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Mon November 21, 2011
Music Interviews

Yo-Yo Ma's Bluegrass-Inspired 'Goat Rodeo'

Originally published on Tue November 22, 2011 1:27 pm

A sense of humor comes through The Goat Rodeo Sessions, the latest Americana exploration for the world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He's joined by three other virtuosos, all in the world of bluegrass: Nashville bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, Nashville session player and fiddler Stuart Duncan and, at 30, the youngest of the bunch, mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.

What's a "goat rodeo," you may ask? Thile says it's an aviation term "where so many things ... go wrong that you need to go right for everything to turn out not utterly disastrous."

"We kind of felt a kinship with that concept," Thile says in an interview and performance with All Things Considered host Melissa Block.

Ma says the album title, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, came about because so many of the songs' working titles had the word "rodeo" attached to them. When Thile looked up "goat rodeo" one day, he says, they thought, "Gee, that's a version of us."

"Everybody could be a leader or everybody could be a follower at various times," Ma says. "And I think the vast amounts of fun that we have — which is, for me, that's the goat rodeo part: How can we ever get any work done when we're laughing all of the time? That's actually the part that we love the most. It's a great balance between the two."

Poking A Bow In The Ear

That fun extends beyond the studio to live shows. Bows get poked into fellow members' ears during performances, while the band sometimes writes lyrics to instrumental songs that, Ma jokingly says, "you'll never, ever hear."

"Part of having fun ... I think Stuart [Duncan] said something very interesting. He said that some of the best playing that he feels he has done was when he wasn't focused on himself, on trying to get something right," Ma says. "The idea of poking a bow in someone's ear, for example, while [he's] about to do something serious actually makes him not think about the seriousness of what he's about to do, which actually releases him to do what he needs to do."

With all four musicians in a circle, The Goat Rodeo Sessions was recorded at James Taylor's barn studio in Massachusetts.

"Because we were using the overhead microphones, for a balance, we were talking about maybe the mandolin being on up risers so that it was equal with the violin as far as how close it was to the overheads," Duncan says. "Upon hearing this, James Taylor goes down in his shop and builds a five-by-five riser for Chris [Thile] to sit on. You think about one of the world's greatest finger-picking guitarists with a power saw in his hand."

"I'd like to think of it as James Taylor putting me on a pedestal," Thile says, laughing.

School Of Fish

Edgar Meyer says working in a tight circle affects each member's playing.

"That's actually an aesthetic that we want, both in the local sense of one measure or one phrase, but also in the longer sense of a year or two years," Meyer says. "You want to come out different people than when you walked in."

"We all like to go to the edge," Ma adds. "And we like to take calculated risks to go to the edge. And all of us, in some weird way, are also perfectionist[s], so the tension between the two is what we play off of each other. Therefore, the visual cues. Therefore, the tight quarters. So when somebody does something that you know is special to them or going in a different direction, we almost intuitively will follow. It's like a school of fish, you know; suddenly they will turn direction. And that's part of the thing that makes a performance or music come alive."

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Transcript

CHRIS THILE: One, two, one, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTER CHICKEN DARK")

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're listening to a performance here in our studios from a quartet of stellar musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTER CHICKEN DARK")

BLOCK: Yo-Yo Ma on cello. He's joined by three other virtuosos with roots in the world of bluegrass, Nashville musician and composer Edgar Meyer on bass. On fiddle, the renowned Nashville session player Stuart Duncan. And at 30, the youngster of the bunch, mandolinist Chris Thile, of the alt-bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTER CHICKEN DARK")

BLOCK: Ma, Meyer, Duncan and Thile have played in various combinations over the years, but never all four of them together until now on a new project called "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." They came by to talk about the collaboration and we'll hear a full-length performance of another tune, in a few minutes.

This one is called "Quarter Chicken Dark." And, as you can tell by that title, the four musicians bring a sense of humor with them. They clearly are having a blast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTER CHICKEN DARK")

BLOCK: The tune "Quarter Chicken Dark" from Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Welcome to all of you. Thanks for coming in.

THILE: Thanks so much for having us, Melissa.

YO-YO MA: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You just did a salute with bows at the end of that...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THILE: Yes, that's called "Where's My Bow?"

"Where's My Bow?"

Yes.

BLOCK: I was going to say by the words, my bow technique does put you at a disadvantage, as the mandolin player. Where's my pick doesn't quite do it.

THILE: In fact, at one point we did a salute at the end of a take that they were filming. And they had actually sort of crossed bows - Three Musketeers style - and I guess may be my role is like D'Artagnan or something. And so, I tried to get the pick and it actually fell out of my fingers and it was so - it was a traumatic experience for me.

BLOCK: The mandolin pick fell out of your hand.

THILE: The mandolin pick fell to the ground.

BLOCK: Humiliating.

THILE: It was shameful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THILE: This is a shameful way of getting sound out of a string. Look at how - it's so small and insignificant in comparison.

EDGAR MEYER: And so precise.

MA: I'm glad you said that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I think we're verging on some mandolin jokes here, if we're not careful.

THILE: Right.

BLOCK: Could be trouble. "Goat Rodeo," what exactly is the goat rodeo? Chris Thile?

THILE: It means it's an aviation term, I guess, where so many loose ends, so many things that could go wrong that you need to go right for everything to turn out not utterly disastrous. And we kind of felt a kinship with that concept.

BLOCK: And did it spring up organically, Yo-Yo, from the sessions or what?

MA: I think so because so many of the songs, their working titles, had rodeo attached to it. So, we had "Irish Rodeo." We had all kinds of rodeos. And then there was a "Goat Rodeo," and Chris looked it up one day and we thought, gee, that's a version of us. It's kind of everybody could be a leader or everybody could be a follower at various times.

And I think the vast amounts of fun that we have, which is, for me, that's the goat rodeo part. How can we ever get any work done...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MA: ...when we're laughing all of the time? And that's actually the part that we love the most. It's a great balance between the two.

BLOCK: Well, would you play another tune for us? What would you like to do?

THILE: "Atta Boy."

MA: That'll work.

THILE: One, two, one, two, three...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ATTA BOY")

BLOCK: I'm talking with Chris Thile, Edgar Meyers, Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma. And that's the song "Atta Boy" from "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Tell me some stories from your recording sessions. I'm trying to figure out who was playing, not which part on an instrument, but which parts are in the room.

MEYER: When you've been trying to conduct an interview about a fairly serious subject, have you ever had somebody take a bow and stick it in your ear?

BLOCK: I've never have, Edgar Meyer. If it happened today, I'm thinking.

MEYER: You haven't.

THILE: Right. Well, see, if it sounds appealing maybe you should join our band.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THILE: Because that sort of thing happens quite regularly.

MA: Yes. And what's...

THILE: We write new lyrics to the instrumental songs.

MA: That's true. And some you will never ever hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MA: But I think part of having fun is - and I think Stuart said something very interesting, he said some of the best playing that he feels that he has done was when he wasn't focused on himself, on trying to get something right. And the idea of poking a bow in someone's ear, for example, while they're about to do something serious actually makes you not think about the seriousness of what they're about to do, which actually releases them to do what they need to do.

BLOCK: That's your story and you're sticking to it?

MA: I'm sticking to that. Absolutely.

THILE: Although I have to say to Stuart...

BLOCK: To Stuart...

THILE: ...being the one with the ear in this scenario and the bow being a cello bow, at the time, it didn't seem like...

BLOCK: I think we know who's being poked.

THILE: ...a great idea. But in retrospect, it actually probably helped me.

BLOCK: You're playing here in our studio in a really tight circle - the four of you. When you recorded the album, which was at James Taylor's barn studio in the Berkshires, I gather. Was it a similar situation to this? Were you all crowded around?

MA: Very similar.

STUART DUNCAN: Very similar.

BLOCK: Edgar Meyer?

MEYER: With us in a tight circle, we all affect each other's playing very much. That's actually an aesthetic that we want, both, you know, in the local sense of one measure or one phrase, but also in the longer sense of a year or two years when, you know - want to come out different people than they walked in.

BLOCK: How does that work, Yo-Yo Ma, affecting the play of the other players when you're playing this close?

MA: We all like to go to the edge and we like to take calculated risks to go to the edge and all of us, in some weird way, is probably also a bit of a perfectionist. So, the tension between the two is what we play off of in each other. Therefore, the visual cues, therefore the tight quarters. So, when somebody does something that you know is special to them or different or they're going into a different direction, we almost intuitively will follow. It's like a school of fish. You know, suddenly, they will turn direction and that's part of the thing that makes, I think, a performance or music come alive.

BLOCK: Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." Thanks to all of you for coming in. And it's been such a great time having you here.

DUNCAN: Thanks for having us, Melissa.

MA: Thanks, Melissa.

MEYER: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: And would you play us out with something?

DUNCAN: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "LESS IS MOI")

BLOCK: That tune, titled "Less is Moi" from Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyers, Stuart Duncan and Chris Thile. Their new project is "The Goat Rodeo Sessions." And you can watch them perform at NPR in what we call A Tiny Desk Concert. That's at NPRMusic.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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