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By Andy Argyrakis
Interview with Sean Watkins|
Roots rock/alternative country
combiners Nickel Creek say "farewell" for now
Aug. 8, 2007
The origins of folk/roots rock/alternative country act Nickel Creek date back to a humble and happenstance meeting at a 1989 bluegrass concert staged in a San Diego pizza parlor. Brother/sister combo Sean and Sara Watkins may have both been pre-teenagers, though music was always on their minds, a trait shared with newly found pal at the time Chris Thile. Each youngster also possessed the ability to play acoustic instruments, a catalyst that eventually led to collaborations on the local concert trail, sharing harmony vocals with Sean on guitar, Sara on fiddle and Chris on mandolin. Fast forward nearly a decade later when country/roots queen Alison Krauss discovered the teenagers, helped land the band a record deal with Sugar Hill (also the home of Dolly Parton) and produced Nickel Creek's official debut disc.
From then until now, the group's garnered a Grammy Award, toured the globe over numerous times (including a stint with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones in side project Mutual Admiration Society) and performed at some of the world's most prominent festivals (from Chicago's own Lollapalooza to the U.K.'s Cambridge Folk Festival). Despite all the acclaim and attention, this summer's tour with alternative chanteuse Fiona Apple will be the threesome's last in the foreseeable future, which Sean explains in full detail, along with Nickel Creek's diverse sonic spread on its most recent release Why Should the Fire Die? (Sugar Hill) and what members have in the works after this season settles down.
Livewire: When did the decision come about to say goodbye?
Sean: About a year ago, we decided it was time to give Nickel Creek a break. We were thinking about making another record, didn't really have the songs for it and were still worn out from the last record. It was great, but to do it all over again was a pretty daunting feeling. Originally we were going to name this summer's dates the "Victory Lap Tour," but our managers thought that would sound presumptuous and boastful. But we may run again someday, so we're calling it the "Farewell (For Now) Tour." It's a great way to do things we haven't done before and take chances without any repercussions. We don't have to play all the songs from our latest record because there's no expectations at this point. We can really do what we want!
Livewire: What types of tricks can we expect on your set list?
Sean: Nickel Creek plays a different set every night. I don't know how this tour will go, especially with how [guest artist] Fiona Apple will be integrated. We're still working all that out, but we'll probably start out, have her come out in the middle and then have a lot of collaborating on our songs, a lot of hers, plus some standards or ones we all know.
Livewire: How did you guys get hooked up with Fiona Apple?
Sean: Sara and I met her at a club back home and it was so fun to hear her playing on old folk songs. We all meet in the area of loving music and loving to play live. [Given her start in the alternative rock scene] people really don't know that side of her as much, but she's an amazing musician all around. She can cover an old standard or sing jazz, but she's also a roots and folk fan.
Livewire: How has the band been able to cross so many stylistic borders over the years?
Sean: We grew up playing bluegrass, but our listening diversified over the years and we realized instruments were pretty transferable to different genres [like country, roots rock or indie rock] and we could do anything we wanted to do- aside from rap or heavy metal. We've played outside the box and experimented a lot throughout the years and it's been very fun to try and blend so many genres together.
Livewire: What was it like connecting with Alison Krauss in your early days?
Sean: Alison is great. She produced our first couple records and having her name attached was definitely huge. She's been invaluable to us in that way! As an artist, her songs reach people of all persuasions. She's kind of broken the mold, blazed trails and made it easier for bands like us do able to do this now.
Livewire: In your opinion, what are the differences between commercial and alternative country?
Sean: The country genre, like all genres, are so huge these days. Look at Country Music Television- they can play us and Alison and then Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. It's definitely a broad spectrum, but it also exists within pop and rock maybe to ever wider degrees. Within country, you're going to have a lot of people going against the plastic, static feel of pop country radio and possibly connect to a group like Nickel Creek or Alison because it feels more real.
Livewire: How are you able to switch between such diverse audiences as Lollapalooza and Merlefest?
Sean: It feels very good to be able to cross boundaries that don't get crossed that much and all I can say is I'm really grateful to those audiences! We'll go to an event like [the more alternative/indie rock minded] Lollapalooza and then the [country focused] Merlefest and be accepted with both audiences. We try to definitely cater to what we think would be best for an audience, but we also do the same as it varies from theatre to club night to night.
Livewire: What's been your personal highlight reel with the band up until this point?
Sean: Winning the Grammy was pretty exciting, but there have been so many I don't really know where to start. Early on we were able to play with all the great bluegrass people- Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer. Now we're doing some shows with Glen Phillips from Toad the Wet Sprocket and then Fiona Apple is coming in cities like Chicago. It's hard to name all the musical encounters, but one thing we never really would've expected was meeting Monica Lewinsky the other day. It's probably not the best answer to give, but it seriously sounds like something you'd explain to someone that you dreamt about. But it really happened and she was very nice and there are a lot of other surreal experiences I can't think of at the moment.
Livewire: What future projects and plans can we expect from the members of Nickel Creek?
Sean: I'm working on a little EP at home with six or seven stripped down bluegrass songs, maybe with me and Sara. It's going to go back to the basics like how we first started- a couple of originals and a couple of old fiddle tunes. I also started a project with Switchfoot's Jon Foreman, who lives about five or ten minutes from me in San Diego. Our bands met when we were playing a street fair with Wilco and R.E.M. and we've been friends ever since...It's a nice blend between the two bands, a very energetic feel, but also very strange and organic. Chris will be on the road and recording with his solo band. Sara is also going to be recording a solo record this winter.