If you do the math, that means the band began plucking chords together when Thile was only 8 years old. But even a band with childhood chemistry can lose steam. So, after six albums, four Grammy nominations and one win, the inventive acoustic-bluegrass trio had burned out and began planning for its 2006 farewell tour. After that, Nickel Creek’s members went their separate ways professionally, but stayed together musically, performing in secret for the past six and a half years.
That is until April 1, when Nickel Creek released “A Dotted Line,” a summation of each band member’s independent musical exploration during its hiatus. It’s flush with progressive new ideas within the genre and a confidence that is inspired by the musicians’ times with other projects.
“Sean (Watkins) and Sara (Watkins) and I have such a direct connection, we still made music, just not in front of people (during the past six years),” said Thile, who returns to Colorado as mandolin player with Nickel Creek on May 13 at the 1stBank Center. “We have an uninterrupted musical connection to our childhood.”
This connection began in an Orange County pizzeria, where Nickel Creek began to jam — fiddle player Sara Watkins was 8 and her brother, guitarist Sean Watkins, was 12. It was as though nothing they did could go bad, until they burned out.
“We were drawing on all the water in our lives, and everything just ran dry,” Thile said. “I think any serious musician can have too much energy to put into just one project. And as a result, we just wound up kind of frustrating ourselves.”
Since the band parted ways in 2007, its members have found success on their own. Thile released four albums with his band, Punch Brothers; Sara Watkins released two solo albums; and Sean Watkins began collaborating with Switchfoot member Jon Foreman for their project, Fiction Family. But in the end, Thile and the Watkins siblings couldn’t stay apart.
They had been performing in vague secrecy whenever they could, most notably meeting up time and time again to perform in the L.A. nightclub Largo. There they found that what had happened between them was the musical growth they were all hoping to derive from the years apart.
“It seems like whatever suggestions we tackled there was a sound of optimism that is unique to all of our projects,” Thile said. “And that’s a special thing in this cynical age, I think. I really like that about this project.”
The transition from their childhood roots enabled them to find an even deeper sense of artistic inspiration, an inspiration that allowed Thile, and the Watkins siblings to create an album that expresses something completely different from their earlier albums.
Layered in tricky mandolin-forged melodies and climbing bass lines, Nickel Creek moved away from the cynicism and heartbreak that could be heard in their other albums. Instead they bolstered “A Dotted Line” with an open-minded enthusiasm. Sarah’s voice has found a new strength, thanks to her solo efforts, while Thile’s mandolin has become more spirited and adventurous after his time with Punch Brothers.
“Now we can come back to Nickel Creek, and rather than being worried about doing everything we (personally) can, it’s like, what can Nickel Creek do different than our other projects?” Thile said. “Now we are focused on the strikes of this project. Now we are celebrating.”
Lucas Dean Fiser is a published fiction writer, poet and holds an M.F.A. He writes freelance for The Denver Post, a staff member at the Cannabist and is regular contributor to Reverb.