A string band for the 21st century, Punch Brothers applies its collective virtuosity and innovation to traditional blues, bluegrass, folk and rock. Even classical composers Alexander Scriabin and Claude Debussy have gotten the Punch Brothers treatment.
Seeking new musical horizons, mandolinist and singer Chris Thile founded Punch Brothers — no “the” — in 2006. He’d previously performed with Nickel Creek, the progressive bluegrass trio he formed with brother and sister Sean and Sara Watkins in 1989 when all three of them were still children.
Following Nickel Creek’s farewell tour in 2007, Thile turned his full attention to Punch Brothers.
“When we formed Nickel Creek, Sara and I were 8 and Sean was 12,” Thile said from his home in Portland, Oregon. “It almost didn’t feel like a choice. It just happened.”
For Thile and the Watkins siblings, Nickel Creek was a band and a family.
“We shared things the way a close family does,” Thile said. “But there are things you don’t share with family members, but do share with close friends. Punch Brothers was like going off to college and meeting new people. You start realizing, ‘Oh, I have a lot in common with these people.’ And you choose to do something with them.
“I was very happy with the music Nickel Creek made, but Punch Brothers needed to happen.”
Thile’s decision to leave Nickel Creek and form Punch Brothers with musicians he hand-picked for the project didn’t disappoint him.
“It’s gratifying that I took a step back in my career to get it started and now it sustains itself,” he said. From a creative standpoint, Punch Brothers — which also features guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam Pikelny and fiddler Gabe Witcher — remains exciting for Thile.
“The well hasn’t run dry,” he said. “As long as I’m in a room with these five guys, making music together, I have ideas.”
Thile’s vision for Punch Brothers coalesced around an especially ambitious composition, his 40-minute, four-movement suite “The Blind Leaving the Blind.”
“When I met the guys who would eventually become Punch Brothers, that piece started taking clearer shape in my mind,” he said. “ ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ is a less collaborative project than what Punch Brothers naturally became, but it showed the way to Punch Brothers’ true collaborative nature.”
For their latest album, 2014’s “The Phosphorescent Blues,” Punch Brothers collaborated with star producer T Bone Burnett. The winner of 13 Grammy awards, Burnett’s clients include Taylor Swift, the duo of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, The Civil Wars and films “The Hunger Games,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “Crazy Heart.”
After being invited by Burnett to contribute to the soundtracks for “The Hunger Games” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Punch Brothers invited Burnett to produce “The Phosphorescent Blues.”
“We have a definite idea of what we’re going for, but what T Bone is brilliant at, in our case, was making sure that we didn’t block our own vision. He clearly was the right guy for this batch of tunes.”