Railroad Earth Carves Out Its Amen Corner
Obviously, the relaxing confines of being at home suit the members of Railroad Earth. Seven years ago, it began with informal jam sessions at the address of Andy Goessling (banjo, dobro, flute, pennywhistle and saxophone). For the band’s fourth studio album, Amen Corner, Tim Carbone (violin/vocals/electric guitar), John Skehan (mandolin), Andy Goessling (acoustic guitar, banjo, dobro, mandolin, flute, pennywhistle, saxophones and vocals.) Johnny Grubb (bass) and Carey Harmon (drums) wrote and recorded it in singer/guitarist Todd Sheaffer’s 300 year old home.
Still Railroad Earth is comfortable on the road as well. An appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival shortly after the band’s formation quickly earned RRE the positive word of mouth that the group has sustained over countless days on the road, three studio albums and a two-disc live document. Railroad Earth got an early start supporting Amen Corner, with a number of spring tour dates. Those were followed by summer festival appearances including ROTHBURY, All Good, Dunegrass, YarmonyGrass, XPoNential, Silver Maple and Floydfest with many indoor gigs slated for the fall. Meanwhile, the band is offering an interactive component to Amen Corner with RRE-Mix, which allows fans to try their hands at remixing some of the songs from the new disc.
My original interview with Carbone was postponed a day due to a dentist’s appointment, or so we thought.
JPG: How was your trip to the dentist yesterday? Did you get a new toothbrush and a clean bill of health?
TC: Well, imagine this. I misread my appointment card. So, I drove all the way out to Jersey for no particular reason. However, somebody owed me a pretty big check. So, I took it upon myself to say, ‘Hey man, you got that check? ‘ He was like 20 minutes away from where my dentist was and he said, ‘Yeah man, I got it.’ I went and got paid the money that I needed. Took care of some other business, so it was definitely not a complete bust. Not to mention I got to go to my favorite discount wine store. I got four bottles of great wine for like 40% off. So it ended up good.
JPG: Now you said you drove to New Jersey. I take it you live in New York or Pennsylvania?
TC: I live in Pennsylvania.
JPG: Everyone refers to Railroad Earth as a New Jersey band.
TC: I’m the only one that doesn’t live in New Jersey. I live just over the border in Pennsylvania.
JPG: Now, when I think of New Jersey, it’s the usual suspects, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Frank Sinatra It’s not a rootsy bluegrass act. Is that because I’m not from that area?
TC: It’s funny. People say, ‘Oh my God. Where does bluegrass relate to New Jersey?’ For one thing, we’re not really a bluegrass band. We do play bluegrass. We play Bill Monroe and some fiddle tunes with the addition of drums, which is not unusual. Really, there’s lots of bluegrass in New Jersey. Like the idiom of newgrass, which basically originated in the New York, New Jersey area. Bela Fleck’s teacher, Tony Trischka is from New Jersey. David Grisman is from New Jersey.
JPG: One element Railroad Earth has, that one doesn’t associate with traditional bluegrass, is a drummer. Why did you choose to bring a drummer into the band?
TC: We didn’t want to be trapped into being just a bluegrass band cause we knew right away that we weren’t going to be only a bluegrass band. I just want to also mention, there are a couple of really traditional bluegrass bands that also have drums. The Osborne Brothers had a drummer. Not only did they have a drummer, but they had an electric bass player. They played all the bluegrass festivals. They recorded for Rebel Records.
JPG: Still, it’s not that common to see a drummer with a bluegrass band, which brings me to this. It goes along with you pointing out that Railroad Earth isn’t just a bluegrass band. When I first listened to your music I wasn’t that thrilled because what I heard from others pushed the idea of the music being bluegrass. My ears were expecting one thing and needed to adjust and be open in order to accept who the band really is.
TC: That’s the biggest problem with us. People just don’t, yeah, (sigh) it’s kind of hard to describe exactly what we are. I’ve been fond of calling it lately because we come from everywhere I’ve been calling it, Trans-World Americana because we have Celtic influences and, as a violin player, I’m influenced by classical music and Indian classical music and Persian music as well as bluegrass and jazz, blues, rock, all of that. Basically, you name it. I’m not a bluegrass fiddle player at all. I just play one on TV.
JPG: Listening to a song like ‘‘Hard Livin’” off of Amen Corner, it has a taste of bluegrass with the banjo but it also has a Stax Soul kind of feel.
TC: That song ain’t nowhere near bluegrass in my mind. I picked up the electric guitar to play my part. I was totally channeling Steve Cropper and Booker T of Booker T and the MG’s. I love that stuff. I love playing that stuff. I love just playing that single line funky stuff and choppy chords and then playing the kind of rootsy electric guitar solo. My only complaint, I wish they had turned the guitar solo up, but they didn’t, so… It falls under the category of: Alright, well, everyone’s got a little piece of this. My little piece didn’t get as loud as somebody else’s piece. That’s all right. That’s how it goes.
JPG: Or there’s “Waggin’ The Dog” with its opening line referencing the old Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” tune.
TC: Totally, Even “All Alone.” The whole intro to “All Alone” is this weird accordion thing. Then, the song breaks in and it’s a poignant song. The lyrics give you a sense of loss. Instrumentally this song, I don’t know, man…
We took the song and half-timed it, made it twice as slow. Everyone plays the melody and I’m playing like single notes on the accordion. It really sounds like this odd Eastern European circus music for a moment. I’m going to add another word to our term. It’s Transworld PanAmericana cause that’s what I feel it is. It’s like you’ve got to say PanAmericana because it’s we steal from every part of American folk idiom including jazz, blues, folk music, pop music, Tin Pan Alley and then, of course, we make brief stops in Ireland and Romania, and somehow show up in India and it just goes on and on. But we’re using bluegrass as the root.
JPG: Since we’re dealing with terms. That brings up this. Fiddle versus violin. You’re listed as a violin player, yet Allie Kral from Cornmeal is referred to as a fiddle player.
TC: She’s more of a Classical Violin player than I am. She’s the only person I’ve ever met in my life that’s got Johan Sebastian Bach tattooed on her wrist.
JPG: But just by saying you’re a violin player,’ pretty much imprints that there’s more to you than the ability to play a bluegrass tune.
TC: I guess perception is kind of everything, but the point in fact there really isn’t any difference. Loosely, you could say fiddle players may shave their bridges a little lower so that they can play faster. Classical musicians play really fast, as fast or faster than any bluegrass player than I’ve ever seen. All you have to do is listen to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto and you know what I’m talking about.
When I took classical lessons, I never took private lessons. I was one of those guys that took public school lessons with a bunch of other people that couldn’t really play their instruments. The teacher referred to the instrument as a fiddle. When he retired, the new guy referred to it as a fiddle. So many classical players talk in terms of fiddle or violin, they’re basically describing the same thing.
JPG: Now, in your case, do you say violin in order to give that impression that it’s not your typical bluegrass
TC: No. Like, Hey man, I’m not just a bluegrass fiddle player.’
JPG: Exactly. That kind of statement.
TC: Maybe subliminally. The thing is bluegrass is great music, but I would never want to be just that. And there are people that are just that, which is just fine, but that’s just not for me. And to be honest with you, I can play bluegrass music and there are many other fiddle players out there who can play me under the table as far as bluegrass is concerned. What I really have going for me, as an instrumentalist, is I have my own voice.
JPG: How do you feel your role is in within the songs of Railroad Earth such as when to come in, when to pull back, when to play with the melody, when to take a solo…?
TC: It comes natural to me. The songs, when they’re being written, when they’re being arranged and they’re new, everyone plays what they’re feeling. From those various, initial run-throughs, you come up with a part. Sometimes different members of the band make comments on what it is that’s good about what you’re doing or you could, perhaps, do more or accentuate what you’re doing and all that.
Usually, it’s part of the writing process, the arrangement process that pretty much, the song will speak to me as to what it wants me to do. It’s very much similar to how I play night to night. I’ve gone away from overthinking about the different permutations of what I could do. Instead, I have enough technique on my instrument now that I can pretty much float with it and just play with it. I open my mind up. I try not to think too much and not to get too heady. I really try to connect to some other place when I’m playing. I have no idea of the way to describe except much of what I do comes from somewhere else, that I’m more of a receiver than a transmitter.
JPG: When did that come about?
TC: About 10 years ago. I started playing music that brought that out in me and enabled me not to have to overthink about it. The music of Railroad Earth is perfect for me to do that with because it’s very melodic and I’m a melodic player. So, I don’t really have to think too much. When I’m playing fiddle tunes and they’re very fast, a lot of times I’ll have to visualize what I’m playing before I’m playing or as I’m playing it. Sometimes I’m not even aware of it. I’ll have a visual impression in my mind. I usually play a significant amount of the time with my eyes closed. That’s because I’m visualizing.
That’s what I do, just how it turns out. I do consciously have my eyes open. I try to engage the audience, but when I’m soloing a lot of times, it’s better for me to just find that connection to the ether, so to speak. And I find it easy to do if I’m visualizing what I’m playing. It’s like a floating thing. It’s hard to even really describe. I’m not really thinking about the chord changes. I already intuitively know them. I just let the thing flow. It’s almost like someone else is having a conversation through me in a way.
JPG: You joined Allen Touissant on stage Crawfish Fest. In a situation like that, because you’re not playing songs and with people that you normally do, are you still able to find ease into that zone?
TC: It’s actually pretty much a similar situation, especially if I don’t know the song because then I’m not even aware of the chord structures on it. I have to rely on my ears. And that situation was totally on the fly because he called me up in the middle of a song. I didn’t have the opportunity to lean over to any of the band members and say, “What key are we in?” or anything. I’m standing there and I didn’t even know I was going to sit in. The next thing you know, “Bring that nice fiddler player up.”’ And there I went running and I show up onstage and I get plugged in. Soon as I’m plugged in, I stand up. He looks at me and he goes, “Get it.” I figured out what the key was right away and went for it and people dug it and it was cool. One of those moments in my life.
JPG: At least when you played with Phil Lesh that was rehearsed.
TC: It’s funny you should mention that. I’m cleaning out my office because I’m looking for a box that has my passport in it. So, as I’m looking through I find a box that had all of the old chord charts from that whole thing. I have Phil Lesh’s notes on who’s supposed to do what and where. I’ll give you an example. It’s a written chart without chords, just like descriptions of the song “Elevator” which was an instrumental that we did by Steve Molitz (song by Particle).
This is in Phil Lesh’s printing. He says, “Free form intro. Phil starts bassline… Molo hats. One 8 bar snare build — Snare drum stops — one bar drop out. Full band groove… Jimmy rock chords; Jimmy melody, AABA 8 bars groove, 3; breakdown… Molo hats …Phil alternate bassline…Tim featured. Molo halftime beat 4; band out/Steve to synth Molo hats 9 bar snare build — drum beat stop — one bar drop out Jimmy solo > Steve solo > Jimmy melody. A, 8 bars high dynamic outro hit section. What the hell’s it all supposed to mean?
JPG: Well, apparently it worked.
TC: Oh yeah, totally. The funny thing about it is you go through a rehearsal with him and he has a way of telling it you and explaining it to you that it really leaves very little doubt in your mind exactly what it is that he wants you to do, which is great.
JPG: I can’t remember the name of the film director but he described his movies as having already been viewed in his mind. It was just a matter of filming it and putting it together. That’s what it sounds like there. He’s done the concert already in his head.
TC: He actually thinks of the things in very cinematic terms anyway. He’ll describe things as, “Okay, let’s make a puddle here.” And then we’ll come out of the puddle and we’ll go to the key of "F" for 16 bars and then we’ll drift over to the key of ‘C," which would be the key of the next song. Everything in the set, for the most part in his world, is a giant segue. Not many breaks between songs and when he does that. What he’ll do is describe it in terms of that and then he has a little foot pedal on his mic so he can step on it and talk into his mic and everybody in the band can hear him, but the audience can’t.
JPG: That was something that the Grateful Dead started. You still get people going, “How come we can’t hear him?” Back to Railroad Earth, its roots go back to jam sessions. What was it that convinced everyone to go for it and put this much time and effort because you weren’t the usual musicians in their late teens or 20s willing to hit the road for 300 days a year?
TC: We dug what was going on and we liked what it sounded like. We had people that were related to us that eventually became part of our organization, were urging us and willing us forward on it. So, it all became something that seemed like it was a good idea to try and let’s see what happens. That kind of thing. And it just took off fairly early on. We didn’t make a whole lot of money for a couple of years. We didn’t make hardly anything. I had to borrow money to make it go, but I saw that this could turn into something more and be able to make a living at it, which is something that most musicians ultimately desire.
If you can make a living at what it is you love to do, you got it beat. That’s the deal. So, I saw this as an opportunity later in my life cause I’m 51 now. I was 43 when the band started. As far as touring, I grew up touring. Andy [Goessling] and I were in the Blue Sparks From Hell, we did 250 shows a year. Six months out of a year we were on a tour bus in some other state. That started when I was 20, and then went on until I was almost 40. I really don’t know much else. So it wasn’t a big deal for me. It’s not a big deal for Andy. We’re married to women that we married in the middle of all that madness. Railroad Earth has never done more than 125 gigs. And we’re averaging like 90, 95… less than half of what Blue Sparks did is what Railroad Earth does. I’m not even breaking a sweat here.
Some people don’t like to travel all that much; more power to ‘em if they can make a lot of money by staying within 200 miles of their house. I’m not sure about the long-term sustainability of that.
JPG: Blue Sparks from Hell what kind of band was that? Were you playing violin?
TC: I was playing violin, electric guitar and keyboard. Mostly we were known as a jump swing band. We played like Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. Then we graduated into a rock/pop thing cause we were doing that all the time too, but we would just mix it up with different instrumentation
JPG: Were you able to get a bump when the whole swing movement took off around the mid 90s?
TC: We pre-dated that. We got off the road in 1990. We started off as an electric bluegrass band. So we were like the third wave of that, and then we graduated to playing jump swing because we followed what everybody in the band was starting to get into as their influences. I had been listening to Louis Jordan my whole life. My Dad was into him. He had a big 78 collection. When our lead singer in that band, all of a sudden, brought in a Louis Jordan tune, I said, “I know that. That’s Barnyard Boogie.’ I have the 78. Let’s play it.” The next thing you know, half our repertoire became either Louis Jordan or Wynonie Harris or tunes that we wrote that sounded like that.
We were on the third wave of bluegrass. Didn’t really get any [bump] because we were in the beginning of that and then it became popular. I think we are on the seventh wave at this point. We were on more like the same line as Asleep at the Wheel. We were kind of country western but we didn’t do western swing. Our stuff was blacker. We also played some blues. We did most of our gigs in the South, and we were on the chitlin’ circuit in the blues clubs and the shag clubs out on the North Carolina coast. They call it Shag music’ cause you can do the dance called the Shag.
The whole swing thing that came out in the early 90’s we did one stint in New York where we got back together again and we would do like every Thursday at this club in New York. And the first part of it, they would give swing dance lessons. It kind of sucked. I don’t want to play this same song over and over again while they teach them this dance tune until we play a set of real music that they could dance to. It was cool, yes, but we kind of missed that boat. We were always ahead of our time. Influences didn’t seem to matter.
JPG: With live album, Elko, the press release refers to it as the closing of Phase One in the band’s career or as I like to call it the close of one chapter and the opening of the next one.
TC: I’m not sure what chapter it is, but it’s a chapter. I’m thinking that probably more likely to be like if you were going to put a number on it, I’d put it like chapter two. When we first got involved with SCI Fidelity, their idea was for us to put out a live album cause they looked at the model that had been put out by other bands in the scene. And it seemed like your third or fourth album, it would be good if it were a live album because this particular demographic of fans like that kind of stuff. They’re trading shows anyway. It gave us an opportunity to record a bunch of shows on 24-track digital and then take the opportunity to mix it.
JPG: Were you satisfied with how it came out?
TC: Well, I gotta tell you, you’re talking to someone that’s never satisfied so… I’ve produced records. That’s what I did before I started this band. I made half my living producing records. So, I’m hypercritical. But I play in a band of other guys that also like to think of themselves as producers. I’ve found from experience that if I try to assert my experience too much, it doesn’t really get me anywhere. As I result, in my opinion and according to my tastes and my ears the results are varied. It’s a mixed bag. I’d go back and I would say, “If I was producing this record and it was just me I’d do such and such and such…” I don’t even listen to the record. Basically, do it, move on to next project. Ready. Go.
When I’m in the project, I’m hyper-focused. If I’m producing a record, I’m eating it, sleeping it, drinking it for the amount of time I’m doing it. When it’s done I see it through to mastering and then I’ll listen to the final product. When it’s produced, I’ll put one in my archives. I’ll probably never listen to the friggin’ thing again.
JPG: Are you a perfectionist?
TC: You see the thing is that even if I do listen to them again, I’ll find things that I should have done, that I would have done cause now I have more experience and the knowledge. Every day is like a knowledge thing with me. Every time I play my instruments, I learn something. Every time I take the stage, I learn something. Then the next time, I’m bringing that extra knowledge into the mix.
JPG: Getting to Amen Corner, I read you recorded an album in 2006 but ended up scrapping it. Did you have your producer’s hat on and were in favor of scrapping it?
TC: No man. Amazingly, I was on the other side. “You hate it? It sounds pretty good.” “What are you talking about? It’s all good.” The thing about being in a band and the beauty of it in a band like this is that you can have musical conversations onstage and you can take those musical conversations off the stage into the writing and the producing and the recording process. It’s like a totally different thing for me than when I’m going and producing a record because usually when a band hires me to produce a record, they’re looking to me to do the things that producers do. In this band, no one is looking to me for that. Everyone is looking for everyone else to do that collectively. So, it’s a whole ‘nother dynamic. It’s cool. It’s just another way of doing something. And this band, in particular, it seems to work out really well cause everybody gets the opportunity to have their little piece of the action.
JPG: That’s good because it’s a matter of how a person deals with that situation, wanting to exert more control but not having it. It sounds more like a democracy.
TC: It is a democracy to a certain extent. Some people have louder voices than others. Therefore, those are heard more. I’ve found that in situations when you’re not the Man, you have the opportunity to practice patience and cooperation. Which are skills. They’re life skills. So, any opportunity that I have to get practice in those life skills is always a good thing for me because I find that those are the things that I probably need to work on the most.
It’s a good thing for me, not to be the Man. It’s a good thing to be able to step back because when I’m producing a record Basically I have two ways of doing it. I’ll go in with an artist. “Do you want me to produce the record, then it’s this price. If you want me to survive the experience of having you telling me how to produce the record, then that’s going to cost you twice as much money. Your choice.”
JPG: I like that. At least you can always go home and rationalize that you’re getting paid extra for the trouble.
TC: That’s just how it is. I call it, the Pain In The Ass quotient. You’re going to be a pain in the ass, then it’s going to cost you more money. Let’s make a deal.
JPG: As far as recording Amen Corner at Todd’s house, the result sounds very relaxed and your best representation to date. Was it just a matter of timing that you did it there or that you had the right equipment or?
TC: We used the same digital medium that we used when we made Elko, 24-track HD recorder. Then, a couple years ago Todd had bought this really cool Trident 80 board, which is a neat English tube board. It’s got like 24 channels. Everything was brought through the Trident. We had a lot of really nice compressors. I have my own little pack of stuff. I have three amps and compressors, a group of microphones that I like to use when I make records and everyone
As a band, we used some of the advance money and purchased some nice microphones and a couple of good pre-amps, purchased a really good monitoring system which became key so that we could all hear everything that we were doing. The monitoring system we have is called the Hear System. Everyone has their little mixing console right next to them. You can turn anybody up or anybody down with a specific Me Button if I want to hear more of me. Turn me up. That kind of thing. Whatever you did, didn’t affect anybody else. Fidelity was really good and it sounded like you were listening to a stereo. We quickly got over the fact that none of us could really see each other.
At that point we were recording everything we did. There were some jam sessions that turned into song, but mostly what happened would be that Todd would come in with a germ of an idea and we would flesh it out. He’ll come up with a melody or something and he’ll just start putting words and singing to it. The words don’t necessarily make sense, kind of sounds like mumbling, but he’s just mostly searching for sounds and consonants and vowels and certain vocal melodies. And then he’ll come up with words and just put ‘em off the top of his head. The end of every day that we were recording, he’d bring home a CD of what we did, and he would listen to it, trying to pick out and then this song would grow organically. At that point he would figure out what the song’s about and then extrapolate on it; the chord structure and the melody is already there. He’s gotten certain key words that he came up with kind of off the cuff and they sound good. Then, he would build on that. It was a really good process and it was a good way for this band to work.
JPG: It goes back to what we were talking about earlier of how the songs come together to what listeners eventually hear. Initially, is it chaotic, where everyone is playing their parts, and then, eventually, it gets pruned down?
TC: There’s not a whole lot of chaos going on. We’re really seasoned players and we’ve all played with each other enough that we can intuitively do the right thing. To be honest with you, many times after the initial figuring out happens, there wasn’t a whole lot of that. We didn’t take more than two, three hours as far as arrangement and melody and stuff from point of inception to a final, “Okay, let’s go for a take.” Each song an hour, a couple of hours maybe, three hours tops for any given song. I swear to you 7 songs out of 10, first take was the one we kept. It’s a really beautiful thing when you play with people long enough, and we’ve all known each other for a significant portion of our lives, so that we all kind of speak the same language and travel in the same mode.
JPG: As far as the Railroad Earth remix or the RRE-Mix, anyone can be a producer.
TC: Oh yeah. We’re doing this thing up on our website where people can go in and make their own mixes. I’m definitely going to turn up all the electric guitars. (slight laugh)
JPG: Have you heard any of the results?
TC: No, I haven’t, but I’m waiting. I’m really really interested to see what people would come up with. I know it was done before. Todd Rundgren had a whole run for like a couple of years. He would put songs up and people got stuff that they wanted
JPG: Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has done stuff like that.
TC: That’s right. He did. His stuff was really cool because I seem to remember not only did he have all the tracks, but he had stuff that didn’t make it. So, you could add stuff that wasn’t actually there. You know what the Beatles did with the remix of “Love?” You’re going through and you’re listening, “Wait a minute! That wasn’t on that record! The only rules were that they could use anything that was on the multi-tracks. They used stuff that wasn’t used sometimes.
JPG: I think there were certain harmony parts and some instrumental parts. I can’t recall exactly what songs right now.
TC: Turn stuff up that was buried in the mix. I’m totally psyched to hear what people come up with. It’s a really cool thing.