There are not many bands who can say, when in their mid to late twenties, that they have been together for 16 years. Nickel Creek have indeed been a unit for almost two decades, and as a result they have established a strong position in the industry, and gained the respect of their peers at a much younger age than many other musicians. In fact, Jerry Douglas once said, “the first time I heard Nickel Creek, I was completely knocked out. They were 13 or 14 and they sounded so experienced. Even adults don’t play better than that.” This respect has resulted in 3 successful albums as a group, as well as equally successful solo ventures, the chance to work with some of the top names in music and a Grammy Award for the Best contemporary Folk Album, for THIS SIDE. But how did all of this happen, I hear you ask?
It was Scott Thile, Chris’ father, who brought the trio together after they had met at a pizza place in Carlsbad, California, and he played bass with them. The quartet became a regular at various bluegrass festivals across the States and soon built up a good reputation. A few years passed and although he enjoyed it, Scott left the band due to family responsibilities. Since then the group have had a couple of bassists including Byron House and Derek Jones. Currently though, Mark Schatz, a known name in the bluegrass scene, is with them, and has been for two and a half years.
As well as acquiring a new bass player since the release of their second album, THIS SIDE, the members of the band have undertaken many projects, as a group and individually. Together, they are three quarters of Mutual Admiration Society, the other quarter being Glen Phillips. The quartet came together when a friend of Phillips’ overheard Nickel Creek backstage at a festival in Colorado, playing songs from a Toad the Wet Sprocket (Glen’s old band) album. It prompted the friend to give Sean Glen’s email address, and although nervous at first, Sean introduced himself to Glen via email.
When speaking of first hearing Nickel Creek play, Glen said, “When I heard their first album I was most impressed with their willingness to be beautiful. Not just pretty, which is easier to achieve, but beauty, which requires a depth of soul and a willingness to open up. They way their vocals sounded together amazed me, and their musicianship speaks for itself. They had such a huge technical vocabulary, but they also understood that music is about emotionally connecting. Both of those talents have only deepened with time.”
He was so impressed in fact that he agreed to sing lead vocals on the title track of Sean’s first solo album, LET IT FALL. From there, Glen’s friendship with the trio blossomed, and they performed a show with him at a small club called Largo in Hollywood, California. Initially, Nickel Creek were to be guests at the show, and play on three or four songs, but ended up on stage for half of Glen’s set. They decided to write and record together as Mutual Admiration Society, for the simple reason that they love making music together. When it came to recording the MAS album, everything was kept simple. It was recorded live in Glen’s garage, and they only additional musicians were Richard Causon on keyboard, and Jen Condos on bass. Ethan Johns (Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams and Ray LaMontagne) was brought in to produce, and Sara says, “Ethan loves live, raw recording and he made a great vibe throughout the three days of recording.” The end product is an uncluttered and beautifully simple album in terms of sound, and the combination of Glen’s original songs and the occasional cover, makes for an eclectic track list.
The quartet hit the road earlier this year, enlisting the talents of Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones (bass) and Pete Thomas (drums) of Elvis Costello’s band, The Attractions. Chris recalls his first meeting with Jones as something of a shock, “This man comes up to me and says ‘hi, my name’s John’. I said ‘nice to meet you’, and he said, ‘John Paul Jones’. My mouth was open at this point and he mistook it for me not knowing who he was. He tried to explain that he was in Led Zeppelin and my thought was, ‘I know, I know, what are you doing here?!’” Jones, a mandolin player himself, had long been an admirer of Thile’s work, and when he and Nickel Creek met again at 2004’s MerleFest, they asked him to join the MAS tour. Although the tour was kept quite small, it was a huge success and contained not only material from the album, but also previews from the then upcoming releases from Glen and Nickel Creek.
Not only have Nickel Creek been playing with some of the best known musicians from the pop/rock world, they also collaborated with one of the world’s best orchestras. Last summer, Nickel Creek were invited to play with the LA Philharmonic orchestra, “We did two nights and an arranger put together about four or five songs. It was a really great experience, and being at the Hollywood Bowl was brilliant”, Sara told me, and having a full orchestra backing them added a whole new feel to the pieces.
Like Miles Davis in the jazz world, many folk musicians are part of an ensemble as well as having solo careers, and outside of Nickel Creek, the group’s members have had plenty of other projects running. Chris released his fourth solo album in 2004, titled DECIEVER, the album is vastly different to his previous records, focusing more on his rock influences. The album’s other main difference is that Chris produced and played every one of the 26 instruments used. He chose to take this approach purely because he wondered what it would be like to have complete control over a recording. Although he enjoyed the experience, he says it was incredibly time consuming and often hard to finish things because he could do as many take son tracks as he wanted. He has got the curiosity out of his system now though and will probably not undertake an album completely on his own again.
The future appears to be full of much more writing and recording for Thile, which will delight his fans. He is working towards a tentative late Spring 2006 release for his next solo effort. “This one’s going to be very different to the last, hopefully falling squarely in the middle of a vocal and instrumental record. I hope to find a way to tame the generally despotic relationship that vocal has over an instrumental ensemble, it’s like, the vocal is king, and rules with an iron fist. And I feel that it shouldn’t have to be that way, especially for someone like me that I feel has only slight command of his voice, whereas a feel I have pretty good command of my instrument, and I wonder why my compositions haven’t reflected that in the recent past. It still seems like, that even in my mind, although I’m probably at least 70% instrumentalist, 30% vocalist, but it’s probably more like 80/20. Still my vocal compositions are three verses, a chorus, and a bridge, with very minor instrumental involvement in the grand scheme of things. So I think that on this next one I’m going to try to beat the vocal into submission.”
The album is to essentially consist of a bluegrass ensemble, but all members are well versed in many different styles, which Chris hopes will give an eclectic sound. The group are Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Greg Garrison (bass), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), and of course, Thile himself. He also has plans to record an album of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for violin, as they work incredibly well on mandolin, but he wants to be completely comfortable with all six of them, and does not foresee the recording being done until he is in his early thirties.
Whilst many Nickel Creek fans are familiar with Chris and Sean’s solo work, Sara Watkins has only recently ventured into composing, so I wanted to find out a little more about her approach, and why she had decided to take a turn to writing. So, tucking her legs under herself and curling up on the sofa at her hotel, Sara told me a little more of her writing. “I don’t consider myself a songwriter by any stretch of the imagination, so I feel weird answering questions about song writing. In my frustrations of the craft, I just pretty much try to exploit any idea that I might feel conviction about, and I exaggerate it or use it in some way that doesn’t sound like a huge cliché, or over used line or thought or something that doesn’t just feel like I’m feeling sorry for my self for no reason. Because I have no reason to feel sorry for myself so it doesn’t come off very well and it doesn’t come off at all in any kind of lyric that I’ve tried. So basically it’s just more of an avoidance method of song writing. But Anthony was just a kind of overly simplistic thing that started with a riff, and a couple of words that sounded ok playing over it. And the rest of the stuff was just collaboration with the guys, and any part that I had in those songs was more on the discussion end of things when we were conceptualising. It’s very much a work in progress, emphasis on the work and not the progress”, she joked. Tim O’Brien was involved in some solo recording with Sara last year, and she says she hopes to really get started on a full album in January when Nickel Creek come off the road from their Winter tour.
As well as writing, Sara, along with brother Sean, was involved with the film soundtrack for The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, which was recently released in America. Due to the recent devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, she and Sean also contributed to a concert to raise money to help the victims; and a concert as part of the Weekly Travelling Review, along with Kim Richey, Griffin House and Glen Phillips. On his own, Sean has been working on his third solo album, which he hopes will be released in January. The album, for which he has yet to decide on a title for, is self-produced, as with his previous releases. Guests on the record include Jon Brion (piano), Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s band, Glen Kotche from Wilco on drums, and Gabe Witcher on fiddle. Another guest is John Foreman of Switchfoot, who provides backing vocals on Run Away Girl. “I got to be friends with him over the last couple of years because we live not five minutes from eachother”, he told me. “Through the grapevine we found out about eachother. I’ve listened to their records for quite a while, and I like their new record especially. John’s words are very thoughtful and he’s honest about his faith in a cool way.”
The new album from Nickel Creek, WHY SHOULD THE FIRE DIE? finds all three members full of confidence and it seems, even more passionate and enthusiastic about music than ever. The writing process involved a lot more collaboration, not just within the group, but with external co-writers as well, whereas past recordings had contained almost exclusively solo efforts. Sara explained about the view they took when going into the studio, saying that, “there were aspects of the last album that didn’t last very long in terms of our excitement over it and a lot of the songs that were on the record, we didn’t even learn to play live because we didn’t identify with them very well. And I know that was one of the goals, to just have an entire record that we’re proud to play each song off of and stand behind for a longer time. So I think we had so many goals, and we saw so much that the last album lacked that we wanted to improve that, and we didn’t think that the last record was our be all and end all of our efforts by any means,” she explained.
After exasperating all of their own thoughts on finding a new producer, their management suggested Eric Valentine and Tony Berg. The trio were in search of slightly more aggressive sound that they felt perhaps would not be captured in the same way if they had remained with Alison Krauss. “We just all figured it was time, and felt that with the third album it would be a good idea to move on,” says Chris. I wondered why Sean or Chris had not decided to produce or co-produce, but Sean explained that “mostly we know that we need an outside person to balance out all of our ideas, and Eric and Tony were great sounding boards.”
The result is an album that could appeal to their widest audience yet, encapsulating their diverse tastes and admiration for rock, bluegrass, Celtic, country, folk and acoustic music. Thirteen of the fourteen songs are originals, ranging from wholly solo compositions, to in-band collaborations and one collaboration between Thile and the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris. “I love his writing on the Jayhawks’ stuff, so when it was suggested that we do some co-writing I instantly thought of Gary.” The pair spent two days together and produced two songs, Jealous of the Moon, and one other that almost made it on to the album but was eventually cut from the track list. Chris says that chances are, the cut song will turn up somewhere else in the future, and will definitely team up again with Louris.
Each time that Nickel Creek release a new album it is different from the last, sometimes only slightly, and other times quite noticeably and the same is true of their solo ventures. But one thing that you can always hear is their never ending growth and versatility as a band. They have managed to maintain control of their sound and not be dictated to by those that surround them. In an industry that is ever obsessed by record sales, image and confining every artist to a genre, and once you have released your first album you are often trapped for eternity within that genre. Nickel Creek have not succumbed to these unrealistic attitudes, and remain independent in their thinking and playing, and it is this that gives them their broad appeal. They have gained legions of fans around the globe, but to this day keep their feet firmly on the ground, realising how lucky they are to have a career in music, and their fans are incredibly important to them. I got to experience their friendly nature and good humour for a day as I went around to various radio station interviews with them when they were in the UK in September, and I found them just as curious to find out about me, as I was curious to find out about them. Nickel Creek genuinely are just normal people, there are no airs and graces about them, they do not consider themselves any better than anybody else, and their ability to maintain such a level headed attitude and good nature, will surely only endear more fans to them in the future.
Yes, although they have resisted the confines of genres, they were branded a bluegrass band from a young age, and their first three albums (LITTLE COWPOKE, HERE TO THERE and NICKEL CREEK), seem to comply with that label. THIS SIDE and WHY SHOULD THE FIRE DIE? however, have led many people both inside and outside of the industry, to take the view that they are deserting their ‘bluegrass roots’. What people passing these judgements seem to forget though is that this is a group of musicians from Southern California, a place that is far from being the centre of the bluegrass world. Whilst they acknowledge that bluegrass is and always will be a strong part of their musical background, Nickel Creek have never claimed to be a bluegrass band.
“I think that the first album (the self-titled release on Sugar Hill), was an acceptable alternative for people who like bluegrass. It was sweet enough, and there were gospel references, and I had enough that those people could enjoy,” explained Sara. “Now there are still those things but we represent them differently, our life experiences have changed, and our overall perception of everything that we grew up listening to, and thinking about musically, and personally. We’re still the same people, just five years later.”
Chris continued on from Sara saying of the new album and change in sound “I think the fans that we still have after the second record are going to like this record much more than anything we’ve done. There are going to be fans that came to us on the first record that are never going to like this band again, because we’re just not that band any more and we won’t ever be because that’s just not interesting to us, we’ve already done it.”
Whatever category people try to put Nickel Creek into, they will never completely, ‘fit in’, and why should they have to? There are not many music fans who solely listen to one style of music, they may favour one style over all others, but it is rare to find someone who narrows their listening to one genre. So why should any artist be expected to confine themselves to one style of music for their entire career? It’s absurd! Surely the heart of the matter is not what sort of music Nickel Creek, or any other artists plays, but whether it is good quality and able to last in someone’s CD collection for more than a couple of years in this somewhat disposable society.
I can make no predictions of what future Nickel Creek albums will sound like, but with them undertaking a US tour of over 50 dates this Winter, I doubt there is any fear of their fans abandoning them, however far they drift from that 2000 self-titled release. Their music will continue to be individual, far reaching and distinguished, but most importantly, never stagnant or staid. After all, they are already prone to bursting into covers of Kings of Leon and Nirvana songs mid-way through blistering instrumentals, and are just as likely to include something from Bach’s repertoire. Nickel Creek will undoubtedly cross many more musical borders throughout their careers, and will likely do so with great triumph.