When Noam Pikelny picked up the banjo at eight years old, the plan was to accompany his older brother, a budding mandolinist. That partnership never quite blossomed, but over the past twelve years Pikelny has found a second musical family in Grammy-winning quintet Punch Brothers.
“He took lessons for about two years, and every single time my mom and I would drop him off at his lesson and sit in the park tossing a baseball back and forth,” he says of his brother, who picked up the mandolin after being exposed to the world of bluegrass via a school arts program. “After a few years I was jealous of his hobby. I was pretty nonchalant about what instrument, I just wanted to learn something. But I took to it and fell in love with the music, and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.”
Having worked his way from gateway banjo heroes like Pete Seeger to more serious bluegrass innovators like Earl Scruggs, Pikelny found an opportunity to explore new terrain on the instrument when he began collaborating with mandolinist and bandleader Chris Thile. “The music of Punch Brothers really forced me to find new ways to play music on the banjo, because we weren’t playing music that was as idiomatic on the instruments as bluegrass,” Pikelny says of his work with Punch Brothers, which formed around a 2006 Thile solo album before growing into a project all of its own.
“On our first Punch Brothers record Chris would send me the score and I was like, ‘Well, okay, I can’t just take the technique I already know to play this’. I had to combine everything I had learned and come up with a synthesised new approach to play these parts.
“Our background is mostly within the bluegrass and swing band world,” he says of his bandmates, which also include guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert and fiddle player Gabe Witcher. “That’s why we found each other; we grew up going to these festivals and had this shared background, but it’s because of the same posture we had towards different music – classical music like Bach or Brahms, or Radiohead. In some of the initial jam sessions of the band, we’d go from playing old time fiddle tunes to Paranoid Android by Radiohead, and then find we’re similarly interested in Debussy.
“Here’s this group of guys who speak the same language, know how to communicate with these instruments and know the possibilities with these textures, but we’re interested in looking forward and looking outward. That’s kind of built into the DNA of the band from the beginning, and keeps us going twelve years later.”
The group hit a fresh career high with their 2018 album All Ashore, which won a Grammy for Best Folk Album in February. “I think everyone is really proud of this record. When we finished [recording] there was a unanimous feeling within the band that this was our best record. Because of that, we were sure it would go unnoticed,” he laughs. “That seems to be the way the world works, so we were really blindsided by the attention it got. That was a sweet surprise this time around.”
July will see Punch Brothers return to Adelaide to perform as part of a string of off-season concerts programmed by the Adelaide Guitar Festival. With All Ashore partly composed in soundchecks on their last Australian tour, Pikelny and co. will now bring the record full circle. “It’s the final piece of the puzzle for a set of material – playing it live,” he says. “You always do your best in the studio and try to imagine how this music will hit people, but there’s no substitute for actually playing it.
“Because of all the side projects and Chris’ radio show [Thile has hosted celebrated podcast series Live From Here, formerly A Prairie Home Companion since 2016], we’re touring a whole lot less than we ever have, so it doesn’t feel tired at all. We’re reaching the end of the line but it still feels new.”
Even as a Grammy-winning, world-touring musician, Pikelny still finds ways to look at the banjo with fresh eyes and ears. “I will turn on recordings of Earl Scruggs playing some of the same songs that I tried learning when I was eight years old, and just be floored,” he reflects. “I listen to Earl Scruggs with so much awe now, that if I had the same sense of awe as an eight-year-old kid I may have just thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever amount to anything [like that]’. But it’s that innocence and naivety that made me think ‘I could do that’.
“Now I realise, I’ll never be able to do that… but I’ll find something of my own.”
An Evening with Punch Brothers
Woodville Town Hall
Sunday, July 14