The familiar acoustic sound remains intact, but Nickel Creek's new album was recorded with two rock producers on equipment many regard as outdated.
Recorded in Los Angeles, Why Should the Fire Die? is the trio's third album for Sugar Hill Records. The others -- 2002's This Side and 2000's self-titled debut -- are both certified gold. These days, a gold album is a major achievement for mainstream country acts, much less for artists taking a more eclectic approach to their music.
Chris Thile, who sings and plays mandolin in the group, concedes that the new album is a little more adventurous and harder hitting than their previous work.
"There's been a lot of maturation between the last record and this one," the 24-year-old Thile tells CMT.com. "We've had three years to stew over things and to come up with what we feel is an honest, realistic assessment of what we've done thus far and what we wanted to change about it."
Thile uses a baseball analogy to explain why musicians place a great deal of importance on releasing a strong third album.
"You have a rookie phenom who just has an incredible season," he says. "The next year, sophomore slump. That third year is what establishes you as a ballplayer. On the third record, I think you're ready to come to grips with who you are as a band, both individually and as a unit."
Referring to Nickel Creek's new release, he adds, "I think we had a much more realistic perception of what we do. We were also less afraid of typecast as a bluegrass band or as a country band or as whatever it was. We were just totally unconcerned. Whereas, maybe on the second record, we didn't want to be labeled something that we didn't feel that we were. Now, it's all in service of the songs."
The album was produced by Eric Valentine (who has worked with rock bands Smash Mouth, Queens of the Stone Age and Good Charlotte) and Tony Berg (whose credits include recordings with Edie Brickell). It raises the obvious question: Who first said it would be a great idea to work with Good Charlotte's producer?
"Good Charlotte was not the way it was sold to us," Thile laughs. "Eric also produced Smash Mouth, a band that made some undeniably epic singles that were just great on the radio. ... We were just vaguely aware of his production. We knew very well some of his work but didn't know it was his. When our management suggested him, at first we were sort of surprised. Then we thought about it for a second, and something just made a ton of sense -- almost without reason.
"We had a meeting with him and absolutely loved his take on our band and what he was hearing that he wanted to underline. We thought our visions were really united and that it would be a happy marriage. And we were 100 percent right."
Valentine's ideas for underlining Nickel Creek's music involved the use of analog recording equipment, including vintage microphones and reverb units. The idea immediately appealed to Thile and his bandmates, violinist-vocalist Sara Watkins and guitarist-vocalist Sean Watkins.
"Like most musicians, we wax sentimental about analog recording even though we're young," he says. "We've always liked the idea of doing it, but it just hadn't really come up. One of Eric's chief designs on the project was to do as much of it analog as possible to coax more urgent performances out of us. Getting that sound -- that warm, fuzzy, slightly blurry sound -- is really great. Sometimes I feel like with digital recording, you hear too clearly. You're hearing more than the human ear was really meant to hear.
"What they've been able to do with digital is make it completely transparent. It doesn't add or detract anything. And then you ask musicians whether they enjoy the things that analog undeniably adds. There's a little bit of a noise. There's an obscuring of things, and there's a blending of tracks. We decided that we really loved it and missed it when we didn't hear it."
Thile tends to gravitate to analog technology even when he's not recording.
"I always love listening to vinyl [records] at home," he says. "Again, I just feel like, in a way, when you're listening to a digital record, it's like you've got your ear jammed right up against the sound hole of an instrument and the vocalist is right on your other ear. It's just a little too defined for my tastes."
All three band members wrote songs for the album that also includes Sara's lead vocal on one of Bob Dylan's classics, "Tomorrow Is a Long Time." On songs such as "Doubting Thomas" and "Can't Complain," Thile's songwriting, in particular, seems to be moving to deeper and darker themes.
"We're older now, and more significant things are happening to us in our lives," he explains. "I feel like a songwriter needs to embrace the strong feelings that he or she has. If ever you feel like you have something to say or you have an interesting story to tell, that's what you need to write. You need to be unconcerned about people's impressions of you."
One of the album's highlights is "Jealous of the Moon," a song Thile wrote with Gary Louris of the Jayhawks.
"It was sort of a dream co-write for me," he says. "Our manager suggested it to his manager, and he liked the idea, so we went for it. I couldn't imagine it having gone any better or being more natural. It was incredible how well it worked. The first day we wrote together, we came up with 'Jealous of the Moon.' We started it at 11 a.m. and finished by dinnertime. We wrote another one the next day that got cut from the record."
Nickel Creek follow up Tuesday's (Aug. 9) performance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno with additional appearances this week in Colorado and California to promote the album. The band hits the road in late September for a U.S. tour to hit more than 50 cities before closing Dec. 17 at The Wiltern in Los Angeles.