Last Friday, we made it out to the premiere of How To Grow A Band, an intimate music documentary about the band, Punch Brothers, and the challenges of forming a new band playing a genre that few, if any demanded – experimental chamber bluegrass. Having been turned away from Lena Dunham’s much hyped Girls premiere earlier in the week at the Ace Hotel, we were feeling much more eager to take in a story about a band undertaking the daunting task of winning over new listeners with their challenging, uncompromising craft.
The story of how Punch Brothers came to be is as unusual as their music. Unlike most up and coming bands, the group sprung from the hugely successful bluegrass band, Nickel Creek, who rode the momentum of the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack to go on and sell millions of records themselves. The band was formed when Chris Thile, the mandolin player for Nickel Creek was eight years old – that’s right, eight years old, and there is some pretty hilarious footage of the kids in adorable cowboy wear playing shows with their smiling, supportive dad in the background on bass. Thile could have easily continued to put out similar bluegrass albums with the same traditional chord progressions and live a comfortable life, but instead pivoted to life in a van touring their first record, Punch, that included The Blind Leaving The Blind, a 40 minute song in four movements. After playing the piece live on their first tour of Europe in Glasgow, there’s a great, awkward scene of the crowd staring at the band in complete silence, unsure of whether to clap, dance, boo, or cry. Eventually, fans, critics, and press learn to appreciate the band’s demanding, yet cathartic music, leading the band to Lincoln Center, a Brooklyn studio, and a monthly New York City residency at The Living Room.
Unlike most music documentaries that lean on wild anecdotes and the chaos and drama of band member infighting to keep interest, Punch Brothers is more deliberate and suggestive – more Jim Jarmusch than Detroit Rock City. Riding along on the journey with the band, director Mark Meatto gracefully shoots the subtle dramas in warm, personal shots. Viewers of the movie are more likely to sense tension from close up shots of an anguished expression, or ten minute jams than from arguments or interviews. For most new bands that pass day after unglamourous day in a van, or years and years unsure about whether their music will be accepted, there’s not a better music documentary that captures that long, arduous, and uncertain journey of forming a new band.