by Mallika Rao
October 4, 2012
At 31, Chris Thile is special in an already special circle: the mandolinist who first won awards as part of the Grammy-winning trio Nickel Creek is this years youngest MacArthur genius. The annual fellowship grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation gifts $500,000 to each genius to spend as his or her genius dictates — pretty good pocket change for someone who hasn’t even been out of college a decade.
In the face of such a high-stakes tradition, it might be tempting to try to adopt sang froid. But Thile isn’t shy about grinning through the confetti. Sitting next to Junot Diaz and across from Charlie Rose this week, Thile beamed and ran overtime with every one of his exuberantly gestured thoughts, while Diaz, the 43-year-old writer of the moment who also made this year’s cut, spoke in flawless metaphors and kept still. More than equals, they resembled the Karate Kid and Mr. Miyagi.
Thile might extend the student-sensei analogy to his relationship with all 22 of his new cohorts. When the composer spoke with The Huffington Post this Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the normally top secret list leaked, he talked of a “dauntingly lofty” new personal bar, swearing to us multiple times up and down that he’s going to “try so hard to live up” to the standards of a group that includes a neurosurgeon and a telescope designer in its varied ranks. Did you hear that, doubters? Read on for the rest of what Thile said, including what it physically felt like to get the life-changing news, why he kept dodging the call, and his plans for all that cash.
HP: How does it feel to be a genius?
CT: Im feeling pretty spectacular.
HP: How did you find out the news?
CT: The call started while my mother was driving me from my folks’ place in Vernon, Kentucky to Nashville, where Punch Brothers [Thile’s new band] had a gig. It was a strange number. I felt like it was a ‘make sure to vote’ robot. In my mind, I was like, ‘Dont worry. Im going to vote. Everythings cool!’ Eventually Daniel Socolow — the director of the Fellowship — he left a message just saying his name, which I didnt recognize from anything, and saying he had something of interest to discuss with me.
Im a musician, so a lot of times when people leave messages like that, they’ve gotten my number through a friend and want me to play on their record or something. So I wasnt even going to call back, but then he called me again — at this point, my mom had already dropped me off in Nashville — and he left a message saying, ‘Dont tell anyone about this call.’ Anyone whos seen any television knows you get that call right before getting shot. So the first thing I did was show it to someone. I played it for my tour manager. He googled the number and said, ‘It appears to be from the MacArthur Foundation.’
Right then, I felt like an eighth of a person. I was in a state. A total state. I imagine it could be called hyperventilating. I thought, ‘Wait, this cant be about me. They want me to confirm or recommend a buddy, or maybe the Foundation does other stuff that Im not thinking about, NPR or PBS stuff — This program has been made possible by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, you know.
I called back, and the secretary said, ‘Hell call you within five to 15 minutes.’ And Im freaking out. The boys actually took [and Tweeted] a picture of me laying down in the dressing room.
HP: When did all this happen?
CT: About two weeks ago.
HP: So you weren’t expecting the news at all? You didn’t have the date of the MacArthur announcement circled in red on your calendar?
CT: You dont apply. It literally comes out of the clear blue sky. You get nominated, youre not made aware that youve been nominated. No one tells you. Its completely bizarre, a total hyperventilating situation. I play mandolin. I grew up going to bluegrass festivals — and granted Ive been an ambitious little fucker since I was five — but this is bizarre. Its bizarre, and its wonderful and its inspiring and its terrifying.
CT: Im afraid Im not able to articulate it better.
HP: Do you know who nominated you?
CT: They dont ever want you to know. Everyone who nominates and confirms is sworn to secrecy. I think occasionally people kind of cant hold on to the secret, but my buddy Edgar [Meyer], he won it several years back, and he doesnt know who nominated him. In an age where nothing is secret anymore, the MacArthur Foundation is really bringing it on the magical front.
HP: Now that you are $500,000 heavier, how to you plan to lose the weight?
CT: A very small allocation will go to some incredibly nice liquor to enjoy with dearest friends and family and collaborators. And then I think I may buy myself a little mandolin present. The one I have my eye on is a 1924 Gibson F5. It has a curly maple back and sides and the top of it is Adirondack Spruce. Its a lot of mandolin.
HP: What does that mean?
CT: Its just an absolute hoss, as we say in the bluegrass world. The box just explodes with sound. It matches you stroke for stroke. What caught my eye is its two serial numbers away from mine. Its the same batch probably, on the workbench. And a buddy of mine owns the mandolin in between the two.
HP: Have you been able to play it yet?
CT: Its with me right now. Im looking at it in its case. Ive basically bought it with an approval period. I have three days to decide.
HP: How much does a mandolin like that go for?
CT: This one is in the 180 [thousand dollar] zone. My other one is what I spent most of the money I made playing in Nickel Creek on. Its 200 [thousand dollars].
HP: That’s steep! How does anyone buy one of those without winning a genius grant?
CT: The vast majority of these mandolins dont get played. Almost no players have them. Its all collectors. Its a shame, because they literally go to sleep. They dont get devalued though, and thats actually more sad. Theres no financial incentive for the people who collect them to get them in the hands of players.
HP: But they degrade over time?
CT: Without sound vibrating through the wood, the wood tightens up. Mine, the one that I currently own, hadnt been played in 80 years. It sat under a bed. Its taken me years to wake it up, whereas if it had been played that whole time itd be awake and itd just be getting better. Ones that spend their lives in the hands of great players sound incredible.
In classical music, there are programs that put these instruments in the hands of players. I would love to try and head up a program like that in bluegrass. There are wonderful young mandolin players who dont have access to great instruments, and there are tons of great instruments just sitting in boxes. It literally drives me to distraction.
HP: You’re in a position to do something now. How are your bandmates taking the news of your newfound status?
CT: They are just being so sweet and supportive and making sure to give me enough shit so I dont float away.