Q’s With Chris Thile: The Mandolin Virtuoso, NPR Host, MacArthur Genius & Punch Brother Can’t Really Define Americana

Chris Thile is a modern-day Renaissance man. He’s an accomplished mandolin player, member of the Punch Brothers (and formerly of Nickel Creek), a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, possibly the coolest NPR host that’s ever lived with his lauded radio variety show “Live From Here” and he recently announced a Carnegie Hall residency. 

Thile would seem an ur-source for all things contemporary Americana music by the sound of things; but, for the eminently charismatic Thile who can play in a variety of modes, his take on music transcends facile labels – though he’s got no time for crass commercialism.
Pollstar: I know you’re rather scholarly and a student of music and life in general, but what the heck is Americana?
Chris Thile: Quite simply, I think it’s music made in America. I think searching for a definition beyond that is going to be a bit futile. People might associate it with roots music, which you could certainly do. Then there’s the Grammys which have some definitions which I, with all due respect, consider to be fairly comical as to what they consider different about Americana and folk music, or what they determine as an Americana record versus a bluegrass record versus a folk record. 
It’s all very, very subtle. What people mean by Americana seems to be generally music made in America that has some sort of roots affiliation. Roots being also kind of ridiculous because there is no music that is un-rooted. It all stems from something. If you’re a human being, regardless of how innovative a human being you might be, your music is related to other music that exists.
American music is a melting pot of different cultures and influences and people you can trace back to Celtic music or African rhythms or Latin and far beyond. 
Which is lovely. I would encourage people not to think about music in terms of genre any more than they think of art in terms of the medium. If this painter works predominantly with oils, for instance, that’s the same thing as me electing predominantly to work with acoustic instruments. When we discuss genre, yes, there’s like an anthropological or sociological element of that. But, man, these days, when everything is swirling around itself with this kind of energy, it’s not even stew anymore. It’s soup. It’s like you can’t even necessarily tell what’s in there. You taste it and go, “Oh I think there’s some saffron in this,” but you can’t see it.
What about your own geographical bio being from Oceanside, Calif., (that hotbed of bluegrass music…) and moving to the small mountain town of Idyllwild, Calif., to the heartland of bluegrass country in Murray State in Tenn., and now New York, which God knows what the heck New York is – has Americana been your vernacular or a way for you to connect with disparate people and communities? 
Increasingly you’re finding music listeners who have no aesthetic bias or preference. Their relationship with music is kind of digital. Do I like it or do I not like it? Having grown up in the bluegrass community, I remember when I hit adolescence, I started thinking why are we sitting here listening to this aesthetic and half of it is not good. It just sounds like other stuff. It’s like the cover is the same as this real good book that I like. But what’s actually in there has nothing to do with that really good book. For instance, in bluegrass, the more your music sounds like Bill Monroe, the less it embodies the spirit of Bill Monroe, who was a total maverick. To embody the spirit of these great artists, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, who created the genre, the perpetuation of that genre aesthetically is far less interesting to me than the perpetuation of the spirit behind the creation of the genre, which invariably will result in music that sounds very different than those first movers.
A lot of your music perspective seems to have come from your family, so there’s a social familial component to your music.
My folks were folkies, but they’re also Southern California folkies. They were into the Kingston Trio and listened to hours and hours of public radio, including “Prairie Home Companion.” My Dad is a piano tuner so there was invariably classical music floating around the ether even though Mom and Dad weren’t listening to much of it in the house. But then Dad had also grown up in the jazz scene in San Diego before he met my Mom and decided to jump headfirst into family life. He had been accepted into the New England Conservatory in the bass program with the idea of eventually becoming maybe an orchestral bass player who moonlighted in jazz clubs. 
What kind of music were you exposed to?
There was a ton of music, there was a ton of jazz records on our little record bin which I would go through listening to everything. The thing that I played over and over again was the Getz/Gilberto record. That’s one of the first musical memories I have. The bluegrass thing came along because my Dad tuned this piano of this piano teacher in north San Diego county and she said, “Do you like bluegrass music, because my son’s in a bluegrass band that plays every Saturday night at a pizza place a couple miles from here?” And Dad was like, “Sure, we like folk music, there’s banjos and stuff.” 
How did that influence you? 
We started going every Saturday but it was more her son, this guy John Moore, I was drawn to. It was more him than actual bluegrass music. He was a super charismatic performer, really good musician, played the mandolin. I became obsessed with mandolin the way that some little kid growing up watching Roger Federer plays tennis. Not necessarily because of tennis, but because of Roger Federer. This is all kind of swirling back to my idea that the people involved are more important than the aesthetics that start to congeal. 

What kind of music were they playing? 
They were playing bluegrass, but it was Southern California, so they were also doing Clapton covers, they were all over the deck. Sometimes people from L.A. would come down who were in sessions. They did Beach Boys songs, they had an arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” I started going to bluegrass festivals as a result of that and playing so much mandolin. That was like the language that I grew up learning, but, maybe part of why I’m so cavalier about textual aesthetics and their importance is because that was so circumstantial. And it was elective. This Southern California boy whose Dad was a piano tuner and kind of a jazz bassist. It wasn’t like I grew up and that was all there was, I was set up to be a musical mutt right from the start.
Were you playing Zeppelin on the mandolin pretty early? 
Not that, specifically. But, I remember a buddy of mine was like, “Hey, check this out,” and it was the month that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. My folks started getting a little worried I was only listening to bluegrass and derivations thereof. And I checked out Rubber Soul from the library and that totally blew my mind. And then Dad was like, “Oh if you dig that, here’s some Beach Boys.” And right around then I started listening to his jazz records. But then also there was a bunch of commercial country music on family trips. Which I’ve actually gone back to to check out and I do think commercial country music meant a different thing than it does now. It was maybe a little bit less commerce-driven than now. It’s really the only genre of its station that I think is of grave importance, the difference between music that is made for music’s sake and music that is made to make money. That’s kind of the two things.

You seem to have the ability to take any commercial song you want and turn it into something much more musically interesting. You do that on your show with beautiful re-workings of songs you make your own. 
There’s a difference between music that is commercially successful and music that is commercial music. So, for instance, Kendrick Lamar is hugely commercially successful. That is about the furthest thing from commercial music that I could imagine. So, I think that’s an important distinction to make. 
There are beautiful moments in music when art and commerce come together. You mentioned Nirvana, which seemed to be one.
Major moment. But I mean no one intended to be commercially successful less than Kurt Cobain did, that’s for damn sure. All we’re talking here is semantics. I think it’s immensely important as an artist to analyze why certain things gain a wide audience and why certain things don’t, even if it ends up being an exercise in musical chaos theory. Unless it’s used as a joke of some kind, you’re not gonna hear the stuff I’m thinking about when I say the words “commercial music.” Which are like genetically engineered to bring a swift blast of pleasure to people who don’t eat, sleep and breathe music. Which is a lot of people.
One of the aspects traditionally associated with roots music is that social component that you can go and jam with people. Is that part of your world that you go out and have a hoedown with friends, family and whomever else? 
Yes, certainly growing up with that kind of thing. Sitting down and playing music is just such a wonderful, wonderful thing. I don’t think it’s unique to roots music. I think that’s a given human impulse, you know, to kind of come together and make music. We do it in a lot of different ways. Certainly religion tapped into that. How powerful it can be to come together and just make some music. I mean, the whole Christmas carol phenomenon. 
I just saw the Aretha Franklin memorial service, which was incredibly powerful with performances by Faith Hill, Chaka Khan, Ron Isley, Ariana Grande and others. Does music extend to all parts of your life – like a baby’s birth, a birthday, someone passes all of life’s tent poles?
Oh, yeah. Everything. Everything in my life revolves around music. But for my wedding, for instance, with [Claire Coffee], I was actually leaning towards not having music – it was almost like I couldn’t. Trying to come up with exactly what would encapsulate the situation was impossible. And what we ended up doing, my wife talked some sense into me, we had one of my best friends in the whole world play some Bach on the violin. And that about reduced me to just a 6-foot-tall pile of tears. Music is oxygen for me.