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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Q&A with Noam Pikelny, Part I

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Noam Pikelny, one of today’s most prolific and innovative banjo players.  Pikelny is best known for his work with acoustic supergroup, Punch Brothers, but he is now releasing his second solo album, Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, which is certainly worthy of wide attention on its own.  Pikelny is also the first recipient of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass (which came with a generous $50,000 cash award.)

It’s been a very busy time for Pikelny.  In addition to releasing Beat the Devil this week, he just finished recording the newest Punch Brothers album, and a hilarious video promoting his solo album just premiered on Funny Or Die.  The video features Steve Martin, Ed Helms, Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, and Earl Scruggs among others (see the video embedded below.) 

I spoke with Noam on the telephone just as he was about to catch a flight leaving Nashville after the Punch Brothers recording.  I expected the conversation to be a quick fifteen or twenty minutes, but we spoke for almost forty-five minutes.  Because Pikelny’s responses were so thoughtful and thorough, I was only able to ask about half of the questions I had hoped, even with a longer conversation than expected.  We spoke about the new album, some of the musicians he’s the opportunity to work with, and, of course, got into a little bit of banjo geekery.  I appreciate Noam taking the time out of a very busy schedule to chat.  Here’s Part I:

First of all, your new album is titled Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail.  Does the title have any broad significance?

Its an old saying from Appalachia that is fairly obsolete at this point but I’ve always been kind of fascinated by sayings and phrases from the old days and made a habit of sifting through books, especially things from the south and beat the devil and carry a rail was something I came across and it stems from this strange unbelievable tradition of taking whoever is favorite in a race and handicapping them by making them carry a rail. Seems a little harsh…

So, just to handicap them?

Yeah, if they’re gonna be the clear victor then you need to level the playing field by making them carry a rail. That’s what I found through my research, where that came from. So the combination of carrying a rail while beating the devil has a couple different meanings as a saying. It can mean just a clear victory that despite handicaps someone still triumphs, and the other side of it is the victory or triumph against all odds when everything is stacked against you yet you still emerge victorious. I love the imagery of those words and the sound of it all. It’s a good title for this record.

It’s been quite some time since your first solo record, In The Maze, was released in 2004. This was prior to your joining Punch Brothers, right?

Yeah.  In The Maze was just prior to the forming of Punch Brothers. I think it came out in June of 2004 and later that same summer was when I first got to play with Chris Thile at the Telluride bluegrass festival and we ended up at this late night show hosted by Yonder Mountain String Band.  We both found ourselves on the stage until the end of the night and hit it off musically. Soon, Chris was calling all of us up to put this project together.

In the Maze showed some amazing musicianship. I’m sure you’ve grown even further as a musician since then especially hanging with Punch Brothers and so forth. Can you describe how your playing in Beat The Devil and composing differs in approach from what you were doing back with Maze?

I feel more confident as a player and a writer, and I think some of it is just because I have more experience. The experience of being around Punch Brothers was very profound as far as the impact it has made on me as a musician. One, it’s an incredibly rich assortment of musical characters and everybody challenges each other in the band.  Early on in the band when we were working on Blind Leaving the Blind, it was something Chris Thile formed as a result of a marriage of more formal music. The string quartet of his required approaching the banjo in a way I hadn’t imagined before. Because he was writing music that his only real ambitions were that it was in the range of the banjo, and it was forcing me to move around the neck in a way I wouldn’t have stumbled upon on my own because it would have felt maybe too ambitious, or I wouldn’t’ have had the kind of initial inspiration that you can try something like that. So, all of a sudden I had this piece in front of me that as a band we were learning and playing and eventually going to record.  And, it was like all of a sudden I felt like I was in a master class. I was putting myself through a whole new education on the banjo, and it’s really forced me to expand my toolbox in terms of technique. The really interesting thing for me playing this music is when I came back to playing bluegrass and playing fiddle tunes it was evident that my playing had gone through a shift because of the work I was doing.

My playing these new techniques that we’re forcing ourselves to establish and integrate on The Blind Leaving the Blind, it was such a departure from bluegrass and traditional music. So, I didn’t expect it to make that much of an impact on my traditional playing.  Like, I kinda thought maybe this would be compartmentalized, and I’ll just gain the skill set, but it was very surprising to go back to playing more traditional music, whether it was in a jam session or in  a different context with another band, and feel like these new techniques, these kind of skills I had established in playing in Punch Brothers music had integrated itself into my playing regardless of what the genre of the piece was. 

So, this has continued over the last 5 or 6 six years, it will be 6 years this Thanksgiving that Punch Brothers first met on the circuit playing music together. We still play some bluegrass related music in our live shows and we still play quite a bit of bluegrass as we interpret it in our live shows. On records as of late that hasn’t been our main focus; we’ve been writing much more original music, but we played traditional bluegrass and old standards in our live shows so this record really kind of felt like it was a little closer to my roots because it has a more bluegrass background, and I felt like my playing had really transformed for better or worse because of the Punch Brothers experience.  And so, I kind of set the task for myself putting together a collection of tunes writing some original music that was still kind of in the bluegrass and roots format and not necessarily, it wasn’t a conscious decision that I’m going to write a bluegrass tune and, “what is that format?” Instead, the songs started materializing out of the sense that I wanted to do a record. And so, too many different styles and musical itches are currently fulfilled and had been fulfilled by Punch Brothers that I was yearning to play something more like what I could come up with. 

These tunes came together over the last year or so.  Some of them have been in waiting for a long time; some of them have been ideas that Punch Brothers had shot down or that they didn’t use.  In other cases, certain sections of songs that maybe I had brought in the Punch Brothers they would only use the B section of it, so I had an A section lying around. So the tunes started amassing and I made it a point to do some covers on this record. I wanted to play some banjo fiddle music as we did on "Pineywoods."  It was really kind of a fantasy of mine to do a banjo-fiddle duet with Stuart Duncan in that style. It was a bit of selfish endeavor in that I really wanted to play to get into the studio with Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas. These are all guys that have formative experience on me as a musician, and most of my interactions with them, playing with them fairly informal would have been a jam session or encore at a festival. I wanted to make a record with my heroes in acoustic music which is one of the reasons this record ended up coming into focus as what I would consider a bluegrass banjo record for me. Some people are not gonna consider this as a bluegrass record, but bluegrass as I understand it, kind of this is how I would do it.

So, speaking of working with your heroes like O’Brien, Duncan, and Douglas, does it make you more relaxed or more nervous to enlist people of that stature with your playing?

I think in anticipation of the whole thing I was a little spooked as the day of the recording drew near. I was just so excited and wanted to get into the studio and concerned about nailing my parts in front of my heroes and then not slowing the process down. Once we got into the studio it was kind of a silly fear to have, because it was my music that I prepared and had been playing for months. In January when I was scheduling this record I was trying to figure out who I could get to play on the record, and I asked Bela Fleck, did he have any advice as to who I should put on the record. His main advice was to get people in the room who are going to inspire you and force you to play something that you wouldn’t typically play, like some extra boost of energy in that situation that’s going to bring something out of you that wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. For me, guys like Stuart Duncan were an obvious choice. I mean, I can barely sit in my chair when I go see him play, and I wanted the kind of back and forth and challenge of having him on the other side of one of the rooms in the studio and having to take a solo after him or back him up. All those things were buzzing behind I felt like those things would force me to rise to the occasion.

 Eight of the twelve songs on this album are originals either written or co-written by you. Also, Are there any originals on here that you feel express more than others your unique musical sensibilities and influences? 

A lot of these songs emerge out of the ether. I’ll sit down playing the banjo, and we’ll come up with an idea or a phrase and we’ll start expanding on it. I’ll try to see where it can end up, and there were days that I sat down to write something that had been a straight ahead banjo tune where it turned into something completely different because I maybe stumbled upon some phrase or harmonic change that I was really interested in, and I’d start chasing that. And there were certain things that I started working on that didn’t make it onto this record.

It’s interesting to me… I sat down thinking, like, I’m gonna try to write a jig like an Irish jig ,an original piece, and we were playing around in the keys of E and B trying to write something in that feel and what emerged from that was “My Mother Thinks I’m A Lawyer,”  which is not an Irish jig whatsoever. Its more of a bizarre ragtime thing, so I will just follow whatever is pleasing me as I’m working on it.  These songs are a cohesive set of material that could work with this set of musicians.

(Click here for Part II of this interview.)

On Thursday, I'll post Part II of this interview where Noam discusses how he acquired his exquisite pre-war Gibson banjo (valued somewhere around $60,000), his technique, and a little preview of what we might expect on the next Punch Brothers album.

You can visit Pikelny's website to get information about purchasing his album as well as upcoming tour dates by clicking here.


  1. That's fabulous! Noam gives great interview. Nicely done, Dustin. Can't wait for the next installment.

  2. That was Janeen, by the way. My blogger account is ancient.

  3. This is THE blog to get all the good banjo stories. Thanks Dustin, happy to find the interview with Noam.

  4. Thanks, Tim! Look forward to checking out Sorry Cousins when it's done.