"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The sepia-toned cover of “Who’s Feeling Young Now?,” the Punch Brothers’ third album, features the five band members lounging against a waist-high brick wall; a weather-beaten wooden fence serves as a backdrop. It’s reminiscent of the Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 masterpiece “At Fillmore East” — and, while the band members insist they weren’t being intentionally evocative, it’s not a bad comparison. Like the Allman Brothers more than four decades ago, the Punch Brothers have achieved a kind of mind-meld that’s only possible when preternaturally talented musicians spend hours pushing themselves, and each other, to explore their passion and creativity.
For new initiates, a brief history: The Punch Brothers were formed six years ago, when mandolin prodigy Chris Thile decided he’d reached the end of the creative line with Nickel Creek, the Grammy-winning acoustic trio he’d joined when he was eight years old. (That’s not a typo.) He recruited a group of similarly fresh-faced virtuosos — Leftover Salmon banjoist Noam Pikelny, Infamous Stringdusters guitarist Chris Eldridge, fiddler Gabe Witcher, and bassist Greg Garrison — to help him record a four-movement, 40-minute “folk-formal” suite titled “The Blind Leaving the Blind”; before they wrestled that beast to the ground, they released in 2006 Thile’s solo album, “How to Grow a Woman From the Ground.” (Garrison has since been replaced by Paul Kowert who, at age 25, is one of the few musicians in the world who can make the rest of the band feel old.)
When “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” which forms the bulk of the Punch Brothers’ debut, “Punch,” was finally released in 2008, it was greeted with rapturous hosannas by the press. The band’s sophomore effort, 2010’s “Antifogmatic,” was similarly praised; in his “slobbering rave” in Paste, Ed Helms, who plays a mean banjo when he’s not working his day job as Dunder Mifflin Scranton branch manager Andy Bernard on “The Office,” wrote that the band was so good, the only explanation was that they were “aliens, and they’re here to take over our world. … [T]heir music is an impossibly perfect mixture of down-home charm and staggering sophistication” that could “only be the result of complex algorithms running on an interplanetary mainframe.”
That makes what the band has achieved on “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” all the more remarkable. The album opens with “Movement and Location,” a propulsive masterpiece that sets the tone, both musically and thematically, for what’s to come. It begins with Thile chopping a rhythm line under a cascade of staccato eighth notes, courtesy of Pikelny and Witcher; when Eldridge and Kowert jump into the fray, it’s off to the contrapuntal races. Thile, whose natural inclination is to tell stories (oftentimes about romance), here veers toward the abstract: “Did he ever live,” he sings, a touch of echo added to his reedy tenor, “in those three and 20 years, for a thing but movement and location?”
That, of course, is a reference to baseball great Greg Maddux, who once summed up his career as one of the best pitchers ever to play the game by saying, “I try to do two things: locate my fastball and change speeds. That’s it. I try to keep it as simple as possible.” With the help of producer Jacquire King, who has worked with Tom Waits, Buddy Guy, Norah Jones and Kings of Leon, the Punch Brothers follow suit, in their own, inimitable way: The shape-shifting time signatures, technical virtuosity and exquisite craftsmanship are all in full effect, but the overriding quality of the dozen songs on “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” is that they pack a visceral punch that’s not dependent on the listener’s musical knowledge or sophistication. It’s hard to imagine another band doing an acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s hypnotic, effect-laden “Kid A” without making it sound gimmicky; in the Punch Brothers’ hands, it’s somehow as powerful and transporting as the original.
I first met the Punch Brothers in 2007, when they were still workshopping “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Late last month, I sat down with them before the second of the two sold-out shows at the Somerville Theater near Boston that launched their current tour. They’ll be on the road for the next few months; if they’re coming to your town, I strongly recommend checking them out. I imagine that in time, folks who passed up a chance to see the band strut its stuff will feel a little like those New Yorkers who were offered tickets to see the Allmans at the Fillmore East 41 years ago and decided they had something better to do with their time.
What’s been different about the new record?
Chris Thile: We didn’t consciously attempt to make a more accessible record — but we did consciously go in wanting to make a more direct, concise statement. A clearer statement: Basically, making sure that every song started, in our collective mind, with an unassailable kind of motive, an unassailable cornerstone.
Musically or thematically?
Musically, speaking first and foremost. Sometimes that can be in the form of a musical hook that comes prepackaged with words and everything.
Like “Patchwork Girlfriend.” [He sings: “Guess I need a little love from every square of my sweet little patchwork girlfriend / Of my sweet little patchwork girlfriend.”] That just seemed like it was working on all fronts, and that was a big difference. That each thing, each song had to get all five of us moving —
Gabe Witcher: Like, physically moving.
Thile: It couldn’t just appeal to us cerebrally, like, “What a cool idea!”
Was that not true on previous records?
Chris Eldridge: I think we learned from the last record. [Producer] Jon Brion — he did “Antifogmatic” — one of the lessons he really tried to instill in us is that as long as somebody is moving when they were listening to our music, they couldn’t accuse our music of being overly intellectual or too fancy. [Brion’s production credits include albums by Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, Spoon and Kanye West.] He was just really trying to instill in us the kind of visceral hit that makes great music great.
Thile: The only problem, of course, is he got that message to us too late in the game.
Eldridge: He should have gotten a kind of pre-production credit on this album. He comes from that same school [as "Who’s Feeling Young Now" producer Jacquire King], who was constantly asking us to peel back one layer —
Noam Pikelny: — or defend choices. This was the first time we met a sixth person preceding recording where we established a trust between — we were playing these songs that were kind of half formed, or just seeds of songs, and [King] was completely frank with us. He would tell us, “I love what’s going on here but all of a sudden you’ve completely lost me. This was going great and now I have no idea what you guys are trying to do. You have to either be more eloquent in how you’re constructing this or you have to peel it back —”
Witcher: “— and focus in on two or three things that make this song this song, focus in on those and let those be the elements. Don’t get in the way of those ideas coming across.”
Is there a song on the album where you were getting in the way and Jacquire forced you to peel it back?
Thile: “Clara” got simplified. We kept kind of trying to come up with more — basically that song has an almost Baroque harmonic scheme. And I think as a result, we were kind of layering in, kind of like a Bach chorale or a Brandenburg concerto or something like that — but still at its core, that’s a song. That song is a song — a melody, and some nice harmony — and that’s what it needed to be. We kept trying to add stuff to it and it kept not being as enjoyable as just hearing that melody and playing those chords. And so what we ended up doing is adding to the core of the song, only a bass — basically all that song has is the harmony it started with, the melody and bass line. And then what we would add is, on those channels, you can almost just, instead of adding parts, you’re reinforcing existing parts. And we did a lot more of that on this record. Instead of adding to the core idea, if there’s like two or three core ideas, instead of adding a fourth and fifth idea, with the members of the band — which is sort of how “Antifogmatic” worked, you know, look at something “Don’t Need No,” or “You Are,” or “Me and Us,” or —
Pikelny: — or “Woman and the Bell.”
Thile: Absolutely. In those, each guy has a fairly significant idea expressed — and those fourth and fifth ideas are not actually imperative. They don’t have to be there. And it served to obscure the ones that do have to be where they were.
Pikelny: It’s probably a sign of the time — we had endless time when we were making “Antifogmatic” compared to the time we had available [to record "Who’s Feeling Young Now"].
Endless time in the studio?
Pikelny: Endless time in New York arranging it. We would spend weeks and weeks just on a single song.
When you recorded your first album, “Punch,” you weren’t all living in New York, right? And for “Antifogmatic,” you were?
Right — we were all in the same place, and there was this sense that if we didn’t all have our hands full, we weren’t giving the world all that we could give it.
Witcher: I think there’s also a large sense of “The Blind Leaving the Blind” being such a huge undertaking for everyone, that all of a sudden, if we weren’t that involved in trying to make music — you know, ["Antifogmatic" had] shorter songs but, like, things still being that intense for us as musicians trying to perform it, then we were, you know, copping out in a way.
Was there also a sense that, you had recorded this 42-minute, four-movement suite on your first album, and if you weren’t equally ambitious in whatever you did next, then you wouldn’t be pushing yourself?
Pikelny: Yeah. And Jacquire, his contribution as far as arranging the songs wasn’t just in the peeling back —there were specific examples where he convinced us to be more bold in how quickly we could move through certain sections of tunes. We thought, like, ‘Oh, no, we have to do this multiple times before you can move on.’
We thought maybe we were trying to cram in too much information in too little time, and if you didn’t get a repeat, you couldn’t latch on to [a phrase], and by the time the next section came through, you’d just be foggy as to where it was going. But I think some of those things made the music more impactful. We had been a little conservative in our thinking how many times these ideas had to be repeated after they were introduced.
Thile: “Clara” went that way, too. It got skimmed down by 30 seconds — just things like, let’s get to the next verse, I’m ready for the next verse, let’s go straight to the bridge.
Witcher: That was actually a last minute studio recording: In the morning, not getting it right, then breaking for lunch, saying, ‘Why don’t we try this and this,’ getting back in there and going, ‘That works, now we’re there.’
Pikelny: I think back to “How To Grow A Woman From The Ground,” I still think that was one of our most successful records and it was something we did very, very quickly. We had, what, how many days? Three days. Three days to rehearse. And at that time we barely knew each other musically, but the language—
Thile: —whatever worked the fastest was what we had to do—
Pikelny: It was kind of a roots music. We all had the vocabulary to go through this material and create arrangements and create songs as a band would play them as if they had been on the road for a couple years within three days because it was so familiar to our backgrounds. And I think everything that has come since that record — “Blind Leaving the Blind” and “Antifogmatic” — I think that allowed us to approach playing our own original music with the same kind of confidence and abandon as we approached the music on “How to Grow.”
You mean you have identified a musical vocabulary as a band that you can inhabit without needing to—
Thile: Yeah, that can rival the kind of vocabulary that comes from growing up in a tradition. That’s a great point, that we have, the five of us, now, have a shared vocabulary enough to where we can actually arrive at things as intuitively as we arrived at, like, the “Brakeman’s Blues” [by Jimmie Rodgers] arrangement on “How To Grow A Woman From The Ground.”
Pikelny: That’s an element of it, but we also have the experience of “Blind Leaving the Blind,” and “Antifogmatic,” and all the shows we did in New York as residencies working on all these covers — just this language. We expanded our palette to something that was kind of beyond the kind of roots music we grew up with. So we worked through putting these songs together almost at a pace that was similar to the “How To Grow A Woman From The Ground” sessions. Of course, it was definitely it was more in depth; we didn’t do this record in three days. But there were certain songs, like “Movement and Location,” that were pretty much fully formed except for the lyrics, while Jacquire was there in an afternoon.
Was it a shorter timeframe because you’re all busy with other projects, or was it intentional?
Thile: It was almost as much a part of the process as anything. We can’t obsess about these arrangements; all we end up doing is obscuring our own point. And it’s not to say I’m not proud of “Antifogmatic” and “The Blind Leaving The Blind.” I’m proud of them. I feel like they’re very sort of tautly constructed — they’re just taut. They’re like — they’re fragile.
There’s not a lot of room to breathe.
I think we feel more comfortable in our skin as a band playing this new stuff. I think early on, we had to refer to stuff we’d been doing for decades for it to feel that natural and for us to have the authority. In the five and a half years that we’ve been together, we’ve put that together with this brain trust that now even with original music we’re playing — it like it’s been ours for decades.
Do you have plans for what is next?
I think we want to know what this feels like first. That’s my sense, at least. This process is only half done; now it’s time to see how the collaborator is—
This process meaning this album?
Yeah — I think the concept of audience as collaborator on this is significant. Their input on this is really important to us.
Has the audience collaborated on the previous two albums – or how the two albums existed in the world after they came out?
“Blind Leaving the Blind” was almost a conscious dismissal of the importance of the artist-audience relationship for me, almost as a knee-jerk reaction to my frustration in Nickel Creek, my feeling so beholden to the crowd, feeling like I had to play music that I hated or they would want their money back. Music that I wrote in the pea-soup fog of adolescence had to be performed to prevent massive disappointment in our audience. And I just got to my mid-20s, as this musician taking music more seriously than anything in his life, feeling like, ‘What am I doing? I’m playing music that I hate, that I wrote when I was 16. And I’m 25 now — I have big ideas!’
And I’m really — I’m proud of [“The Blind Leaving the Blind”] — but I was only thinking about what I wanted to hear, only thinking about what would be interesting to me. And when I thought about this ensemble — a bluegrass ensemble — I thought, ‘Why not write a really ambitious kind of folk-formal fusion that also takes into account the fact that folk music is never fully composed and then get guys who can really play.’
The idea was essentially a solo project, and we didn’t know enough about the Punch Brothers as an entity to know if that was really appropriate yet. That was our identity then, it was kind of this brainchild of mine that was made better by everyone’s participation and had a lot of potential as a more collaborative effort. So with that project, what I hadn’t really taken into consideration in a compositional process was how other people affect our own — the audience’s impact on the performance, how the environment would impact our own perception of what we were doing, and what we wanted to be doing.
It sounds like it took a while for you to be comfortable with the idea that caring how the audience reacts can be art of the creative process — that that doesn’t mean it’s not creative or you’re not being true to yourself.
That’s exactly right.
Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.More Seth Mnookin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)