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Published: 2011/09/12
by Mike Greenhaus

Chris Thile & Michael Daves: Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

Punch Brothers frontman Chris Thile and New York guitarist Michael Daves clearly enjoy playing together. You can tell by their onstage banter, shared love of classic bluegrass and almost family-like interaction. You can also tell by their interviews, which sometimes come off like a shtick from late night TV. For many years, Thile and Daves’ collaborations consisted primarily of small bluegrass shows around New York’s Lower East side, but earlier this year the duo released an album of covers, Sleep with One Eye Open on Jack White’s Third Man Records. Below, Thile and Daves discuss their project’s continued evolution.

Could you start by just giving us a little background on when you first met and started playing together? I heard it was at a jam session at New York’s The Baggot Inn. Is that correct?

Chris: I was just moving to town, and I was actually staying in a hotel room. People told me it was the worst time to go to New York—I did that on purpose to make sure that I could handle it. It was sweltering humid heat, and the trash was piled up everywhere. I sort of kept it together by going to these bluegrass jams at the Baggot Inn that Sheriff Uncle Bob put on at that time. It was what one would expect from a local bluegrass jam—and then Michael showed up and it was just insane. We’ve been playing ever since.

At that point did one of you ask for the other’s numbers as they say?

[Laughter.]

Chris: Something like that. We were a little drunk by the end of the jam, so the details get fuzzier as the evening went on [Laughter.] I think we did the number exchange at that time?

Michael: I think so…

Chris: I have no recollection of that part.

Michael: I remember we hit it off. We both had the feeling that we were going to do more playing one way or another, whether Chris moved to town or not. We both found it quite fun.

Chris: We were just talking about this, actually, and we both wanted to find someone who would play old bluegrass songs as if they weren’t old—like it was a brand new experience. A lot of the times, you play with good musicians who know this body of material and it’s sort of an act of curatorship—like you’re a couple of archivists sitting around swapping tales about the golden days. I think when Michael and I played bluegrass for the first time, we played these songs as if we were a couple of guys who sort of miraculously knew this brand new song that had already been written. And I think there was sort of a mutual excitement in this shared sense of ownership of that material. It had nothing to do with going back and digging up musical fossils—it was more just like the discovery of a new breed.

Michael: In New York it is rare to find people who know bluegrass music as well as Chris does—and who have grown up with it. Around New York, a lot of people have discovered bluegrass music in college or whatever. Chris grew up with it like I did, so it was refreshing to meet someone here in New York who had that experience. I grew up in Atlanta going to a lot of jam sessions with people who would come out of the hills and were very much of that culture and community. The thing that I found a lot of down there is that you have a lot of great musicians who know the music like the back of their hand but they’re not necessarily doing anything new or interesting with it. So for me to find someone in New York—who both knew it very well and was interested in doing something new and interesting with it, combined with how accomplished Chris was—made me have a feeling that we really stumbled on something unique.

Michael, Chris mentioned how when he got to New York he was kind of testing the waters. How did you get from Atlanta to New York?

Michael: At first, I went to college in Western Massachusetts and stayed around the Pioneer Valley area for a while after I graduated [playing with musicians like Gordon Stone]. I loved it up there: it’s a great place to live, but it was starting to feel a little small, and I needed to get somewhere where there was more going on. I can’t really think of anywhere that has more going on than New York, so I kind of drifted southward about three hours, and I made it my home in 2003. I think Chris showed up maybe two years later.

Sleep with One Eye Open is a collection of covers. Did you every try to write new material together?

Chris: You know, I don’t think we’ve ever really had much of a drive to write material together. I don’t think there’s a master plan of “we’re gonna revamp bluegrass music.” We just go with what happens when we get together and play. It’s really natural and there’s not a lot of planning and forethought. The project is about how our experiences and musical sensibilities line up and that’s what makes it fun for me. It’s almost like it drives itself.

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