Punch Brothers hear drums in its head and on new album

The Punch Brothers play at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28 in Harrah's Lake Tahoe.

The Punch Brothers play at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28 in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe.

Aggressively progressive bluegrass band Punch Brothers is headed to Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and is bringing “The Phosphorescent Blues” along.

Punch Brothers is Chris Thile (mandolin, vocals), Gabe Witcher (fiddle, vocals), Noam Pikelny (banjo, vocals), Chris Elderidge (guitar, vocals), and Paul Kowert (bass, vocals).

“We just put an album out,” Witcher said. “We’ve got a lot of new material, obviously about to start a new tour, and we’ll be swinging through Tahoe. We’re just really excited about all the new stuff.”

Released in January, “Phosphorescent Blues” is the group’s fourth studio album. Punch Brothers recorded it at a studio in Los Angeles called Ocean Way, with the guidance of acclaimed producer T Bone Burnett.

“T Bone’s amazing, he is so aware of what needs to happen,” Witcher said. “I know that sounds very vague, but T Bone, first off he’s an encyclopedia of American Music. You can’t stop the guy on anything that happened, basically 20th century, though he knows a lot before that as well. So he has all these amazing reference points, all of this knowledge. He’s been around forever, so he’s seen every situation that a performer can get into. He’s seen a million ways that you can take yourself out of the moment or get in your own head as a performer, so his main concern is that you stay out of your away.”

While Punch Brothers have often stuck with traditional bluegrass instrumentation, its members have no problem working well beyond the bounds of old-time music. One example is the addition of drum tracks on some songs on “Phosphorescent Blues.”

“We had Jay Bellerose come into the studio with his drums, and it was just an immediate thing,” Witcher said.

“When we started the band we were very idealistic about, it’s going to be these five instruments, no effects, no studio tricks,” Witcher said. “ ‘We’re going to push the boundaries of what these five instruments can do.’ There’s lots of room for exploration of the way these instruments interact together. Then, when we started to write as a group and expand what we were doing, we found ourselves writing songs where, when we play them we all hear drums in our heads.

“On the previous record, we wrote a bunch of songs that, I would say, would have been better with drums,” Witcher said. “We did that record without drums, and everything sounds fine, but once we were playing those songs in a live setting, we realized that they should have had drums that it would have added a lot.

“So we said “If something is calling out, begging for drums, let’s do it.”

Named after a jingle in a Mark Twain short story, Punch Brothers first came together in 2006, initially to back up Thile on the album “How to Grow a Woman from the Ground.” The band garnered major recognition with 2008’s “Punch,” featuring “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” an elaborate and sweeping four piece bluegrass suite written by Thile. These days, the band gets together to write material.

“It’s totally collaborative,” Witcher said. “Someone will usually come up with a phrase or a riff or a little nugget of something. We’ll all get together and kind of spill these ideas out; the ones that people latch onto, the ones that spark an idea in someone else, those are the ones that naturally grow into something.”

Currently on a spring tour headed through the Western and Southwestern U.S., Punch Brothers have an exciting summer slate ahead, including appearances at Bonnaroo and Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Witcher mentioned that the group would definitely like to get back in the studio.

“I hope we make another record, keep on figuring out more about what it is we do, what it is we are,” the fiddle player said.

For now, Punch Brothers is focused on exploring the most recent batch of music further. What’s the best way to do that? On tour, of course.

“The whole process is really a two part process,” Witcher said. The first is the writing and recording, but the second half is playing the songs in front of people. You learn way more than you could ever imagine, connecting with people, what works what doesn’t. We’re really looking forward to that half, to take what we’ve learned and use it to influence our sound even further.”

-Josh Sweigert

  • Punch Brothers
    When: 8 pm, Saturday March 28
    Where: Harrah’s Lake Tahoe South Shore Room,
    Tickets: $49.75

About Josh Sweigert

Josh grew up on the California coast with a deep appreciation for bluegrass and string band music as well as the great outdoors. A guitarist and singer, he plays solo acoustic gigs in South Lake Tahoe.

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