While the eclectic trio may have cut their teeth on down-home hoedowns and classic fiddle tunes in the coffee shops of Southern California, their newest effort, Why Should the Fire Die? [Sugar Hill], showcases several songs that are better suited to VH1 than the Grand Ole Opry.
Fiddle player Sara Watkins, her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, and mandolinist Chris Thile have come together to create an album that defies pigeonholing and further distances the band from its traditional roots.
“I think that we generally stay within the acoustic boundaries, but that’s about as far as it goes,” says Thile. “All I will say is that there were no solidbody instruments used in the making of this record [laughs]. We grew up playing bluegrass music, and certainly that foundation is in there, but music shouldn’t be categorized.”
As early as their second album, This Side, the band was beginning to stray from the roots-music fold, as evidenced by their cover of Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger.” Still, Sarah contends that the group has no master plan to become an “indiegrass” band or go out of its way to woo specific types of fans.
“We haven’t made any decisions with the goal of attracting a certain type of audience,” says the fiddle player. “We really just play what we love, and we enjoy the freedom of not having to fit a format, because it allows us to be really creative. We don’t have to worry about saying ‘Oh, wait—radio would never go for that.’”
From the sound of the album, they have succeeded. Songs such as “Somebody More Like You” and “Best of Luck” branch out into pure, catchy pop. Others, namely “Helena” and “Eveline,” explore a more raw, indie feel.
The band members didn’t feel the need to stick to their usual songwriting methods, either, and collaborated on the tunes on Why Should the Fire Die?—a first for them.
“We spent a lot of time critiquing each others’ material,” says Sean. “Before, Chris or I would write a song and it was either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We would do it the way it was written or just pass on it. This time Chris might say, ‘Well, the verse is awesome, but the chorus really needs help,’ and Sarah would say ‘What if the subject matter wasn’t so heavy? Can we lighten this up some?’”
For his part, Thile found that the process, although successful, was more stressful on his songwriter’s ego. “This record is the first one where we started to put everything under the microscope as a band. Everything was subjected to a lot of rewriting by the group. But it’s tough to subject your song to other people’s criticism. It’s like being a parent who doesn’t want to hear anything bad about their kid.”
While Thile may have been a little uneasy about subjecting his tunes to the critical ears of his bandmates, his mandolin parts on the album are strong, confident, and quite original. According to Thile, this stems from his penchant for trying to break new ground on the mandolin and get past his own preconceived notions about what the instrument can and cannot do.
“I like to listen to fiddle players and pianists more than mandolin players,” says Thile. “I’ve always been interested in trying to open up all the possibilities with the mandolin. When I find the instrument’s limitations, I want to poke and prod them and make sure that they’re really there, because a lot of the time, you just think they’re there.”
“A couple years ago I got wildly interested in Bach, particularly the solos that he wrote for violin. And I really had my doubts that the contrapuntal aspect—where two or more lines are operating simultaneously—could be fully realized on the mandolin. It was something that I’d never heard on the mandolin. But I said to myself, ‘Hey, if a violinist can do it, then a mandolinist should be able to do it.’ So I started plugging away at it and found that it was totally doable. I play the second sonata regularly now. Those are the kinds of things that give you confidence. If you try hard enough, it’s usually gonna happen.”
Sara points out another instance of Thile stretching the boundaries of the mandolin on the new record: “On ‘Tomorrow Is a Long Time,’ Sean is playing this great fingerpicking pattern, and Chris had a little trouble finding something to do on it. But what he ended up doing was this sort of Merle Travis-style fingerpicking on mandolin. I don’t know that anyone’s ever done that before.”
To create the tones on the latest record, Sean played Bourgeois OM acoustics and a recently acquired 1941 Martin 000-28. Thile used a Dudenbostel F5 mandolin, made in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Sara relied on an old German fiddle. “It was made around 1910,” she says, “and it doesn’t even have a maker’s name on it.”
The record has the snappy, energetic feel of a performance, and, according to Thile, there’s a reason for that. “We cut most of the record live with the band all in there together. On some songs, like ‘Why Should the Fire Die?,’ we even cut the vocals with everyone around one mic.” Sean adds, “We really wanted something that sounds like us playing in the best living room you’ve ever heard—something that sounds like we do live.”
While the image of a quaint bluegrass trio may follow Nickel Creek for a while to come, Why Should the Fire Die? should be the first step in announcing that the band will accept no boundaries that limit its creativity.
Sean sums it up: “This album is a very comprehensive look at where we are as a band. We hope that after listening to the whole thing, people will understand that this is a band that can go in any direction. We can go into pop and we can go into traditional music. We really want to step away from the ‘genre’ mindset.”