The cover of the new album by Mutual Admiration Society features one casually dressed guy in a lonely room, peeking out the window and waiting for the rest of the group’s members to show up.
But in reality, this particular Mutual Admiration Society has a few more members on its roster. Most recognizable to country fans is the young acoustic trio Nickel Creek — Chris Thile and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins. Those with a broader musical scope may recognize Glen Phillips, lead singer from the ’90s pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket. And for those attending the upcoming tour, there’s Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones and Elvis Costello’s drummer, Pete Thomas, as a dream-team rhythm section.
“There won’t be much sleep I don’t think,” Thile says about sharing the bus with the rock stars. “Any sleeping that’ll happen will happen during the day. I can’t sleep for fear of missing something.”
In addition to selections from the new album, Phillips adds that concertgoers can expect solo step-outs from everybody on the team, adding, “We’ll make a little buffet platter for everybody.”
The album Mutual Admiration Society, produced by Ethan Johns and released last week, has been a long time coming. At a Colorado music festival in 2000, a friend of Phillips overheard Nickel Creek backstage leisurely performing as many songs as they could remember from a Toad record. The friend kindly offered them Phillips’ e-mail addresses. Though he was nervous, Sean Watkins e-mailed Phillips, and a friendship was forged. Phillips even agreed to sing the title track of Watkins’ first solo album. A few weeks later, Nickel Creek joined Phillips first in his dressing room — and then onstage — at the L.A. club Largo during one of his solo gigs.
Their camaraderie convinced them to launch a mini-tour and then to record together. That winter, they convened at the Watkins’ parents’ house in California to choose material.
“I couldn’t learn any of their songs because they had a lot of changes, and they were difficult,” Phillips says. “I know I’m good at writing and singing, but I will never be able to play like they will. They brought in their songs, and I kind of sat there slack-jawed.”
So, for the most part, the band accompanied Phillips on his own compositions, singing occasional harmonies. They spent three days in the studio, and each night, they treated themselves to a fine evening meal.
“It was a completely different way of making a record than I’m used to,” Thile says. “Growing up in a bluegrass or acoustic-oriented world, the musicians become so focused on performance, as far as playing. We tend to overanalyze the notes, so you’re always trying to sharpen everything up. This was all about the songs. It was all about getting a real honest and meaningful performance of the songs.”
Phillips says, “The album’s essentially unrehearsed, so it didn’t really feel like making an album. It felt like hanging out and singing a few songs. And hopefully next time we do it, we’ll make it slightly more like making an album, without losing the good dinners.”
Nickel Creek and Phillips are likely to share many more meals together in the coming weeks because all of them are interested in seeing the cities on their itinerary up close. Each morning of a Nickel Creek tour, Thile says, everybody seeks out the coolest coffee shop in town — and if the three of them happen to go separately, they usually pick the same place.
The early morning java jolt is no surprise to Phillips. Asked what he remembers most about making the album, he says, “Probably Nickel Creek’s discovery of iced coffee drinks. They got heavily addicted to these iced mocha frappes down the road at a place called Pierre’s. I think we just went down there for coffee one day, and it was this whole beginning of one of the many minor ways in which I’ve corrupted them.”
While Phillips blames the three-and-a-half year delay of Mutual Admiration Society on “bizarre legal stuff,” he says that he considers Nickel Creek’s fondness for his music “the highest compliment I’ve ever seen.”
“Playing with them has been pure joy,” Phillips says. “They’re truly exceptional musicians. They’re so well rounded, and they have a deep appreciation for basically every genre they’ve encountered. They can find what’s great about it, and they have that deep intellectual knowledge of what makes music work and then a complete heart connection to it as well. They’re moved by it. It makes them ecstatic, so they’re everything you could hope for in musicians, and people as well. They have been very good medicine for me. I’ve had my share of strange years of the business and becoming jaded, and they are as good of cure for that as I’ve found.”