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Published: 2011/11/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Noam Pilkeny Beats The Devil

A lot of bluegrass luminaries contributed to this album. Were they pretty much all in the room recording or did you piece it together in different sessions?

The record was recorded with everybody in the room and the only two overdubs that happened on the record—as far as the people coming in after the fact and layering things—were on “Fish and Bird.” Jeff Taylor, from a creditable band called The Time Jumpers from Nashville and the incredible Mike Compton, wasn’t available to play that track live so he added his mandolin on about a day later. But everything else was recorded with everybody there and that was the goal from the beginning.

When I was planning this record, I was trying to decide who I should get to play the parts. I asked Bela Fleck for some advice and he said, “Well, what you need to do is hire musicians who are gonna inspire you to take it up a notch. Just being around them is going to be so special to you and make you give your absolute best and even take some more risks.” I really always wanted to play with Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien. I’ve gotten to play with them informally at festivals and it was always fun, but I’ve always been so inspired by those guys. So I wanted that experience to happen all there, in the studio. It wasn’t enough to just have Stuart Duncan add fiddle to my record two weeks two weeks later—I wanted him in the studio with us. In my mind, I don’t think it would have had the same psychological effect that having him on the other side of the room playing with us—having to take a solo after he took a solo or playing back-up behind him. It was just a necessity to have everybody there live. It didn’t seem like the concept would hold up if having all these luminaries out there and people coming in after the fact and layering this thing, building the track up from scratch.

Last year, you won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, which I’m sure opened up a lot of doors. For you, what has been the most surprising or the most unique door that’s opened in terms of people you’ve been able to play with or in terms of exposure?

I think it’s definitely led to increased visibility for me and for Punch Brothers. Punch Brothers is the outlet where people can come hear me play as far as the fact that we have had a CD come out in the past few years—Punch Brothers is my main musical offering. And so the impact of the award—and the recognition—I think was really felt through these Punch Brothers experiences.

I think the first time I realized it had made an impact was in December of last year. It was the first little tour we had done since the award happened and since we had played on [ Late Show with David Letterman ]. There were people who came to the Chicago show who had never heard of Punch Brothers before and their first forte into this world was seeing us on television. And people came up to the merch table and bought everything in our catalog because it was their first time ever seeing us. It was impressive—it’s one thing to hear something on television, maybe pick up the CD online or buy a track or two, but the award drove people to our concerts. I’d say at almost every show there will be somebody who comes up to us—if we’re out there visiting the merch table—who will tell us that the award is how they first heard of us. I wouldn’t say that it’s turned my life upside down or that my experiences as a musician have been completely different because of winning this award. There has been a shock winning this award because it was out of the blue and it was the first year. There was no anticipation. There wasn’t any possibility of imagining like, “Who’s going to get this award this year!” All of a sudden, I got this thing in the mail, and I had to try to understand what all this meant. And looking back it was very surreal, but after the initial couple of weeks of celebrating and being in shock and winding down after the Letterman performance, it was back to business.

If anything, the award highlighted to me how delinquent I had become in putting out another solo record. I think it was easy to get absorbed in the fabric of Punch Brothers, which is really my home base and where I’m most comfortable. But this award for a second shined a spotlight on me, and it illuminated the fact that it had been six years at that point since I had done a record of my own. I think I felt a little bit more pressure to get that done. It was definitely a good side effect of it all.

You mentioned the first time people had heard of you was through the TV appearance you guys made and after you won the award. But the first time I heard of you—and the first time many Relix/ readers head of you—was through your time in Leftover Salmon. I was wondering if you could talk about how you got involved in Leftover Salmon and how that led to you being in The Punch Brothers?

I feel like I can trace the whole thing back to Salmon. Everything snowballed out of my first entry into the world of playing music professionally with them. I was in Champaign, Illinois, going to college. I was at the University of Illinois and had entered school as a computer-engineering student, but quickly switched to the music theory department because I was having to do way too much homework, and it was really getting in the way of playing music with some new-found friends. These new-found friends were two-fifths of the band that had existed in Champaign.

These two guys, Ethan James and Dan Broader, became my best friends in college and were both really good bluegrass guitar players. At the same time, you have the Bluegrassholes [featuring future Yonder Mountain String Band members Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston], who had just left Champaign about four or five months before I had got to Champaign. So there was a void as far as bluegrass bands went because Dave and Jeff had left.

I started playing with Dan and Ethan, and, eventually, a little band emerged from those kickin’ parties. I was also introduced to Dave and Jeff the first time they came back through Champaign touring as the Yonder Mountain String Band. They played a small club in downtown Champaign—you can’t even call it a club, it was a bar. There’s no sound system. They brought in a sound system and there were probably 150 people there, tops. But it was absolutely packed.

I had never been to a show before where people were playing bluegrass instruments and the audience was that young. They were super energetic, dancing and being really rowdy. It was really eye opening. I was kind of blown away by the fact that they were playing these instruments to a young crowd ‘cause in my high school people were into ska, not bluegrass. I always felt like I had to go elsewhere. I lived separate lives in high school, going to bluegrass festivals, jam sessions and concerts with my family and on my own. I was never into all the music that was associated with people my age. Then I got to college and that really tore down the assumptions I had made about who was into all these different styles of music, and I think that made a lasting impact on me.

I saw Dave and Jeff and all the excitement in that room and thought, “Maybe I could actually consider making a living doing this. Maybe there is an audience out there who is interested in hearing these instruments and new music.” So it was pretty important to have the experience of seeing that show.

I got in touch with Dave and Jeff there in Champaign with my friend Ethan and Dan, and we would play music over the next few years and travel around and see the Yonder guys—we’d go to New Year’s Eve shows and things like that, and we became good friends with those guys. When [Leftover Salmon banjo player] Mark Vann got sick and Leftover Salmon started looking for a banjo player to fill in during Mark’s treatment, I think Dave and Jeff kind of submitted me as an option for a banjo player—they were lobbying for them to check out my playing. Eventually, those guys gave me a call and it could not have been more unfortunate circumstances to getting that gig. If history could’ve been rewritten where there I did not get that gig, I would have wished it so because Mark Vann was a really great musician and great human being. I only had two encounters with him where I got to play with him. One of them was at the Canopy Club in Champaign almost a year to the day before he got diagnosed.

When Mark passed, I had no idea what the band’s plans were. I didn’t fill in with Salmon while Mark was still fighting and alive—at that point they had been using substitutes. Like Tony Furtado, Jeff Mosier, and Matt Flinner. Mark had already passed away when they first called to ask me to come and fill-in.

After Mark had passed, a little bit of time went by and they got in touch and asked if I wanted to come out and play some shows—just to fill in. They had called me a week before my senior year of college was starting in August of 2002. They flew me out, and I played some shows in California with them. After two shows they offered me the spot. They asked if I wanted to stay on board and join the band. At that point, I was going back to school in a week to finish this music theory degree. My goal was to play music, find a group of guys to join up with and play the banjo for them. And here was this ridiculous opportunity to go on the road with this incredibly established band with one of the most loyal fan bases in existence, and I couldn’t resist. So I went back to Champaign with four days before classes were supposed to start, canceled all my classes and filled out all paperwork to go on academic leave and sublet my apartment. Within six weeks, I was living in a basement loft in Colorado with Dave Johnston and Adam from Yonder. So it happened very quickly.

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