mandolinist Chris Thile to tell him that they planned to give him an award, Thile initially didn’t take the call. En route to a gig with his band Punch Brothers in Nashville, Tennessee, he saw a number come up on his mobile phone and decided not to answer.  Since this is election season, he thought a call from area code (312) – Chicago – might be someone reminding him to vote. Later, the caller left a message, indicating that they had a matter of ‘extreme importance’ to discuss with Thile. Guessing it might be someone who needed a mandolin player for a gig or a recording session, Thile didn’t immediately return the call.


At the gig, he got another message. This time, in addition to stressing the importance of the matter, the message also said, ‘don’t tell anyone about this.’ About then Thile went from disinterested to scared.


He says, “After all, in the movies, when someone says ‘tell no one of this,’ that’s usually when someone else is about to get shot! So, what did I do? Went and told someone – my tour manager, who offered to Google the number and see what the story might be. When he came back and told me that it was the MacArthur Foundation calling, I started to freak out.”


Thile was familiar with the foundation because Edgar Meyer, a musician he greatly admires, a frequent collaborator whom he considers a mentor, had won a MacArthur Fellowship.


“Two weeks after learning the news, I’m still surprised and humbled, still just coming to grips with this honor,” he says. “I mean I’m a mandolin player – I just hope I can blend in with the other recipients of the award. It makes me feel like I’ve got to step up my game in order to somehow become worthy of this honor.”


Self-effacing though he may be, Thile needn’t worry about his worthiness. Not only is he one hell of a mandolin player; he’s also a musician who has done a great deal to break down musical barriers and genre distinctions.

His prodigious exploits as a precocious musical youngster, followed by crossover appeal as part of the ‘Newgrass’ band Nickelcreek, work as a solo artist and with a host of collaborators – Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Michael Daves, and his current band Punch Brothers to name just a small sampling – demonstrate a work ethic that serves as a through line: Thile inhabits a stylistically versatile and keenly collaborative ambit.

The latest Punch Brothers recording, Who’s Feeling Young Now (Nonesuch, 2012), which Thile and the rest of the band are currently touring to support, is an object lesson in the mandolinist’s versatility. “Movement and Location” has an atmospheric alternative rock ambience, complete with a reverberant vocal hook, and is led by a propulsive mandolin ostinato and shadowy fiddle lines. “Flippin’ the Flip” is a hoedown tinged showcase for the whole band, while the title track features a funky groove and suave vocals and provides ample room for mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and electric guitar alike to strut their stuff in alternating solo turns. The band creates a layered and evocative sonic tapestry on a well-considered cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and assays a blustery barnburner of virtuosity on “New York City.” Those hankering for material with a more traditional folk/country vibe aren’t turned away either; “This Girl” and “Patchwork Girlfriend” find the Punch Brothers quite comfortable to craft arrangements with an acoustic bent and a wry sense of Nashville-tinged swing.


Although Punch Brothers are Thile’s current regular band, they comprise only a fraction of the musicians in his musical orbit. When asked about the range of collaborators with whom he works, whether this is a model he wants to sustain in his future activities, Thile replies enthusiastically, “I think it’s the way of the future for musicians. Recently, I got the chance to premiere my Mandolin Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. They were so open-minded, which made it a wonderful experience.”


What about mandolinists who, for Thile, fit the “genius” category? Again self-effacing, he makes it clear that, in mentioning artists whose music is a touchstone, he’s not comparing himself to them.


Thile says, “Listen first for the music that someone is making, not the instrument they are playing. An instrument is like a hammer: it’s a tool. The house is so much more than the hammer. The musicians I most enjoy listening to transcend boundaries; they transcend themselves when making music. There are so many that it is hard to mention just a few, but I get that sense of musicality when I listen to Edgar Meyer or Bela Fleck; Charlie Parker, Glenn Gould, and, more recently, Brad Mehldau and Hilary Hahn. In terms of mandolin players, again it’s hard to mention just a few. For starters, I’d say you’d have to mention Sam Bush, John Reischman, and Mike Marshall. And John Moore, a wonderful mandolinist who was one of my teachers and remains a great influence on me.”


It’s early days in terms of deciding what to do with the MacArthur Award, but it’s clear that Thile envisions possibilities for ambitious projects. He says, “I hope to have the chance to work with some of my favorite artists and to have the time to compose; to work on writing things with other musicians. I’d like to work together on some pieces that are, say, in lead sheet form – and some unfinished pieces that are in the idea stage as well. One thing’s for certain: winning this stokes the white-hot fire of creativity in me.”


In awarding a fellowship to Thile, the MacArthur Foundation seems to have chosen someone who, while possessing the skills of a virtuoso, is much more than a mandolin player. His speech is nearly as nimble as his fingers on the fretboard. It makes him an excellent advocate for the importance of music in our schools, our society, and our day-to-day lives. Thile’s enthusiasm for music is infectious.


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