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Punch Brothers May Look Like A Bluegrass Band But Their Sound Is Unique


The mandolin player Chris Thile is one of the most exciting talents in acoustic music. He made his name in bluegrass as a child star, but also plays classical and other genres, and he fronts a band that brings it all together. NPR's Vince Pearson reports on the latest from Punch Brothers.


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) I've never dwelled on leaving, only getting somewhere.

VINCE PEARSON, BYLINE: Chris Thile, the singer here, says he still remembers the day he met fiddler Gabe Witcher more than 25 years ago.

CHRIS THILE: At a little bluegrass festival in Southern California.

PEARSON: Chris was 7. Gabe was 9.

THILE: He was playing in his dad's bluegrass band. They had him standing on a chair so that he would be as tall as everyone else.

PEARSON: And decades later, the childhood friends met a like-minded banjo player and decided to team up.

THILE: And then since it was fiddle and mandolin and banjo, it seemed pretty clear that whatever the music might sound like, it would look like bluegrass.

GABE WITCHER: So we better get a guitar player and a bass player.

PEARSON: That's Gabe. Punch Brothers do look like a bluegrass band, but the sound is all their own.


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) On the very street where I call you. With three drinks, maybe more...

PEARSON: Their latest release is called "The Phosphorescent Blues." The title was inspired by an experience many performers today will relate to - standing on stage, looking out at a crowd fiddling with its cell phones.

THILE: It's actually kind of a beautiful lighting effect. I bet you they have no idea how well lit they are from stage.

WITCHER: (Laughter).


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) Look at us, we're glowing.

THILE: People look like ghosts from stage, and they kind of are ghosts. In a way, they're not really there, and that's kind of how we are all right now. We're never really all the way anywhere. A lot of the record is just trying to think about that.

PEARSON: So the band wrote songs about distraction and isolation and yearning for real connections in this hyper-connected age.


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) As you explode out of your phones, amen.

PEARSON: Thile and Witcher call the album their most ambitious. It opens with a 10-minute overture and ends with a swelling chorus, and here's the thing about that chorus - they crowdsourced it. Gabe says they tried to loop their voices but it just didn't sound right. So they reached out to their fans - how else? - using social media and asked them to record themselves singing the part. Some 1,500 people uploaded files.

THILE: It was incredible. We had people from 14 or 15 different countries

WITCHER: And they sound great.

THILE: They sound great. It was very powerful.


THILE: I have a conviction that we'll make all of this work and that we won't end up living less vibrantly than our forefathers because we'll figure it out. But to actually hear all of these people sing this little thing that we wrote and so earnestly and so beautifully in a way that couldn't have happened before the technology existed, it ultimately lent some conviction to the hope at the end of that lyric.


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) Guide us back to who we are from where we want to be.

PEARSON: The new album from Punch Brothers is called "The Phosphorescent Blues." It comes out today. Vince Pearson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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