February 8, 2007

After Nickel Creek, Thile Continues to Grow

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On Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to speak with Chris Thile over the phone and discuss his newest record, How To Grow a Woman From the Ground.

Since before he could walk, Chris Thile has played music. When he was nine, he formed the Nickel Creek band. Since then, Nickel Creek has released four albums on Sugar Hill Records; two have reached Gold and Platinum status. Not only has the band been decorated with Grammy nominations and awards, but Thile, the group’s lead singer, has released five solo albums and even been named Mandolinist of the Year in 2001. Chris Thile is an incredibly celebrated and accomplished musician, yet he still wants to grow.

From the New York airport, Thile tells me, “I’m twenty-five and I’m struggling to find a voice. For the longest time it’s been mandolin, but that becomes increasingly insufficient. It’s just an instrument, and you can’t say everything you want to say with just one instrument. Well, you know what, actually, some people can. Some people get it done with just one instrument. But I really don’t think that I am one of those people.”
An incredibly modest guy, Thile spoke about his inspiration. He is fascinated by the power of the symphony, “agog really, at the facility that Brahms has with the orchestra. You can tell, really, that it’s his voice.”
In 2004, Thile released Deceiver. In a striking departure from previous work, Thile wrote, recorded and performed every sound on a progressive, imperfect and surprisingly pop record. He was searching for his voice. “I had to get that record out of my system I think. I really love pop music. I really love well made pop music. I needed to try making a pop record before I could move on and do what I really think I actually should be doing.

“That [last record] was like exploring pop music, not as an influence of mine, but as the desired result. Sometimes it works, but that ultimately I’m just not a pop musician. I love [pop music]; I think it’s a very noble calling. But it’s not my calling. And that’s kinda how I feel about that record. I feel like I hit the nail on the head about maybe two or three out of ten. Which is not a high enough percentage. That being said, I’m proud of that record because I think it helped me get that out of my system. I also like the control thing. I realized I don’t want that much control. That’s just too much control for any one musician to have. And it’s not necessarily conducive to the best music making,” said Thile.

His latest record, How To Grow a Woman From the Ground, “could not be more different then the last record,” says Thile. He returned to the music he loves and with an all new bluegrass band, Thile finds inspiration: “You know that record is really not so much a solo record as it is a band record. Everybody made really tangible contributions. The band is not just a pick up band or anything, that’s what we’re gonna do. And as we phase Nickel Creek out, that’s gonna become my main project. And they are incredible!”

With his new long-term project, Thile is happy and inspired — he has new goals to reach. He is inspired as he says, “You want to be bigger than yourself ultimately. I think that’s maybe what we’re all trying to do — is to get bigger than we are. And that’s why we enter into relationships, and that’s why we have friends, and that’s why we try and maintain great relationships with our family and all that kinda thing. I think it’s that desire to be part of something bigger. Music needs to reflect that. On a super self-contained project, it can be fun. And at the end of it, you can go, ‘Wow! I did all of that.’ But it’s actually ultimately not where my heart is. I think my heart is in being a part of a really amazing ensemble. And that’s what the How to Grow a Band is attempting to become.”

With Thile’s clear return to more traditional bluegrass, I was compelled to ask how he felt about past criticism he has received from bluegrass purists about his more progressive records. Thile did not pass judgment. “I think people love getting riled up. Bluegrass is such a Boutique music that the bluegrass folks have to scream louder than anyone to get heard. You know, there’s nobody really speaking for them, and they’re just making a lot of noise, and there aren’t actually very many of them, of the purists. There’s just [also] tons of people who feel that rock music has to be this certain era of the Stones, or whatever. There’s just gonna be people ready to get riled up. I get super riled up about stuff, so, I totally understand. I’ve gotten to this place where I feel that music needs to be evaluated based on to what extent it achieves its own goals. Which is why for instance I can get nearly as excited about Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic,’ as ‘Morning Bell’ by Radiohead, or ‘Whitewater’ by Bella Fleck,” said Thile.

He is reflective and thoughtful about what he enjoys and how he can be his best. On his latest album, Thile covers both the White Stripes and the Strokes. He goes so far as to title his album after the name of a song by Tom Brosseau. When I asked him about the curious title, Thile got honest, “I love that song. And I realized that it was kind of a dodgy move to title something that’s so charged gender wise. I also realize it can be taken [the wrong way]. People have been offended by it occasionally, and I think, again that people just like to get riled up. But my understanding of the song is that the guy is so intimidated by woman, [he] just holds them in such high esteem, that he’s attempting to grow one so that he feels more, I don’t know, acceptable. [He feels] that maybe if I am the creator of this woman or something I’ll be able to talk to her ‘Ha Ha!’ And that’s something that I… I got my ass kicked by the last relationship I was in. This girl just left. It created a pretty serious complex for me. I’ve always been able to talk to girls, but I’m scared of them. I just could relate to it. Like, man if I could just grow one, that would take care of a lot of problems ‘Ha, Ha!’ It’s just, what I really love about the song is the naive-idealism, which is a staple of my life. I’ve been running around with my heads in the clouds, but really believing that the stuff I see up there can be accomplished. And then also, you title records because it [the title] pops! And I think that the title pops ‘Ha Ha!’ You can just say it and you go, am I interested in that title? And I was. And I don’t think I necessarily understand it. I think, maybe I’m just talking.”