Americana band the Punch Brothers and Australian psych-rock band Tame Impala occupy pretty different points along the rock music continuum. But that didn’t stop the roots band comprised of Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (violin, drums), Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Paul Kowert (bass) from covering a song with which they are mutually obsessed: Tame Impala’s gauzy 2016 single, “Let It Happen,” for the Spotify Singles series. But it wasn’t without challenges.
“Tame Impala recordings aren’t possible without the studio,” said Chris Thile on the Under Cover podcast. “With Punch Brothers, it’s the opposite.”
Like lots of country-adjacent bands, the Punch Brothers’ early sets had a lot of cover songs. That’s how they improved. In 2009, when the band relocated from Nashville to New York City for a residency at the Living Room (RIP), the breakdown was roughly 60/40 original to cover songs. “Part of the utility of that was like figuring out a new tool for your toolbox,” Thile said. “If there’s something we admire, the best way is to learn it and play it for someone … You have to inhabit it. … Sometimes it’s not until then that you [understand] what’s really working.”
So before diving into a song like “Let It Happen,” the Punch Brothers took a step back to figure out and pin down what was really driving the song forward (“What makes this song tick?”) The melody, the drum part and the bass line were crucial to the original, they agreed. Thile adds: “The soul of the song is in the shift between the verse and the chorus.” Witcher, who plays drums, noted the timbral shifts on his instrument. “[The drums] get super dark, then everything get real open, letting the instruments really ring,” he explains.
For their cover, the Punch Brothers tried to play up the natural-leaning elements they heard in the original and hyped them up in their own signature way. For example, they turned a dense vocoder part into a three-part harmony. They also experimented with keyboard voicing by turning the synthetic noises into rolling banjo and mandolin parts.
“There’s this very live sense and a human element,” says Thile. “There are these stabbing, definite drums and then there’s that wash [of a] beautiful, atmospheric, swirly, pastel whoosh and then there’s this childlike quality to [Kevin Parker’s] voice that I’m pretty obsessed with.”