An Insider On Llewyn Davis

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The Punch Brothers’ Chris Eldridge Talks About The Soundtrack Of The Latest Coen Brothers Film.

By Brian Wise

According to T Bone Burnett, producer of the soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis, The Punch Brothers are ‘the leading musicians in the world today.’

Not only did Burnett recruit the band members – Chris Thile, Gabe Witcher, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert  – to play on the film’s soundtrack but he also enlisted them as the house bands for the New York concert Another Day, Another Time, that celebrated the film’s music.  There they stood behind Jack White, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello and others.

Inside Llewyn Davis, is the story of one week in the life of a New York folk musician, played by Oscar Isaac. Davis’s former musical partner has committed suicide and he is attempting to start a solo career. In the meantime, he sleeps on the couches of friends, has an affair with his friend’s wife (the results of which are a story in itself) and searches for meaning. The film also stars Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman (who delivers the best line in the movie when he says to Davis, ‘Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician.’).

The film is one of Joel and Ethan Cohen’s most eccentric, in a career that has produced its fair share of acclaim. Unlike O Brother Where Art Thou? Which also had a musical theme, Llewyn Davis is a far more bleak and depressing affair.

It is claimed that the story was inspired by Dave  Van Ronk’s splendid memoir The Mayor Of MacDougal Street. The story ends just as Bob Dylan (or a figure we take to be Dylan) arrives in Greenwich Village. Ultimately, the film raises the question as to what it takes to succeed. In the case of Llewyn Davis, a pleasant voice and annoying persistence are obviously not enough. The final scene reveals the secret.

Naturally, the film’s music reflects the era – from the hokey pseudo-folk songs to the real deal. The Punch Brothers sing the Irish standard ‘The Auld Triangle’ alongside Marcus Mumford and Llewyn Davis co-star Justin Timberlake on the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack. The group as a whole does not appear in the acclaimed film but guitarist Chris Eldridge says that he does make a fleeting appearance.

“It was incredible,” recalls Eldridge of the concert in which he took part. “It was just kind of a parade of stars and just fantastic musicians, heroes for everybody.  I think everybody had a hero there that night. It was really wonderful. 

“The proceeds for the concert went to a charity. It was a really kind of great evening to celebrate the music from the movie, but also just an incredible chance for us all to……..certainly from my perspective, to be around all these other incredible people like Joan Baez and Patti Smith and Bob Neuwirth, all of these incredible iconic people.  It was sort of like being a kid in a candy shop.”

ATN: It was an amazing cast and probably more a celebration of just music in general, contemporary and all, than just a celebration of the film I would imagine.

Absolutely.  Well, at one point we were just amazed at how well the evening was going, and just off stage there was like a little production room that was being filmed.  There were the people on the production side, but every inch of floor space was occupied by musicians watching on the monitors.  We were standing just off stage, so we could hear what was going on onstage and it was like the most amazing cheering section, because somebody would play a song and it would be just incredible. They’d finish and walk back and they’d get a second ovation as soon as they walked backstage. 

It was a really wonderful vibe and somebody when we were standing in that room remarked that, ‘This evening is amazing and really everybody is doing a great job but it’s also because there’s so many good songs.’ 

That was kind of my take on that whole thing: the quality of songs. That was something that was really celebrated back in the early folk days, the concept of song.  It was fascinating to just hear so many: just song after song. It was truly great, and the power of that.

Is it an affirmation also of what you’ve been doing for so many years individually and with your group?

Well, yes, just to get to be involved with all these other people in an event like that.  It was brought together by T-Bone who is just an amazing man and producer and facilitator of great things happening, and also the Coen brothers who are some of my and – certainly my band mates – I think a lot of people’s artistic heroes.  They’re just some of the greatest filmmakers ever. So to be there with those guys, it felt very good.

I have to tell you The Big Lebowski, which I watched again the other night, is possibly my favorite film of all time.

Yeah, it’s amazing. You and every touring musician – certainly in America. That is a movie that is on many tour buses at any given time in the States. There are probably 100 tour buses rolling down the road with The Big Lebowski on. I’m making that up, but I think it’s probably true.

It must have been such a thrill to be playing with people of this ilk, Elvis, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, all of them.

It absolutely was.  It was the kind of thing where…….it didn’t seem real.  Being backstage at that show and then standing on the side of the stage and listening to all these people, it was almost like out of body, like, ‘Okay, I’m watching this on TV.’ But sure enough eventually the night was over and we weren’t watching it anymore.  We all had to go home, but it was incredible.

Can you tell us about your involvement in the soundtrack because you and other members of your group –  Chris Thile etc –  are involved in at least three or four tracks on the film?  How did that work and how did you get involved?

Well, T-Bone Burnett who has been really wonderful to us in the past and who’s included us in various projects that he’s been working on, he’s the guy who called us up and he invited Thile and Gabe and I over to sing this a cappella Irish song from by the Clancy Brothers, ‘The Old Triangle’ and he said, ‘Bring your instruments too.’ We wound up doing that with Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford, which was crazy and very unexpected. 

The rest of the guys, over the course of them making this record, all got involved and we recorded some songs together.  It was, I think for us, as soon as we heard about this we were all so thrilled.  I can’t stress enough how much we love the Coen brothers, such huge fans.  To be associated with them in any capacity was just amazing. I actually had a cameo in the movie.  Nobody knows that really.

When can we see you in the movie?

Well, I’ll put it this way.  Did you see O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Of course, I love that film too.

George Clooney had the golden vocal chords of Dan Tyminski singing for him. George Clooney opens his mouth and Dan Tyminski’s voice would come out.  Well, I kind of had the opposite where you don’t actually ever see me singing but you do see me in the movie and I have the voice of Marcus Mumford.  You’ll have to go see the movie.  You’ll see what I mean.

I’ve been reading Dave Van’s Ronk’s book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street and it captures an amazing time in music In New York City.  It must have been an incredible era.

Yes, I’m sad that I missed it!  I wasn’t born until 1982. But it just seems like it was such a movement, the whole folk movement.  People were kind of looking, I think, for real authenticity in an America that was kind of becoming increasingly plasticised.  Just from my perspective it seemed like an incredible just ground swell of people looking for an authentic experience, musical or whatever you wanted.

Of course a few people make derogatory remarks about that era, call it the folk scare of the 50s and early 60s, but it was much more than that wasn’t it?

I think so.  I think so, although admittedly this is outside of my pay grade.

A friend of mine said to me on listening to the soundtrack that the music actually on the soundtrack sounds better than the music that was being made at the time but I suppose its production value is slightly different.

Well, the music that was made at the time was awesome but the soundtrack has this incredible ace in the hole in that T-Bone Burnett is involved.  He is such a master at setting people at ease and getting them to open up and really give their best.  T-Bone has a very deep knowledge of music and all that.

Well, he’s really a genius at bringing out the best in people isn’t he?

He really is.  He’s the coolest guy you’d ever want to me.  He’s wickedly intelligent and wickedly cool and he’s super knowledgeable about music, and he makes everybody in the room feel valued and free to kind of do whatever it is that they do. 

I think that one of the real secrets to getting people to open up and make music that’s compelling is you can’t have your guard up.  I think T-Bone is really brilliant at just being a real person who you know you can trust and so he probably pulls the best out of you.

Well, a great example of that, I think, is Justin Timberlake – and the name might raise a few eyebrows – but he has proven himself to be an accomplished actor and he fits in perfectly here. T-Bone, I guess, helps him to fit in.

T-Bone definitely does but I have to give credit where it’s due.  Justin is a phenomenally talented guy and phenomenally talented musician.  Not that I expected him to not be talented but I was really pleasantly surprised at the depth of his musicianship.  He played some piano that day when we were recording and really lovely, really tasteful kind of playing the piano that needed to be played. Nobody knew that it needed to be there until Justin started doing it, you know?  He’s a great musician……maybe it’s hard to see that as clearly when he’s doing the pop thing but I had a tremendous amount of respect, walking away from that whole experience, for him.

Well he’s kind of transcended that pop thing in a way in his career hasn’t he now?

He has, yes he has.  He’s also been making pop music that has a lot more depth to it, bringing back some kind of really cool funky elements and soul and R&B back into the mainstream because he has a platform with which to do that.  It’s cool that he’s using his powers for good.

Of course it wouldn’t be a film about that era unless there was a Dylan song. It’s sort of emblematic of a whole era that you would have to have a Dylan song there.

Yes, right. Well, the movie is loosely based around Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn Davis is a kind of loose character based on Dave Van Ronk but the shadow of Dylan, I think for anybody watching the movie, is kind of inescapable.  We all grew up or have lived life in a world that’s been changed by Bob Dylan and we all know where he came from and what he was up to back then.

I think watching the movie, it’s sort of inescapable his presence, although, I don’t know.  To me, it’s more just on the periphery that I, as the viewer, know that he existed.  I feel like, except for one obvious spot, it didn’t really address him so directly in the film.

You are involved in a fantastic version of Tom Paxton’s, ‘The Last Thing on My Mind,’ which is a classic song and I think you’ve done a classic version of it.

Thank you.  Thank you very much.

Can you just talk about that song, finally? Tell us about that song and how you approached it.

Well, the beautiful thing about these old folk songs is that they can be sung by anybody. Part of the beauty of them, is that as long as you have a guitar and you know how to strum three cords, you can sing all of these songs. In a way, I would say our approach was to just play the song and just try and do honour to how Stark [Sands] sang it, which is very kind of simple and beautiful.  He’s got kind of a very direct approach and so we just tried to support that and get into that really kind of beautiful direct place that he was coming from.  The cool thing is for everybody who sings that song there will be that many different versions of the song.  That’s the beauty of folk music.  Everybody who sings it kind of makes it their own.

Have you had any feedback about it?  I think Tom’s still alive

I haven’t heard anything from him about it, but I would be curious to hear what he thinks.  That would be cool.

The soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis is out now through Nonesuch.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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