Nickel Creek: leading bluegrass into the future 

Given their relative youth, it’s hard to believe the three members of Nickel Creek have been playing together for seventeen years (!), but it’s true.
  While not always known under that moniker, violinist Sara Watkins, her guitarist brother Sean, and mandolinist Chris Thile have been writing and performing as a trio since 1989. Initially viewed as bluegrass wunderkinds with potential to burn, the group had barely racked up two Grammy nominations for their self-titled 2000 debut (on the respected acoustic label Sugar Hill Records) before setting out to confidently recast themselves as the omnivorous music geeks they’re proud to be.
  Whether it’s contemporary folk, dreamy indie rock, sugary pop or jazz-influenced jam-music, these three extremely talented collaborators are unafraid to wear their unusually eclectic influences proudly on their sleeves – a delicate balancing act that has found them attracting a loyal, diverse following without alienating their bluegrass fanbase.
  Now, with additional Nickel Creek records (including the Grammy-winning Best Contemporary Folk album of 2003, This Side), a handful of solo discs, and numerous genre-hopping side projects (with such respected artists as Bela Fleck, Toad The Wet Sprocket’s Glen Philips, and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones) in their back catalog, the group stands at the precipice of the next stage of their professional lives.
  In anticipation of their upcoming appearance at our own Johnny Mercer Theatre, I spoke at length with the charming Sara Watkins about this career crossroads, their need to see their fans up close, and hanging out with one of the baddest keyboard guys in rock and roll.
Connect Savannah: Towns can run together when you’re on tour - what do you remember of Savannah?
Sara Watkins: Well, we’ve been there a few times, and the the first time I believe it was a Sunday, and it seemed like nothing was open! It was beautiful, though. We went to a little church, and then we couldn’t find anything to eat. (laughs) Just parks and people strolling in the old part of town. We always have a good time there. We adore the Southern cooking and the Savannah accent.
Connect Savannah: If you moved to the South, you could eat that food every day.
Sara Watkins: Well, Shawn and Chris are both from Southern California, although Chris lives in Manhattan now. Shawn and I are still in Southern California, and it would be really hard for me to leave. All my family is here. I have a wonderful relationship with the ocean. I travel around an awful lot and I have often thought, “You know, I could live here...” You go to some places repeatedly on tour and you start to find favorite little corners that you like to make sure you visit when you pass through. But, in the back of my mind, I know I can always come home. So finally, just this last year, I resolved myself to be content to remain here for a long time. I’ve just bought a house in Carlsbad that I move into in May. That’s an easy walk to the beach. I have a lot of friends there, and together we’ll have a beach cruiser bike gang! (laughs)
Connect Savannah: How is the Nickel Creek of 2006 different than before?
Sara Watkins: We’re feeling a little more solidly well acquainted with the songs. We write different sets every night, but we’ve developed a rhythm that propels the sets along in the same basic way. It changes all the time. If the audience is responsive, we might share with them a bit more. The last three shows we played in the Northwest, as soon as we walked out, the crowd stood up and came straight to the stage and stayed right there all night long. That’s awesome.
Connect Savannah: You’ve been with Sugar Hill for a few CDs now. Do you ever think you’ll go completely indie, and sell your records directly to your fans?
Sara Watkins: Who knows what’s gonna happen? (laughs) Our contract with them is up now, and we’re looking at different options. They’ve been a good label for us by and large. They’ve given us complete artistic control – which is something you simply don’t have at any major. That’s a really attractive thing. We’ve never been forced by a label person to drop a song we liked in favor of something they thought they could make into a hit – and who even knows if labels can even do that anymore, you know?
Connect Savannah: You relied on a lot of vintage gear for your last LP. What’s the benefit in using older, analog gear?  
Sara Watkins: Well, all credit sonically goes to Eric Valentine, who was the producer. He had a completely different way of mic’ing our band than we’ve ever tried before. We used one mic instead of two on most instruments. That gave it a more compact, more focused, and more dense sound. It’s a little bit of a dirtier sound – not as bright and sparkly as our previous CDs. We wanted it to sound just like it does when we’re sitting around in a room – which may be a different kind of character than we’ve achieved on record before.

Connect Savannah: I dug your version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is A Long Time.” How did you choose that song to cover?

Sara Watkins: I learned it from my brother. For three years we’ve been doing this thing we call The Watkins Family Hour about once or twice a month at a club out here called Largo. We do mostly non-Nickel Creek material. It’s been great fun. Friends come and sit in and you never know just what’s gonna happen. We get to play with some of the best musicians around – like (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ keyboardist) Benmont Tench. So, we’ve had to learn a lot of songs to do for those gigs, and that was one of them. I never thought of it as an option for Nickel Creek – but, when we were compiling a list of songs to consider, somehow that one found a home. It’s a beautiful tune that sounds very timeless.
Connect Savannah: You all stay busy with side projects and guest appearances.
Sara Watkins: Doing things with other players is a really big part of the longevity of this band. Those projects have enabled us to enjoy being individual musicians and explore ourselves in ways that might not fit the format of Nickel Creek, or the instrumentation we’ve settled on. If you wanna have playtime in your garage and use all kinds of weird keyboard sounds and play drums and everything else – you learn a lot and it opens up new options for the band as well. It’d be kind of incestuous if we weren’t allowed to express ourselves like that. (laughs) But, we’ve tried to stay focused on the fact that this band is what all our careers are made out of.
Connect Savannah: If you weren’t in Nickel Creek, what sort of a band would you want to be in - if any at all?
Sara Watkins: I’ve never really thought about that. Fiddle is definitely my main instrument. Because of that, I rely on melodies, which kind of rules out most metal music as an option. (laughs) We’re definitely “lifers.” We’re in this till the end, musically, and if the band ceased to exist, then it’ll have been an even greater thing that we’ve gotten to dip our pens into these other options.
Connect Savannah: What can folks in Savannah expect from this gig?
Sara Watkins: Tell ‘em we want ‘em to stand up and rush the stage! The promoter will love that. (laughs) We wanna see their faces. We’ll do lots of stuff off the new album (Why Should The Fire Die?), but balance out the sets with stuff from the first three CDs. We’ll probably add some covers, some solo things and a few surprises.  
Connect Savannah: Tell me more about what it’s like to jam with Benmont Tench. He always plays something just about perfect for whatever song he’s on.
Sara Watkins: That’s kind of his thing, isn’t it? He’s such a phenomenal, naturally talented player. He creates these parts in just one or two passings that are so dead-on they could become a theme! He’s one of the most tasteful musicians I’ve ever heard – and he can play the most simple three-note line and it’s absolute perfection! It’s crazy, it’s awesome, and it makes me wanna explode. I’m so happy to hear it and I can’t believe I get to stand next to him when I’m playing.

Nickel Creek plays The Johnny Mercer Theatre at 8 pm, Friday, April 28. Tickets are available at the Civic Center Box Office, online at www.savannahcivic.com, or by calling 651-6556.

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Jim Reed

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