Chris Thile, ‘genius grant’ winner, is as obsessive about coffee as music
Chris Thile doesn’t hesitate to spill the beans when it comes to one of the great loves of his life that doesn’t involve his family or music.
“Coffee is pretty big in my life. It shows up in my lyrics a bunch, the same way the ocean does. It’s a constant force,” said Thile, who since 2002 has won four Grammy Awards and — in 2012 — a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” Fellowship.
True to his word, Thile’s songwriting credits as a member of the Grammy-winning bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers include several caffeine-referencing songs. “Stumptown” is a tribute to the well-known coffee roasters, while “All Ashore” features the couplet: Mama cuts like a man-of-war / Through the fog of an early morning / With nothing more than a coffee filling up her sails.
Then there’s “Fail Better (Three Advil and a Coffee).” It is one of the Songs of the Week that Thile wrote for the weekly national radio show he hosts, “Live from Here,” which was previously known as “A Prairie Home Companion.”
And, surely not coincidentally, this San Diego-born singer, songwriter, band leader and mandolin wizard is married to actress Claire Coffee, whose credits include the TV series “Grimm” and “The West Wing.”
So it’s not at all surprising that coffee was on Thile’s mind at the start of a recent phone interview from Brooklyn, where Thile and Coffee live with their nearly 4-year-old son, Calvin Eugene.
“It’s a little windy, but don’t worry — I’m headed straight for a café!” Thile said.
Does he drink coffee every day?
“Oh, yes I do. Oh, yes!” he replied. “I try to keep it to two times a day, but sometimes it goes to three.”
This holds true whether Thile is at home, on the road for a concert tour or, really, almost anywhere in between.
“I am an incorrigible coffee geek,” he said, his voice swelling with pride. “I make espresso. I have a La Marzocco GS3 and I’m also into AeroPress.”
Thile will perform a sold-out solo concert Wednesday at the La Jolla Music Society’s new Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. He will, presumably, leave his La Marzocco GS3 — which has a suggested retail price of more than $7,000 — at home.
As eloquent in conversation as he is making music, Thile spoke at length both before and after arriving at his neighborhood café in Brooklyn. Here are edited excerpts from our interview.
Q: Do you have any favorite coffee drinks?
A: I’ll often order a cortado and stand there quizzing the poor barista about the extraction time, how much pressure they are applying and how many grams are in it. I am that guy. It’s reprehensible to the max, but it’s how I go through my life. I figure if the thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing obsessively.
Q: Does that apply to you across the board?
A: It does for me, I’m afraid.
Q: Are there any musical instruments you play, just for fun, that you aren’t very good at?
A: (Laughing) I would say the obsessive part comes in pretty quick. I’m really not handy. I’m not good at things like changing a light bulb. If something is broken, the chances of me being able to fix it are slim to none. But I try and try, because I want to be a helpful partner to my wife and a capable father to my little boy. And the kinds of skill one accrues through life — the ones I’ve accrued — are odd and not necessarily helpful to other people, such as making a reasonably proficient cortado at home or playing ping-pong. Mandolin playing, also, is not necessarily that helpful to others.
Q: Well, then, how many mandolin players does it take to put in a new light bulb?
A: Oh, boy. You’ll need a lot! Eventually, someone knowledgeable enough to change a light bulb will come along, but you’ll need seven or eight mandolin players to change a bulb.
A: I remember it well.
Q: Is it accurate to say that, while you were very active on social media then, you have backed off it quite a bit more recently?
A: That would be very accurate. I found it wasn’t bringing joy to my life, only consternation. I can inform myself as to the goings on of the world in ways that leave me feeling less distrustful of my fellow human beings. There’s something about social media that — at least from what I’m observing — I don’t necessarily think brings out the best in us, and certainly not in me. Not that I was a Twitter-user picking fights. But I just wouldn’t end a Twitter-gazing session feeling better than I started. So I decided I cut it off.
Q: Was it a gradual process of backing away?
A: I’ve been ramping down. When I was having the most fun on Twitter was right when I first got on it. People were cracking jokes all the time, and — if it was a battle ground — it was a battle ground of wits, with lots of wordplay and puns and silly rhyming games. Now it seems like a place where people are airing their grievances with, and about, each other. I just feel differently than I used to. I’m trying to stay positive. I love human beings, and I feel (social media) is not a very living medium.
Q: Your band, Punch Brothers, was nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award. But you skipped the awards ceremony because, as you stated at the time, you wanted to stay home and cheer when Joan Baez — who was nominated in the same category — won. Have you apologized to her for the fact that Punch Brothers ended up beating her this year for Best Folk Album honors?
A: (Laughing) I still can’t believe that. I, for sure, thought that was Joan’s Grammy. If I weren’t me, and if I hadn’t voted for myself, she would have had my vote.
Q: What if she lost by only one vote?
A: (Laughing) That wouldn’t surprise me at all!
Q: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. In 2007, Nickel Creek and Willie Nelson were the only acts to play at Coachella and the then brand-new Stagecoach country-music festival, which is held at the same location in Indio as Coachella. Have you ever been back since then?
A: I have not been back. But I had a great time when I was there, mainly because of who all I got to see perform. I saw Of Montreal, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Rufus Wainwright, Arctic Monkeys and Bjork. So it was a pretty ridiculous lineup and I had a pretty wonderful time. But I haven’t been back. I’m not avoiding it! I have heard that it’s changed a great deal since 2007.
Q: What are your upcoming plans that you are most excited about?
A: I have a new project, a theater project, that I can’t say much more about for now. That is looming large in my current thoughts. And the radio show, “Live from Here,” is really getting to be fun. Not that it hasn’t been fun before, but it’s turning into itself. It’s more and more capable of reflecting the times in which it is being presented. And that’s sort of the aim. I would love for it to become a very transparent form, or vehicle, for what we need aurally. So I’m excited about that. We’re working on another Goat Rodeo Sessions album (with Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan). I’m always planning more for Punch Brothers and there are a lot of (music) writing things I want to get to.
Q: Might your under-wraps theater project by any chance be a musical?
A: Decidedly yes! It will have music, dance and some narrative; it will run the gamut.
Q: Are you learning anything new as you put it together?
A: I’ve certainly been studying our choreographer closely.
Q: The La Jolla Playhouse has a very good track record of debuting new musicals that then went to Broadway.
A: I’ve noticed that!
Q: In a 2008 interview, I asked you about the need for creating music that requires attentive listening and engagement from your audience. You replied at the time: “That is exactly what we’re trying to do. The music is meant to engage, to ask questions. The listening process needs to go both ways. The only music I ever really like is music that involves me, that needs me to get in there and listen to it multiple times and come to terms with it.” Here we are, 11 years later, when some people at concerts spend most of their time on their phones. Do you think listeners are less attentive now?
A: (Sipping from his cup of coffee) Hmm. Well, at this point, yeah, I do feel like people, hmm. I still feel exactly the same, as far as my own listening habits. I still crave music that requires active engagement. I think that probably results in me making music that requires active engagement. And I’m lucky. I feel like the ears I’m generally in front of are generally engaged — the people coming to shows or buying the records I make, although (laughing) very few people buy them anymore. I said that 11 years ago? I feel like I am still kind of finding the kind of people who want to listen, in a very engaged way, and aren’t putting the records on in the background. Or, if they are, it’s maybe after an engaged listen or two. That’s my impression of it. It seems the kind of people coming up to say “Hi” after our show will bring up specific things about the music that indicate they are listening attentively.
Q: Do you own stock in a coffee company?
A: I do not.
Q: Have you ever endorsed a favorite coffee brand or product, or done an advertising jingle for one?
A: So far, that hasn’t happened. But I would react positively were one of my faves to request some sort of musical favor. The admiration would be mutual and that would be be fun for me.
Q: Do you tip baristas well?
A: I feel like I tip fairly well.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Tickets: Sold out
Phone: (858) 459-3728
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