Punch Brothers

Photography Steven Pan

Published February 23, 2011

Few people outside the rural South expect bluegrass music to offer up a propulsively relevant soundtrack to their lives. Unlike its far more gussied-up mainstream cousin—country—this peculiarly inner-American music genre is typically associated with visions of a moonshiney Appalachian hootenanny. It’s certainly not the kind of sound one expects to hear pumping out of club speakers on the Lower East Side. Luckily, the Brooklyn-based outfit Punch Brothers are no ordinary bluegrass band. When they take the stage looking like a crew of natty hipsters in their old-timey suits, the group’s futuristic blend of bluegrass—still created with fiddles, banjos, and mandolins—is more inclined toward Radiohead covers than homespun folk. According to the group’s founder, 30-year-old Chris Thile, the Punch Brothers’ nontraditional take on a very traditional form has been both an asset and a hurdle. “People would say things like, ‘Cool, so it’s bluegrass rock! Some kind of bluegrass/classical music monster!’ ” he admits. “But that seems to be changing. Now people are talking about the music in much more liquid terms. I think that we’ll see the concept of ‘genre’ continue to die a slow and painful death.” Since releasing their sophomore album Antifogmatic (Nonesuch) last June, the five-piece act—banjo player Noam Pikelny, fiddle player Gabe Witcher, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Chris Eldridge, and singer and mandolin player Thile— have toured the globe, appeared on David Letterman, and backed the likes of T Bone Burnett. Still, it was a series of gigs with Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) that ultimately capped the gangbuster year for the band. Martin, as it turns out, sometimes picks the banjo with the bluegrass band The Steep Canyon Rangers. And while Punch Brothers might be a bit more rock ’n’ roll, they were asked to open a string of dates for Martin and the Rangers last summer, including a stop at the massive Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. Last year Martin even established the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, with the inaugural award given to Punch Brothers’ own Noam Pikelny. “It’s been really nuts,” says Pikelny. “I got this letter in the mail that at first I thought was a joke. I had always imagined that because I was playing the banjo, it would limit my opportunities. Never did I think that I’d be playing banjo alongside Steve Martin on national television.”

Photo: Punch Brothers at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, December 2010. Front to Back: Paul Kowert, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Gabe Witcher, and Chris Eldridge. All Clothing: Artists’ Own. Grooming: Wesley O’Meara/The Wall Group.