A Nickel for their thoughts: Nickel Creek interview

by Leah Garaas

Nickel Creek
Nickel Creek (Brantley Gutierrez)

Back in 2007, GRAMMY award winning trio Nickel Creek went on a massive "Farewell, For Now" tour. Now, seven years later, their sixth studio album A Dotted Line marks twenty-five years since fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins banded together with mandolinist Chris Thile to form Nickel Creek.

And now they embark on another massive tour. The bluegrass brother, sister and friend trio will be playing a sold out show at the State Theatre on May 11 in support of their new record A Dotted Line, out now on Nonesuch Records.

I recently spoke by phone with the band. We talked about how their individual artistic ventures played a part in the making of the new album, what it was like playing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, their history with A Prairie Home Companion, and how they go about choosing the unique songs they cover.

Enter below for a chance to win front row seats to Nickel Creek's sold out show at the State Theatre on May 11.

Leah Garaas: All three of you have explored solo work during the hiatus. How do you think those individual artistic ventures influenced the sound on A Dotted Line?

Sara Watkins: I think they influenced it a lot. Speaking from my end, I really enjoyed co-writing with a lot of different people and touring with people and writing and putting out my couple of records. I feel like I learned a lot and became a better musician. When you stand on your own away from a unit it forces you to become strong in new ways, and I think we're a better band because of it.

Chris Thile: We were spending almost all of our musical lives together for the first 18 years of the band. We would occasionally so some small side projects but we were having to go to the same well for every last bit of thirst to quench every last bit of musical thirst we had, and I think that really ended up depleting the water supply to the extent that over the 18 years. We were just kind of parched a little bit and needed to go and find other things. I think all three of us are really serious about developing as musicians and you can't expect — as a serious musician — that all of your interests are going to be compatible with everyone that you work with, and I think because it was our only outlet we were occasionally forcing ideas on Nickel Creek that weren't necessarily good idea for Nickel Creek. So now that we've established a bunch of other outlets we can come back to Nickel Creek and really pursue the ideas that befit the band the best. It's been so much fun just to sink into, for instance, sing in a lot of three-part harmony. I think one thing that really sets Nickel Creek apart from at least the rest of my projects is that there's an inherent positivity in this band that I find really refreshing and I think that when we would search for balance in our musical lives sometimes we'd look for dark material that didn't necessarily suit us. I think A Dotted Line pokes around in the dark nooks and crannies of what it is to be alive but it does so with sort of a bright outlook.

You've made some interesting choices of songs to cover in the past, from Bob Dylan to Pavement. On the new album, you take another turn with Mother Mother's "Hayloft." Tell me about your decision to cover that song, and how you approached it.

Chris Thile: So my little brother Daniel, who is, I guess ten years younger than me, picked me up at the airport to drive us up to our folks house for Thanksgiving and he was playing me some of the stuff that he was listening to; this is like two years ago. My music taste and his are often quite different and he was going through stuff and I was giving it all a listen and all of a sudden that Mother Mother "Hayloft" song came on and I freaked out! I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I had him play it five or six times in a row and I really wanted to play it. I showed my other band, Punch Brothers, the song and they were kind like, "Eh, it's alright, that's cool," and then I played it for Sean and Sara when we got together that first writing session at my place and they had the same reaction that I did. We listened to it, again, like five or six times and we started working it up on the spot. There's something about it, the energy of the song. I almost feel like it was a Nickel Creek song waiting to happen because it kind of pre-combines some bluegrass elements with the lyrics like, "My daddy's got a gun," and "It started in the hayloft." But then it's kind of piercingly modern as well. It was a lot of fun.

It's got a lot of chops and it's smack dab in the middle of the album — totally unexpected!

Sean Watkins: It would be right at the end of side A of our record, so we were kind of thinking of it that way. The next song after that is "21st of May," which is about as high contrast as you can get. It's fun to turn a record over and have it be something new. I like that.

So you played on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon! That's exciting. How's it been performing live together again?

Sara Watkins: It's been really fun.

Chris Thile: Boy, to go from nothing for seven years to the first official show being the Tonight Show!

Sara Watkins: We hadn't played that song for anybody but our crew when we were rehearsing the day before, and then we got to soundcheck it so we played in front of Fallon's crew.

Sean Watkins: It feels like we're in a slingshot.

Sara Watkins The songs are coming together pretty well.

What can you tell me about the song you performed, "Destination?"

Sara Watkins: It's a song that started a few years back. I had a verse and chorus idea for it but I couldn't quite complete it and it was just one of the starts that was brought to the first week when we started trying to write. It was the first song we worked on, actually, and I think we pretty much finished it that first day.

Sean Watkins: Yeah, we spent every moment that we could practicing the song during the day before the show. We probably played it 30 times backstage for our crew and tour managers. They probably hate it now.

Chris Thile: They probably could have gone out there and played it for us.

Sean Watkins: A lot of times when you play a song on TV, you've played it on stage a few times, so we just haven't lived with this material very long. It keeps us on our toes.

And your next gig is a taping of A Prairie Home Companion in NYC before your big tour. What's your history with the program?

Sean Watkins: One of the first things we did to promote our first record — the self-titled one — was A Prairie Home Companion. It was really, really exciting for us. Had you been on it before Chris?

Chris Thile: I had. I did it twice as like a really, really young whippersnapper.

Sean Watkins: But yeah, it was probably the first big promo thing we did as a band. It was in Pasadena, California which is just outside Los Angeles. I remember driving up there from where I lived in Vista, California.

Chris Thile: It was the first time it felt like something was happening; that something was actually happening.

Sean Watkins: And after we did that we were watching the charts on Amazon because that was the only way you could guess how many people were buying your records online at the time. It was very, very exciting and since then we've done it [Prairie Home] a lot. Sara's done it a ton. Sara's done it a ton.

Sean Watkins: Sara's the only person to ever host Prairie Home besides Garrison Keillor.

It's been a full circle experience then. Congratulations!

Sara Watkins: Thanks! Yeah, pretty scary. Not scary. Nerve-wracking.

Chris Thile: Did you do Powdermilk Biscuits and stuff?

Sara Watkins: Oh, I did everything! I sang the Tishomingo theme. He did the monologue and Guy Noir and all that — I did the thank yous. I read the thank yous! It felt like forever that I was reading thank yous but I think it had only been a minute and a half. Usually he does it for seven minutes, it's just, so hypnotizing.

Sean Watkins: One funny thing that happened — Sara was awesome, but I was in the band playing with people and the guests and I thought I was done. We were toward the end of the show and I was upstairs, backstage, kind of decompressing, and I hear this running up the stairs and Sara's like, "C'mon! We've gotta play some songs!" She had gone a little short with the talking.

Sara Watkins: We had run out of material, which was the first time it had ever happened on Prairie Home Companion. We were 10 or fifteen minutes short.

Sean Watkins: I think it was like five minutes.

Sara Watkins: I was told 15 minutes. I told Abigail Washburn — one of the guests — and I was like, "Why don't you introduce your band?" Sean and I fortunately know a lot of songs so we padded it. It was a close call. Garrison was just laughing. I looked over at the side of the stage and he's just laughing at me.

So between Fallon and Prairie Home, how have you been spending your time in the city. If you have any time to spare with the recent release of the record, that is.

Chris Thile: Statue of Liberty, bought some handbags the other day — it's been great! [laughs]

Sean Watkins: Got some nuts. Nuts for nuts! [laughs]

Sara Watkins: We've been pretty busy. We're here to work, so. There's been a tight schedule. At night we've had some good meals. It feels really good to be working.

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  • Nickel Creek

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