After 'Live From Here,' Chris Thile returns to the road with Flint concert
WKAR's Scott Pohl talks with musician Chris Thile about his public radio shows, his new album, and his tour.
Public radio listeners remember Chris Thile as the man who assumed the mantle of hosting A Prairie Home Companion following Garrison Keillor’s departure, and later, morphing the show into Live From Here.
Now that those shows have ended, his focus has returned to recording and live performance.
WKAR’s Scott Pohl talks with Chris Thile about his latest album Laysongs, and hitting the road again for a tour that arrives in Flint Wednesday night.
On looking back at his time working on a variety show
I'm so proud of what the team and I were able to accomplish over that time. It was such an extraordinary group of people, to have just been in their midst, on the air with all of those people that would give us the honor of their attention for two hours, week after week after week. I don't think I'll ever get over the thrill of that.
On the theme running through his new album
Over the course of the pandemic, I had a lot of time to, you know, late at night, man, that same headspace that I'm in when I make the cocktail for myself, turn out the lights and listen to music, sometimes the record ends and you're just left alone with your thoughts and your demons and, you know, your fears and your hopes and general confusion that I think so many of us were thrown into, you know, not this past spring, but the spring before. And so the record very much springs from that headspace.
On touring in a post-COVID world
We owe it to our nearest and dearest, as well as the entire community, to do everything we can to minimize the risk that we take to be in each other's company. You know, I strongly believe that that includes getting vaccinated and wearing masks whenever it could potentially reduce the risk, you know, indoors. And, you know, I think for the majority of the tour, I think that's required. But I also think that I would love to trust that we're all out there doing the very best we can and that we won't unnecessarily put each other at risk. I think that's really important, and I think that live performance is one of the things that makes life worth living.
Scott Pohl: Chris, we talked back in 2015 before a Kalamazoo concert. It was before you started working on A Prairie Home Companion and Live From Here, so I wanted to ask you to look back at the experience of A Prairie Home Companion and Live From Here, and how you feel about it when you look back.
Chris Thile: Hmm. I'm so proud of what the team and I were able to accomplish over that time. It was such an extraordinary group of people, to have just been in their midst, on the air with all of those people that would give us the honor of their attention for two hours, week after week after week. I don't think I'll ever get over the thrill of that. And yeah, I'm just really, really grateful to have been a part of it. And I feel like we got a pretty good run, you know, based on how odd what we were trying to do was.
You know, it's the variety show, it's an endangered beast in today's society. You know, I think that that we have the illusion of variety on the internet, but those algorithms are funneling us towards material that is so similar to itself that those algorithms decide what it is that we like based on maybe a couple of things that it knows we e have clicked on in the past, and it just shows us more and more things like that. It's like the opposite of the variety show format.
So, we have this illusion that the width and breadth of the human effort is one Siri command away, when in actuality it's going to show us things that it's pretty sure we already like. And so what we were trying to do and what any variety show is trying to do is present sort of an alternative to that kind of thing. You know, here, as opposed to having the entire internet's worth of human effort and ingenuity at your disposal, but also with no roadmap. Instead, you have the width and breadth of our stage in Town Hall, you know, in New York City.
We've done our best to make it as surprising as possible, and I've always loved a little creative whiplash. Personally, I just think I think life is most thrilling when it's full of stark contrast. And so, we did our level best to give people two hours of stark contrast, stark, audible contrast, and I’m really happy that we got a solid four or five years to do it together. And I miss it.
It was, I think, Johnny Carson said that trying to put together an episode of The Tonight Show was like trying to change a tire on a car that was barreling down the interstate, and there was an aspect of making Live From Here that was like that as well, and as a musician who loves to be in the moment, but also loves to live outside of a moment with the idea of sort of crafting a moment over a longer period of time.
You know, I love to try to have a balance of both. And so now with the schedule a little bit more open, I get to daydream a little bit more, musically speaking, and that is typically good for a musician.
Pohl: Since the show ended, I know you've done some recording, and you're getting back into touring. I want to talk about Laysongs, your new album, and the title song Laysong, singular. I have to tell you, when I hear this song, I hear a great deal of delicacy. You're playing is delicate. You're almost not touching the strings, and you're singing is very delicate on this song, too. It's beautiful.
Thile: You know that when you're by yourself, you're only competing with silence for attention, theoretically. I mean, obviously, the world is rarely silent at this point, but if anyone out there is like me, when I decide it's time to listen to some music, I mean, I'm turning the lights off, I'm making myself a cocktail, I'm in my earbuds, and I am going to give myself completely to whatever it is that I'm listening to. And so, imagining that kind of scenario as a solo mandolin and voice, I want to try and do my best to create the illusion of there being a world contained within that, you know, with that relatively limited palette. And so, one of the tools in your tool kit is silence itself.
The mandolin is not a thunderous instrument, but I have to create the illusion that it could be. And so the way that you do that is getting people used to a low level of sound, so it's like here's quiet and quiet as real quiet so that, you know, the loud that a mandolin is capable of, which is really just sort of like, you know, loud, quiet for most instruments, so that that actually sounds loud when you get there.
So Laysong, this bridge where I start singing, “drown out the enemy, drown out the enemy, laysinger’s going to drown out the enemy,” that has to sound loud, but it only has to sound loud relative to my quietist playing and singing. As long as I have the patience, the control, the patience to play that soft and sing that soft, and then that bridge can sound loud like it's supposed to, even though relative to all the rest of the music in the world, it's still fairly soft.
Pohl: When the entire album is called Laysongs, that would seem to indicate a theme running through the album. Is there a theme you're trying to convey on the album?
Thile: Yeah, over the course of the pandemic, I had a lot of time to, you know, late at night, man, that same headspace that I'm in when I make the cocktail for myself, turn out the lights and listen to music, sometimes the record ends and you're just left alone with your thoughts and your demons and, you know, your fears and your hopes and general confusion that I think so many of us were thrown into, you know, not this past spring, but the spring before. And so the record very much springs from that headspace. And for me, as someone who grew up in a very religious household, I started thinking a lot about the ways in which I've replaced the religion of my youth with a similarly rigid sort of a religion. So, I've taken the dogma that I was surrounded with when I was little, and replaced it with another dogma, not the absence of dogma, just sort of like a polar opposite dogma.
I think the more context I was afforded by the pandemic, the more I realized that that I haven't grown as much as I maybe hoped I had. But then also on the brighter side of things, how much we all get out of community and how much I think maybe divorced from any sort of community at all as we all were, you know, in the early stages of the pandemic. I think maybe I realized that I've turned live music and that communal experience of any sort of performance art, that that's a church of sorts for me, and it that can be a good thing, and it can also be a bad thing if it's, if it's practiced to the exclusion of others who might wish to join. And so the record is a meditation on those sorts of things.
Pohl: Would you choose one more song from the album that might convey in your mind to people the sound of the album and the message you're trying to convey?
Thile: Hmm. How about Dionysus? The second to last track, in the eleven o'clock position as fans of musicals would say, there's the song called Dionysus. That's sort of a hymn to those moments of conviviality that might seem frivolous on the outside, but sometimes can be the only times in our week where we actually gain some new perspective, whether it's through a conversation about something like commiseration or a mutual celebration of something, and all done sort of in the guise of a drinking song, in essence, Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and other things. But yeah, this is this is another one of those late night songs. Maybe you've poured out a glass of wine for you and a friend and you're talking about stuff.
Pohl: I wanted to ask you about going back on tour under these weird circumstances. Why tour at all, I suppose? What kind of precautions are you taking, including requirements for the audience? Tell me about touring in this age.
Thile: Oh, it's yeah, it's such a crazy endeavor, but also such an urgent and, you know, the first fun-like steps that I've made back into the performance arena have been so rewarding that I do think it's worthwhile. Obviously, We owe it to our nearest and dearest, as well as the entire community, to do everything we can to minimize the risk that we take to be in each other's company. You know, I strongly believe that that includes getting vaccinated and wearing masks whenever it could potentially reduce the risk, you know, indoors. And, you know, I think for the majority of the tour, I think that's required. But I also think that I would love to trust that we're all out there doing the very best we can and that we won't unnecessarily put each other at risk. I think that's really important, and I think that live performance is one of the things that makes life worth living.
That sounds pretty dramatic, I suppose, but it's how I feel, and not just because it's my livelihood, but I mean, I've made it my livelihood in part because of how ardently I believe for that and how much I've gotten out of it just as a human being over the years. I feel like there's so much evidence of that. There's a glut of evidence of the ways in which human beings are failing each other and failing the world, and that all evidence to the contrary is so important. And the beautiful things that we make for each other, whether it's a song or, you know, a great cup of coffee or, you know, a beautiful green salad or roast chicken or whatever, or like a like a beautifully struck tennis ball, like a great one-handed backhand, like these are all little bits of evidence of how amazing human beings are. So, that's the why of it.
Like, I'm staring at this book. I'm doing this interview in my bedroom upstairs in our house, and I'm staring at the last book I read, which is The Overstory by Richard Powers. As I was reading this book and thinking about, you know, might this imminent tour and just how high the stakes are always in our world, the stakes are high. You know, to be alive is to have, you know, kind of unknowingly accepted, very high stakes sort of day in and day out. And they feel higher than they've ever felt in my lifetime. I think that that's the reason that, though, I'm certainly nervous about certain aspects of being out on the road. I also am beyond certain that it's the right thing to do, just in that this is the small contribution that I can make is try and make music that is good and that is evidence of ways in which human beings can do good.
I'm not saying that I'm succeeding in that, but that's the goal, and this is the way that I feel like I can at least try and make a contribution. When I'm put in the way of some beautiful, beautiful example of humanity, it just gives me the fuel to move forward, and like that book I just read or this bag of coffee beans I just got from our local roastery, you know, the coffee I made myself this morning is also evidence of like human beings are out there making beautiful things, and their first instinct when they make a beautiful thing is to share it with somebody else. And I think that's beautiful.
Pohl: Are you performing solo on this tour, or do you have other musicians with you?
Thile: Stone-cold solo, y'all. It's just me and a mandolin and my voice and, you know, maybe a few stomps and a clap here and there. I can't wait. And I hear the acoustics at the Capitol Theater are a sound to behold. I'm really excited to be in there with y'all.