Rick Rubin would seem one of the most unlikely producers for a group like Nickel Creek.
While Rubin has gained acclaim in recent years for his work with the late Johnny Cash, he is best known for producing a variety of heavy rock bands and rap acts, including System of a Down, Slayer and the Beastie Boys.
Nickel Creek, meanwhile, came up through the San Diego bluegrass scene, after the brother-sister team of Sean and Sara Watkins met mandolin player Chris Thile at a weekly bluegrass night in 1989. Granted, the trio's music has since branched far beyond that style, but their melodic acoustic sound is about as far afield as one can get from pulverizing death metal.
Rubin did not actually produce the latest Nickel Creek album, Why Should The Fire Die? Still, guitarist Sean Watkins credits him with spurring the group to take steps that played a critical role in improving the final product.
"He listened to a bunch of songs one time. ... He's like, "They're really great, but I think you should co-write, and then you should also be each other's critics,'" says Watkins, who at 28 is four years older than both Thile and his violin-playing sister. "We'd never done that before. That really helped a lot. That was the main factor in the songwriting getting better."
The group, as it turned out, had more time than planned to consider Rubin's suggestions.
"We tried to make the record for, like, two years," he says. "And there were a bunch of hang-ups with producers, and situations just kind of didn't pan out. The good thing is, it gave us a lot more time to write some extra songs and talk to more people, to write together more. Most of the songs came about a few months prior [to recording]."
In the end, five songs co-written by various combinations of the three members of Nickel Creek made Why Should the Fire Die?, while individual group members wrote six more of the tracks.
The album is Nickel Creek's strongest effort, and expands the scope of the group's music without betraying their bluegrass roots.
The album's production plays a key part. After bluegrass star Alison Krauss produced the first two discs 2000's Nickel Creek and 2002's This Side the group picked Eric Valentine to produce their latest. Valentine is best known for his work with rock acts Queens of the Stone Age and Smashmouth.
The bluegrass influence still shows up, but the songs fall mostly somewhere between acoustic pop and folk. Ballads boast especially graceful melodies, while more upbeat songs capture the potent sound Nickel Creek is known for generating live.
Watkins says all three band members tried to be open-minded in their songwriting, and to take whatever stylistic paths best served the songs, without worrying about whether they would meet or defy expectations of others.
"A lot of people think it's a conscious effort to move away [from bluegrass]," Watkins says of Why Should the Fire Die? "It's not that at all. We love bluegrass. It's just not the only thing we love."
Nickel Creek with Matt Pond
Pikes Peak Center, 190 S. Cascade Ave.
Thursday, April 13, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $27; check
ticketswest.com or call 520-7469.