Chris Thile in London Interview
By Dan Beimborn
February 5, 2012 - 5:30 pm
Chris Thile has been very busy, riding a wave of creativity and musical output that has no match in the mandolin world. His recent work spans diverse genres: traditional "brother duet" singing with Michael Daves, classical music with Yo-Yo Ma in The Goat Rodeo Sessions, and creating new acoustic music with the Punch Brothers.
We caught up with Chris on January 23 in Shepherd's Bush, following a packed and energetic gig in London's Bush Hall. We talked about recent recordings, upcoming projects, and his recently acquired Lloyd Loar F5 Mandolin. Chris, an avid mixologist, likens his recent musical output to a cocktail made up of three different flavors.
— Dan Beimborn
Dan Beimborn: You've been very prolific lately. Three recordings in very different genres in the last six months.
Chris Thile: One of my favorite cocktails in the whole world is the Negroni, which is equal parts Gin, Campari, and Sweet Vermouth. The record I made with Michael Daves is the Gin. BAM, a simple crisp kick in the head. The Punch Brothers is like the Campari, balanced with bitter & sweet. The Goat Rodeo Session is the Sweet Vermouth, very refined, delicate. Those three records are the Negroni of my musical life this year.
Dan Beimborn: You've also mentioned a solo Bach recording recently?
Chris Thile: I'm getting very close to recording the Bach. I think that could happen some time this year, maybe the end of this year.
Dan Beimborn: Are you planning to play mandolas and mandocellos as well as your mandolin?
Chris Thile: Just mandolin. I don't very often play other instruments. With the Goat Rodeo project I played some fiddle & guitar in addition to mandolin.
Who's Feeling Young Now?
Dan Beimborn: We've listened to an advance copy of Who's Feeling Young Now. We noticed a very big change in production, much more vocal presence, different mixing. Can you tell me about the production?
Chris Thile: Jacquire King produced it this time. We were going for a more involved relationship between band and studio. I think they (previous producers) approached us as sort of an "opportunity to flex their organic chops," to say "oh wow, these guys play live... they can cut all their parts, and I'm just going to throw up a couple mikes and off we go." So even a producer like John Brion, who is known for having an innovative approach to the studio, getting wonderful bizarre sounds out of things, approached it as an opportunity to capture sound in a very natural, representative way... as opposed to allowing the studio to become a sixth band member.
I think this has been appropriate on the last couple of records, but this batch of material, I think, the boys and I have become more and more interested in being an ensemble of musicians that play these instruments that are associated with the music of the past. But creating music that is very present, that has an eye towards the future instead of towards the past.
Dan Beimborn: I noticed the crowd at Bush Hall was very young, I was expecting to see more fogeys.
Chris Thile: It's very nice, we're starting to get a nice balance. I feel like it's important to be making new music, and I feel like the energy behind this material is best heard through the sort of filter that Jacquire was providing.
A little bit more electricity behind it. He understood the intent behind the performance was not curative, it wasn't trying to present something that happened long ago.
When it comes to acoustic bands, it seems like there are so many "music museums" out there, and we don't want to be a music museum.
Punch Brothers - Clara
Dan Beimborn: The new CD was not mixed or produced like a Bluegrass record...
Chris Thile: Right. We play those instruments, because that's what we know how to play best. We are trying to do something new. Jacquire got in there with us, he was the sixth band member. He played the studio like an instrument and really helped us to accurately represent the intent behind the songs. Both in their construction and delivery.
Dan Beimborn: The results are very nice. Great instrument sounds, vocal presence, a very nice total result.
Chris Thile: Thank you. We had so much fun. You know, we could hear all of those sounds in the headphones as we were recording. We were committing to sounds. It wasn't just like you record acoustically and slap a bunch of stuff on it it. The instruments were being "re-amplified." He was sending the mic feeds through amplifiers, recording those in addition to the beautiful mic sounds that we had. There would be an array of microphones in front of each guy, and some of these were going directly into these beautiful old amplifiers, killer effects, old pedals, things like that. The effects you are hearing are what we were playing to in the cans, instead of this pristine acoustic sound.
Photo credit: Crawford White
Photo credit: Crawford White
Dan Beimborn: My wife commented to me during the performance that she was amazed at how many different sounds you were getting from the mandolin. Has the Loar changed anything for you? Any new direction as a result of this instrument?
Chris Thile: ABSOLUTELY! That mandolin has so much life in it. It has a lot more "high end information" than my last mandolin did. The last mandolin had this beautiful... (it's not dead! it still has it!) this beautiful woody low end, low mids, but then it started to fall off high-mids and highs, so where the high end... the only information up there was really referring back to the low end, and then it was just pick against the string. Not a super-pleasant kind of sound. As opposed to the wood having a high-end character of its own. This mandolin has less information in the low end, but it's really balanced across the spectrum. This is really, really nice for me. I'm always climbing it, and falling all the time.
Fisher's Gibson Orchestra of El Dorado, Kansas
Virgil Bisagno, the original owner of Chris Thile's mandolin appears as a member of Fisher's Gibson Orchestra of El Dorado, Kansas in the third row, third from left, pictured below.
Virgil Bisagno - Original owner - #75316
Dan Beimborn: I've noticed you're not afraid of the dusty end of the fretboard.
Chris Thile: Right! No, not so much! It's a beautiful action. The more I play it, the more low end comes out. Anyone who tells you that a mandolin doesn't change as you play it has no idea what they are talking about.
Dan Beimborn: Can you tell us the story behind the Loar? Did you try several before you found "the one?"
Chris Thile: I tried a bunch. I think I played 11 or 12 before I found mine. All of the Loars I have loved the most have been February 18s. That batch.
Dan Beimborn: Mike Marshall...
Chris Thile: Right, Mike Marshall's, John Reischman's is February 18, John Paul Jones'.
Lloyd Loar #75316
Photo credit: Crawford White
Dan Beimborn: Was John Paul's Loar the second mandolin you had at the London Borderline gig (September 13, 2011)?
Chris Thile: Yes, exactly. So those are just spectacular instruments. This one is a February 18. It was sleepy. It literally hadn't been played since 1924. But I could hear some of what it was going to become in it. As if under water or something! I decided to take the chance on it, and it's proven to be well worth it. It's a GREAT instrument.
Two February 18, 1924 Loars
Left: #75316 belonging to Chris Thile. Right, #75317 belong to John Paul Jones. Photo credit: Chris Thile.
Dan Beimborn: Sure sounds like you got a good one.
Chris Thile: I feel really lucky. To me definitely sounds like a top 5 in the world kind of instrument.
Dan Beimborn: Sometimes it's easy to tell a bad mandolin, though the really great ones often are subtle, it takes a couple hours to really hear it.
Chris Thile: Exactly. The great ones don't kill you with any one characteristic right away.
Dan Beimborn: So much is down to set-up and maintenance too. Was it Lynn Dudenbostel who did the set-up for you on the Loar?
Chris Thile: It was a combination. Steve Gilchrist did the initial work. There was a crack, a couple standard things that happen to Loars that live strung up for a long time without being played. There was a little crack right by the extension on the bass side, and a little separating by the back & sides towards the south point. One little tiny crack right on top of that, right on the bass side of that south point. Those are all very standard things that happen. It's separating a little bit now between the back and that same spot. So I'm going to have to get it repaired at some point. But you know, that's what happens when you tour with it.
I would advise anyone who has a Loar — take the thing out of the ***damn case! It is NOT a museum piece, it is an instrument. It is an instrument that needs to be played. If you're not playing it, find someone who will and loan it to them. Let them play it. It's like how sad it is to see a cheetah in a zoo. It makes me SO MAD. Anyone that ever looks at mine and says "Oh man, you put some scratches on it, eh? " ... **** OFF. It drives me absolutely crazy that people baby these things. I mean, by all means, take care of it, make sure it doesn't get stolen, that kind of thing. Keep it out of harm's way, but PLAY IT. Tour with it! Make music on that thing, it's dying to be played. They are such brilliant instruments. AND — get it in playable condition... take the fingerboard off. The jig in the factory was WRONG. if you keep the thing in original condition, it's not playable! The frets up on the top end are out of tune! It drives me to distraction that people who deify these things and don't get them in playable condition and play them. They are brilliant instruments.
Loar was not God. He was a very good instrument builder. Sorry. It's a little rant. "Play your Loar."
I'm just going to go ahead and say keeping it original is keeping it wrong. Hey, if that's what you like... more power to ya.
Dan Beimborn: On the subject of gear, your stage mandolin sound was very nice. What sort of pickups/lines were you using?
Chris Thile: I use an ATM-35 microphone Audio Technica clip-on microphone, not a contact mic. It's a little microphone that clips onto the arm rest, a little clamp clips on to the microphone and goes over the sound-hole.
Dan Beimborn: Does it go inside one of the F-holes?
Chris Thile: No, it's on the outside, over the treble hole. It clips on the arm rest, and it's on a little goose-neck. The microphone is about 1 1/2-2" above the treble F-hole.
Dan Beimborn: Scott mentioned to me that you've been raising your action over time.
Chris Thile: Yes, I've definitely gone higher. My hands are stronger than they used to be. I kept hearing tapes of myself, where in the heat of battle, I would be over-driving the instrument all the time. Snapping, buzzing... I decided that I was sacrificing tone for facility. Facility means nothing if it doesn't sound any good. So I've cranked the action up a fair amount over the last 3 or 4 years. I think I've finally found the place, where I can still play the most demanding stuff like the double from the second movement of the B minor partita for instance. Playing that where it needs to go as the double of the second movement, you don't want to take the first part too slow, they need to be the same speed. That puts the double at like 160/165. That's really fast and hard to sustain that sort of speed through the whole thing and keep it clear. I've always had that where I think "I shouldn't crank my action up where I can't make it through that piece."
Dan Beimborn: So that's the limit.
Chris Thile: I've had it higher with Punch Brothers, to make sure that I'm not over-driving the instrument. I still do sometimes. I'm working on that, it's a huge problem with my playing — getting too excited and playing too hard.
Dan Beimborn: Really?
Chris Thile: Yes! I get too excited live and want to bring it home. I lock up my mechanism (points to his right arm), and overdrive the instrument. It's not a good sound and it doesn't help you convey the intensity of your experience. That's the biggest thing I'm working on right now, playing the way I play in the heat of the moment and not trying to get too much out of the instrument.
- Pre-order Who's Feeling Young Now? Punch Brothers | amazon.com | Elderly
- Punch Brothers
- Thile's New Loar from Vintage Guitar Magazine
- Mandolin Cafe's Chris Thile & Michael Daves interview - Part I
- Mandolin Cafe's Chris Thile & Michael Daves interview - Part II
- Mandolin Cafe's 2006 Chris Thile interview
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Also a huge thanks to Joe Spann who made some great contributions to the article as well and is still doing some research on the original owner.
I placed a call (went to voicemail) to the one great grandchild of orchestra leader Howard D. Fisher that Joe found (that had an associated phone number--there are actually several). She lives in Wichita which is just a few miles down the road from El Dorado, Kansas. Didn't get a return call but it was likely a pretty strange experience and all of this information may very well be totally new to them. For those not aware, I'm based in Kansas about 90 minutes from El Dorado.
Interesting side note: in the orchestra photo bottom left is a young boy holding what appears to be a Fern F5. There was a Loar signed Fern that turned up in the area a few years ago which would be about 100 miles from where this photo was taken and it would not be unusual for someone to migrate from south central Kansas to the suburbs of Kansas City where the mandolin ended up. I'm in the process of contacting the family that owned that instrument. Thinking there's a real possibility the young man in the photo was the grandfather of the elderly owners of this instrument. Very interesting stuff. Of all of the orchestra photos I've ever seen, this one haunts me most, and I'm determined to uncover the names of these musicians. Thinking a trip to El Dorado for the day or more to look into the archives of the local newspaper may be in my future.
As a (former) journalist, great questions from Dan, and terrific work from you guys on the historical data about Chris' mandolin. Fascinating.
Having listened to an advance copy of the CD, I can confirm that the production does indeed mark a very big change for the P-Bros. As Chris points out, the first recordings were about capturing the well-honed acoustic sound of the band. The new disc is unlike anything I've heard before, and very unlike the experience of hearing the band live in recent years. It took me a few listenings just to adjust my expectations, but I'm diggin' it now.
Interesting side note: in the orchestra photo bottom left is a young boy holding what appears to be a Fern F5. There was a Loar signed Fern that turned up in the area a few years ago which would be about 100 miles from where this photo was taken and it would not be unusual for someone to migrate from south central Kansas to the suburbs of Kansas City where the mandolin ended up. I'm in the process of contacting the family that owned that instrument. Thinking there's a real possibility the young man in the photo was the grandfather of the elderly owners of this instrument. Very interesting stuff. Of all of the orchestra photos I've ever seen, this one haunts me most, and I'm determined to uncover the names of these musicians. Thinking a trip to El Dorado for the day or more to look into the archives of the local newspaper may be in my future. End Quote
I thought the same thing Scott.
I side with Chris on playing the darn things.They weren't made to be seen as much as to be heard. It needs to be said, and and said by Chris, because coming from me would be ridiculously lame. I don't have a reasonable expectation of ever being in a position to have to make those decisions.
Dan good job. I know I would not be able to do it. I am too much of a fanboy, I would probably start to stutter.
If you place a modern fingerboard by a good maker up against a vintage Gibson, sometimes you will see a shocking variation in the fret placement. It's easiest to do this with a modern fretboard blank that hasn't been fretted.
Thanks for the interview! Oh, one more thing, we are all big boys and girls here, why did you **** out a few words of profanity? I mean, if he said it, let it be printed. I am not one to swear myself, but it seems very Jr. High-ish to censor out a few words in an interview, just my opinion.
Having it playable really trumps everything else, though obviously the respect for it as a musical instrument does encourage you to be conservative and always keep it's true purpose to hand.
Thile is one of the most interesting people in the music business right now. Maybe one of the most interesting ever. Can't wait to see how his career unfolds over the years. And I'm REALLY looking forward to the Bach project.
Here's a bit of news.
Just off the phone with Jim at Mass. Street Music who had the Fern in question that I spoke of in my opening post. This is in reference to the boy in the orchestra sitting on the ground, bottom left, who appears to be holding a Fern F-5. Jim tells me the owners of that Fern he had for some time had family from that part of the state going back that far, so while he hasn't spoken to them yet, at this point he thinks it's without question that this is the same family. If that's the case, in the next day or so we should have a second name in the orchestra and a positive ID of the original owner of a #76782, a March 31, 1924 Fern with virzi.
Here's an article Bill Graham did for us on the mandolin back in 2009:
Gets better... Just now re-reading Bill's article and found this:
Victor and Lena Semisch of rural Butler County, Kan., east of Wichita, acquired this Gibson F5 that he played and a Gibson archtop guitar that she played. Victor was a country school teacher who later operated a small general store and gas station.
Daughter Phyllis Shanline, 80, of Manhattan, Kan., remembers her father teaching her how to sing harmonies as he she rode with him to make gas deliveries to farmers. But she only has vague memories of the mandolin and him playing "Redwing" on it.
Her sister, Jody Kennedy, 73, of Olathe, Kan., in the Kansas City suburbs, remembers seeing the mandolin surface when she was young. Kennedy asked him about it and he took it out and played it a bit, but that's all she remembers.
Friends tell them her parents played with other musicians at community gatherings at the school or in homes. The girls didn't pay close attention.
"I thought, why on earth can't they play something up-to-date," Shanline said.
Their parents apparently didn't play much at all after World War II, Kennedy said. Victor Semisch died in 1961 at age 59. Lena Semisch held onto the instruments.
Both the mandolin and the guitar survived a fire at the family business and later an explosion next to a closet where they were stored. Kennedy acquired the mandolin in 2001 after her mother died, and another relative has the guitar.
Just lucky, I guess.
Based on some new information Joe Spann just sent I think the orchestra leader Fisher is seated in the middle, bottom row. That would make the Fern owner in question on the far left. According to Joe's information, he would have been 21 at the time. The kid on the ground I think we'd agree is definitely not 21. This is where the family will help us out.
I have photographs of me holding each of my mandolins, with a brief description of when, where, and how I bought it and what I play, written on the back. I keep these pictures in the case.
I started this several years ago, and the idea is to give future owners a head start, at least as far back as me.
I am now for sure waiting to buy the new recording until I first see some of it performed live on March 1. Based on this interview, live may be much different / less full sounding in comparison to the recording. Maybe a topic for future discussion?
If only we could find the original sales logs of the instruments from this period, but it's doubtful they still exist.
Also I am fascinated by this historical turn of events and am looking forward to leaning more as Scott digs it up!
Having listened to an advance copy of the CD, I can confirm that the production does indeed mark a very big change for the P-Bros. As Chris points out, the first recordings were about capturing the well-honed acoustic sound of the band. The new disc is unlike anything I've heard before, and very unlike the experience of hearing the band live in recent years. It took me a few listenings just to adjust my expectations, but I'm diggin' it now. End Quote
I got the vinyl at the first show of this tour in Milwaukee ... stunning production values.....
His name is Virgil Bisagno.
He's pictured above in this news article holding the mandolin now owned by Chris Thile. The photo on the left is the original photo Chris provided for this interview. The photo on the right is from the 1925 El Dorado yearbook. I have several pictures of him from 1925 and one from 1924. I first noticed him in the 1924 yearbook and was pretty convinced I'd found him but once I saw the Senior pictures, no doubt.
I'm in El Dorado, Kansas at a coffee shop after spending a good part of the afternoon at the Butler County Historical Society researching Fisher's Gibson Mandolin Orchestra of El Dorado. I have a gig here tonight at a small concert hall so took the opportunity to come down early to do this research. Special thanks to the two ladies at the museum who spent a couple of hours assisting me. Pretty exciting to put a name to a face that'd been haunting me for some time. I probably won't post more pix today as the coffee shop is about to close. El Dorado isn't New York City or L.A. 5:00 p.m. in this town is closing time.
A bit about Virgil: president of the Library Club his senior year, Treasure of the French Club his junior year. Apparently did not partake in any sports or other clubs at school. He married Zelda Emma Crommet, November 5, 1927, also a senior the same year. She appears to be in the Library club as well his senior year. Interestingly, in scanning the orchestra picture, there's one young girl that looks strikingly like her and she's seated directly in front of him. More on her but not now. He was born November 27, 1907 and died March 6, 2006 in Siskiyou, California (Siskiyou is a county I've now been told).
Found advertisements for Howard Fisher in some phone books, various addresses for his studio and home, none of which exist now. The address for his Gibson studio is now a vacant lot, not surprisingly.
More on this later. Dug up a bunch of other information about Virgil, his wife and the Fisher orchestra but don't have time to share it right this moment. Too much to process.
This is an advertisement for Fisher's studio from a town directory. Found two different home addresses for him and the studio address but those locations had all been demolished and replaced by pretty modern newer structures clearly not from the same time period for the residences. The studio was an empty lot. Was hoping of course to find the home the orchestra picture was taken in front of but assumed it to be long gone and it was.
Like the "Threaded Instruments" reference. Interesting.
Another picture of Virgil as President of the Library Club. He's in the center with light sweater and tie. Believe the girl top right in the back row may be his future wife. There's a better photo I have of her from the yearbook and as already stated I believe she may be in the orchestra seated in front of her. Inconclusive though, speculation.
Also found reference today to the Semisch family, owners of the Loar recently discovered near where I live and in the possession of Mass Street Music in Lawrence, KS for awhile before being sold. Something on my to-do list to pursue further at a later time.
The museum is in the process of getting a new microfilm reader so won't be available for another two weeks so that's a future project and where I think I'll ultimately find the original photo and hopefully the names of all members of the orchestra which is my ultimate goal.
Brad, didn't spend a single moment looking over microfilm. The museum doesn't have a reader at the moment but has new ones arriving in two weeks. Got lucky on my own finding him in the yearbook. All of the dots connected on this one. I'll head back down in a few weeks once the new tools are in place. I'd bet good money right now that photo of the orchestra appeared in the paper and I'm hoping the names of the members were included. Still have quite a bit of information but may hold onto it for awhile.
Man I really do love this kind of history,well done and keep it up because with a little knowledge these instruments can do even more talking.and well who don't like that!
Zelda Crommett, the lucky girl,
Has hair she doesn't have to curl.
It was 1925 mind you...
I think there's a possibility she is in the orchestra sitting just in front of Virgil but I'm far less certain of that. Also have another photo I think is her in the Library Club of which he was the president. No surprise if they married they were following each other around the school activities.
I hated history in school. It was all just this stuff that happened in books. No connection to me.
In school I used to work on my math homework during history class, or read other small books held inside the huge history book. The ARRL license manual was a regular.
But if this kind of history were alluded to, if I played mandolin at the time and got into where it came from and who owned it, I might never have become an engineer.
Whose website all the eight-string pickers did adore
Thile scored a Feb. 18, not one but two, now that's a scene
Mandolin Café's the place if you are into Loar!