Nickel Creek Reconvene to Discuss Their 20th Anniversary Vinyl Campaign, Early Fashion Mishaps and Reunion Hopes

In a rollicking Q&A, Chris Thile, Sara Watkins and Sean Watkins talk about youthful indiscretions with AutoTune and sweater vests, which cocktails their albums would be, if an album could be an adult beverage... and why, after six years apart, the fire hasn't died.

Nickel Creek Reconvene to Talk Vinyl
Brantley Gutierrez

There are so many musical events that should have happened in 2020 that everyone is already mourning, what’s the point in bringing to light something that the general public didn’t even know it were missing? But let’s do that anyway: As it turns out, had the year proceeded as loosely planned, Nickel Creek would have had a chance to attend some reunion gigs by the celebrated alternative-bluegrass-folk-rock trio. That’s one revelation that came out of the three members’ exclusive joint interview with Variety.

But the 20th anniversary of their self-titled breakthrough album, which went platinum after its 2000 release, is not going uncommemorated. This week, Craft Recordings, which acquired the group’s Sugar Hill catalog, announced plans to release all three of their albums on that label — including 2002’s gold-selling, Grammy-winning “This Side” and 2005’s “Why Should the Fire Die?” — as two-LP sets on 45rpm, 180-gram vinyl mastered by Chris Bellman, as well as in high-resolution digital audio files for the first time. The digital release will come Oct. 2; the LP packages are due Nov. 6, with pre-orders available here. (A subsequent album they made in 2014 after a long layoff, “A Dotted Line,” was recorded for Nonesuch and is not part of the campaign.)

It’s been six years since the band toured as a unit, with all three musical omnivores involved in a slew of other projects in the meantime: Chris Thile’s work with the Punch Brothers and the classical-bluegrass crossover combo Goat Rodeo, which just released a second album; Sara Watkins’ and Sean Watkins’ participation in a collective with Watkins Family Hour albums and live shows as well as solo LPs. But from the sound of our phone call with the three of them, even if this pandemic lasts for a while, they aren’t about to let the fire die when it comes to reforming as a performing unit (as they informally did on occasion when Thile was hosting the “Live From Here” radio show).

And if they don’t reunite for shows, they could always just do a great roundtable reunion tour, given the ease with how they still riff off one another on subjects like Y2K bad-hair years, why vinyl still matters, and what it’ll be like when shows resume. Their early Alison Krauss-produced albums may have seen them riding, along with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” on the crest of the great bluegrass scare of the early ’00s, but their progressive tendencies could augur for music that’s relevant into the roaring ’20s and beyond.

VARIETY: Is it fair to say that you guys are pleased that this core part of your catalog fell into hands where they want to do something special with it?

Chris Thile: Hell, yeah. And it’s also utterly got the emotions that one has when seeing the pictures from that time. The hair, especially for me, at least – boy oh boy.

Sean Watkins: Dude, you were fine. I think in general, you know, the early 2000s, there was like this hangover from the ‘90s for the first years of the 2000s.

Chris: And especially in Nashville. I feel like having those photo shoots done in Nashville, in retrospect, maybe wasn’t… [Laughter]

Lazy loaded image
Nickel Creek’s self-titled 2000 album cover… the revised edition Courtesy Craft Recordings

Sara Watkins: Thank goodness we’re not using the first cover off the first album.

Chris: Oh boy. Yes, that’s true. There was an even dicier cover the first time around on the first record that they had the good sense to take a Mulligan on that. Maybe we got a little bit closer the second time.

Sean: I think that with Sugar Hill, if they made an album that sold 5,000, that was a big slam dunk for them.

Chris: Yeah, that was a cause for a cocktail party at that point.

Sean: Once they started selling a little bit more than their typical thing, I think they were like, “Hey now, let’s rethink how this looks here.”

Sara: I bet it was some young intern who was like, “You know this photo sucks, right?”

Lazy loaded image
The quickly withdrawn album cover for Nickel Creek’s self-titled 2000 album

Chris: “You know that the music is way better than this picture, right?” Don’t get too hard on my JC Penney sweater vest, though. That was quite the article of clothing. It was corduroy for days back then for me.

Sean: Are you having fun, listening to us talk about styles of the early 2000s? Be honest.

Sure, turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia is fascinating in all its forms.

Chris: What we’re really trying to do is distract people from the amount of AutoTune that I can hear on the first record. This is all diversion tactics. “Oh, their hair is so bad! Oh my God!” Meanwhile… It’s not AutoTune used for effect. It was AutoTune because we couldn’t quite sing in tune back then. You know, I think in retrospect I would prefer the pitchiness. Now that people are acquiring a little bit of nostalgia for something that happened as recently as the early 2000s, it’s going to be interesting to hear things like AutoTune again used not for effect, but rather in sort of like the way that one uses a concealer. And to hear that on vinyl, as opposed to CD, is going to be a new experience for me, I think. [Laughter.] But it is fun and it’s a trip, the idea that someone would re-issue something that we made –- like, that’s crazy. I’m into it.

Sara: It’s a huge honor. I mean, honestly, it really is. … And the fact that it’s three records that the label feels are enough of a unit in terms of significance, that’s incredible. What is also crazy is that each record is so different … The second record I think we like to feel like is a pretty adolescent effort. And the third one would have been, too, except we were prevented from making a record for a little bit of time, thank God. And it really felt like we got somewhere when we landed on “The Fire Die.”

Chris: Like Sara says, the first record almost is childhood, and the second one is adolescence. And the third one is early adulthood.

Sara: The first record is like that family portrait, where your parents put you in like nice clothes that you never, ever, ever wore, and everything is matching. Everything is as close to the picture of a perfect family as possible, for that one portrait that doesn’t necessarily represent you in completeness.

Chris: The second one is like, you show up to the family portrait for the first time without being dressed by your folks. And some of the musical awkwardness of the second one…

Sean: Yeah, the second one is like, “F— you, mom, I’m going to wear this shirt I got at the dime store!”

Chris: And oh, maybe I just got my tongue pierced, I don’t know.

Sean: All joking aside, with it being 20 years since that first record came out, it’s nice to have something to mark the occasion. Earlier this year, an NPR article came out about how our first record came out 20 years ago. And I think Sara, Chris and I had texted or emailed around that time going, “Was that 20 years ago? That’s crazy. Should we do something?” And we wanted to mark the occasion somehow…

Sara: We were going to do a tour this summer.

Sean: Yeah, actually, we were going to do a few (dates), or like a festival and something else. But anyway, this is a nice little something to sort of mark the occasion of that first record.

We were wondering if any sort of anniversary tour or anything had come up. But then obviously, it doesn’t matter now.

Chris: Nothing matters anymore! As you say that, I literally passed a sign on the outside of this family’s brownstone that just says: “It is what it is.”

Sean: It’s a God thing. Okay? That’s what’s happening right now. [Laughter.] God is saying: “Just give up. Give up now. Quit trying. There’s no point.” … No. Not true!

But “21st” or “22nd anniversary tour” has a nice ring to it, too. 

Sean: Sure. I mean, at this point we can find an anniversary for anything. Just general celebration is called for next year, hopefully.

Sara: I think whenever we do something again, it’ll just be a celebration of doing something again.

Aside from the first record’s AutoTune, are you guys into the 45 rpm for the heavyweight vinyl pressing and the high resolution for the digital audio? Does that matter to you?

Chris: I love all that. But I’ve got to say, to me, it’s more about the user experience than it is about the actual sound of vinyl, especially on records that have ever been inside a computer at any point in their lives. Because then, it’s a different thing that you’re doing at that point. I, at least, get chills and shivers when I hear like an old jazz record on a good turntable. And I don’t mean like a remastered one, or a reissue. I’m talking like an actual old one that never made it inside of the computer —never had the wave form squared off. I think that’s something that people forget a little bit about vinyl, is that [on records that weren’t analog every step of the process] you’re still going to be hearing computer mastering, and you’re just going to be hearing it with what vinyl actually sounds like added to that. But I still feel like there’s something so magical about going and buying a vinyl record, opening that sucker, putting it on, and having to sit there until the halfway point and then flip it over. I think that’s so magical that I honestly do not care what it sounds like. I want that experience. Because music is so easy to listen to right now that we devalue it. And you don’t devalue it when you spent 25 bucks or whatever it is and then you have to sit there and flip it over at the halfway point. You’ll take a second and let it sink into you.

Sara: I have a hard time remembering what I want to listen to. I have to make a note of whose record just came out that I want to listen to — even my friends’ records. I find myself not listening more than once or twice to a lot of things. But what I remember about some of my favorite music listening experiences was there’s a finite amount of things that I can listen to, so I listened more often and I listened on repeat. If you only had 25 or 30 CDs in your car, then you just would put those in. And there’s a (different) way of devouring that happens when you find more and more things (to stream) even worthwhile records. Especially during COVID, we’ve been listening to a lot more vinyl, because it’s an event, and it’s something to do. And it’s a little bit of ceremony in this time that is completely void of ceremony — in our house, anyway. And so it has regained a really important place in our house lately.

Sean: Also, with what Chris was just saying about music being too easy… The way we listen to music today reminds me how multisensory it is. I remember how the jacket would smell; even with CDs and tapes, I remember the (smell of the) glue, and reading the credits. Obviously it’s music first and foremost, but it’s also a whole lot of sights, you know? Especially now that we can’t go to shows, we realize how valuable it is watching someone as they’re doing the music. And I think that vinyl reminds us that music is more than just a sound that lives inside an app on your phone, which you can listen to on demand at any time.

Chris: That to me is the great gift of vinyl, the reminder that listening to music can be the only thing that you’re doing. It is a thing that you can do by itself. It’s not, what are you gonna put on while you’re making dinner? What are you going to put on while you’re having cocktails with your friends? It’s like, what are you just going to sit down and just listen to right now?

Sara: So I guess what we’re saying is, listen to the first record while you’re cleaning your house. Listen to the second record while you’re making dinner. And then listen to the third record when you’re done and just sitting on the couch.

Chris: When  you turn the lights down low, make yourself some cocktails…

Sean: If the third record is like the cocktail of the three albums, what cocktail?

Chris: Ooh, that’s a good question… And it’s gotta be a three-ingredient one, right? It’s gotta be slightly self-referential.

Sean: Yeah. We can think on that. We don’t have to figure it out now.

Chris: No, let’s figure it out. This is important. [Laughter.]

Sara: How many ingredients in a penicillin?

Lazy loaded image
Nickel Creeks “Why Should the Fire Die?” Courtesy Craft Recordings

Chris: I think Sara’s call is a good one… that it would be a penicillin would make a lot of sense. We were drinking a lot of scotch back then. And the smokiness is kind of a late-night thing. So maybe we can bail on the three-ingredient thing and make it a penicillin. In a penicillin, the chipperness of youth is represented in the lemon juice, I would say. Even though we were starting to get some angst around then and starting to feel some life… And the scotch base, that’s just what was happening. When you’re talking about the combo of honey ginger syrup, though, I liken that as being like a transition from fundamentalist Christianity to something else.

Sara: That’s for sure the second record. It’s not quite one thing; it’s not quite the other.

Chris: Wait, so do you think the penicillin can be the cocktail for all three records? Like if you’re listening to ‘em back to back to back? [Laughter.] I don’t know about you, but my cocktail isn’t going to last me that long.

Sara: It always did feel to me like, after “Why Should the Fire Die?” and after the touring behind that, when we all worked on different projects, it felt like we were graduating from college and saying like, “Okay, what can you do with everything you’ve learned now? Like, how do you apply that to your life? What do you do now with all that experience?” And so this metaphor works completely with the whole progression of the band, too. Growing up together, the first record was this naivete of going to high school together and literally graduating high school and making that record — or homeschool high school. And then in the second record, sort of feeling like you know some stuff, but you probably don’t. And then the third record, you have a chance to take what you learned and apply it.

With the initial 2000 album, you mentioned that it would be like a cause for celebration for the label if it would have sold 5,000 albums. Do you remember the moment at which everybody kind of became aware that this is not like our little niche, bluegrass festival project or something?

Chris: Was it “plaque-aroni,” you guys? The plaque-aroni that our publicist Kim Fowler made for us? Gold-plated macaroni, obviously not real gold, but like golden macaroni. It turned out that we had sold 100,000 records, and that was crazy at that point. And I remember she was like, “Well, they don’t make an official thing for this. So I made you one out of macaroni.” I wonder who has it now.

Sean: Those first times when that stuff happens, it’s like a drug. It doesn’t really get better than those first little milestones that happen.

Sara: I remember, the first show that we ever did that was just our show in this little 200-seat theater, after just playing festivals. I remember walking up and down the center aisle and feeling like, “People are going to be in these seats just to see us.” It was a real marker for me.

Chris: It’s all going to feel like that again! You’re going to get that first-time charge out of it, when we all get to play our first normal show. In a way, I mean, I wonder if it will be mitigated somewhat by, like: Is it a slow trickle back and you get like a tiny taste of how it was, and then a little bit bigger taste, and then a big taste, so then it doesn’t feel that special? I still think that when you play your first show that feels like it did before all of this, that it’s going to be like that feeling was for you, Sara.

Sean:  I think the audience of people out there that are going to go see shows, everyone’s going to have their own experience coming back, their own first time back watching a show. And that might be early on; that might be later. It depends on the band they see and the venue they go to. But I mean, I’m hoping that we keep up the excitement for a while. We don’t just flip back right into it and take it for granted like we did before. I’m hoping that’s the case.

Chris: I think this is traumatic enough to where I would venture to say that I don’t think we’ll ever take it for granted again. We’re going to at least remind ourselves, after instances of taking it for granted, not to take it for granted.

Sean: There’ll be like an accountability. Like if one of us kind of gets a little too taking it for granted, it’s like, “Hey. Covid, bro. Don’t forget. Never forget.”

It’s good to know there may be chances to see you play together again. There’s still clearly a lot of camaraderie on this call.

Sean: It’s indelibly part of who we are at this point, thank God.

Chris: And it just clicks right back in. It’s actually like you’ve stepped onto the bus mid-tour. That’s how it feels to me.

Sean: I also think we’re all really learning to appreciate things. I think that that being  able to be in a band that has been around as long as we have, and we still love hanging out and talking to each other, that’s a really cool and very special thing. And very few people have it. A lot of times it’s like, things go sour, and it’s like it was good once upon a time, but now it’s gone. And I really appreciate the fact that we still have fun, even just like this on the phone — it’s just a really cool thing.