Listening to All Ashore, the new album from bluegrass band Punch Brothers, is like riding an inner tube down a lazy river—all you have to do is surrender.
While Punch Brothers can pluck feverishly with the best of ‘em, singer-songwriter Chris Thile’s lullaby falsetto and fabled lyrics are at their loveliest when set to the band’s elegant, symphonic instrumentation. The latter comprises much of All Ashore, which sounds more like one long piece of music in nine movements rather than disparate, differentiated tracks. Thematically, the album finds mandolinist Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam Pikelny, and violinist/fiddle player Gabe Witcher all grappling with the weight and responsibilities of committed relationships and/or parenthood in a tumultuous socio-political climate.
Grammy-winning Thile, who moonlights as radio variety show host of A Prairie Home Companion reboot Live From Here, spoke to us ahead of the band’s Palace Theatre show Saturday night.
City Pages: The new Punch Brothers album was inspired by tiki bar culture. Explain that.
Chris Thile: Heh heh heh. It was harvested while in the midst of enjoying tiki bar culture, that’s for sure. I think there’s a certain productive aspect of escapism, even in the most shameless variety, and tiki is certainly that. Going to these bars that look like you’ve been invited to a round by one of the pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, you sit down and you have a drink and right about the time the second round hits the table, you stop escaping from whatever it is you’re escaping from and you start talking about it. That’s what I think can be healthy about those grand, shameless gestures of escape, that once you escape from that thing, you’re able to actually hold it out for analysis and discussion.
Whenever the boys and I were out at one of these places, we’d start talking about the real stuff and how difficult it is to balance family and work, newish fatherhood, the difficulty of love, the work of staying in love, and all of these kinds of thing in the context of the most politically tumultuous time of our lives. We’re all in our mid- to late-30s. These are the craziest times of our lives and that’s when the rubber really meeting the road as far as our family lives are concerned and our professional lives. The record kind of swirls around all of that activity and the conversations that led to that were held primarily in tiki bars.
CP: Is music a form of escape for you? Or is it something you have to escape from? Or a bit of both?
CT: [Laughs] Oh, wow. That’s a great question. I think it’s a little bit of both. I love music to death. I’m a person of big appetites for everything. I like experiencing the world. I want to experience the world and see if there’s a way in which I can experience the world in a way that helps me gain perspective on why this is all happening and why we do what we do. The big questions. Music is the thing that I have some aptitude for and so it does often help me make sense of my feelings about various things, or maybe more than that, it gives me a place to put those feelings even if I can’t make sense of them. When I was little, I used to be kind of obsessed with tackle boxes, just loved tackle boxes, seeing a full tackle box with all of its various fishing lures and weights and extra fishing line. The best part of fishing was having a tackle box because it seemed so organized and beautiful. I’ve never been good at organizing anything really except for maybe musical thought. I feel like music can be kind of like this tackle box for my life.
CP: In your press release, you say this album is “a meditation on committed relationships in the present day, particularly in the present climate.” What are the challenges of committed relationships that you think are unique in the current socio-political climate?
CT: I think one part of it is the amount of distraction that we are bombarded with day in, day out. The amount of noise. How do you even hear your partner talking over the noise of this circus act news cycle? The attack on the dissemination of information, the propagation of the relativity of facts, I think all of these things makes it harder to have a relationship – not just with a romantic partner, but with anyone. There’s just so much noise. We are being bombarded by information that is so disturbing and then being bombarded by people telling us that information is false. What’s a human being supposed to think when they get back home after their day’s work and you’re talking to this person that you’re in love with? Or you’re trying to raise a child and you’re trying to give your child a sense of the beauty of humanity and of the world at a time when it’s easy to believe there’s not a whole lot of beauty left?
CP: There’s a lot going on in the song “The Angel of Doubt.” Demons…even adultery? Unpack that one.
CT: There are those nights when, just in the moments before sleep, something is there that causes you to call into question every decision you’ve ever made, or at least most of them. I liken that to the angel of doubt, who is clearly a dark angel, a demon. I was raised in a pretty fundamentalist Christian household. I hasten to point out my parents have since moderated in what I consider to be a really beautiful way. I find religious imagery creeping into my lyrics often, or that those sorts of analogies come pretty readily to me. So late at night, lying awake, wondering the unmentionable things: “Why am I doing this? Maybe I should have just locked myself in a room and made music my whole life, maybe that’s all I’m good at. Maybe I should never do that. Maybe that’s the vainest. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother with this. Wouldn’t it be better if I just got a 9 to 5 and was there for my kid growing up every weekend, morning, and night?” Just all that kind of stuff that can keep you awake for that last hour before you finally exhaust yourself, wake up in the morning, and go to work again – and by that, I mean: go to work at just being a person. The demon in the first part is inviting the protagonist to do another round of “What ifs?” with it, this communion with the angel of doubt, the imagining of the various alternate paths to a life that could be taken. The second part of the lyrics, the protagonist resists, tries to refocus the thoughts on what’s going on and to basically soldier on. Then the demon kind of comes screaming back into the fore for part three of that vocal.
CP: In addition to playing with Punch Brothers, you’re also the host of “Live From Here.” Now that you’ve been in that role for a couple of years, do you feel like you’ve made the show your own? Or will there always be that Garrison Keillor taint to it?
CT: [Laughs] I’m really having a wonderful time. It’s like everything else: it’s a process. It’s hard work. There are always things that you’re doing that you feel you could do better. There are decisions that you make that you maybe wish you’d made a different decision. But overall, I’m very happy with where we’re headed. The opportunities to commune with the country…not to get all grandiose, but if you have a radio, you can come to our show every week, which is a tremendous opportunity for someone like me who delights in audible art and entertainment – loves to make it, loves to consume it, and loves to share it. I really do feel like we’re on track as far as making it what it needs to be and what it needs to be is going to be in constant flux as the world evolves.
I became host at a pretty bizarre moment in our country’s history. There’s been a fairly urgent need for a variety show on Saturdays. Our show can be something of an escape, but again, you don’t want to just ignore the stuff that’s going on; it’s going to be one of the things that propels us through those two hours. As the host, certainly I’m up there doing some of the stuff that you’re hearing, but I also get to step aside and listen to some of the stuff that you’re hearing and have been lifted up at times – lifted up and out of my concerns and fears about the direction we’re headed as a people – by some extraordinary bit of comedy or a musical performance. Just being up there making music with my friends, actively partaking in the art that’s being made, sometimes there has been an unexpected collaboration or a moment that can lift me up and out of the stuff that’s going on. I feel, ultimately, like the show is becoming itself.
With: Madison Cunningham
Where: Palace Theatre
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Aug. 11
Tickets: $ 30-$50; more info here