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Advice

Jeff Moehlis: Acclaimed Mandolinist Chris Thile Shares His Recipe for Musical Magic

Mandolinist Chris Thile will perform a solo show Sunday in Santa Barbara.
Mandolinist Chris Thile will perform a solo show Sunday in Santa Barbara. (Chris Thile photo)

When the Punch Brothers performed in Santa Barbara in 2012, I was hoping that they would play their cover of the Radiohead song “Kid A,” which they did, along with lots of bluegrass and other tunes.

But I wasn’t prepared for the encore, when mandolinist Chris Thile simply said, “I’m going to play a little Bach,” and launched into a exquisite rendition of the Presto from Bach’s “Sonata No. 1 in G minor.” Wow!

When Thile returned in solo mode to the Lobero Theatre in 2014, Bach was featured heavily on the program, thanks to his then-recent recording of Bach’s first three Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin. But there was also much more to enjoy, including eclectic covers and original compositions.

Thile returns to the Lobero on Sunday, and took time out of his busy schedule, which includes preparing to take over as host of Prairie Home Companion in 2016, to tell Noozhawk about the upcoming show. Click here to read the full interview.

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Jeff Moehlis: I’ve seen you perform twice here at the Lobero Theatre, once with the Punch Brothers and once when you played a solo show, doing mostly Bach. Have you enjoyed your previous visits to Santa Barbara, and what can we look forward to at this upcoming show?

Chris Thile: The Lobero, as all of you lucky Santa Barbarans well know, is one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. It’s especially neat because of the intimate size, and the acoustics are just gorgeous. It’s a lovely place to play.

To be able to lunch at La Super-Rica on a show day is just a luxury beyond luxury. So I’m looking greatly forward to it (laughs).

This show, it’ll be fairly different from my last solo show at the Lobero. There’ll be a little bit less Bach, and the Bach I play will all be different.

I recorded the first three of the six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin that Bach wrote, and I performed two of them the last time — I think the G minor and the B minor. So this time I’ll be doing the A minor Sonata. And then maybe a couple of other things from the last three that he wrote, as I prepare to record them eventually.

But the evening will actually predominantly be other things, maybe mostly original things that I’ve been working on. Some a little older, some a little newer. Things that I like to play when I’m all by myself up there on stage.

The other thing that’s a little different this time around, I’m trying to really utilize the place that we’re in, the day that it is, how it feels on a given night; to be onstage with the particular people who have come that evening. I’m trying to be a little lighter on my feet, a little less beholden to whatever set list I end up writing that day. Just see where the evening goes.

JM: You’re still very young (Thiles is 34) but you’ve been writing songs for at least 20 years. How has your approach to composing music changed over the years?

CT: I guess it’s probably a lot more multifaceted these days than it used to be — the approach, I mean. I think I’ve always tried to write a lot of different sorts of things, but the way in which I go about doing that is a lot more varied now.

When I was younger, almost everything came directly from the mandolin, just sitting in a room with the instrument, seeing where my fingers would take me. I still sit around a lot with the mandolin, because in a way it’s almost like my speaking voice. It’s such a part of me at this point, 29 years into my relationship with it.

But I think now the music is coming less from my fingers, and more from everything else. Not to get too fluffy with it, but from my soul (laughs), from my heart, or gut, my head, my imagination.

I’m trying to approach the creation of music a little bit more like my favorite micro-creators, people like Tolkien, or David Foster Wallace, or for that matter Radiohead. People who make worlds that we can go exploring in, forgetting whatever might be pestering us on a given day. Just take a little break.

I feel like one of the most wonderful human impulses is to make a beautiful thing and give it to somebody. When people do that for me, I feel so fortunate ... when I hear a record that I love, or honestly when I have a glass of wine that some vintner has poured his life into, a great cup of coffee — whatever it may be — to look at a great piece of art.

That just makes me want to do what I do better, if possible.

JM: You have a very eclectic view on what the mandolin can do. You mentioned Radiohead — I loved when the Punch Brothers did the cover of “Kid A” when you were here. And of course you’re also doing Bach solo violin pieces.

What draws you to a particular song or piece that someone else has written? What makes you think, “I want to do my version of that”?

CT: Usually it’s very precisely that I wouldn’t have written it myself, that I couldn’t have written it myself. And that I love it. I love it, and it’s not something that I would’ve thought to have written.

When that happens, I want to get inside of it, like the little kid who takes apart household electronics and puts them back together to figure out how they work. That’s what I do with music that I haven’t written that I love. I’ve got to get in there.

It’s like the difference between eating something that you love and actually cooking it (laughs). A cook’s going to know a lot more about what goes into it than a person who just eats the thing.

Sometimes music that I love, I don’t feel compelled to actually get in there and learn how to cook it. But a lot of times I do want to get in there, in the musical kitchen, and start tossing the ingredients around (laughs), deconstruct the thing and reconstruct it.

Invariably it ends up sounding different, and if I feel like the way in which it sounds different is good, if I feel like there’s a reason for it to exist in that form and not just its original form, then maybe I’ll perform it live.

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Chris Thile performs at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8. Click here to purchase tickets online.

Click here to read the full interview with Chris Thile.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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