Chris Thile Talks Earning MacArthur "Genius Grant"

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When renowned mandolin player Chris Thile first started getting phone calls from an unknown Chicago number, it was like something straight out of a movie—but not one of those warm, fuzzy ones with happy endings. After Thile ignored many calls and a received a few cryptic voicemails, this briefly turned into the moments of which cringe-worthy horror flick moments are made. It wasn’t long before Thile finally got the call that stirred him enough to speak up to his tour manager.

“People call every now and then asking me to play on their record,” said Thile, who is best known for his work with Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. “So I just thought it was sort of a dramatic way to ask me to play on their record, and there is no way I am calling this person back. The only record I play on is if I know the number [Laughs]. So then it was like they had forgotten and then the same number called again and leaves another message, this time saying ‘Don’t tell anyone about this call.’ At that point I got freaked out because that is the kind of call people get before they get shot—at least in the movies.”

After his manager did a Google search for the number, it turned out that was a call Thile really, really would have liked to pick up much sooner. It was from a representative with the MacArthur Foundation, a notoriously private organization that awards “genius grants” yearly. The grant pays $500,000 over the course of five years with no strings attached to the award winner.

“I went white and felt absolutely crazy,” Thile said. “Then I calmed myself down, realizing maybe they just wanted me to confirm someone else or recommend someone else for the award.”

But they weren’t calling Thile for a confirmation or recommendation; This caller was trying to get in touch with Thile to let him know he’d just been awarded the grant. And one reason Thile understood the weight of this award was because it was also given to someone important in his life: His longterm mentor Edgar Meyer, a bass virtuoso who received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2002.

“That was a pretty sweet aspect,” Thile said. “When he found out, he was very proud of me. He and I have made a lot of music together. We were joking around like ‘We need to get this show back on the road because now we got a real shtick now.’”

As for Thile’s plans with the grant, he’s not solidified anything quite yet. Although he was quoted in an Associated Press article stating that he would use the money to fund a chamber music project for a bluegrass quintet, Thile said that was a mix-up. The idea he has kicking around in his mind right now, Thile tells Paste, is to gather a group of “the best fucking musicians ever” to work on a project that would exist with little regard to genre or the preconceived notions that might go with it.

“I feel like [musical genres are] a completely antiquated notion and one that only has a negative influence on the creation of meaningful music,” Thile said. “I would love to make a record with all the people that I have run into that really, really inspire me, that just drag music out of me, I love that feeling like music is almost just pouring out of you because of what musicians you are around cause you feel.”

“I also think I might get a mandolin,” Thile added, laughing.

Although it will be a while before we ultimately hear anything from from Thile’s latest project, you can read our review of Punch Brothers’ fantastic Who’s Feeling Young Now? right here, and keep checking back for updates on his latest work.