Punch Brothers Run for Cover

The NYC band gives indie rock standards a bluegrass twist

April 26, 2012
New York City’s Punch Brothers make bluegrass palatable to indie kids.

New York City–based roots-rockers Punch Brothers are well-known for doing adventurous covers that cross genres in surprising ways. The title track from Radiohead’s 2000 album, “Kid A,” may be their most interesting choice so far: The Brothers’ version, which forms the centerpiece of the band’s third album, “Who’s Feeling Young Now?,” features none of the sequencers and synthesizers that lend the original its distinctive spacey vibe. Instead, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass capture the ambience of the song with a warmer, more organic feel.

“Covers are an incredible way inside the creative mind of various artists,” says Chris Thile, the band’s mandolin player and singer who writes most of the band’s original tunes. “The only way to really understand what they’re doing is to actually perform as if you are the song’s creator. Once you get inside the song, you have a better understanding of what it must have felt like to write it. Then you can pursue those ideas and feelings in your own material.”

Perhaps one of the Punch Brothers’ most compelling virtues is their refusal to differentiate between art-rock and bluegrass, between string bands and symphonies. “Music is way more liquid that those terms can contain,” says Thile. “There are 12 notes and people use them in different ways, but the only differences are really aesthetic.”

While they offer a way to explore the blurred boundaries between various musical styles, covers like “Kid A” are “a means to an end rather than an end in itself,” says Thile. “I feel like I learn things about the songs and me, but I’d get bored with an all-covers album. Writing is one of the most exciting things for me. I love looking at others’ songs and allowing them to color the music we write, but feeling like I’m contributing to the great big musical is a lot more interesting to me.”

930 Club, 815 V St. NW; with Jesca Hoop; Fri., 8 p.m., sold out; 202-265-0930. (U Street)
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Stephen M. Deusner | April 26, 2012