Chris Thile Brings Great Music to the Forefront of His Party Mix

Since he loathes background music, the Grammy winner and newly-minted "Prairie Home Companion" host built an eclectic playlist of tunes he considers required listening.

Photo Credit: Devin Pedde

On October 15th, Chris Thile steps on-stage as the new, permanent host of public radio’s venerable variety show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” with the blessing of mentor Garrison Keillor.

Chris cut his teeth playing mandolin for bluegrass bands Nickel Creek and The Punch Brothers (he’s won four Grammys). But he’s a musical omnivore and — according to the MacArthur foundation— a musical genius.

“Here’s the one problem about me being in charge of a dinner party soundtrack: I loathe background music,” Chris told us. “It’s not really going to be a dinner party soundtrack, so much as it’s just straight up required listening at a dinner party. I hope you enjoy this music that I’m forcing you to listen to.”

Radiohead — “True Love Waits”

I would probably start with something that was crackingly new. Let’s do something off of the new Radiohead record, which is called “A Moon-Shaped Pool.” It’s called “True Love Waits.”

As much as I love music, I’m seldom moved to tears by a piece of music, because I’m almost always listening with my “musician” hat on. But my first listen to this record, I was sitting there in my hotel room in Philadelphia, just looking out into the city, and I had tears in my eyes and a big old lump in my throat. Thom Yorke’s vocal performance is a huge part of it.

I would love to play this for companions. I’d love to be able to then see if it kind of “gets” them…  over what remains of our cocktails… because I suspect we won’t be able to do much with them during the song.

Claude Debussy – “String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 III (Andantino)”

Almost as important for me as saying, “Hey, my name is Chis,” is saying something like, “Hi, my name is Chris, and I love Debussy’s sense of harmonic organization!” Which is kind of a fancy way of bringing up, just, the chords that he’s using.

One of the first things of his that I freaked out over is the third movement from Claude Debussy’s only string quartet.

There’s this wonderful quote of Debussy’s where some composition buffs — at, I think, The Paris Conservatory — were kind of grilling him about what, at the time, was a very unconventional composition style. And they said, “What rules are you following to write this music, if any?” And he said, “My own pleasure.”

You really do only have control over pleasing one person, and that’s you. Be true to your audience of one.

Ah, it’s too beautiful. I can’t even hardly stand it.

The Boswell Sisters – “Wha’dja Do to Me?”

A tip of the hat to my wife, who keeps me honest and reminds me that, while I may not like music in the background, most people do. So for the third song, a tune from The Boswell Sisters called “Wha’dja Do to Me?”

They were big stars during the ’30s. This was pop music. You might put this on, and maybe people would be able to sing along at your dinner party.

The song’s two-and-a-half minutes or something. But it’s basically, like, three songs in one. It’s a little pocket symphony. Part One is the sort of jolly hop that we commonly associate with that period: [Imitates the music] “Badooba-da, badooba-da, badobadee dah dah!”  And then would come the moment during our dinner party where, much to my poor wife’s chagrin, I would probably stop the conversation dead in its tracks and go, “Check out how they just turn on a dime and go into the weird [imitates slower part of the song at 1:35] “Dum, chicka-chicka dum, dum!!!”

She would lovingly roll her eyes, I think [laughs].

Punch Brothers — “Julep”

I think that I would never play something of mine at a dinner party. I feel like, maybe, it’s in poor taste.  But here we are at our imaginary dinner party. So this is a song of Punch Brothers called “Julep.”

I think “Julep,” is, in a way, kind of a mantra to enjoy this thing that I have, right now. “This is good. Potentially, this is the meaning of life, a moment like this with someone I love.”