Just Don't call them Country
Genre-hopping trio heads for Indianapolis
Face time on MTV seems to be a common goal among many young bands today, whether it's TRL or Hard Rock Live. That's not exactly Nickel Creek's plan. As a trio featuring the mandolin, fiddle and guitar, this band fits in more with CMT and PBS, where they have appeared quite often since their career took off in 2000.
The three acoustic instruments are the ingredients for a country-bluegrass recipe, but Nickel Creek insist on maintaining a genre-free identity.
"We were never really a bluegrass band," said guitarist Sean Watkins. "We branched out a long time ago."
A long time ago? The members are only in their mid-20s. But considering the fact that they've been playing together since before they were teenagers, it can seem like a long time.
Watkins was only 10 years old when he began strumming his guitar alongside 8-year-old sister Sara and 8-year-old friend Chris Thile. Sara plucked the fiddle while Thile showed off his talents on the mandolin. The three were child prodigies, and by the early 1990s they began appearing in music festivals throughout their home state of California.
Sean, Sara and Thile continued to play together for the rest of the decade. Eventually they caught the attention of renowned country music artist Alison Krauss, who lent a hand in the studio by producing Nickel Creek's first two albums, released in 2000 and 2002.
Nickel Creek prolonged the "branch out" theme by hiring Eric Valentine and Tony Berg to produce their latest release, Why Should the Fire Die?
"Alison would have done well with us, but we wanted a new experience," Sean said. "Eric just got what we wanted. Our musical views matched well."
Whereas many critics have classified the two previous Nickel Creek albums as country-bluegrass, their latest release would fall under more of a progressive folk category. For the first time, the band opted to use drums on one track, an effort which contributed to a dramatic finish at the end of "Helena." And Sara displays her angelic voice in the Bob Dylan cover "Tomorrow is a Long Time."
Nickel Creek seems to be flourishing when it comes to song writing. They supplied the producers with enough material to comprise two full albums.
"Eric and Tony picked a group of about 30 songs and narrowed it down to 14 tracks," Sean said. "It was challenging but exciting to find a group that really fit where we were as a band."
Like many young artists, Nickel Creek diversifies their lyric content to keep their fans interested in the music. There is always one common thread that runs through some songs, however.
"The heartbreak is always a good thing to sing about," Sean said.
Sean, Sara and Thile are currently taking their music on the road. Their fall tour covers 50 different cities and expands into every region of the country, including a stop in Indianapolis on October 23 at the Egyptian Room. Equipped with a new crew, Sean said the band is well-organized.
"We've toured a lot in the past, but we're having more fun on this tour," Sean said.
Because they play at small venues, Sean said the band notices a great reaction from the crowd that makes them play differently from when they're in the studio.
"On stage our focus is more like 'How can we make this crowd happy?'" Sean said. "If you mess up you can always redeem yourself. We just look for something that will make the song jump out of the speakers."
As Nickel Creek matures, they tackle other musical endeavors. Sean and Thile have each produced two and four solo albums, respectively.
"It definitely helps the band to have outside projects," Sean said. "It fosters new musical ideas that aren't for the Nickel Creek format. It keeps you busy and lets you play with people you can't normally work with."
Nickel Creek has also collaborated with former Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips to release an album under the name Mutual Admiration Society. Recently, their talents came to the attention of country legend Dolly Parton, who invited them to perform the Dylan classic "Blowin' in the Wind" on her newest album.
"It's great to get involved with other musicians," Sean said. "We've known Dolly for a while. She is such an unbelievable person with a huge personality."
In addition to working with other musicians, Nickel Creek has made appearances on the late night talk shows of Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. On PBS, they have performed twice for both "Austin City Limits" and "All-Star Bluegrass Celebration." And in 2003, the band made the bill at the modern-day Woodstock known as Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, Tenn.
While the media paints Nickel Creek as a country-bluegrass band, the three members keep listeners guessing after every performance. They have been known to cover songs by artists ranging from 1920s Tin Pan Alley to the Beatles to Radiohead.
At this point in their career, Sean, Sara and Chris have maintained a high level of comfort both in the studio and at live shows. The result of such comfort is a cohesive three-piece acoustic band that produces energetic, audacious music.
"The way we improvise onstage really helps that we've played together for so long," Sean said. "It's really cool to have that history because then we have more of a unified sound."
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