Chris Thile and Michael Daves Interview - Part II

By Bradley Klein - for the Mandolin Cafe
May 22, 2011 - 8:30 pm

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Chris Thile and Michael Daves

The mandolin and guitar duo of Chris Thile and Michael Daves has been an open secret for years in New York City. Chris would show up unannounced to the public at Michael's no-cover solo shows. Occasionally a duo show would be announced and quickly sell out. The crowd would go crazy and inevitably there would be a buzz of "those guys should make a record," as folks filtered out into the streets of the Lower East Side.

And thus it went for nearly 5 years. During that time, both artists traveled widely with their bands. Chris with Punch Brothers and Michael with Tony Trischka, but only now are they venturing outside the city limits as a duo. Their Nonesuch CD Sleep with One Eye Open is out and a tour of the East coast wraps up this coming week with a video shoot at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., followed by shows in Boston and Portland, Maine.

Bradley Klein is a freelance journalist and producer of audio and video content for radio, television and the web. He has worked extensively for NPR News and WNYC-Radio, and spent six years as Creative Director of Espro-Acoustiguide, an international company that makes audio tours for museums and historic sites. He is currently developing two music-related shows for public radio and lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and a Vega cylinder-back mandobass, named Tubby!

  • Part I of this interview is located here.

Opening Night

Rockwood Music Hall, New York City, N.Y., May 10, 2011. Photo credit: Justin Camerer.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves in concert

It's easy to imagine that Chris Thile and Michael Daves would be drawn toward playing together. They are certainly two of the best musicians in New York's Americana music scene. But it's also easy to imagine with their many differences that they would not. Chris is a songwriter and composer known for his speed, precision and accuracy. He plays with a light touch, and sings with a certain smoothness, even when he's getting rowdy on stage. Michael plays mostly from the traditional bluegrass repertoire. He has a loose but heavy right hand. He likes the action on his instruments at a height that even Bill Monroe would probably find sufficiently "manly." And he has a powerful voice that he'll push to heights that suggest a kind of emotional breaking point.

But they share a deep background in bluegrass, along with a wide-ranging appreciation of indie-rock, folk traditions and jazz. They have "big ears," and they know and love the brother duet tradition inside out. They also like the break from the intricate arrangements and limitations of, say, a five-piece band. "When it's with a band it's hard to get everyone on the same page, but when we two play together, whatever happens, the other is going to catch on eventually," says Michael. "When I'm playing with lesser musicians I'm more of a mind that we've got to keep steady so things don't fall apart. With Chris I don't worry about it because if things fall apart at all it's likely to be interesting."

During those years of unannounced shows there was precious little rehearsal and things often got interesting. Chris estimates that "aside from recording the album, 95% of the playing we've done together has been in front of people. We have a rule of thumb that if people are paying to come to a show, then we'll rehearse." Part of the fun for the local fans has been watching the two evolve from competent musical partners to seemingly mind-reading 'brothers' on stage. "Especially the vocals," says Michael. "We've figured out how to sing together." Chris jumps in, "but we don't get too careful or nitpicky. It's important not to over-rehearse. If you listen to the Doc Watson and Bill Monroe record the phrasing is all over the deck..." Michael: "...but the vibe of that record is so great."

Opening Night

Rockwood Music Hall, New York City, N.Y., May 10, 2011. Photo credit: Justin Camerer.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves in concert

"We benefit from the way guitars and mandolins interact with one another," says Thile, "I don't often play with guitarists who understand the mandolin as well as Michael does. Both of us can play the other instrument," (and very occasionally they do so in concert) "and so we both understand what's going on. And already the guitar and mandolin are fairly similar, tonally and dynamically speaking." Thile claims the mandolin has a bit of an advantage in terms of volume, "but with his explosiveness, Michael's guitar is every bit as loud as the mandolin in our duo, and that actually helps the [improvisational] flights of fancy morph into something more than that."

When the two face off, trading improvised measures during a break, they're watching each other intently. Thile in constant movement, his whole body accenting a particular note or lightning-fast run, something like Muhammad Ali's 'float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.' Daves typically stands rooted to one spot, his right hand unanchored and moving with remarkable power and accuracy from a loose wrist.

Their choice of instruments is also a study in contrasts. Thile plays his Feb. 18, 1924 Loar-signed Gibson F-5, the classic bluegrass mandolin. Daves alternates between a 1960 Martin D-18 and a 50s plywood Truetone, the kind of cheap guitar that was made for decades in different styles, sizes and brand names. His has a bolt-on neck and painted inlays.

Those are the acoustic ingredients of their duo sound, and in the past, they have generally played live into a single condenser microphone, usually an Audio-Technica 4033. When it came time to record, they headed to Nashville and worked with three-time Grammy Award winner Vance Powell at Jack White's Third Man Studio. They couldn't be happier with the choice. It's an all analog studio with one great-sounding room and a few isolation booths.

Powell was the recording engineer for both Sleep with One Eye Open and the vinyl 7-inch produced by Jack White. When it comes to recording those instruments here's what he had to say about Thile's Loar: "I'll tell you what I didn't like about it. Are you ready for this? I didn't like it when Chris left it on the floor. That's what I didn't like about it," explaining that he's a big guy with big feet and the prospect of stepping on one of the most valuable mandolins in the world, well, it doesn't bear thinking on. "Everything else, it's fantastic. It's one of the finest mandolins I've ever recorded. The only one that was even close to it is John Paul Jones'," which, according to Powell is another Feb. 18, 1924, as was Lloyd Loar's own F-5 and a widely admired mandolin belonging to John Reischman.

Chris Thile's Lloyd Loar mandolin, #75316

Chris Thile's Lloyd Loar mandolin, serial 75316

Chris Thile's Lloyd Loar mandolin, serial 75316

Thile picks up the Loar that's been sitting next to him on the couch. "I feel like this thing sounds different when we play together. The way I dig in with Michael gives it more high-mids, just more nasty... I love it. In the last couple of years I've raised my action a lot. My hands have gotten stronger, and I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of dexterity and facility on the instrument for increased dynamic control. With the world's easiest set-up there's only so loud you can get and I now feel that's not a good sacrifice to make. You can still play plenty of notes with a little higher action."

As for Daves' choice of guitars, Vance Powell says that the inexpensive plywood Truetone helps bring a Rock sensibility to the collaboration. "He's the one wanting the track to punch you in the face. He's bringing that vibe to the song." Daves describes his 1960 Martin D-18, a classic guitar, but perhaps not as iconic in the bluegrass setting as a rosewood D-28 as unusually mid-rangey. "It has very little low end. That guitar and Chris' mandolin combine well." Thile: "and make that wall of sound thing." Daves: "which gives a lot of focus. It's not like the guitar is down low only with the mandolin only up top."

On Tour

On stage at The Southern on May 19, 2011, Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo credit: Bob Travis.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves in concert

"We all 'conversated,'" said Powell. That seems to mean more than talked. Closer to a meeting of minds. A deep understanding. "They expressed to me that they wanted to do this 100% live. They wanted to do it to tape, no headphones, and as much around one microphone as possible. And so that's kind of what we did. I didn't over-think this. It's easy to make nerdy sound guy records. I worked at a studio that had the largest microphone collection on the planet (Blackbird Studios in Nashville). They have about 1400 microphones and 800 tube mics. It's really easy to over-think it. I wanted to be out of the way as much as possible. Put them in this good sounding room on each side of a microphone that was made in the '50s. Put out a couple other microphones that were made in the '50s to pick up the guitar and mandolin a little bit and then hit record."

They recorded about six hours onto 2-inch analog tape at 7 1/2" per second. 15 and 30 ips are possible but Powell says he likes the very natural high end at the lower speed. "We used less EQ than on any record I ever recorded. There's none on Chris' mandolin and there's very little on the guitar and zero on the vocal mic."

"There was one microphone stand between them with an RCA 77dx. It's a silver one, one of Jack's, a beautiful microphone. And right next to that stand kind of at instrument level was a AEA R88 stereo ribbon. And my idea initially was to record the whole thing with those microphones. "But he wanted a sound that was just a bit closer to the instruments so I used a Coles 4038 pointing at Chris 7-8" from his mandolin, and then I used another RCA 77dx, a nice black one, near the guitar. So the AEA and the Coles and the 77 were blended to two tracks and the vocal mic is right in the middle."

They kept the set-up throughout three days of recording. Some tracks were a single live take and when they wanted to combine two takes, Powell sliced across 2-inches of magnetic recording tape with a razor blade and tape-spliced it back together. Now why, when there are computers and digital audio workstations, would anyone do that?

"It's a journey, and it means something when you're done." I can almost see a grin flash across Vance's face, even though we're talking by phone. "Just because it's easy, doesn't mean you should do it. Why did we go to the moon? Because it's there."

About the Album

Track By Track

1. Rabbit in the Log (Traditional)

Michael Daves: Monroe Brothers and it's on the Doc and Monroe album. The song is just a romp.

Chris Thile: I just always loved how graphic it was (laughs). Roll him in the flames till nice and brown. Awesome!

Michael Daves: My wife makes a whole rabbit roasted in a mustard sauce that's to die for.

Chris Thile: Is it nice and brown?

Michael Daves: Definitely. She makes it on the grill. You can get rabbit at the local farmer's market.

2. Cry, Cry Darling (Jimmy C. Newman & Jay D. Miller)

Chris Thile: That song is all about those first two notes (sings) "Cry... Cryeee..."

Bradley Klein: Monroe did it solo, but you guys do it in two-part harmony.

Chris Thile: Monroe didn't have someone who can sing high C in full voice like Michael can. The funny thing is that we did that song in A-flat with no capos.

Michael Daves: We play it with bar chords.

Chris Thile: Just to get a different sound which you don't hear on guitar in bluegrass. On mandolin, we don't use capos anyway (grins) because we're awesome.

3. Loneliness and Desperation (Michael Garris)

Michael Daves: I had a chance to talk to Del McCoury about it. It's one of the few bluegrass songs about New York City.

Chris Thile: It's pretty punk the way we do it.

Michael Daves: Power chords!

Chris Thile: Driving quarter notes at the top. Chjunk, chjunk, chjunk, chkoo!

4. Tennessee Blues (Bill Monroe)

Chris Thile: Didn't you call out Tennessee Blues during fiddle tune request time one concert?

Bradley Klein: That was me, about a year ago.

Chris Thile: That was the first time we played it together. That's a great tune to check out the how the instruments are recorded. It just explodes out of the speakers.

5. 20/20 Vision (Joe Allison & Milton Estes)

Bradley Klein: I know this as a Jimmy Martin tune but your version has a touch of rock and roll in it.

Chris Thile: Totally. That's all through the record.

Michael Daves: Part of that is the plywood Truetone guitar that I use on this and some other tracks. It's got a lot of buzzes and rattles in it that sound kind of like cymbals and fill out the tonal spectrum. And we play that song hard. We're singing loud and playing hard and kind of driving the instruments.

20/20 Vision

6. You're Running Wild (Ray Endenton & Don Winters)

Michael Daves: The Louvin Brothers blow our minds. We just love their sound.

Chris Thile: If we could sing like anybody...

Michael Daves: They're arguably the greatest brother duet. The Monroe Brothers were amazing but the Louvin Brothers brought it to its pinnacle. And there's the added fascination of what a great and twisted songwriter Ira was and what a dysfunctional genius he was in his personal life.

7. Ookpik Waltz (Frank Rodgers)

Chris Thile: I learned it from a fiddle teacher, Dennis Caplinger, long ago. The way we play it may not be how it goes but I think that's fine. It's not so important to learn fiddle tunes exactly note by note.

Michael Daves: The first time I played it was on stage with Chris.

8. My Little Girl in Tennessee (Lester Flatt)

Bradley Klein: Where does that little riff come from that you put in this song?

Chris Thile: That comes from this guy Larry Barnwell who worked at Gibson when I was little. I was 8 years old and I already kind of recognized it as bluegrass kitsch, but also that it was weirdly appropriate. The Punch Brothers hate it when I play that riff in that song. Michael did the riff straight [in the recording], and then what I did, kind of consciously kind of subconsciously was to do it a little different each time, straight, then in harmony, then next in counterpoint in an inversion kind of betting that Michael's gonna do it again.

9. Sleep with One Eye Open (Lester Flatt)

Bradley Klein: This song is all about Michael's loose right hand. Those triplets...

Chris Thile: Oh yeah. (scats and sings) chicka-dchi-kah.

Michael Daves: It's rockabilly.

10. Rain and Snow (Traditional)

Michael Daves: That's on my solo album Live at the Rockwood and it's a song I do with Tony Trischka. We needed something a little sinister and Chris does that great vocal harmony.

Chris Thile: That's one of those rare moments I'll allow myself to strain like hell for a note because I think it's such a big payoff when we both go up at the end in full voice. I'll only do it on special occasions. I won't do it live unless I have a couple days off to rest my voice.

On Tour

On stage at The Southern on May 19, 2011, Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo credit: Bob Travis.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves in concert

11. Mississippi Waltz (Bill Monroe)

Michael Daves: An amazing tune. I love the recording with Kenny Baker. I imagine that if Monroe played it in a duo it would have more of a vibe like we do it. Kenny Baker brings this beautiful refined quality to any song he plays but he can be nasty too. This is how I imagine Monroe would have done it on his own.

12. Bury Me Beneath the Willow (Traditional)

Bradley Klein: That was on the Skaggs and Rice, as was Tennessee Blues.

Chris Thile: I love that record. During my childhood that was one of the few recordings that was in constant rotation in our car. I also think it was a well-paced record, thoughtfully conceived.

Michael Daves: Tony, when he was singing real well.

Chris Thile: And Skaggs who is one of the best tenor singers of all times. They both played really well on that record.

13. Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms (Traditional)

Michael Daves: I can't think of a more standard bluegrass tune.

Chris Thile: I used to play that song in jam sessions with the Southwest Bluegrass Association and most of the other players were 65 or 70 years older than me. I'd sing it an octave higher. It was almost ultrasonic.

14. Billy in the Lowground (Traditional)

Chris Thile: Bryan Sutton showed me that extra little bit, the turn around, the little button.

Sleep with One Eye Open

Michael Daves: Once I started playing it that way it was really hard to go back to playing it straight.

Chris Thile: I can't go back.

Michael Daves: That tune is so eighth-note intensive. The A section is a big old run-on sentence. It's one of those tunes that's a vehicle for a fiddle shuffle with those strong 2 and 4 accents. Adding that extra part gives the melody more form, makes it more of a composition.

15. It Takes One to Know One (Harland Howard & Freddie Hart)

Michael Daves: One of the great things about Jimmy Martin is he's so earnest and emotional, but at the same time, they're sort of crocodile tears. He's the biggest hillbilly drama queen there ever was and I love that about him.

16. If I Should Wander Back Tonight (Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs)

Chris Thile: We sweated bullets over the track order of the CD and this is a great ending. It's an ellipses. To be continued...

Additional information

Chris Thile and Michael Daves

Photo credit: Justin Camerer

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Reader Comments

May 23, 2011 08:22 AM
Brad, are they filming for NPR's "Tiny Desk Concert"? I hope so. Those are always outstanding.
May 23, 2011 09:59 PM
That's my understanding, but I don't know when it will go up on their podcast. Bob Boilen does a great job with those. The David Rawlings and Gillian Welch is a favorite. Such nice sound off that one stereo mic.
John McGann
May 25, 2011 01:31 PM
Great job, Bradley, I love getting the tech (or anti-tech) details!
Mandolin Cafe
May 22, 2018 08:29 AM
Noting the anniversary of the publication of the second part of the interview from this date 2011.
May 22, 2018 09:21 AM
How touching that the previous message on this thread, from back in 2011 was from the late John McGann. I met John when he was just a wonder-kid playing with a band called Lost in the Shuffle in Boston, back in the '80s. Thanks to his presence on the Cafe, we reconnected a bit, to recall the days they'd rehearse in our apartment. That's when I learned that sitting in the middle with the players in a circle is the best way to listen to a bluegrass quintet.

Following some of the working links below his signature leads me to this video, with John and Matt Glaser and others playing with the wonder-kids of another generation. I don't want to be too heavy handed, but it's right here: Don't Put Off 'Til Tomorrow...