Finding themselves feeling a bit of the "Phosphorescent Blues," The Punch Brothers set out to record an album centered on human connections, shared moments and visceral experience.
The eclectic, virtuosic band—mandolinist and lead singer Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjo player Noam Pikelny and fiddler Gabe Witcher—found inspiration in the "power and the pitfalls of our super-connected era" and crafted songs that reach out with emotion, intimacy and beauty.
The title phrase for "The Phosphorescent Blues" comes from the record's closing song, "Little Lights," Eldridge says.
"That is the glow that we see a lot on stage. We're playing a concert and it's really not uncommon at all to look out and see people's faces aglow as they're looking at their cell phones," he says. "I don't know if they're tweeting about being at the show or whatever, but they're not present for a moment. That's one of the things that got us talking about these themes and that image is one we can relate to."
With that image in mind, the band got together for a series of writing retreats. The band members all used to live in New York but have since scattered, so the retreats were partly out of necessity, but Eldridge says the sense of focus and togetherness helped shape the album's themes.
"We were on these writing retreats and highly social in the sense that we were just with each other and working all day, with no time to look down at our phones for the most part," he says. "We were really present together, all five of us. The discussions we'd have at the night after getting out of work mode, there was a stark difference and we noticed that. It led a lot of our conversations."
For recording, the band turned to legendary producer T Bone Burnett, who'd in fact just given a commencement address at the University of Southern California on the subject of technology and human interaction.
Burnett and the Punch Brothers worked to tie those themes into the band's naturally expansive sound. Since 2008's debut "Punch," the band has integrated folk, jazz, bluegrass, classical and rock elements, without contradiction.
"We all love music and we all grew up playing instruments that are associated with bluegrass and string band music, but we've grown up loving all music and certainly were never listening to just that," Eldridge says. "All of us in Punch Brothers, it's always been very natural to just play the music that we love and try to get to the core of why we love, say, a Radiohead song. We spent a lot of time playing Radiohead songs in the early days of the band."
The band never made a conscious decision to create a "patchwork quilt of music," Eldridge says.
"It's a lot more organic and in line with what we think music actually is: melodies, harmonies, rhythm and form. Those are the building blocks and the commonality between all music. We have all the same notes available on our instruments and all the same rhythms available in our heads," he says. "Some people use those things really well whether it's classical composers from 200 years ago or Bill Monroe or of Montreal. They're all people making great music and that's what we're inspired by and what we want to do."