Sean Watkins

The Fire Returns
Sean Watkins
Sean Watkins: Jacob Boll.

Nickel Creek’s new album, Celebrants, is the trio’s first in nine years. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins, and guitarist Sean Watkins crafted 18 songs that crack the boundaries of Americana, bluegrass, and rock. Watkins plays his vintage Gibson like a boss, creating visceral textures and vistas with a dizzying right hand. It’s Nickel Creek’s most-expansive record to date, and Sean told VG how they got there.

What brought Nickel Creek back together?
It was never a question of us breaking up or getting back together. It’s always been something to do, depending on what we were up to. In 2020, we did an interview about the 20th anniversary of our first album. The camaraderie was there, it was fun, nostalgic, and we thought, “Should we do something?” (laughs) It seemed right, but it was a big ball to get rolling. Getting together was tough.

Eighteen songs?
(laughs) We had a lot to say, musically and lyrically, and there was a lot of stuff we hadn’t done. When we get together, it’s fun and exciting. When we started writing, we stayed at a friend’s house in Santa Barbara, so there was nothing else to do (laughs). We put all our energy into it. It became this big project, almost like we were riding a train.

Was it easy working together again?
I wouldn’t call it easy. Chris and I work well together, especially as we’ve gotten older. We listen to and trust each other more. The process was joyful, but it was also a lot of work. The more we worked on it, the more we realized we were biting off a big something to chew on. We realized we gotta make this all we wanted it to be. That requires a lot of attention to detail and time. Because of the pandemic and lack of touring, we finally had the time we never had in the past. Our previous album took six days to write, and we recorded it in 12 days. This album was a very different situation.

Did you start from scratch or bring in songs?
Only a few songs were brought in. Chris had “To The Airport” and “Failure Isn’t Forever.” The rest started from a seed. I would say, “Let’s write a song with this feel.” Then I’d play a fingerpicking thing. Really basic stuff. “What if we did a song in 6/8 with an Irish feel?” Then I would play something that became “Celebrants.” We wanted to see what would happen when we created a song from scratch. That’s one of the defining processes that made this record what it is.

Your acoustic textures and arpeggiation add a soundtrack quality to the songs.
When you play in a bluegrass band, and there’s a banjo, a lot of dexterity is involved. In our situation, each of us plays more than one role. Rhythmically, I’m like the bass and the kick drum but filling in arpeggiated stuff. I’m playing rhythms with subdivisions. A lot of that came from Tony Rice and Nolan Blake, especially when they would play solo. When you listen to Tony Rice’s “Church Street Blues,” he’s doing so much. There’s a lot of inferred harmony and explicitly played harmonic information. He’s not just playing boom-chuck. He’s doing a lot of subdivisions and cool things in-between – and solos that are a mixture of chords and traditional bluegrass. It’s very transferable to other styles. I try to think about guitar less like traditional bluegrass guitar and more like other instruments like piano or banjo.

What was your main guitar?
The 1949 Gibson LG I got from Jackson Browne 11 years ago. He has an amazing guitar collection. He told me his pickup wouldn’t fit into it, so I should take it, which is unbelievable (laughs)! He has these amazing guitars and would rather see them out being played than in his storage space. I play others, but that one is my main squeeze. It plays well with Chris’ Loar mandolin. The combination became a special sound, and we didn’t want to mess with it. We used a baritone guitar and a Nashville high-strung guitar to layer, but the basis for each song was the LG. It’s a very special instrument.

Will there be a tour?
Yeah, we’re headed out soon, so now we’re at the point where we’re learning to play all the songs (laughs). We did some shows in the U.K. – kind of a practice swing. We have a new bass player, Jeff Picker, who is incredible. It’ll be a chance to get warmed up with him and learn how to sing and play these songs. Playing and singing them at the same time is very challenging.

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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