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Published: 2011/11/21
by Mike Greenhaus

Noam Pilkeny Beats The Devil

Did you find it easy to adapt your style to Salmon’s repertoire?

I thought I was well suited for the job because Mark’s playing on his electric banjo, which he called the stump, was really influenced by Telecaster playing—the soul chicken-pickin’ style of electric country guitar which was also one of my real loves. I was a huge fan of Albert Lee, Richard Flack, James Burton and Brent Mason—those guys have played a bunch of Telecasters. I feel like when I first started playing Telecaster—and then came back to playing banjo—it really informed my style. That was something Mark and I had in common. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why those guys were drawn to me—the songs on the electric banjo where it wasn’t just a plugged-in bluegrass banjo on overdrive. The more electric stuff [really worked], I think I was a really good fit for everyone.

How did that gig lead to The Punch Brothers?

I did a few years with Salmon and then ended up moving to Nashville. I started playing with John Cowan from the New Grass Revival in 2005. I ran into Chris Thile one night at [Telluride, CO’s] Sheridan Opera House one time. They have this tradition of the late-night show, and they always have an open invitation to musicians at Telluride to come through and play. Thile and I had met at RockyGrass a few years before and even played a song together in a very large, orchestra jam backstage with 35 people. So we had met, but I don’t think it registered.

But this time, I was on stage sitting in with Yonder and the next thing I know, Thile walked up and we kind of got into this extensive jam with Yonder backing us up. I think, at one point, Jeff Austin looked at everybody in the band and was like, “Let’s bring it down” and the whole band faded out to me and Chris improvising behind each other. I think that was our first real musical experience. We continued playing later on that night: Chris got in touch when he was in Nashville that summer and next thing we knew, he was calling us all up to form this ensemble to record this piece off his of album Blind Leading the Blind. He had this dream of writing this four-movement string quintet piece that was informed by a form of classical music and folk music. He had hinted about recording this big experimental piece, but I was assuming he was going to it with the acoustic titans like Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and guys who had played on his last record, Not All Who Wander Are Lost.

I assumed that it was definitely going to be a record with those guys, but I think he was looking for something that could be a little bit more long term—where people were gonna have the availability to really jump in head first into a project and really live it for a year. So he got in touch, seeing if we were interested in recording this and, of course, everybody obliged immediately. It was such a fun and meaningful experience just rehearsing The Blind Leading the Blind that we decided that we wanted this to be a long term, more full-time band. So we put The Blind Leading The Blind on the backburner for the moment and recorded this album called How to Grow a Woman from the Ground first, which was kind of the Punch Brothers’ introduction to the world. We decided to do something a little more accessible and closer to our roots as our first entry as a band. And then later moved back to The Blind Leading the Blind. We have been working together ever since then.

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