Interview: Chris Thile

The Goat Rodeo Sessions
The Goat Rodeo Sessions
The Goat Rodeo Sessions

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile needs a drink. Since January, he has toured all over the country with his band, the Punch Brothers, recorded an album with guitarist Michael Daves (touring solo when Daves returned home for personal reasons), and collaborated on Yo-Yo Ma’s latest project, the Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks). Due out in October, the Goat Rodeo Sessions combines a group of insanely talented musicians — cellist Ma, double bassist Edgar Meyer, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and Thile — to create a fantastic concoction of genre-bending arrangements. To ease any potential chaos in the studio, Thile, also a budding mixologist, whipped up some timeless cocktails for the group of master performers. Speaking over the phone before a show in Cork, Ireland, the unassuming musician talked about his upcoming set with the Punch Brothers at this weekend’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, and explained how to make a drink for Yo-Yo Ma.

What’s a goat rodeo?
A goat rodeo is a situation — a fiercely chaotic situation — where basically everything has to go right or it will end in disaster. So we actually felt like it was a good name for our project because it was such an unlikely group of guys. The arrangements are like — what’s that game? Jenga? If one little thing doesn’t go right, it sort of creates a domino effect of things going wrong. I think certainly at the beginning it seemed very goat rodeo-ish. And the fun thing is I actually feel at the end of the project now, everything did go right, and we ended up with something really neat.

Musically, you’re all from pretty different backgrounds — did you ever bump heads in the process of making this record?
I think it was pretty seamless. The complications that you would expect — Yo-Yo coming from a fairly formal background and Stuart coming from a very informal background and Edgar and I sort of coming from an in between place … I actually think that because we’ve all been involved in so much music that’s similarly difficult to describe, we’ve cut a lot of those problems off at the pass in other projects. So even the parts that were maybe temporarily uncomfortable were comfortable because we’ve gotten used to some of that stuff.

Have you talked about doing a tour together?
Yeah, we have! I think we will.

I heard you were making cocktails in the studio. What does Yo-Yo like to drink?
What I’ve been making for Yo-Yo is a Negroni, which is equal parts gin, a good sweet vermouth — I recommend Carpano Antico — and Campari. And that’s always stirred, never shaken, served either off or on the rocks with an orange twist.

1 ½ oz. sweet vermouth
1 ½ oz Campari
1 ½ oz gin

How did you get into mixology?
There’s the bar in New York City called Milk and Honey. A buddy of mine took me there and I said, ‘Really, I don’t like cocktails, I’d rather have a whiskey neat or a beer or a glass of wine or something.’ and they said, ‘OK, we’ve got just the thing.’ They came back with this drink that was absolutely amazing called an American Trilogy, and I was a changed man. I’ve been trying to do it at home but mostly trying to learn from Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy at Milk and Honey, who have become very dear friends.

Considering the deep-rooted American tradition of bluegrass, what kinds of cocktails can a mandolin virtuoso enjoy?
For the longest time it was just whiskey stirred. I just wanted strong whiskey drinks in the old fashioned or Manhattan family. Then finally I started doing some whiskey drinks that have citrus in them. The Negroni — that drink I was telling you about — that was the drink that got me on team gin, so I started trying gin stirred and gin shaken and then after that … I’ve always loved cognac, so I started asking the boys at the Honey for some cognac-based cocktails and there are some absolutely brilliant ones. The Trilogy is a Milk and Honey original, although you’re starting to be able to get Trilogies all over the place because it’s a great drink.

American Trilogy
1 oz Rye
1 oz Laird’s Bonded Applejack Brandy
2 dashes of orange bitters
Brown sugar cube
Muddle bitters and sugar, add rye and brandy, garnish with an orange peel. Add ice and stir.

You played at Hardly Strictly last year with the Punch Brothers and T-Bone Burnett. Is there anything you’re looking forward to about this year?
Just playing in Golden Gate Park is so amazing. It was so beautiful, just the whole vibe at that festival. With it being free, it just seems like the milk of human kindness is overflowing for a hot second. I love that aspect of it.

Do you have any favorite spots in San Francisco?
My favorite restaurant in the city for the longest time was Quince. It moved and I haven’t been to the new location yet. but I’m looking forward to that. Rosamunde in the Lower Haight just kills me — I love going there and taking it next door and having a beer at Toronado. As for cocktails, I really love how low-key and unassuming Absinthe is. They free-pour instead of using jiggers, but they do a pretty good job. They have a hell of a good Sazerac cocktail. I just can’t believe the free-pouring good Sazeracs there.

Aren’t you exhausted?
I think the next proper day off at home is in December. I’ve got a lot on my plate, but I like it that way and I do it to myself.

How are the cocktails in Ireland?
I was instructed by those two bartenders that I mentioned before — Sammy and Mickey — or Michael, as he’s formally known. Anyway, Mickey is Irish and he told me not to have cocktails here, he said keep it to Guinness and whiskey. And so, I have dutifully done that.

See the article in SF Weekly.