Nickel Creek's Chris Thile: We had some unfinished business as a creative unit

Nickel Creek's Chris Thile: We had some unfinished business as a creative unit
Photo by Brantley Gutierrez

When the idea to revisit Nickel Creek came around, what was only meant to be a brief return became a full-scale reunion. In their younger lives, Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, built a career around six albums pushing the boundaries of bluegrass -- one produced by Alison Krauss -- gained some Grammy nominations, and multiple awards. This all coming from a band that began when they were 8-year-olds.

Before Nickel Creek's show at the State Theatre on Sunday evening, Gimme Noise caught up with Chris Thile as he prepared for the whirlwind that follows a reunion tour.

Gimme Noise: What's the feedback you've gotten on the new album?

Chris Thile: I think people are excited, but I don't know how many people would tell me if they weren't.

Do you pay attention to album sales at all?

You can't not. It would be lovely to have the self-restraint to never look into it; I have yet to meet a musician who doesn't check in.

Obviously this album signaled the reunion of Nickel Creek. Can you pinpoint when getting back together with Sean and Sara and making music was a possibility?

I think at a certain point, just enough water had gone under the bridge. We'd been Nickel Creek since the time I was 8 to the time I was 26, and we needed to go and do other things. With my other projects, I was given that time to do the things I had been wanting to do, so maybe it was time to revisit Nickel Creek.

At first, it was going to be a trip down memory lane, but after the first writing session, it became clear that we had some unfinished business to attend to as a creative unit. It's a collaborative experience that's different from any of my other projects, and it fills a void in each of our lives. There are things that we can do together that we can't do with anyone else.

Why did you feel it was so necessary for you all to go out and work on other projects?

We had spent so much time on Nickel Creek, and that created voids in other parts of our lives. I'm really proud of what I've done with the Punch Brothers and what I've accomplished over the years. It served to help me appreciate what's special about what Sean, Sara, and I do.

Basically, I don't think we need to make Nickel Creek any more than what it is: to fill a void that we've now filled with other projects. Does that make sense? Now Nickel Creek is free; we're free to make music that the three of us naturally make together in a way that we never did before. Because before we all had personal agendas. Nickel Creek was our only outlet that we had to pursue those agendas. Now Nickel Creek has taken the exact form of what it ought to be.

How do you think those years that you were pursuing other creative outlets changed or influenced you?

I'll never be satisfied with my output, but I am very satisfied that I get to do what I'm doing. There's always work to be done, improvements to be made. I think in the time that Nickel Creek was last active, I've gotten to dot some personal "i"s and cross some personal "t"s. Being a member of the Punch Brothers helped with that.
Everything I read about Nickel Creek describes you guys as "progressive." Why do you feel this constant need to push outside the box?

Because why would we not? We don't need to make music that's already been made. It's already there, and it's amazing and beautiful, but it's already been done. I've never seen the point of not trying to do something new. For me, if I feel I'm doing something that someone else could do, then I just feel redundant. I hate that feeling.

How much of that innovation is felt in the music? For example, you all have such similar voices; how do you make that work as a trio?

Being different probably has something to do with it. If the inherent character of the individual voices are different, then they would stand in contrast. If you have orange on orange on orange, you're not necessarily getting much in the pleasing contrast. But red and green together, or whatever it might be, and you've got some nice contrast. We have different sounding voices, but having done this for so long, I think we can blend them together in a way that's hopefully pleasing.

That affinity, was that learned or was it naturally there when you first started playing together?

Like anything, it starts rough and gets smoother as it goes along.

When you write, is it more collaborative, or does everyone bring in their own ideas and songs?

On the last two records, it's been very collaborative. Before that, we would basically bring in finished songs and teach them to the other members. This record is the most collaborative. I think there's only a couple of songs that were written outside of the band, and everything else was deeply collaborative. It's really a nice direction for us -- having everyone have a part in the creation, because it helps everyone feel invested in every single moment of every song. It's one of the reasons you play in bands, so you can allow someone else's musical biases affect what you do. It's been fun to recommune with Sean and Sara after working with other musicians in different situations and apply it to this band. Then also, to be able to rediscover some of what is very natural and comfortable with Nickel Creek has been great.

Do you prefer to collaborate or write by yourself?

One isn't inherently superior to the other. I think a good mix of both activities are key ingredients to a healthy musical life: making music by yourself and making music with others -- balance in all things. In a committed romantic relationship, for instance, you don't want to spend every waking hour together. You need some time apart; it's important to have balance.

Well, do you feel you've found balance in your life? You have been making music for so long, and it's been such a big part of your life. Do you want your musical career to define who you are?

I'm pretty comfortable being defined by the music. [laughs] It's very important to me. I would love to be thought of as a nice person and a good husband to my wife and our eventual children. That would all be great.

Nickel Creek will perform at the State Theatre on Sunday, May 11, 2014.
AA, $49.50, 7:30 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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