October 9, 2012

How to Grow a Band

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On Saturday, Sept. 29, Punch Brothers came to Ithaca and performed at The State Theatre. Noam Pikelny, who plays banjo, spoke to The Sun over the phone. He talked about banjos, his band and Ithaca.

The Sun: Have you ever been to Ithaca?

Noam Pikelny: I have never been … It was quite a nice place. I wish every town had a theater like that. It’s a beautiful sounding room, great crowd.

Sun: Did you guys make it to AppleFest?

N.P.: I wandered around the streets a little bit, during the day.

Sun: How did you start playing banjo?

N.P.: I started playing banjo when I was eight years old, and my brother was playing mandolin. I grew up in Chicago, and [when] my brother … heard a bluegrass band he kind of got bitten by the bluegrass bug. … I wanted to try that out … My mom suggested the banjo so that we could play music with each other. So I went and rented a banjo with my family on my ninth birthday and went to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I really fell in love with the instrument and bluegrass music.

Sun: I was reading another interview you did with Fretboard Journal, and you were talking about having, essentially, the heaviest banjo ever. Is that still what you play?

N.P.: Yeah, I play a 1941 Gibson banjo, and the style is called Top-Tension; and it is one of the heaviest banjos that Gibson ever made, and the deepest pitch. They were adding more metal to it, at that time. It was post-Great Depression, so everybody was trying to come up with some way to an edge on the competition. And, back then in those days, they used skin for the head of the banjo … the hide of a cow or a goat. … So on the banjo I have a way to adjust that head really easily because it would fluctuate so much with the temperature.

Sun: In interviews about your solo album Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, you spoke about wanting to do a solo album after playing with Punch Brothers and how your playing had changed. How has Punch Brothers changed your solo music?

N.P.: They’ve had a pretty profound impact on everybody — both on a micro and macro level … Our first foray as a band, our first piece of music, was this piece called “The Blind Leading the Blind” — a piece that Thile had written that really forced all of us to break out of our current comfort level as far we were able to do on instruments. It was such a technical challenge for each of us that we really had to expand our individual toolboxes as far as how we played the instrument. With Thile, I was having to try to accomplish things on the banjo that I hadn’t really come across in my investigations with the banjo. … Thile not being a banjo player …  I’d always been very inquisitive on the instrument but when you get someone new, especially a guy like Thile, writing music for these instruments, it’s inevitable that you … kind of push the boundaries and challenge yourself.

So, what was interesting to me was that the progress that I’ve made on the instrument individually is  … what wasn’t very bluegrassy, or very much removed in some ways from the bluegrass tradition … which I had grown up with, and that my playing had emerged from … I was very much surprised that my explorations with the band really ended up transforming my playing regardless of the genre or style. My solo record is an opportunity to kind of showcase myself more in the traditional realm.

Sun: To promote the album, you did a Funny or Die video. It was very funny, and premised on the idea that it would be your vocal debut. The gag is that your singing is just terrible. Is there any truth to that? Do you sing at all?

N.P.: I sing every now and then with the band. There are a few songs that we have … There’s a song on the new record, called “Don’t Get Married Without Me” … I sang bass on a couple of songs on How To Grow a Woman From the Ground, one being The Strokes cover, “Heart in a Cage,” and another one, “If the Sea was Whiskey.” So I do sing a little bit, just depending on how many parts there are. I have a very limited range.

Sun: How did you decide to make the video? It was really funny.

N.P.: Yeah right. Every time a record comes out these days there has to be some kind of online content … One of the things that people turn to are these kind of electronic press kits. A lot of them are very much the same; they sit down and talk about the record and their experience … We were looking for a way to somehow get the word out, and found this kind of crazy construct. We wanted it to be something that was a little bit of a farce, and my brother got the idea of, “Well maybe we should pretend that this is supposed to be your vocal debut.” A lot of friends were very generous to participate … and then Funny or Die got involved … It was a very fun opportunity; it was very surreal.

Sun: Recently, Punch Brothers also made a documentary, How to Grow a Band. How was it like being filmed for that, how do you feel about how the movie turned out?

N.P.: I really enjoyed the experience … It seems like really long time, it was a really long time ago. It was three, almost four years ago that he was travelling with us … It’s a cool snapshot of the band in the early days. It’s a unique push backwards … It’s hard to watch a movie where you’re the subject of it, and the band is the subject of it. It’s an interesting experience … There are moments in it when you become sentimental about the time that was going on … it was a special time, and I’m glad we were able to capture some of it.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter