Chris Thile first appeared as a guest on Garrison Keillor’s NPR radio show A Prairie Home Companion in 1996 when he was 15. He was already well-known in bluegrass circles for his virtuosic mandolin work in Nickel Creek, a quartet he founded with his father and two siblings in 1989 when he was just 8 years old.
“I begged for a mandolin when I was 2,” he says. “I finally got one when I was 5.”
Another prodigy, Gabe Witcher, wanted a drum set. “My parents thought it would make our rather small home too chaotic,” Witcher recalls, “so they bought me a violin instead. I was also 5.”
The two met and jammed together as children, but never did a formal project together until the fall of 2005.
“We both knew and had individually jammed with these three other guys at the festivals, a banjoist (Noam Pikelny), a guitarist (Chris Eldridge) and a bass player (Paul Kowert),” Witcher says. “So we decided to sit down as a quintet to see what would happen. Within 15 seconds, we all knew we’d stumbled into something really special.”
The instrumentation is traditional all-acoustic bluegrass, but the similarity ends there. “We all know and love traditional bluegrass,” Witcher says, “but each of us as individual instrumentalists has wildly divergent, non-bluegrass influences.”
If Nickel Creek redefined some boundaries of bluegrass, then Punch Brothers have stretched that envelope so far that there almost isn’t an envelope for them. The sounds are occasionally bluegrass-like, but also progress to include elements of jazz, blues, and even choir-like vocal harmonies, with sinewy chord progressions beneath Thile’s heady, dream-like and sometimes hilarious lyrics.
Composition is a collective effort. “New ideas typically happen at soundcheck on the road,” Witcher says. “If somebody plays something that piques anyone’s interest, we record it on a voice recognition app and work on it together when we get home.”
There are few musical genres Punch Brothers don’t incorporate.
“I don’t think any of us, in 16 years together, have figured out what to call our music,” Witcher says. “We do know that we’re all still interested in figuring out just what this music could become.”
PUNCH BROTHERS perform at 7pm Monday, Jan. 17. Sunset Center, San Carlos Street between 8th and 9th., Carmel. $45-$65. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org