Nickel Creek — mandolinist Chris Thile, fiddler Sara Watkins and guitarist Sean Watkins — are on the vanguard of the acoustic music scene. Their self-titled debut album drew two Grammy nominations earlier in 2001 — best country instrumental performance and best bluegrass album — and in October 2001, the International Bluegrass Music Association named them Emerging Artist of the Year. Videos for “Reasons Why” and “When You Come Back Down” have drawn enthusiastic viewer response at CMT, and the group’s appearance on CMT’s On the Verge has broadened their audience. Just before hitting the road again, Chris, 20, Sara, 19, and Sean, 24, sat down with country.com to answer questions about their recent Grammy Awards appearance, about what it was like to have Alison Krauss produce their first album and about their other interests and hobbies outside music.
1. What is your earliest recollection of music? How did that affect the music you play today?
Chris: My earliest memory, period, is music, actually. I can remember, before I was born, it’s the only memory I have of that time, hearing Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, the record that has “The Girl From Ipanema” on it [Getz/Gilberto]. It was great to have so many different types of music in the house.
Sean: My earliest memories, musically, are of my parents listening to a lot of folk and Celtic music when I was real young. I don’t know how old I was.
Chris: I forgot. Prairie Home Companion was big in my house when I was a little baby. I remember hearing that. Prairie Home Companion is very linked to what we do. All the music on there is really rootsy. That was really cool to hear growing up. I didn’t know that it wasn’t normal (laughs).
Sara: One was Prairie Home Companion, watching the television show, and the Fire on the Mountain program that David Holt did. I would see all sorts of different musicians on there and old-time, roots traditional music, and that was great. The other one, one of my mom’s friends would come over, and we would sing along with sing-along tapes and praise tapes.
2. How did you get together?
Sara: We grew up together, pretty much.
Sean: Chris and I had the same mandolin teacher [John Moore] growing up, who was the leader of a band that played at a pizza place that had bluegrass music every Saturday night. We met that way. We started playing backstage, and there was this hallway that went to the bathroom where Chris and I would play. Eventually, Sara started playing violin …
Chris: By the way, I was 6 when we met. Sean was 10 and Sara was 6.
Sara: Actually, I started singing before I started playing. When I was 4, I made a request and the band asked me to come up and sing the request. I sang the chorus of “Long Black Veil.” That was my first time on stage, and then I finally got to play when I was 6.
3. How many different instruments do each of you play?
Sara: I only play fiddle right now. That’s my main instrument.
Sean: I play mandolin and guitar — guitar mostly, not very much mandolin. But I used to play piano growing up. That was my first instrument. When I started playing bluegrass instruments, I kinda dropped it. I hope to get it back.
Chris: Mandolin is really the only one that I actually care about, but besides that I play guitar and fiddle, a little bit of banjo and just strings, mainly, except for cello.
4.You are all so young and don’t look like a “traditional” bluegrass band. Before you hit it big, did people take you seriously or were you regarded as a novelty act?
Sara: I think there was a bit of both. When we started, really young, there was really not that much to take seriously. When the band started, Chris and I were 8. Sean was 12. We were put together, somebody asked us to get together for the sake of being a cute kids’ band opening a festival. Sean and I knew Chris, so we called Chris. We just started singing together. We never really wanted to be considered a kids’ novelty band, but of course we were. We feel really fortunate to have been taken seriously, this last few years especially.
Chris: One nice thing about the image of the band — especially after we got over the cowboy thing, ’cause there was a point when we were wearing cowboy hats and jeans and plaid shirts and what not — as we got older and were subjected to actual culture, it was kind of fun, because we would go to these bluegrass festivals, and right away people were tipped off that it was going to be a little bit weird. People were ready for something different [when they saw us]. A lot of people that go to bluegrass festivals, if [the acts are not] bluegrass, they’re gonna get slammed. With us, they just realized it was going to be different right away.
5. Who came up with the name Nickel Creek, and is there a story behind the name?
Sara: There’s a very boring story.
Sean: Basically, it’s the name of a song that a friend of ours, Byron Berline, wrote. When we were trying to be more of a bluegrass band, we thought that would be an appropriate name for us.
Chris: We were like, 9. It was a year into the band and we were ready for a ’grown-up-sounding’ name.
Sara: More mature.
Chris: Yeah. ’We’re ready for a grown-up name.’ The names, up until then, had been all these cute, kiddies’ band names. Nickel Creek sounded very old. But now we have a new reason to like the name. We were at the Smithsonian and Sara found out that nickel is the most commonly alloyed of all metals. That makes sense when you think about what we do in the band. We’re so into all kinds of music that it’s just kind of like Nickel Creek is sort of alloying ourselves to other music, and hopefully something new comes out of it.
6.Who are your biggest bluegrass influences?
Sara: Hot Rize and Byron Berline and Stuart Duncan and Darol Anger are my favorite fiddle players right now. We also got a lot of influence from the Strength in Numbers group: Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer. There’s a bunch of individual musicians that we really love, too. Tim O’Brien, Mollie O’Brien.
Sean: Directly, our teachers, John Moore and Dennis Caplinger. After that, there were a bunch of people that we listened to. The ones that Sara named. As a guitar player, I listened to a lot of Tony Rice and Scott Nygaard when I was starting. There are a bunch of great musicians that happen to play bluegrass.
Chris: Most of these things we’re naming come from the progressive side of bluegrass. We haven’t really studied the traditional stuff that much at all. Growing up at the time we did, what was traditional to us is completely progressive to most bluegrass fans. It’s mainly that. From there, our influences are all over the deck. Certainly we come from that progressive bluegrass background, but that’s only where we start from. Everything spawns from that.
7. It seems that there’s a lot of Celtic influence in your songs — more than in bluegrass. Where does that come from?
Chris: When I was 12 or 13, I played on Prairie Home Companion for the first time. I hadn’t really listened to Irish music, or Celtic music, and there was a band on that show with me. It was kind of a ’young artists’ show. It was a band called Solas. That’s Seamus Egan’s band. It was amazing. I’ve never heard something like that. I could relate to it. It’s similar to bluegrass in how high-energy it is and also that it’s modal and a lot of the storytelling seems to be related, but it was also really, really exciting and different to me how they did things and how important the melody was to ’em. I just fell in love. As soon as I found an album, we all started listening to Solas a lot. Then we got into another Irish band called Planxty, which is more traditional Irish than Solas. That was a band during the ’70s. Solas is still going, but Planxty broke up. A lot of the Irish influence comes from those guys.
Sean: Growing up, my parents used to listen to that radio show, Thistle & Shamrock every Saturday. That was a big deal around our house. I have real early memories of hearing that, and I’ve always loved it, from the time I heard it at that age.
Sara: Actually, about the same time that Chris discovered Solas, I was at Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp and this Irish fiddler, Liz Carroll, who’s out of Chicago, was there. I really enjoyed that. It was different for me and I was sort of tentative to get into it, but I learned so much.
8. Making music as a trio requires that you spend a lot of time together. Is it hard to keep from arguing and getting on each other’s nerves?
Chris: Sometimes. But since we’ve grown up together, it’s always been like this. It’s like you hardly know any different. It’s like being in a family. You might stress each other out sometimes, but you know that the relationship is way more important than any little thing ever is, and that making music together and just being friends is so much more important than anything that might …
Sean: It seems like anything like that is on the surface and not threatening at all. It’s kinda like family stuff. You don’t really worry about that in the family. It’s just stuff that’s natural stuff.
Sara: We’re not really worried that a certain argument is going to break us up or anything.
9. Do you think you guys will go back to college later on?
Sara: Hope so.
Chris: I really want to. After this runs its course — and I’m ready for it to last forever if it needs to. Nickel Creek is like college. It’s not the kind of band where we’ve found what we want to do and we’re just going to do it until nobody wants to listen anymore. Nickel Creek is an adventure. We’re all growing and we all want the music to grow with us. It’s not like a project that’s just getting done on the side and isn’t going anywhere. It’s just like a course. You’re learning all the way through. But when it is done, I would love to go back to school and study composition or musicology.
Sara: Me, too. I’d really love to go back sometime, and I’d like to take all the music classes and learn all the theory that I can. But also, I’d like to take different classes that I would never take the time to read about, like I’d love to take a photography class and auto mechanics and that kind of stuff.
Sean: I would, too.
10. Has your audience changed since getting your songs and videos played more widely?
Chris: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Ever since the CMT thing happened with the two videos and now the On the Verge thing and the Face the Music, that has changed the whole performing experience for us. People come to shows now and they know the words to songs. We wouldn’t have near the size of audience that we’re starting to have if it weren’t for CMT playing the stuff. It’s been amazing.
Sara: It’s pretty much the only major outlet. Some of the radio stations have been playing it, but I don’t think that many have – some of the Americana stations and bluegrass stations. That’s the main outlet that we have right now. It’s crazy how many people have said, ’Oh, I just saw your video for the first time last week’ or ’I just saw you guys on On the Verge or Austin City Limits and I came to your show. I just found out you were playing here and saw you and wow, this is so cool.’ We’re definitely reaching a whole lot of different people.
11. I noticed that Chris played mandolin on Dolly Parton’s new album. How much has playing with such a legend helped you in your career?
Chris: It’s been wonderful playing with Dolly. She is such an amazing performer. I feel like I take a class in performing every time I do anything with her. Being on national TV with her is such a great learning experience. You sit and you watch what she does. If I’m ever in those kinds of positions, I would hope to conduct myself and be as lovable and entertaining as she is. She’s amazing. Being in the studio with her too — to be there while a real pro does her thing. Any of her scratch vocal tracks could have been used on the album. She’s just amazing that way. It’s really inspiring. She takes performing just as seriously as recording. To make it all really important, she’s great at that.
12. Do you feel that your future direction will be more towards country or more towards traditional bluegrass?
Chris: Neither one of those really works, actually. We hate genres, really. Not that we don’t love music that can be categorized in a genre – and if we’re categorized in a genre, that’s fine. But as far as our goals and our directions, we don’t really sit down and go, ’OK, here’s where we’re going and here’s how we’re going to get there.’ We just want to grow. Whatever that feels like is what we want to be working on. If that’s in a certain area, then so be it, but we really don’t like to label that kind of thing.
Sara: Especially, it seems hard to plan where you’re going to be going as far as your creative outlet. Five years ago we weren’t planning on writing these kinds of songs, playing these kinds of songs and arranging them. It’s hard to project what we want to be doing and limit it to something.
13. What was it like working with Alison Krauss as your producer?
Sara: Awesome. She is amazing, so creative. She’s got an incredible ear and she’s a perfectionist. It was really great to work with her. We’re pretty picky ourselves. She understands that. Vocals were never our strong point, so she really helped us with that, especially our performance in the studio, keeping everything fresh and not drilling it to make sure it was technical and fast and everything. She helped us get things down that would last longer on CD, and not necessarily the way we would play them live, so that they would be easier listening to for a longer time.
Sean: The main thing she really left with us was the difference between a live performance and making a CD. There’s a huge difference. Live performance is all about the memory, how you feel as it’s going by and how you feel when you leave. A CD is a completely different thing. It’s about getting the same emotion every time you listen to that song. That was one of the things that we didn’t have when we went into this and that we came away with as a result of getting to work with her.
14. You all sing as well as you play. Why aren’t there more songs in which all three of you join in on vocals that spotlight your harmonies?
Chris: (laughing) I thought the record was full of harmonies myself. It seems to me like there’s hardly any songs that don’t have all three of us singing.
Sean: Maybe compared to some of the three-person groups in country now where they try to be singing all the time. That’s kinda one of the deals. Maybe if you compare it to that, but relative to most other bands … there doesn’t have to be three-part harmony going on all the time. When it’s going on, then it’s really cool. A lot of times there is three-part harmony.
Chris: You can saturate a song with too much harmony, to where the harmony isn’t special any more. Harmony is like volume and speed, in that it’s another dynamic, another way you build a song. If it starts and finishes [with harmony] and all the middle parts are three-part harmonies, then there’s no build, vocally. You have to rely strictly on volume and instrumental stuff. It takes one of your tools away if you go, ’OK, the whole song is going to be three-part harmony.’ The lack of notes is just as important as notes. In classical music, you don’t have a song where the whole thing is sixteenth notes.
15. I’ve talked to a lot of people who want to get a copy of your Here to There album. Any plans to re-release it?
Sean: I don’t think so (laughs).
Chris: I think you can still get it through the Web site (www.nickelcreek.com). My mom runs our Web site for us, which is great, and she takes all the orders. We might reorder more. We just self-produced it, so we can just keep making more.
16. What was it like to be on the Grammys? What other artists did you get to meet that you were particularly excited about?
Sara: Did you guys meet anybody? I don’t think we really met anybody.
Chris: They keep you in your own area when you play. They’re so worried that you’re going to miss your cue to get on stage that they keep you in your little room. You kinda have to sneak out if you want to meet anybody.
Sara: We saw different people when we were doing the soundcheck. Madonna walked by and Christina Aguilera. The coolest part for me was being onstage and looking out and seeing B.B. King, Sheryl Crow and …
Sean: Everybody. One of the guys in ’N Sync was sitting right in front of me. It was pretty funny.
Sara: Yeah, it was crazy.
17. Outside of music, what are some of your other interests/hobbies?
Sean: I live in California and I like to bodyboard, which is similar to surfing. These days, I just love to be outside. I’ve been running a lot and mountain biking.
Sara: We’re together all the time when we’re out. When I’m home, I really just like to go in my car and drive by the beach and go to coffeeshops. When we tour, we rent cars, and I can’t ever drive the rental cars ’cause I’m too young. When I’m home, I enjoy having the wheel and going where I want to go (laughs). I enjoy bodyboarding and swimming in the ocean and hiking in the hills.
Chris: I’m a religious runner. I run every day. I love it. I love to throw the baseball around. I love to play basketball. I love to be outside. If it’s nice, I really, really, really want to be outside. When you’re a musician, you do a lot of sitting around, and being inside is part of your job. When we’re home, or even when we’re out on the road and there’s a chance to be outside, that’s where you’re gonna be. I love to watch a baseball game, just to relax, if I can watch a Cubs game. I love to be at a real baseball game. And then I love to play Ping-Pong.
18. There is an undeniable spiritual quality to your music and lyrics. Would you comment about your faith and how it influences your musical expression?
Chris: We’re all Christians, although we’re not a Christian band, per se. The most important thing to us is that we feel that we’ve been given a gift from God of being able to perform and to record for people. We basically just want to use that gift as we feel God would have us use it.
Sean: Also, bands like Rage Against the Machine, they write about what they’re passionate about, social issues or whatever. This is just one thing that we happen to be passionate about. It just kinda comes out naturally, I think.
Chris: Even if a song isn’t blatantly Christian or isn’t a hymn, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have that feeling in it. Some people pick up on that. The people that want to, hopefully, do. The people that don’t, maybe they’ll get something from it anyway.
19. Did you ever have any aspirations to do anything else or has music always been it? What about in the future?
Sara: Music’s always been it.
Sean: For me, too.
Chris: I always wanted to be a musician since I was two. Every now and then I’ve wanted to do something else. I went through a little phase where I thought maybe I could be a musician and a baseball player (laughs), just like every little kid wants to be a baseball player at one point. I love the idea of being an author. I love to write, I love to read. Really, I think this is what I want to do.
Sara: I always tried to think of something else I would want to do, like a backup plan or something, when I was in junior high, but there was really nothing else.
20. When is the next album out?
Sean: The next Nickel Creek album has to be recorded first. We are ready to do it any time we can get our schedules worked out. We have a CD we did with a guy named Glen Phillips, the former lead singer of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Glen’s been a huge influence on us and his songwriting is just great and his singing is awesome. We met him through a mutual friend and we recorded a CD with him. It’ll just be Nickel Creek and Glen Phillips and it’ll be out in the fall. Chris and I have solo CDs out this summer. Mine [Let It Fall] came out last month.
Chris: My album should be out in July or August. Then, as far as a new Nickel Creek project, I hope we’re going to go into the studio this fall and have something out by March.