Capital Times – Punch Brothers Feature
Bluegrass is a family affair for Punch Brother and Madison native Paul Kowert
JOSHUA M. MILLER | Special to the Capital Times Nov 27, 2015
Madison native Paul Kowert knows how one simple act can change everything for an aspiring musician.
In the mid-2000s, Kowert was attending college at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and learning what he could from professors there, like world-renowned bassist Edgar Meyer.
One day he got a phone call from Chris Thile and his New York-based band the Punch Brothers. They were looking for a new bass player, and since Thile had collaborated with Meyer on a project, had heard good things about his playing. Since he was a big fan of the Punch Brothers and Thile’s other band, Nickel Creek, Kowert immediately jumped at the opportunity and joined in 2009 upon graduating.
“It was an enormous jump for me as I was in college when I got the call,” Kowert says. “So I studied up on the music really quick and went to New York and met them all and auditioned and hung out and figured out that this was a good fit.”
Six years later, Kowert has settled in nicely with the bluegrass and classically minded Punch Brothers, who are enjoying a surge in popularity thanks to the release of their latest full-length album, “Phosphorescent Blues.” The band starts their current tour in Madison on December 1 at Overture Hall and Kowert is looking forward to his homecoming.
“Madison is a great town to grow up in,” he says. There’s a lot of music around, being a university town. I got to play with (University of Wisconsin-Madison professor) Richard Davis a good bit when I was living in Madison. I attended a lot of the local jazz and otherwise musical camps.”
This time promises to be extra special as this will be the first full tour that the band has done with all five musicians gathered around a single microphone. The band usually play with a more elaborate technical stage show, but wanted to do something different this time.
“This is a pretty pronounced change from that and something we’re all excited about because we’ve done it occasionally over the years but we haven’t done it for a whole tour like this,” Kowert says. “We love doing it and love the way it sounds. It’s a very natural thing to do in a bluegrass band, to play around one microphone with the help of a clip-on base mic. It’s fun to watch and sounds really good and fun to play it that way.”
Kowert is excited to start the tour in Madison. He remembers seeing shows at the old Oscar Mayer Theater, then later coming back to play in what is now called the Capitol Theater.
“It’s one I frequented growing up, so it’s really cool to get back there with the Overture Hall concert,” he says.
One special memory for him is when we got to play with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.
“I got so nervous. I realized that when I get really nervous I yawn,” he says. “But it was really fun playing with the orchestra. Even though I got really nervous I had a great time.”
Kowert says that family and friends really shaped his musical growth. For instance, when he was in a teenager he became friends with a local band called the Nob Hill Boys who helped get him into bluegrass music.
Another factor was growing up with a Lutheran family. He spent a lot of time playing with his family in church.
“Usually when I get home I play in the church services at Lutheran Church of the Living Christ, on the west side,” Kowert says. “That was a way I played music very regularly. It was a great space to play music as a young person growing up. Everyone’s very supportive.”
The band members originate from various corners of the country from Virginia to California, feeding the band’s diverse and dynamic sound. But Kowert feels that their similar backgrounds in bluegrass families connect them. For example, guitar player Chris Eldridge’s father is a banjo player in the Seldom Scene.
“Our fiddle player Gabe Witcher played in a bluegrass band with his father and brothers,” he says. “Chris Thile’s first incarnation of Nickel Creek was with his father was playing bass. Our banjo player Noam Pikelny got into acoustic music along with his brother. Musical family is a strong start I guess for all of us.”
The band released its latest EP, “The Wireless,” earlier this month. They hope it’ll tide fans over until the next release as Thile will take over as host of public radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” next year. Kowert things it’ll affect the band greatly since it’ll take away most weekends and make touring very difficult. But he thinks it’ll be good to slow down a bit.
“I think we’re waiting to see what happens and happy that Thile has the opportunity to do that,” he says. “I think that’s very exciting and the show’s going to be pretty cool and the rest of us can take time to pursue our own endeavors as well. It’s a good moment for it to happen.”j