Yes, they play the song on mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddle, and bass. No, they do not bluegrassify the song. Rather, Chris Thile begins by imitating the glitchy computer-generated rhythm of the Radiohead original by plucking the mandolin strings behind the bridge and tapping the soundboard. He is soon joined by Chris Eldridge on guitar and Noam Pikelny on banjo, each beating and plucking their instruments to imitate the rich rhythmic tapestry of the original.
If you weren’t watching, you’d never guess the sounds were coming from acoustic instruments.
Only bassist Paul Kowert plays the descending melody. Gabe Witcher sings Thom Yorke’s scratchy and desperate vocal part while playing harmony with his violin.
This isn’t bluegrass, but Punch Brothers did begin as a bluegrass outfit. Thile, one of the most insanely talented musicians in pop music who previously was with Nickel Creek, hand-selected each member to back his 2005 solo album. They imitated the great bluegrassers for that album, and now, two albums later, their instruments are about the only remnant left alluding to their original style.
Punch Brothers openly embrace all genres. In fact, they specifically embody certain genres to help color and shape their own sound. In 2009, the band set up a musical laboratory of sorts in New York City to do just that.
They took up residency at the intimate but well-known Manhattan club The Living Room, where they played a couple of times a month for a room full of lucky people. The nights were billed as “P-Bingo” nights, and the boys used the gigs to try new experiments for a live audience. They played original songs as well as covers of Mozart, Of Montreal, The White Stripes, Bach and The Strokes, among others.
“A cover ends up being sort of a study piece for the band,” Thile says. “We approximate textures that wouldn’t usually come perfectly naturally.”
Among the discoveries: Emulating a drum machine with a mandolin, or dragging a pick across guitar strings to sound like a sustained but scratched synthesizer line. These unorthodox ways of using acoustic instruments ultimately influenced their original music. “The bands and composers that we admire get in our heads [when we cover them], and that helps in our writing process,” Thile says.
In their multi-genre studies, the Punch Brothers also came to study and influence one another. “We’ve gotten to know each other really well,” Thile says. “We’ve become like heat-seeking missiles in relation to each other. When someone plays something, you can anticipate what’s coming next. We never really accomplished that to this level because we all lived in different places.”
Throughout their residency at The Living Room, the band was writing and recording their new album under the influence of the numerous songs and musical entities that they embodied.
Antifogmatic, released in June, consists of 10 original tracks, each written with the full band collaborating. The album is their most fluid and probably their best, with the intuitive communication Thile describes clearly evident.
The album is both accessible and gutsy. There are a couple of romps, but most of the songs take unexpected twists and turns. While this is definitely a pop record, with most songs clocking in at less than five minutes, it’s an extremely intelligent one.
While Antifogmatic sounds like acoustic Radiohead at times, it never stays the same long enough to classify. Thile and the boys are musicians and scholars, and approach Radiohead with the same reverence as Stravinsky. They’re inspired equally by both—that’s why they’re at the top of their game.
“Music is never-ending,” Thile says. “You’re never going to do everything that you can do.”