Interview: Gabe Witcher of Punch Brothers

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Chris Eldridge, Gabe Witcher, Paul Kowert, Chris Thile and Noam Pikelny of Punch Brothers (Photo by C. Taylor Crothers)

Punch Brothers' music is the sound of synapses firing. The band's mix of unpredictability and virtuosity means there's always something new to uncover in their original pieces. And upon listening to one of their covers, you'll be hard-pressed to imagine Bach's Brandenburg (Concerto #3) without banjo or Of Montreal's "Gronlandic Edit" without mandolin.

The band is comprised of Chris Thile (formerly of Nickel Creek) on mandolin and lead vocals, Chris Eldrige on guitar, Paul Kowert on bass, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Gabe Witcher on fiddle. They first collaborated in 2006 on an album released under Thile's name, then a record called Punch followed in 2008.

For their latest release, the band moved to New York so they could write music and practice in the same city. This geographical advantage led to their most collaborative and genre-defying album yet, Antifogmatic, named for "a bracing beverage—rum or whiskey—that one would have in the morning before going out to work in rough weather, to stave off any ill effects."

Punch Brothers will perform at the El Rey Theatre tomorrow night with the album's producer, Jon Brion, opening the show. LAist caught up with Witcher last week to learn more.

LAist: The song "Don't Need No" is so intriguing in how you pass the melody from one instrument to another, plus it's also the track where you take over on lead vocals. What was the songwriting process like for that one?

Gabe Witcher: That's one of the fun things that happens when we all get together. All the instrumental stuff came out of that main melodic line fragment. It just started to grow as we found some interesting harmonic ways to develop the melody so it actually went somewhere.

I can't remember who had this idea, but we decided that as the harmony rose, the melody should also rise with it. The best way to do that in our ensemble is to pass the melody around to different instruments. The guitar has a nice cello range, the banjo can go cello to viola, and of course violin and mandolin are at the top. So it felt like a natural arrangement to pass it around.

In that song, I can't always tell which instrument is playing!

It really lends itself to nice subtle changes of texture and color, especially since the banjo and mandolin can be so similar. At some points in that passage, I think they're trading every three notes back and forth, so the color of the banjo fades into the mandolin.








Punch Brothers - "Don't Need No"

Given that you're a multi-instrumentalist, do you ever try writing for the fiddle on another instrument?

Absolutely. I very rarely write on the fiddle, and I'm actually at a point where I'm trying to figure out why that is. (laughs) I do a lot of it on guitar or piano.

That fiddle solo of yours on "Missy" is reminiscent of an electric guitar solo.

Thanks! When I was a teenager, fiddle and guitar were neck and neck when it came to what I was most proficient at playing—and I was even in a shredder metal band at one point—so I'm not a stranger to the rock guitar solo.

Did you write that "Missy" solo on guitar?

No, that one was completely improvised in the studio. What you hear on the record happened in that moment. It was not a preconceived idea.

Wow! Did you have a lot of those improvised moments in the studio?

Yeah, part of the joy of being in this band is that everybody can read music, compose music and improvise. Whereas the elements we talked about earlier—in songs like "Don't Need No"—were written out and practiced, the solos you hear on the record were improvised in the studio. None of that stuff was written out. When we can, we like to let loose and be in the moment.

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According to the band, their album's name, "Antifogmatic", is old term for "a bracing beverage—rum or whiskey—that one would have in the morning before going out to work in rough weather, to stave off any ill effects."
I was also impressed when I read about how much time was put into the physical placement of the instruments in the recording studio. It almost sounded like feng shui. How did that influence the final album?

All of that was Jon Brion [LAist interview], and that's exactly what we were hoping he would do as our producer. Though Chris and I have known Jon for almost 10 years, this was the first time we'd asked him to work on an album with us.

As we were trying to get him as our producer, we basically wrote all the music and had it ready to go by the time we got into the studio, ready to capture it. He's so intuitive and really understands what it is to capture and relate a performance.

How so?

He had seen us a couple times at Largo, then we'd also spent a few nights jamming together. There's a difference between sitting in the middle of these instruments in a room and watching an acoustic ensemble on stage where the sound is coming through microphones, speakers, electronics and all that.

You can come really close to capturing that "sitting in the middle" energy, but there's nothing quite like that sound—where you can feel the instruments resonating with each other. I think Jon wanted to capture that as best he could and really make the listener feel like they're sitting in the middle of us as we're playing.

How'd he do that?

We took a lot of time to get that right. He set us up the way he wanted it to be captured, which meant we were all in a semicircle. There was no isolation, no separation. The fiddle mic was bleeding into the mandolin mic, and you could hear the banjo in the guitar mic. Everything was wide open.

This setup gave the sense of space that you can't get if the instruments are separated. It also emulated the live experience in that we had to get it right. If you screwed things up while somebody else was having the take of their life, you couldn't use it. So it kept everyone on their toes.

Jon was also working with jazz genius Brad Mehldau around the time he was working with you, and I was intrigued by how many jazz elements can be found in your music. Have you found that you've started to attract jazz fans?

Yeah, absolutely. We always go out and meet the audience after our shows, and the diversity of the people who come to our shows is just astounding. We have people of all ages and backgrounds. I dig it and if somebody who can appreciate Brad Mehldau likes us, then that makes me really happy.

In addition to your original music, the band is also known for your covers. Which cover song so far has been your favorite?

I think my favorite has been Radiohead's "Kid A." I think it's the most unexpected, and in a weird way it works for our ensemble.

There's been some demand for you to release a Radiohead covers album. Might that ever happen?

We've thought about that. We did an entire Radiohead set at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival two years ago—not on the main stage, but they do these nighttime shows in town, and we usually have the very last set of the festival.

We took two songs off of each album post-The Bends. It's pretty wild trying to recreate electronic sounds on acoustic instruments—definitely one of our bigger challenges. We've been kicking around the idea of doing a covers record, though not an all-Radiohead one just yet.


Punch Brothers — Brandenburg Concerto No. 3

The DVD that comes with the deluxe Antifogmatic set is a nice complement to the album, and that Brandenburg Concerto is incredible.

It's strange how well that works. That's kind of our whole point of being in this band and playing the music we play. Good music is just good music. It doesn't matter if it's played on a harpsichord or a banjo.

We've gotten to play that song a couple times with chamber orchestras and it's very interesting to see the change in attitude when we show up. There's always one person—sometimes two—in the orchestra who made the event happen, and they're really excited about it. But then there are the other people who are there because it's their job.

When we show up, those people often look at us like, "What the fuck is this? I can't believe I'm on stage with a banjo." Then we start playing, and by the end, everyone's excited and can't believe how well it works. It's such a different take on music they've played a zillion times.

Which cover song would you like to tackle next?

Good question. We were thinking just yesterday about what to do. I think we're going to see if we can pull off a Pixies song.

Earlier this year, Punch Brothers joined Jon Brion and Fiona Apple to record the student-penned song "So Sleepy" for 826LA's Chickens in Love project. How did that come about?

That was right around the time when we were mixing. Thile and I were almost done mixing the album in LA, and the other guys came in to join us for a show with the LA Chamber Orchestra. The guys arrived a day early and as we were hanging out in the studio, Jon said, "We need to take a break from mixing cause Fiona's coming over and we're going to record this song." We were invited to play on it and it turned out really well. The lyrics were written by kids, so Fiona got to sing about gummy bears and stuff like that.

It was a really long day, too. I don't think I got behind the microphone for my part until 7 a.m. But it's a really amazing project and it was really fun to be in the studio with Jon as the creator. Fiona brought in the song and Jon made the music around it. To watch that happen after having seen the other side of things for a few months was fantastic.


Punch Brothers — "Rye Whiskey"

On Nov. 4, you'll be performing with Steve Martin on the Late Show With David Letterman. Do you know which song you'll be playing?

I'm pretty sure we'll play "Rye Whiskey."

Ed Helms is also a fan of yours. You've definitely cornered the market on comedic actors who are also accomplished banjo players…

Yeah! It just worked out that way. We have a banjo in the band, they play the banjo…it was just instant friendship. They're great.

From what I've heard, it sounds like the members of Punch Brothers come from musical families. Do you think that's one reason why your dynamic works so well and why it seems like you can read each others' minds?

Absolutely. That's a huge part of it. We all grew up playing in bands, and we also grew up listening to the same records and trying to play the songs off of those albums. So a large portion of our musical experience has been playing the same music and trying to fill the roles of our mentors and heroes. There's a common mind among us in the way we like things to sound.

I was excited to learn about the How to Grow a Band Punch Brothers documentary. Have you seen the final cut of that yet?

I haven't. DVDs are being sent as we speak. We saw a little 20-minute thing they put together about a year ago that gave us an initial taste of what to expect. Then we saw a cut at the beginning of this year when they were about half done. I can't wait to see it now.

Any idea when it will be released?

I don't know. My guess is spring 2011.

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Punch Brothers (Photo by C. Taylor Crothers)

This next question is one I enjoy asking string players: What's the difference between a violin and a fiddle?

Physically, there are two real differences. Fiddle players usually have a flatter arch of their bridge so they can more easily play two strings at once with the bow. And they usually use steel strings, which are louder and brighter and can compete with a banjo. My fiddle is somewhere in the middle in that my bridge is round like a classical player's, but I also use mellow steel strings so I can straddle both worlds.

But mostly, the main difference is just in the way that you play it and the style of music. And the attitude. When I say that, I don't mean that classical players have an attitude; it's just about the way one approaches music. A lot of classical players can't improvise, and that's an enormous part of playing fiddle. And a lot of fiddle players can't read music, and that's an enormous part of playing classical violin.

So it's true that the basic difference is "a violin has strings and a fiddle has strangs"?

(laughs) Yeah exactly. That's perfectly it. Two different attitudes.

I like the idea of your middle fiddle.

Yeah, I used to have just a fiddle fiddle, then when we made the record Punch, I wanted the fiddling to come from the style and not necessarily the actual sound of the instrument. So I tweaked it and made it closer to what a classical sound would be on this instrument.

You were in the Witcher Brothers with your dad and now Punch Brothers with your friends, but have you ever been in a band comprised of just your actual brothers?

Yeah. Loren, Mike and I did two gigs as a trio 10 or so years ago. I don't think we had a name. It was open mic at McCabe's. Loren worked there and said, "Hey, you want to do this Sunday variety show?" So we worked up a few songs.

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Punch Brothers (Photo by C. Taylor Crothers)
Given that the band was named for a Mark Twain story, who are your favorite authors?

I usually read nerdy science books, such as stuff by Dan Bennett and Douglas Hofstadter. I just read this amazing Alexander Hamilton biography by Ron Chernow. And I'm almost through with my first John Irving novel, which I'm absolutely loving.

For many years you've been a regular fixture in the Largo music scene. Would you share one or two of your favorite memories?

There have been so many of them. There was one time when I went to see Jon's show and he brought me up on stage to play with him. Somebody yelled out a request for "Eleanor Rigby." So of course we played it, then later we found out it was Mike Myers who'd shouted out the request.

There was one night where some recording session had happened earlier in the day and all the guys from the session came to Largo and sat in with Jon. I hope I'm not leaving anyone out, but the band was Jon, Sean and Sara Watkins from Nickel Creek, John Paul Jones on the bass, Benmont Tench on piano, Jim Keltner playing drums, and probably someone else I'm forgetting.

An amazing lineup!

I was looking at the stage thinking, "You could not afford to hire this band if you wanted to. The cost would be too high." I was marveling that this event had even happened.

That's one of the greatest things about Largo—it's this environment where creative people want to be. That has everything to do with Flanny (owner Mark Flanagan) and Jon creating this environment where that can happen. I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.

And it sounds like Jon will be joining you for your gig at the El Rey Theatre. Would you give us a little preview of that show?

Sure. The only thing I know so far is that Jon will open the show and probably do 40-45 minutes, and then we're going to come on and do our thing. I'll be very surprised if at some point we don't all play together. Who knows what will happen!

When you're in LA, what are some of your favorite places to eat?

When we were making Antifogmatic, we'd show up to the studio and immediately order from Loteria. Every day. We probably put the owner's kids through college.

Yuca's on Hillhurst is amazing, and nearly every time I'm in town I meet up with friends at Mozza. But actually, my favorite restaurant is Lucques on Melrose. Or AOC, which is the same chef/owner. And of course, I can't pass up an In-N-Out burger if I'm near one!

Thanks for speaking with LAist, Gabe!

Don't miss Punch Brothers with opener Jon Brion Tuesday night (8 p.m. on Oct. 12) at the El Rey Theatre. Tickets are available here. Learn more about Punch Brothers at www.punchbrothers.com.