For more than a quarter of a century, Chris Thile has been constant force in the American music scene — and he’s still shy of 40. The musical polymath always seems to have some project going on: whether as a duo (pairing most prominently with both Michael Daves and Edgar Meyer), a trio (Nickel Creek), quartet (Goat Rodeo), and quintet (Punch Brothers). And he has won Grammys in all of those groupings.
Last summer, Thile rendezvoused with his Goat Rodeo brethren — fiddler Stuart Duncan, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and bassist (and fellow MacArthur “Genius Grant” honoree) Edgar Meyer — to record their long-anticipated sophomore effort, Not Our First Goat Rodeo, which came out in June. What Thile finds is so special about this collaboration is that it features musicians who are, he says, “excited by, and invigorated by, discomfort. Like a good stretch. I think this project is defined by the willingness of its participants to stretch outside of their perceived comfort zones.”
This Artist of the Month interview is the third of four installments as BGS salutes the incredible and iconic musicians of Not Our First Goat Rodeo.
In a BGS interview a couple years back, you said, “I think any album worth listening to is a concept record.” Was there a concept or an overarching theme behind the new album?
Thile: I don’t know if I would, at this point in my life, back myself up on that no worthwhile album has been made without a concept. If indeed I said that I would walk that back just a touch. But the vast majority of records that have made a serious impact on me have had some sort of perceptible topics of conversations, governing principles, or thematic glue. With instrumental records, the themes start to become the play of contrasts and similarities between the individual participants, and the characteristics they assume in concert with one another.
The two actual lyrical vocal songs [on Not Our First Goat Rodeo] — there’s one other vocal song that has no lyrics — are both meditations on work/life balance. They both zoom the lenses in on the less-written-about parts of the relationships. We tend to write songs about the beginnings and ends of relationships, but we don’t necessarily write songs about the middle. Because the beginnings and ends can be so explosive. Hopefully, if your relationship is successful, your relationship will be in the middle until one of you dies.
Certainly the five of us together often talk about work/life balance. How our families are. How we are doing in context of our families, and how our families are doing in the context of our various endeavors. Lyrically that was something that Aoife and I talked about writing in the midst of those kinds of discussions and thoughts. Instrumentally, the themes are more abstract, but no less present. This project has a built-in [structure] of Stuart, Yo-Yo, Edgar, and me bouncing off of each other. Like, what’s it going to sound like when you smear those four people together? And when you get Aoife into the mix, it becomes a whole other thing.
Is writing lyrical songs for Goat Rodeo different compositionally than in other songwriting situations?
It is different. Since the project is so instrumentally focused, it’s ultimately an instrumental project that happens to have a couple of vocal moments in there. We came up with the music together, then Aoife [O’Donovan] and I went off, having discussed the various things we wanted to write about. But when we are writing that music, it is still kind of like instrumental music that happens to have some vocals on it. “The Trappings” being slightly more like you might expect a vocal song to be. “We Were Animals” came right in sort of the middle.
“Every Note a Pearl” was very much an instrumental, then we wanted some more instruments that could slide around. Also, we wanted some more stuff [happening] while Edgar was pizzicato and Stuart playing tenor banjo and me on the mandolin. We wanted Yo-Yo to have some friends in Sustaining Instrument-land. So, we felt, “OK, Aoife and I can help with that.” But we were never tempted to add words to that one. Because the project is driven by instrumentalizing, the vocals are more balanced in terms of where the interest is coming from. Often, if there are vocals in a piece of music, we are focusing on the vocals, and in this music we are not necessarily playing to those expectations.
The voices then are like fellow instruments?
Yes, absolutely. And they’re not given a place of greater prominence than any one instrumentalist is.
Can you talk about Aoife’s unique contributions to Goat Rodeo projects?
When we first did the project, it was an all-instrumental project. And then, I think it was Yo-Yo’s idea. During our practice, he said, “Chris, you sing. Why don’t you sing a little bit?” And I said, “OK.” It was pretty organic. It was like, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have another singer on these ‘singing songs’?” Aoife and I had never done anything officially together. It had always been at music festivals. Late-night jam sessions. Those type of things. I think both of us had so much fun singing together that I instantly thought of Aoife and I sent everybody recordings of her. Everyone was into it and off we went. It was still with the full knowing that it was an instrumental record.
That fits in with the group’s general philosophy of not conforming to any genre or expectations — to include anything into the music that makes it work.
That’s absolutely right. Nothing’s off limits. If one of us is interested in something, then it’s like, “Hell yeah!” I love that this record can go from something like “Every Note a Pearl” to “Not for Lack of Trying,” and the idea we’re going to be playing around with sliding slowly from one diatonic chord that is well within diatonic harmony to another — but we’re going to pass through all the points along the way, just very slowly. As if the music is melting/spontaneously generating.
And that’s a thing we’re going to pursue — we’re going to see what happens when we chase a thought. More so [on this album] than the first one, actually. This time through the composition process, more was on the table. We had already pursued our first instincts. It was time to really open up to what the possibilities were — having a foundation to begin with in the form of the first record.
Goat Rodeo features four exceptional musicians and it feels like you all try to bring out more in each other.
I love the ways in which it challenges me. I think it challenges each one of us. Maybe the defining characteristic of this ensemble is that what might stretch one of its members might be the absolute comfort zone of another. What might stretch Stuart as far as he’s ever been in one direction is a walk in the park for Yo-Yo. And vice versa. What might be absolutely stretching Yo-Yo to the point the farthest reaches of his exploration is like falling off a log for Stuart.
I love that aspect of this project. Something that’s super easy for me would be hard for Edgar. And something that’s super easy for Edgar would be hard for me. It runs through the whole ensemble like that. So you always have a guide. One of us can always teach the rest of the class about stretching ourselves as musicians.
Even within a piece.
Oh absolutely. Who’s the master of a given concept can switch throughout the course of a piece. And the learner can instantly become the master. And the master can become the learner, with the idea that we all get better at it as we go along. I love hearing the sound of when one of us is out on the limb right now but one of us totally has it. Don’t worry, that person is going to make sure you don’t fall out of the tree. Because you know that they will return the favor.
What is one recording that ranks as a G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time) for you?
My world was totally blown open by Kendrick Lamar by How to Pimp a Butterfly. I think that is an extraordinary work. Talk about an album hanging together structurally. I think that is just a master class in developing one theme. I still have so much to learn from that record. That’s on the list. That’s definitely up there with the greatest records ever. It’s still opening my ears. The way I understood it when I first heard it is completely different from how I understand it now. One of the big differences is that I understand how little I understand about it. I think the best records do that. They open up your worldview — not just your musical view.
(Editor’s note: Read the remaining installments of our Artist of the Month interview series here.)
Photo credit: Josh Goleman