The members of Nickel Creek are cheerfully gathered around an old wooden table at coffee shop named Fido, a popular hangout for Nashville musicians. Dressed comfortably — and chattier than expected after a day of interviews — 25-year-old Sean Watkins, his 21-year-old sister Sara and 21-year-old Chris Thile shuffle through the sports page, swat flies and innocently swerve off the conversation at hand to whatever happens to float through their racing minds.
Maybe it’s the passion for the foreign art film Amelie — or the harmonies on Emmylou Harris ’ 1980 bluegrass-inspired album Roses in the Snow. Perhaps it’s the pros and cons of studio devices that tune vocals after they’re recorded — or critical-darling rock bands that try way too hard to be hip. Even with a topic such as their evolving sense of fashion, a dizzying dialogue unfolds:
|Sara: We were just getting a little more aware.
Sean: We figured we should dress a little better than when we’re walking down the street.
Chris: I have a Hello Kitty sweatshirt in my car. You know, it’s so not important, clothes and things.
Sara: It’s just what you want to do.
Chris: You have an affinity for certain things. It’s not like we’re the kids from the South that are becoming aware. We were from Southern California.
Sara: Not that kids from the South aren’t aware!
Chris: Right, but that seems to be the concept. Bluegrass kids are supposed to wear overalls and straw hats. (They all laugh.)
Sean: But I think maybe sometimes you’ll see us dressed-up more than others, but that just has to do with, maybe the video called for it. It’s not like we’re becoming aware of style.
Sara: Yeah. I really am very lazy. I think the guys are much better at being fashionable than I am.
Sean: No, you dress very nicely!
Sara: I’m trying to get my act together, but sometimes you’re in the mood to make an effort, and sometimes you’re not.
Sean: It doesn’t have anything to do with music. When we went on tour with Glen Phillips [formerly of rock band Toad the Wet Sprocket], I swear the first two weeks, he didn’t change his clothes.
Sara: He did, but he alternated between a small range of shirts.
Sean: But he makes the most amazing music and we love the man. He’s so anti-rock star — from a rock star!
Sara: It’s never really been a big deal to us.
Their frenetic familiarity comes naturally. As children, the Watkins siblings (Sean on guitar, Sara on violin) and Thile (on mandolin) performed bluegrass together at a San Diego pizza parlor. A true prodigy, Thile had already earned notices for his talents before Nickel Creek signed to Sugar Hill Records. Initially, Chris’s dad Scott Thile played acoustic bass as a member of the band — the original CD cover of their 2000 self-titled debut pictures all four of them — but he stepped back soon after its release.
After a slow-but-steady build, the trio appeared at countless bluegrass festivals, filmed three music videos, opened for Vince Gill at the Ryman Auditorium and landed two nominations (and a performance slot) at the 2001 CMA Awards. Thile and Sean Watkins also released solo albums on Sugar Hill last year, and Sara starred in a national TV ad for a cellular phone company. The trio also provided music for a Dr Pepper commercial.
Now, fans get yet another angle from This Side, their second album. In a video for the title track, the band plays up against a wall before passing through it, finding a club packed with shiny, happy faces on the other side. (The band appears on CMT Most Wanted Live on Friday, Aug. 23.)
Referring to their work on the new album, Thile says, “We’re young. A year that goes by is a bigger percentage of our life than for most people, so it’s like more change happens. Our main goal is to progress. We don’t feel like, ‘Oh, our last record sold 700,000 copies, let’s do some more of that.’ That’s not what growing is about. You’ve got to be free. And I really don’t think it’s that different of a record. It might appear more different than it actually is. You know, there are some surprising things, but we’re just setting up some new boundaries. Or tearing some previous boundaries down.”
The most obvious difference between records is that Nickel Creek featured five instrumentals; This Side includes one. Other twists: Sean steps out on vocals much more frequently; lyrics are more complex; and the sound falls further from the traditional bluegrass arrangements found on Nickel Creek. However, the album still keeps the band’s acoustic heart beating, and Alison Krauss — once a musical teen prodigy herself — returns as producer.
Krauss has certainly endured the same dilemma that Nickel Creek now faces. Although the band has earned recognition from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and Thile reigns as the IBMA’s mandolin player of the year, some purists insist that they aren’t truly bluegrass. It’s the same sort of elitism that contemporary country stars have fought for decades.
“We don’t want to tick anybody off, so we shouldn’t even call ourselves bluegrass at all,” Sean Watkins says. “Every time we do, people get mad.”
“And people yell at us,” Sara interjects. “Most of them really are done with us anyway, and they’ve had it. Except when they listen to our album and they want to get mad. If you want to call it anything, there’s more percentage of bluegrass in our background and influence than anything else — and let me say ‘bluegrass’ as loosely progressive stuff like Jerry Douglas , Tim O’Brien, Strength in Numbers and Bela Fleck. But we’re definitely not a bluegrass band, per se. If you say ‘bluegrass band,’ the image you get and the sound that you hear doesn’t sound like us.”
“We happen to come from bluegrass and we happen to play acoustic instruments,” Sean adds. “Other than that, we just want to make good music.”