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Conversation: Chris Thile and the Goat Rodeo Sessions

“The Goat Rodeo Sessions” is the name of a recording released in October of last year. It’s also the name of a performance that airs Friday on PBS. It’s an all-star and eclectic group made up of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer and mandolin master Chris Thile, who is well-known from the bands Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers and many other projects.

I talked to Chris Thile earlier this week on the phone about working on “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” and his own projects:

A transcript and more videos are after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “Goat Rodeo Sessions” is the name of a recording released in October of last year. It’s also the name of a performance that airs on PBS this Friday. It’s an all-star and eclectic group made up of cellist Yo-Yo Ma — you’ve certainly heard of him — bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer and mandolin master Chris Thile, well-known from Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers and many other projects. Chris Thile joins us on the phone now from his home in New York, and welcome to you.

CHRIS THILE: Thank you very much for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess we should start with the name “Goat Rodeo.” Now what in the world does that come from?

CHRIS THILE: It’s an aviation term used to designate a situation where a bunch of things will have to go just right for anyone to come out of it unscathed. We felt it was appropriate somehow.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the this, how did this come about? It’s a kind of eclectic group, as I said. How did it happen?

CHRIS THILE: Well, Edgar Meyer and I have been making music together for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: That I know, actually, I’ve seen you perform together.

CHRIS THILE: Oh, good. Yeah, Edgar is one of my biggest heroes. He’s a tremendous musician and encourages collaborations that might appear to be a little odd. Just aesthetically, not structurally speaking. He’s been making music with Yo-Yo for a long time and I’ve been making music with Stuart for a long time. Yo-Yo asked Edgar if the two of us would be interested in doing something for his holiday record, “Songs of Joy & Peace.” We had so much doing it that Yo-Yo asked if we would be interested in doing something a little bit more comprehensive, and if so who we would like to involve in that. I immediately thought of Stuart, who I love making music with and haven’t gotten to in a band setting really ever, just kind of done studio work with him and had him on a couple of solo projects of mine. So I thought it would be fun to hear him interact with Yo-Yo. You know, those guys are kind of on opposite ends of the spectrum.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was thinking. I know Edgar Meyer well, goes back and forth in different genres. And I know you’ve tried out different things. I was wondering about Yo-Yo Ma on one end and Stuart Duncan on another. Is it a clash or how do you bring it together?

CHRIS THILE: You know, the challenge of the whole thing was to come up with music that would put everyone in their comfort zone, to where it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for any one of the four of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, these are original compositions, but are they worked out together in the session or how did that work?

CHRIS THILE: Yeah, yeah. Edgar, Stuart and I wrote everything together. We would go to Edgar’s house in Nashville and sometimes we’d have starts we’d come up with individually, and sometimes we would literally start from nothing. We’d actually just kind of improvise together and all the sudden someone might be onto something that the other two guys liked. You’d stop and go, What was that? Sometimes they’d remember and sometimes they wouldn’t. That’s some of my favorite instances. Or when Stuart, who is just a consummate improviser, he’d be playing and he’d play something that Edgar and I would just freak out over and have no idea what he just did, have like no idea. So then it was up to Edgar and I not only to remember what happened and start reconstructing it, but to actually teach it to Stuart.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ve talked to Yo-Yo Ma before, and I know about his openness to all kinds of music, but of course, he’s not known as an improviser; he’s coming from a very different area. What happens when you bring him into this?

CHRIS THILE: Right. We would write parts for Yo-Yo with Yo-Yo’s incredible voice in mind. Again, it was so fun. You know, improvising isn’t the meat and potatoes of Yo-Yo’s game, and reading isn’t the meat and potatoes of Stuart’s game. Stuart’s parts needed to be kind of frameworks, just sort of direction, and Yo-Yo’s parts needed to be written out. Every guy had something that he was able to sort of help the other guy with.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then we should say, you also brought in a wonderful singer, who I was not familiar with before. How do you say her name?

CHRIS THILE: Aoife O’Donovan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, beautiful voice.

CHRIS THILE: Absolutely. Absolutely incredible, from Boston, who also now lives in New York. She is one of my favorite people to sing with in the whole world. She has such a free and easy delivery.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m curious about your own singing. I thought of you as an instrumentalist, and then more and more you’re singing, am I right? Is that something you’ve developed or grown into?

CHRIS THILE: Yeah, grow into is good. I’ll never feel as comfortable singing as I do playing. The mandolin is my real voice. My actual voice is sort of my secondary voice, but I love to do it and I love giving people relief from playing with a little bit of singing. I feel like that’s what I’m most comfortable with. I think people react so strongly to hearing the human voice, you can’t give them too much of it or else they want it all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I’ve been listening to the new Punch Brothers album, which I love by the way, but there is a lot more singing on that.

CHRIS THILE: A lot of singing on that. That new Punch Brothers record — it’s a song record, which is fun. That’s just kind of the direction that Punch Brothers collaborative activity has taken. Kind of songwriting. We started a little bit more instrumentally focused, but that’s been fun. I mean, you have to let collaborations grow, you know. Put them on the window sill and water them occasionally, but you don’t sit there and just kind of like stretch it, you can’t sit there and stretch the plant and dictate how it grows.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you finally, with the “Goat Rodeo Sessions,” was that it, is there more to come? Was that a one-time deal or what?

CHRIS THILE: We’ve already started talking about what the next phase will be for Goat Rodeo. I think it surprised everyone, including us, how much fun it ended up being. It ended up being less an exercise in combining seemingly disparate elements and became more of just a celebration of musical camaraderie. We would be silly not to do it again.

JEFFREY BROWN: Great. All right, well, PBS viewers can watch the “Goat Rodeo Sessions” in performance this Friday. Chris Thile, thanks so much for talking to us.

CHRIS THILE: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

Watch The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live: Fiddle Medley on PBS. See more from Goat Rodeo.

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