Interview: Banjo Innovator Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers

Seven years ago, banjo player Noam Pikelny and mandolin maverick Chris Thile had a fateful meeting at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. That chance encounter would inspire Thile to create a five-piece band that eventually became the Punch Brothers. To this day, the group continues to push the envelope of progressive acoustic music, with no sign of slowing down.

Pikelny is one of the most talented banjo players alive today and he’s a mere 30 years old. In 2010, his output with the Punch Brothers (and his solo recordings) garnered him the first-ever, $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, an award he was given on the David Letterman show.

With a desire to record more traditional music than the typical Punch Brothers fare, Pikelny has released a new solo album called Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. To promote it, he enlisted friends such as Steve Martin, Ed Helms, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck to appear in a hilarious Funny or Die mockumentary. Here, he talks a bit about the making of the movie, the new album and how his already heavy banjo ended up with a B-bender.

Fretboard Journal: How did the Funny or Die video come about?

Noam Pikelny: We were putting the final touches on the album. And then the dreaded EPK [electronic press kit] discussion came up, about how to promote this thing online and trying to figure out a way to avoid me sitting on camera talking about myself. I just wanted to avoid that at all costs. So I was trying to brainstorm something different that would accomplish the same goals: getting the word out there that the album was recorded and about to become available.

My brother and I were passing ideas back and forth of ways to do little videos. We both have a friend named Gary Shteyngart, who is just a great comedic writer. Gary did a little viral video to promote his book Super Sad True Love Story. And in the video, the premise is that he’s the greatest living author who can’t actually read. And it’s a really ridiculous, funny video that I thought was anything better than watching Gary Shteyngart talk seriously about his books.

We were both impressed by that and trying to figure out a way we could make a fake documentary about this record. My brother was coming back from vacation in Hungary and was completely jetlagged. He called me early in the morning and said, “I came up with an idea at four in the morning! You’re supposed to sing on this record!” We developed this idea and pitched it to some friends in California who were all supportive of it. I got in touch with Steve Martin and Ed Helms and they were both very encouraging of the idea. And I have a friend who works at Funny or Die named Ally Hord, who is a producer. I originally enlisted her just to help me organize this idea and maybe get some friends to volunteer to help shoot these things. The plan was to shoot it independently. But Funny or Die offered to get involved and produce and help write the whole thing.

FJ: How much time did it take to shoot this?

NP: A day and a half went into the parts that I was involved with. We scheduled it around Steve’s schedule. One of the things that Funny or Die is really good at is just seizing upon an opportunity. The day that we filmed Ed Helms’ bit in the hotel room  wasn’t even on the calendar. There was not a crew booked or a hotel room booked. We were just trying to figure out how this thing was going to end. As soon as the things lined up, they were able to put it into action.

We filmed the bits with Bela [Fleck] and Earl Scruggs at Bela’s house in Nashville about a week before [the world premiere of] Bela’s concerto [with the Nashville Symphony]. I was in Nashville recording with Bryan Sutton for Bryan’s new record and we went over and did those bits with Bela and Earl. And then I got a preview of Bela’s concerto — he played us the entire concerto all the way through with his sequencer for Earl and myself and Gary Scruggs. To be there with Bela and Earl and to hear Bela’s concerto — which is dedicated to Earl — and see Earl’s reaction the first time was pretty special.

FJ: Talk a bit about the new album, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail. With the Punch Brothers being so busy, I’m wondering how you even have time to work on new material?

NP: It’s always been a struggle for me to set aside time away from Punch Brothers to devote to my own projects. My last record, In the Maze, came out seven years ago, just a couple of weeks before there was a fateful meeting between Thile and I at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

Over the years, I’ve been musically fulfilled and occupied schedule-wise, from everything that the Punch Brothers have been up to. It was kind of hanging over my head that I hadn’t gone back to the studio to make a record of my own since 2004.

This was an opportunity for me to play some more traditional music and be selfish about putting some of my absolute heroes in the same room and getting a chance to record with them. When I lived in Nashville, when I came home from Punch Brothers tours there would be ample opportunity to fulfill any kind of bluegrass or rootsy musical itch. There were sessions in town, I would get to play with guys like Shawn Camp and Jim Lauderdale every now and then. I was able to informally stay within that world.

It just felt like it was kind of the right time to play some of my own music and showcase how my playing had transformed because of the Punch Brothers process. It was an eye opening experience to come back to traditional music and see that all this work that I had been putting in for a specific thing — for fulfilling this role in the Punch Brothers — was impacting everything I did. I needed an update of myself out there in terms of how I play the banjo and how I write music on the banjo. That combined to with this desire to be in the studio with Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien; it was all coming together. Here was a chance to make this roots record and do the record with my heroes.

FJ: Did any of the money from the Steve Martin award go to your music? Or did you just buy a nice car or something?

NP: I think at first I thought, “I’m going to put this money away and one day I’ll be able to have a hefty down payment on a house because of this. I won’t touch it.” But as things were unfolding in the late half of 2010 and the early part of this year, I realized that I owed something because of the prize. I got it for a reason and it would actually be the most appropriate thing to reinvest it in my music, which brought it upon in the first place. I was able to record this record and supplement the budget because of the Steve Martin prize. And take extra time in the studio and hire all the people I wanted to hire…

FJ: Who is playing live with you to promote this record?

NP: Chris Eldridge is going to being playing guitar; Gabe [Witcher] is going to be playing fiddle. Mark Schatz, who is on the record, is coming on the road. To fill it out, we have Jesse Cobb playing mandolin and Aoife O’Donavan is coming, singing. The concept of the tour is to feature most of the music from the record, but the record is only 45 minutes. And I really love Aoife’s singing; she’s a tremendous songwriter. So for the rest of the evening, we’ll be pulling material from everybody and featuring different people throughout the show.

FJ: I know you did a Tom Waits cover. How did that come about?

NP: I was living most of my recent musical life as completely ignorant of Tom Waits’ music. I was just unaware of how wonderful an artist he is. At Telluride in 2010, after our yearly Opera House show, we finished that up and I went back to this condo and they put on the record Alice. It was my first time hearing any of Tom Waits’ music. I was just blown away by everything about it.

FJ: I have to ask, just how heavy is the [1941 Style 7] Gibson Top-Tension banjo you play?

NP: It’s crazy heavy. First off, it’s the heaviest banjo Gibson ever made. And it may be the heaviest commercially made banjo. It’s noticeably heavier than a standard style Gibson Mastertone banjo. I’ve gone and made it even heavier recently by having a B-bender installed on it, which has been something fun.

FJ: Is that a first?

NP: A few people have tried it. I think Gene Parsons had put one on Alan Munde’s banjo, like 20 years ago. People have experimented with palm pedals and, I think there was a B-bender about a decade ago that Dennis Caplinger was using. I’ve just been recently extremely obsessed with Clarence White and then kind of dove even further in, by trying to understand pedal steel music and learn pedal steel.

I have a designer and machinist friend who lives outside of Champaign, IL, who has been building tailpieces. His name is Bob Fults. I approached him in February of this year about trying to build a B-bender together, with the stipulation being that it had to be completely non-invasive. I don’t want to drill holes in my banjo to install this thing.

So he went to the drawing board and started sketching ideas. We got the prototype of this thing about a month after we finished recording Beat the Devil. It’s been on my banjo ever since. It’s really fun; it’s opened up a lot of new ideas for me. I’m trying to not play all the stock B-bender Telecaster licks that have been played a million times. I’m trying to figure out some stranger or mysterious ways of using it.

This guy named Vance Terry, who is in my book one of the greatest musicians ever, was a steel player with Jimmie Rivers in the ’60s. There’s a recording of him playing live shows called Brisbane Bop and that’s been my obsession lately. Trying to figure out how to distill some of these really luscious and thick pedal steel parts and figure out ways to use only a bender on one string to voice things. It’s tough: Terry had 19 pedals on his triple-neck guitar. It’s been really fun trying to figure out how to incorporate that into my playing. It’s making me kind of look at the fretboard in a completely different way.

FJ: Is your B-bender actaully on the B string?

NP: It’s on the B string and it’s set at a whole step right now. It’s the prototype, but it’s been working flawlessly. I put it on my main banjo and I used it all the Punch Brothers gigs and on the recent Punch Brothers recording [out in early 2012].

FJ: Back to the weight question: do you feel that banjo at the end of a long concert?

NP: I do. It’s definitely something I notice when we’re playing five nights in a row; it can take its toll. But it’s not debilitating at this point. Everyone has cautioned me, “You’re going to sell it one day because it’s going to be too heavy for you.” I don’t know if I’ll get to that point.

I play with a lot better posture when I’m standing than when I’m sitting. When I’m sitting playing the banjo, I think I will hunch over and try to monitor the instrument and try to get an ear towards the head. I’m in much worse shape after three or four hours sitting playing the banjo than I am after two hours standing, playing the banjo.

I’ve seen those stands like Eddie Adcock used that looked the banjo was floating in midair. I thought maybe I’d take that concept another step further: I won’t have something supporting the weight banjo but maybe just have some sort of mechanism supporting my entire body weight. A system of trusses and support beams … something very steampunk-ish would be great.

FJ: I know when you were just a kid, you were one of the founders of the Telecaster forum. When did the banjo take over your life?

NP: Banjo was my first instrument. My brother was playing mandolin and I was looking to learn an instrument and my parents suggested the banjo, thinking we could play together. I got a guitar on my 16th birthday. I started out clawhammer banjo and then shifted to three-finger style when I was 8 or 9. And then I really started falling in love with flatpicking guitar, specifically David Grier’s playing.

I really got into the guitar and was also starting to think about my post-high school plans and where I could study music. And what would be my principal instrument. That was in the back of my head. I started playing guitar, I had a Collings D1A — that I sold to pay for my top-tension banjo — that I was playing at that time. But I really fell in love with the guitar and wasn’t playing much banjo except for local gigs in Chicago. And that kind of delivered me into all this Telecaster music and the great Telecaster players, like Albert Lee and James Burton and Clarence White. I was just hugely in love with their playing. And so I got a Telecaster.

At that time there were no options to go study music as a banjo player. So I was on the fence between going to study engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or going to the Berklee College of music as a guitar player. And I really could not make up my mind. It seemed like an impossible decision because whatever I was about to decide was going to secure my fate either as a professional musician or an engineer with a musical hobby. Whatever I decided right then and there was how my life would be determined.

I couldn’t make up my mind and essentially never made up my mind to that question. But I was playing a gig with a fiddler named Kenny Stone in Northwest Indiana at a little store called Front Porch Music, which is where the legendary Chris Funk of the Decemberists was working.

Kenny somehow misheard me and thought I had made up my mind about what school I was going to and what I was going to pursue. And, this being a local show, my parents were in the audience. When Kenny went to introduce me on banjo, he said, “And folks, he just made up his mind. He’s decided he’s going to study engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign next year!”

I looked at him and didn’t know where he had gotten that but the place erupted in applause. And at set break my parents came up to me and said, “Why didn’t you tell us first? We had no idea you made up your mind!”

I didn’t even really have a chance to explain myself but I thought this made it a little easier to make the decision. So I went to the University of Illinios thinking I had signed away a life focused on music. When I got to Champaign, I befriended a bunch of bluegrass musicians / scientists. Everybody was already playing guitar and I was just looking for an outlet to play music and hang with my friends. And so it made sense to get out my banjo again.

Around the same time, there were people I had befriended who were ex-bandmates with two of the guys who had just left Champaign to form the Yonder Mountain String Band. They had a band called the Bluegrassholes that had just dissolved since Jeff Austin and Dave Johnston had just moved to Colorado.

Those guys introduced me to the Yonder Mountain String Band right when they were starting out. It was the first time I ever witnessed a young audience really being moved by the bluegrass ensemble instrumentation. It was an epiphany to me to see people responding as if they were at a rock concert, while the instrumentation was that of a bluegrass band. So all of that really started the ball rolling as far as me drifting back to the banjo and seeing playing music professionally as a possible route to take.

It was the exact opposite of what I had expected to happen: I got to Champaign as an engineer and started playing more music and making more musical connections than I would have had I gone to Berklee as a mediocre jazz guitar player at the time.