Chris Thile is host of the national radio show Live From Here. He’s also a talented mandolin player, who is at ease in bluegrass and classical circles. And he’s a genius.
Really. Chris Thile is a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Award. You don’t apply to be a genius. You are nominated without your knowledge.
“They just call you, completely unannounced,” Thile told CapRadio during a recent phone interview. “I let it go to voicemail, because I never answer my phone when it’s a number I don’t know.”
He almost didn’t return the call. He told his tour manager to look up the phone number, and says he “just started hyperventilating” when he discovered it was from the MacArthur Foundation.
That’s how Thile’s life is. He gets cool phone calls. A couple of years ago, he was called on to host Live From Here. It’s a high-caliber international radio show — two hours of amazing music, with some humor thrown in.
Thile sees it as a show with a higher purpose: “One of my jobs, and the job I take most seriously, is that I’m meant to be presenting music that is transportive, that can lift us out of the cares and woes — of which there are many these days — and I believe in the healing power of rank escapism, and that it can help you address things that are bearing down on you personally and us as citizens of the world.”
This summer, while Live From Here is on hiatus, Thile is touring with a group of close friends called The Punch Brothers. You maybe heard them play on Live From Here, but there’s something interesting about seeing them perform in person. Unlike a lot of other musicians and rock bands, who front the stage, the Punch Brothers position themselves in a way that pulls in the audience. They don’t stand in a straight line across the stage.
“You’re trying to stay as close to the ideal of playing together in a circle in a small room. That is so wonderful. And we’re trying to include the audience in that experience,” he explained. “Basically, the listeners complete the semi-circle we form. … This sense that the audience completes the song we’re playing.”
Thile often gets lumped into categories like classical and traditional, but he has found a place between genres.
“It really is traditional in aesthetics only,” he said. “The music is not harkening back to the days of yore. I would put us firmly in the present, with eyes to the future, not the past.”
As much as Thile and The Punch Brothers give serious thought to their work and relationships in this world, they have some of their best ideas — of all places — under artificial palm trees.
‘To be perfectly honest, in tiki bars,” Thile admitted. “Never has escapism been worn more honestly than in a tiki bar. It’s ridiculous. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean in there.”
The Punch Brothers play at the Mondavi Center on Tuesday, August 21.