On The Run With Old School Freight Train
Similar to just about any artist resting within the jamband parameters, Old School Freight Train’s brand of bluegrass acknowledges tradition but expands on it by paying attention to other genres — modern rock, R&B, Latin and more. The combination of musicianship and approach made the quintet the first new act signed to David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label in a decade.
Grisman’s appreciation for what the group of Charlottesville, Virginia-based group can do went a step further when he played on and produced its Acoustic Disc debut, Run, and then used the band members to back him on a few dates earlier this year. With little information available to me, Harper enthusiastically gave it up on the band’s past and present.
JPG: I wasn’t able to find much info on the group, so let’s start from the humble beginnings.
Jesse Harper: The core of the band met at little bluegrass jam sessions around William and Mary. Both the mandolin player, Pete Frostic and I went to William and Mary. Ben Krakauer, our banjo player, his dad taught there. So, Pete and Ben had a little bluegrass band they were in before and I met them at a bluegrass jam. Picked up our bass player when I was teaching a summer camp down at Boone, North Carolina. We met our fiddle player at the Galax Fiddler’s Convention in a big huge jam session, people playing music for like a weeklong. But, we stayed close to Virginia and practiced a bunch for a few years and went on from there. I think we might have played our first gig in 2000, but I doubt it. It was 2001.
JPG: It was that memorable, huh?
JH: Well, no I do remember that first gig. It was at a coffee shop in Williamsburg. I think we made like $15.
JPG: For some bands that’s sometimes a good night.
JH: Oh yeah. Well, we’ve made less (laughs)
JPG: Listening to the CD, I see it as bluegrass plus rock, pop, R&B and a bunch of other things. Tell me about your background and how you ended up bringing all these things into traditional music.
JH: All of us at some point were into bluegrass, but we didn’t all come from that background. Our banjo player studied a lot of bluegrass and our fiddle player did in the early days when they were starting out. I grew up listening to R&B and pop music, rock and roll, all kinds of stuff. We all really love jazz that’s another particular interest that we have; any kind of music that people are thoughtfully creating. It doesn’t matter what kind of music it is.
Basically, there are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music. It doesn’t matter what the style is. We do prefer acoustic instruments just because of that organic feel, that sound.
JPG: Before you hooked up with the other members of Old School, were you playing rock and pop and singer/songwriter stuff?
JH: No, man. Before I hooked up with the band, I was playing classical guitar. Actually, it was in Boone, North Carolina I started. Darrell [Muller], our bass player, right after I met him, he lent me a CD of David Grisman, Dawg 90. It blew me away, man. I was going to be a doctor. I was in school taking those kind of classes, but also doing classical guitar stuff, double majoring. Then, I just wanted to play acoustic music like Grisman. That’s what turned me into liking all these other kinds of music, my exposure to Grisman.
JPG: Now when you say doctor,’ are you talking about medical doctor or getting your doctorate?
JH: No. I was pre-med. I was going to medical school. I finished the curriculum, but I didn’t go to medical school. When it was time to take the test and apply, I was starting to think about the band and trying to go in that direction.
JPG: I remember years ago talking to David Grisman and didn’t like the term bluegrass or whatever, preferring instead his own term of Dawg music. Are you like him in that you tend not to want to be pigeonholed as a bluegrass act?
JH: It’s not because we don’t like bluegrass or because we don’t want to be associated with bluegrass, but because there are some people in the bluegrass community who are what I would call traditionalists or purists who don’t want us to be called bluegrass. And if we were to show up somewhere and play their festival, people would be upset that we weren’t playing all the old Earl Scruggs, Flatt and Scruggs material that they’ve heard already for 50 years.
I would like to be called progressive acoustic music, just something with that meaning. New acoustic or just acoustic music cause that’s the distinction. It’s just music that’s played on acoustic instruments. They’re bluegrass instruments, but it’s acoustic instruments. That’s what matters.
JPG: Tell me how did you hook up with Grisman? What made you think that after not signing a band in a decade, he’d take you? What was it about Old School Freight Train that got him interested?
JH: I don’t think he ever signed a band. I mean, they had picked up some older albums and older people. I didn’t think he was going to go for it. Actually I don’t think [our manager] even told us. She just sent one out. And then a couple days later, they called. Usually they just throw unsolicited material directly in the trash. They listened to it and Grisman liked it so…
JPG: Now did you send him the album that you made on your own and sold at shows or was it a live show or…?
JH: This was a demo that we made that we were sending around trying to get a label.
JPG: What was it that he saw in you?
JH: We kind of have this similar aesthetic in that we like to play instrumental music. We like to improvise kind of like the jazz guys, but there’s also bluegrass. There’s a lot of improvisation in jazz and bluegrass. We had a lot of complexity to the arrangements that we play, which is similar to stuff that he does. I think he thought, well, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but it’s an extension of something that he does. So, I think he wanted to support that and to get it out.
JPG: By sending something to Acoustic Disc, what were you seeking?
JH: As a musician or as a group, you have to get a foot in the door in order to get in these festivals, in order to make a living at it. You can’t sit around in your town and play weddings and play bars all the time and expect that you’re going to be able to have a career. I had no idea what his recording philosophy is or anything like that but I knew that I liked him. I liked his music. I liked his records. We were just hoping that he would listen and like it and help us out in some way.
JPG: The way you sound, talking about that time, were you close to calling it a day?
JH: I don’t know if…we were just a little too stubborn to call it a day. I think one of the things that we do as musicians is we decide to be musicians regardless of whether or not money is happening. Money is a factor, but it’s not the factor in why people play music. We all have other jobs, still, even with this record out. We teach music lessons on the side. We just decided long ago, just to play music no matter what, come hell or high water.
JPG: Okay, so let’s move the timeline forward. You get signed to Acoustic Disc and you’re feeling good, then Grisman says he wants to produce you as well. At that point are you like, Oh crap. We really got to get our act together.’
JH: Yeah, man. I think we were. It takes so long for a deal to come together. You might find out he likes it and months and months between when we talked about it originally and when it actually went down. But we worked hard. Went out there. As producer, he thought that we pretty much had it together. He just wanted to document that.
JPG: I read that you were surprised that he was recording the songs for Run live to two-track.
JH: I’m still surprised about that. That’s his thing, man. He wants that sound, pure and acoustic, the old style. Definitely a purist in that regard. We were very surprised. We got there and there’s a reel-to-reel tape machine sitting there in the digital age. That was daunting, to try and record that way. You don’t have as many options. There’s no overdubs. Everything happens live. You can’t go back and put a solo in. You can’t go back in and fix a vocal. You can’t go back and do that kind of stuff. That’s it.
JPG: Was that something you discovered when you first walked into the studio or you thought that there must be something else around. So, you start playing for awhile and he says, Okay, we have half the album recorded. Let’s go break for lunch.’
JH: What we were doing was kind of bizarre man cause right when got out there he took us out to lunch somewhere and I got food poisoning so bad that I was in the hospital for two days. That kind of took the edge off. Then, we go in to start recording and we’ve already lost two days of our time. There was this urgency, we’ve got to get it done. We worked fast, man. I think I read somewhere that the Beatles took 129 days to record Sgt Pepper. We did our whole thing in about three days. I wanted more time, truthfully but that’s the way it is. The music that happened on those days, it’s documentation. It’s like, here’s the mike. Here’s the tape. Here’s where the songs are now. Let’s do it. That was it.
JPG: That’s kind of refreshing in a way.
JH: Yeah. It’s been a great experience being around him and having his input. Actually also, we’ve been playing a lot of gigs with him too.
JPG: I was just going to get to that.
JH: That’s been probably one of the most fun things, getting to spend time with him on the road and onstage and play some really amazing gigs. Definitely a huge step up for us in terms of those kinds of gigs. To go from playing to a few hundred people to several thousand. I think we played a gig in Utah for like 10,000 people.
JPG: Was that kind of daunting for you initially because not only was it working with one of your heroes in front of that crowd but it was new material
JH: It was music that we all knew anyway cause we’ve been studying him for years. So, we just picked out tunes of his that we really wanted to do and that’s what we played.
JPG: Working with him in the studio and onstage, what did you learn?
JH: I learned so much and a lot of it is very subtle. The thing that most impressed me about playing music with him is his feel of the music, which is something that is difficult to describe. When he plays a note…anybody else can play a note, the same note, and it’s not going to sound the way he makes it sound because of the feel that goes into it.
When he starts out, he can be standing onstage completely by himself and you’re going to feel like the groove he has. He has such a good rhythmic feel. That’s the stuff that’s really stuck out to me that I want to learn to emulate or imitate. That’s something I want to take from the experience is figuring out how to be like that.
JPG: Of the covers that you play on the album, it’s kind of spooky now listening to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana” after what happened to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Do you play that in concert now?
JH: I think now we’re obligated to play it. They’re playing it on the radio a bunch, even on some TV stations. To have recorded it and have it come out in May… Now, it’s an album we’re selling that has this song on it that, all of a sudden, that’s the song on the album. The song. But I’m a huge fan of Randy Newman. I just think he’s brilliant.
JPG: As far as the originals I really liked the provocative lyrics on “Broken Pieces.” It could be a timeless war song, but it seemed like it references the current situation.
JH: The main gist of that tune is that it doesn’t matter where the bombs go off, people are getting killed and that’s the part that sucks. That’s the part where all the pain comes in and the tragedy comes in.
JPG: Do you think that’s something that makes Old School Freight Train different than what would be considered a purist bluegrass act because of the subject matter?
JH: I think so. We’re more folk in that way. We played at the Newport Folk Festival this summer and that was a great festival. It was great because folk people never have a problem getting political or speaking their minds about an issue. I don’t think there are a lot of issues raised in bluegrass music. I think bluegrass music is more about an overall kind of feeling and more about a cultural group who have similar aesthetics and stuff like that, which is an important thing, too. But we’re more liberal than your average bluegrass band.
JPG: Speaking of cover tunes, I read that you worked on a Radiohead tribute. Then, your manager told me that Old School did a bunch of “Pickin’ On” type of records. Why Radiohead and why these types of albums?
JH: I’ll break it down very honestly for you. The motivation behind doing a lot of these “Pickin’ On” albums is that you get paid. Some of them can be very monotonous and very not very interesting, but they were very good to us and they let us choose who we wanted to cover. So, we chose some of the more outside the box kind of bands. We did do a Coldplay album that I really like on a Tribute to Coldplay. A Tribute to Radiohead is great. I’m excited about it.
What else did we do? We had Air, Wilco, Ben Harper, John Mayer. They’re all bands that I dig. They’re all making thoughtful music. Mayer’s the best of the pop stuff. He’s definitely more poppy than the other bands. Surprisingly, you get involved with the project you start to realize how much work goes into it and how good a musician you have to be to pull off that kind of music, too.
JPG: Now, I’ve seen the Coldplay and Wilco albums, but I don’t recall seeing Old School Freight Train’s name on it.
JH: I think we had a clause in our contract that said that we didn’t want our name on the front not because we don’t like the Coldplay things or any of that, but because some of the jobs that we get are just jobs as studio musicians. And they’re not creative and not what I would call expressions of our art. We’re just covering a tune with bluegrass instruments, but we do try and choose projects that come along that aren’t like that, that are going to be things that are labors of love for us, like the Radiohead. Gosh, it was just so fun to do that album. And the Coldplay too. Coldplay’s a great band.
That’s one of the aspects of our style that maybe didn’t come up in our studio album that we made with Grisman that that does come up in our live shows. It’s all about being goofy and just playing whatever we want to play. With any of the cover tunes, we definitely take a lot of license with what we feel like doing, like crazy sounding stuff. Our fiddle player is kind of the king of that crazy fiddle genre. He gets pretty out there.
JPG: I’m going to have to look at those things with a certain degree of respect now. Before I used to just look at them and just wonder why there’s a “Pickin’ On The Moody Blues” or whatever, just make a quick buck on bluegrass’s newfound popularity.
JH: I’d just say check em out . Not all of them are going to be hip. Some of the ones we worked on turned out to be really cool and actually I recommend those pretty often as examples of what we can do.