VIFF 2012 Review: How To Grow A Band

Bluegrass phenom Chris Thile (extreme right) launches his new band The Punch Brothers (background) in How To Grow A Band.

Okay, you’re probably asking why I’m still doing reviews from the Vancouver International Film Festival when it ended ten days ago, right? Well this review will be the last one. A wrap-up of the festival will follow the next day.

How To Grow A Band isn’t about a rock band. It’s about a bluegrass band that brings a unique sound to bluegrass music. It’s an eye-opener of the challenges of starting a new band in any style of music.

The documentary starts as mandolinist Chris Thile is starting the show for his band The Punch Brothers. The film then goes to the early years of Chris Thile. It first starts back to Chris in 1989 at the age of 8. His father Scott was a bluegrass musician and Chris easily followed in his footsteps. He soon became what you’d call a ‘bluegrass prodigy’, winning mandolin competitions at a very young age.

His father performed at That Pizza Place, a popular bluegrass hangout in Southern California. There he met the Watkins siblings Sean and Sara whose parents also performed there. The three along with Scott formed the band Nickel Creek. They started off playing traditional bluegrass but they switched in their teens to ‘progressive bluegrass’ by mixing traditional bluegrass sounds to alternative rock. They had a career that included being featured on recordings from Dolly Parton, the Chieftains and Glen Phillips as the Mutual Admiration Society. They opened five 2003 shows for John Mayer and two of their albums were produced by Allison Krauss; both of which hit Gold status. They had a career that included six albums and four Grammy nominations including a 2001 win in the Best Bluegrass Album category for This Side. In 2006, the members decided to part different ways because they wanted to expand their musical horizons and held their Farewell (For Now) Tour that ended in 2007.

For Chris Thile, it was exiting Nickel Creek and entering the Punch Brothers who were firstly Chris’s backup band as a solo artist and called How To Grow A Band up until 2008. The Punch Brothers were to take bluegrass in another new direction as part of the ‘newgrass’ movement. The direction they wanted to take bluegrass in was in the direction of ‘chamber music’: a fusion of bluegrass with modern classical. The band consisted of his childhood friend Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Greg Garrison on bass.

The documentary takes the viewer through the first two years of the band when they were first recording together to when they first perform together to the periods when they want to take their talent and creativity in new directions for the group. It not only shows them performing together in their sessions but it also shows the radio interviews they gave for BBC radio for their first live performance together, in Glasgow, Scotland in 2006. They’d continue to tour much of England before reaching the United States. They’d perform their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite at Carnegie Hall in 2007. They’d then change their name to the Punch Brothers once signed onto Nonesuch Records.

The documentary showcases the good times they have together performing, signing autographs and being together. It also showed the tensions and arguments the members had while on tour and preparing for recording. It reminds us that even though they are a unified band, they are also five musicians with creative wants and needs of their own. The members even had side projects of their own two. It’s a matter of them finding a balance between personal needs and group needs in order to function well both as individuals and group members. The documentary also features interviews and opinions with the industry professionals the Punch Brothers work with along the way. The things they say about working as a group and of showbiz demands are words that could be said for any group of any music genre. The documentary doesn’t shy away when bassist Greg Garrison makes the decision to leave the band for family responsibilities. It’s sudden but the group is understanding. The group then hire Paul Kowert as the replacement bassists, as seen at the end.

The documentary is a good outlook on a band that’s just starting out. We’re reminded that even when there are musicians with famed reputations, starting a new band is not an easy thing to do. It’s still as risky work as when they tried to get their very first big break. One thing the documentary leaves out of the picture is the personal lives of the members, especially the fact that Chris married at 21 and divorced 18 months later. In fact it was Chris’ messy divorce that inspired their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite. The only one where there was some significant focus on was that of Greg because that would be the reason why he’d eventually leave the Punch Brothers. I guess it was the director’s choice to focus on the members as band members rather than showcase their personal lives.

The documentary not only shows the life of a band but also shows what being a bluegrass musician is like too. There’s not only home videos of Chris Thile as a child but of the other members too. Chris wasn’t the only one who started out young. All of the other members share similarities with Chris in their childhoods. Some were young professional performers at a young age too and Gabe was even a Star Search contestant at 9. Chris Eldridge’s father Ben Eldridge was a banjoist for the 70’s bluegrass band The Seldom Scene. Former Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins even talks about the importance of starting out young and performing like a pro as a child. This documentary is as much about the music and musicians as it is about a band in forming and developing.

This documentary also showed some ironies too. Chris and Gabe were part of a tight-knit bluegrass community from Southern California. In fact none of the Punch Brothers hail from Kentucky and the band currently base themselves in New York City. Also as ironic is that it’s Britain that first welcome the music and sound of the Punch Brothers before the Americans do. I always knew the British are more welcoming towards creativity and new sounds but it surprised me how welcoming they were to bluegrass. I will admit that I myself can’t tell the difference between basic country music and bluegrass country. One thing I will say is that the documentary made me like bluegrass music a lot more.

In case you wondered what has happened to the Punch Brothers since 2008 when this documentary ends its footage, they released the albums Antifogmatic in 2010 and Who’s Feeling Young Now? in 2012. They also recorded the track Dark Days for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games and have made appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman and the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. They’re very popular in Europe and are currently touring there as of press time. They’ve also done work with their own side projects too. Most notably Gabe has performed backup with many notable country musicians, provided the violin for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and performed with the Dave Rawlings Machine. As for Chris, he’s been the busiest. He completed a mandolin concerto in 2009 which has since been performed by a consortium of orchestras in the United States. He  recorded The Great Rodeo Sessions in 2011 with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddle player Stuart Duncan and they even performed together on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Most recently he won a $500,000 grant from the annual MacArthur Fellows program.

I was actually designated to be an usher for this documentary leading people to their seats in the dark. This was only the second film I saw in its entirety as an usher. Great film. Right after my ushering duties for the movie were done, I was to distribute ads in promoting their Vancouver show. I took an interest in the Punch Brothers after seeing this documentary and learn more about what they’ve done since the documentary. It’s great seeing what they do and I wish them all the best in the future.

How To Grow A Band is as much a story of the Punch Brothers from the birth of the band to their fruition as it is a story about the music business and a statement about being a bluegrass musician. Anyone who’s interested in getting their band off the ground in any genre of music should see this.

BONUS: If my review got you interested in the Punch Brothers, here’s their official website:

BONUS FOR VANCOUVERITES: As for their Vancouver show I was talking about, the Punch Brothers are coming to Vancouver on November 24th. They will be performing at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Here’s where to go to buy tickets: