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Published: 2002/06/28
by Mick Skidmore

Todd Sheaffer of Railroad Earth In His Own Words (mostly)

Even though Railroad Earth has been around less than two years they have garnered a reputation as a fine band with an exciting sound. Their first album which they released independently, The Black Bear Sessions, was one of last year’s notable albums fusing bluegrass, country and jazz with startling improvisations. Quite where they fit in the musical chain is unclear but this is a quality band with great musicianship as well as great songs, mostly from the pen of Todd Sheaffer. The band has been doing incredibly well on the festival circuit. They also got signed to Sugar Hill Records who recently released the band’s second album, A Bird In the House, which is another gem. It highlights the fact that this is one of the freshest sounding bands around and carries on where the first album left off as well as promising even better things to come in the future. Shortly before the official release of the album I got the chance to talk with main songwriter Todd Sheaffer. After the initial interaction I had the spontaneous idea of doing something a little different. I had Todd do a track by track run through of the new album which I hope you find interesting and insightful. Todd was funny, friendly and articulate. This band puts forth a good vibe in both its music and in person.

M.S. Since I interviewed you not long ago instead of me asking the same old question over and over why don’t you give us a run through of the album, track by track with as much detail as you like?

T.S. Okay. You just chime in once in a while. Well, “Drag Him Down” kicks it off. It’s an up-tempo bluegrass tune. It’s kind of our signature stamp that we put on bluegrass. It has a little more of a drum beat a little more of a rock approach. I brought it to the sessions with the thought in mind to give the players some room to stretch out and play a bit because we have some talented players in the band I wanted to get them to play so we stretched it out with an improvisational section.

M.S. So were the instrumental parts written as the song was being recorded or where they worked on?

T.S. Yes, the instrumental sections were. What happens is we start with an open ended thing, certain lines that some of the guys play will suggest something that will maybe become more of a figure or a head or a section part like the line that kicks the tune off but in the middle we send it around a few times in the same way that maybe a jazz group would approach soloing, one person takes a solo. You get back to the head and another person takes a solo. So that’s “Drag Him Down.” Make sure you chime in once in a while so I know where I am at. “Bird in the House” is the title tune.

M.S. What was the reason that you chose this for the title of the album is there something you consider significant about it aside from the fact that it is a great song?

T.S. Yesit seemed like a title that captured the mood of the record and maybe thematically captured the spirit of the record although I don’t how to specifically define what I mean by that. It’s a feeling more than anything. Also, I think for me it is an important song on the record. It is strong and one that I feel very close to. I think the band plays real well on it and captures our sound. For all those reasons it hits the vibe. It’s an older song of mine that I have around for quite some time. I have played it in my solo shows and it works well in that setting. I wrote it quite a while back when I was really just getting started as a musician. I was living in a squat. I had rented out one room of an old antique store. The woman that owned it was renting out rooms to mostly artists, mostly visual artists. It was a humble place to live. I didn’t have any hot water, heat or stuff like that. I was kind of sleeping on the floor.

M.S. Todd does the suffering artist thing

T.S. Yes, I was doing the suffering artist thing, although I wasn’t really suffering at the time I was having a hell of a time. There was a stretch there for about a month or where I would come home and I’d open the door and there was this bird flying around in my room. First of all it scared the hell out of me and then I’d figure out how to get the bird out of there. The place only had one window. It was a simple square room. I couldn’t figure out and this happened three or four times. I could not figure out how this bird was getting in there. So that’s where the song came from. The idea got lodged in my head. That’s the story behind that one. I still have no idea how the bird was getting in there because the window was sealed up and then to take a dark turn on this I came back one night and the bird was dead on my floor. So, that’s the end of the story.

M.S. Well, I guess it’s on to “Like a Buddha”

T.S. Yes, “Like a Buddha” is a fun groove. Its fun to play and I hope is fun to hear. The band hadn’t played it hardly at all when we recorded it, so it is a pretty fresh arrangement in the recording. It goes on quite a while. We left the improvisation. We left the take in tact as we played it. I really like the figure that Tim plays on the violin. It’s real catchy and it captures the bright spirit of the tune. There’s a lot involved in the lyrics. I’m not sure where to begin. I did a trip to Thailand with Tim, the fiddle player. We spent a couple weeks in Thailand and played some concerts over there at the World Festival of Sacred Music. It was a really tremendous experience, first of all just being in Thailand, and playing at this concert. The festival was put on by the Dali Lama’s organization and the idea being to bring people around music, music being a powerful force of community and raising the human spirit. I think some of those feelings and experiences from that trip ended up in that song. Obviously because the image of the Buddha is all over Thailand and you see him smiling. It’s about the power of music to lift the spirit and there are other thoughts in there. I think the bridge takes on a psychedelic quality. The hippies will probably enjoy it.

M.S. “A Pack A Day” is a really nice instrumental.

T.S. “A Pack A Day.” It’s John’s song mostly. I suggested that we sing on it. He titled it “Pack a Day,” which I thought was really funny. He thought it would be bad karmic energy to title it that way, but we talked him into it anyway. We sought of hid what we were saying. It’s another one where the playing really shines, I think with the flat-picking. It takes a few unique twists and turns. I like when we bust into little drum and bass fills.

M.S. Yes, it’s not exactly typical bluegrass fare.

T.S. Oddly enough we spent a lot of time working on that song and re-arranging it and the version that ended on the record was I think the first take.

M.S. Sometimes spontaneity is the best. “Mountain Time.”

T.S. Ah, “Mountain Time,” I think the most striking thing about itactually I’m not really sure what to say about it because I have already heard so many people’s interpretation of it, even the mood of it and they differ from mine. What are your thoughts about that one?

M.S. I have to fess up that you caught me of guard there. It’s a beautiful song, actually one of my favorites on the album.

T.S. It’s minor melancholy feel to me at least that’s what I feel. There’s some atmospheric acoustic/electric guitar which adds to the atmosphere of the songs. It’s one of Jon Siket’s best mixes on the record. He did a beautiful job on it. It’s a song about the freedoms and the loneliness of living on Mountain Time, of stepping outside of the box and going anyway.

M.S. Is that a recent song?

T.S. Yes, and I put a little touch on the last verse to tie it in with some of the other themes going on in the record with “Peace” and “Walk On By.” It’s telling a story but not too literally.

M.S. “Give that Boy a Hand” is a song that wrote with Andy Goessling. Tell us how that came about.

T.S. Well, Andy had a banjo figure that he was working with and we tweaked it a little bit and twisted it around and brought some chords in and then I sang on top of it and we turned it into a song. Its song about an old friend of mine he spent a lot of years trying to find his way and kind of stepped into without any fore warning or suggestion that it might happen. He ended up in a very nice situation and he is happier than I have ever seen him which made me happy. Maybe he ended up where he was supposed to be all along.

M.S. Given the times “Peace on Earth” is not only a nice song but kind of appropriate.

T.S. That’s largely Dave Von Dollen’s. I would agree with you. It’s a nice song. From the first time he brought it to the band and played it on guitar, we immediately thought it was a good song and as you said very timely. I think is also timeless in the way he wrote the message of peace and they are ideas that have been around for a very long time and will always be around.

M.S. I also like the fact that the vocals are really strong on that song.

T.S. Yes, we did a lot of vocal arrangement. Everybody sings on it. There are pictures in the artwork on the album where you see us all around a mike and that’s most likely what we were singing because that is how we did the vocals on that. We all gathered around one mike and sang harmony. It’s a nice up tempo banjo driven bluegrass tune. It has a really lovely bridge. It’s a fun live tune as well.

M.S. So, that brings us to “Walk On By” another example of Todd re-invents himself!

T.S. (Laughs). Well, we started playing that song after the turn of he end of the world mostly because of the mood of it, mostly because I find comfort in singing that way and expressing myself and hopefully the audience will feel the same. The arrangement came out very naturally we didn’t really work on it the band just played everything very appropriate. That one again is a first take, a straight performance and it went on the record. I don’t know what else I can say. It’s an older song that I recorded before.

M.S. Hence my joke about your obsession at reinventing yourself, however, you seem to add something every time you re-do an old song.

T.S. Thanks. I think so. Certainly the band brings different elements to it. It comes out, I think with more of an Irish quality.

M.S. “Mighty River” is a song that you co-wrote with John Skehan, right?

T.S. Yes. John had a mandolin figure that he was working on. It is in the traditional style of —- mandolin players will know- Jesse McReynolds. He is one of these guys that like Bo Diddley had a beat, Jesse McReynolds had the McReynolds pick. It is a cross-picking technique. John can tell you a lot more about it than I can but the head of that song is a Jesse McReynolds cross-picking style. It’s really neat. He brought that to the band with some changes and then I worked on it. Put a melody and lyrics to it. I guess it another song that seems relevant given the times we are going through but also just about life in generally, rolling along a little bit overwhelmed about what to do and how to live with that feeling. It’s also about how life seems to wear off the rough edges a bit.

M.S. “Lois Anne” is a really pretty instrumental.

T.S. That’s John’s song and it is named after his mother who is one of the band’s biggest fans by the way. She is great. She comes to a lot of the shows. We call her mother earth. It’s just a beautiful melody that John wrote on the mandolin and we flushed it out with the band.

M.S. “Came Up Smilin’” is another of my favorites. It’s been driving me crazy trying to figure out where I’ve heard it before.

T.S. It’s on my solo record, Dream of Love.

M.S. Which of course I have but am just brain dead at the moment. I listen to so much stuff it often overwhelms me. Okay, so what made you want to do that one again?

T.S. We’ve been playing it live and it had become part of the band’s repertoire. We thought it added a mood to the record that seemed to fit. It kind of lets things out of the mood towards the end of the record and I think it’s a chance for the band to stretch out. One thing I like about the players in this band is the breadth of styles that they can try and the ideas we can try. People can almost anything. I think it has a lot of Americana styles in the song throughout and it takes a kind of twist at the end with the brass band. I’m not sure what you would call that but it has the New Orleans style brass band at the end. We had a lot of fun in the studio doing that. It was a fun night. There was a party going on that night. It was a kind of spontaneous idea that we came with.

M.S. I was kind of surprised that you added the brass yourselves. Now were you all proficient on these instruments or was it just dabbling on the spot or a revisit to schooldays?

T.S. Yes, it was a visit back to schooldays probably for everybody. Some of the guys were surprisingly proficient. Tim played the piano really well in that style and John played the tuba. John and Dave and Andy playing the clarinet was great. I was just taking whatever sounds would come out of a trumpet. It was fun. Then we melded that and the song together in mastering. We ended the song out into the brass band. We created this wobbling effect.

M.S. When I listened initially to the album “Dandelion Wine” was another song that drove me crazy. I had an advance with no songwriting credits and I knew I knew it from somewhere. Of course, now I know it’s a song by Neal Casal. What made you cover that?

T.S. Neal is a friend of ours and although he has moved now. He grew up and lived most of his life around here and lived where I lived. Having known Neal for many years I am familiar with his records and his work. The suggestion came about from my girlfriend. We were listening to Neal’s album “The Sun Rises Here” which we listen to quite a bit. She said that would be a great song for Railroad Earth, and she was right. It became a staple of our live shows. It’s another one where the boys can really rip it up. It just has a joyous spirit. People who have had dandelion wine have told me how awful it is, but I have never even had it. I take it as more in a metaphorical way to appreciate the simple pleasures. Not to necessarily drink a gallon of dandelion wine.

M.S. “Saddle of the Sun” is the album’s closer. Why did you choose this to end the disc? I know opening and closing an album are too tough spots.

J.S. In the sequencing the record we tried putting it forward more to the front but it didn’t seem to fit right. We tried it in the middle and it didn’t fit right. It seemed to fit best at the end but sequencing wise it was an awkward one to fit in because it has such a string mood. It kind of stops the proceedings and says here I am. I like it there I think it is a nice fitting end to the record. I think it has a muscular guitar riff that sets up the tune. The tune to me is basically a blues at least lyrically, that’s the approach I was taking. It has a mountain vibe but to me it’s basically blues.

M.S Did you approach this album with a different intent to the first one? It’s a little more arranged but still has lots of spontaneity.

T.S. Not really. We didn’t really go into the recording with any preconceived ideas of exactly of how we were going to proceed and have it all mapped out. We kind of went with the flow of the song and the recording dictated what we did and where we went with it. We did it a little differently. This one we recorded analog. We have been a band for a while now so we had played some of the songs on the road a bit, so maybe they were a little more settled as far as the arrangements than the first record. I’m not sure what would lend itself to the end result being a little less spontaneous. We did record all the things live as we did with the first record and then we took it from there. We did flush things out a little more in the arrangements and overdubs, particularly on songs like “Smilin’ Like A Buddha,” Andy played at least five different instruments. We dropped different things into the mix on that one.

M.S. Well, now I’ve let you tell us everything about your new album I’ll ask a couple of general questions. How has the touring been going? I notice that you have been playing a lot of festivals. I think you would be a nice band to see in the small to mid-size theatre type venues. Is that a possibility; is that something you would like to do?

T.S. Oh yes, we’d love to. We need to draw enough people to be able to do it. Right now it is really hard to tell what would happen if we did that because mostly at this point we have been playing festivals. In the future it is something we would love to do and do a whole concert and expand the horizons of the show and have a full night to play a concert. Right now we are going to spend a lot of the summer doing festivals where we will be doing an hour set or maybe a little longer. Playing the festivals is a lot of fun it is a good place for us to be right now. We are reaching out and a lot of people are finding out about the band.

M.S. So far are you finding that you are doing better in any particular areas?

T.S. We haven’t really played in the Northeast at all.

M.S. I know you will be up for the Berkshire Festival again.

T.S. Yes. This year we will have a set on the main stage as well as on the second stage. We are looking forward to that and the very next day we are playing Kentucky, so we are going to be doing a lot of driving.

M.S. Isn’t that like a 2000 mile drive!

T.S. Nice riding there. You’re jealous aren’t you? It’s too many miles (laughs) that’s all I know. There does seem to be a natural gravitation towards the south and the west that are familiar with this kind of music. We get an immediate response from the audience and it’s “ah, yes, we are in the right place. The North East, I don’t know. We have been making a lot of fans and people are liking it but there is a that gravitation to those other areas.

M.S. Now that you are on Sugar Hill although not a major label, they are the next best thing – maybe that will help you get some airplay and that will help expand your fan base. It seems to me that the label does well with its acts and gets the product out there.

T.S. I think there are at least three tunes on the record that would sound good on the radio. Hopefully somebody will put them on there.

M.S. Where do you see the band going from this point? Another studio album?

T.S. Absolutely. We are in it for the long haul. I think Sugar Hill is a really nice home for the band. It’s, as you mention, close to a major label, but it isn’t. I haven’t found
That they are like that, you know you “haven’t sold two million records so we are moving on to the next thing.” The music on their label is not music that is music that lasts 15 minutes. It’s music that they believe in and that they like and that is why they put it out. We are looking forward to making a lot of records and being around. That’s long term but in the immediate future we are going to be out working real hard and get behind this record. We will be on the run throughout the summer and into the fall. We have been doing this a long time and for people to be that excited about our music and extending invitations to play, we are thrilled about that. We don’t take it for granted so we are going to be out there working.

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