Tim Carbone and Railroad Earth Serve The Songs
Photo by Vernon Webb
Tim Carbone (fiddle, electric guitar, vocals) is a big Jack Kerouac fan. He’s read nearly all his stuff, and even owns audio of the writer reading his own work. In fact, it was Kerouac’s poem, “October in the Railroad Earth” that inspired the name of his band. The railroad is important for Kerouac, but also for Railroad Earth —a motif spun intricately throughout Todd Shaeffer’s (guitar, lead vocals) lyrics or, occasionally, the songs they choose to cover. It’s an idea that has led devout fans to call themselves “hobos,” wanderers who follow the train’s tracks. The literary roots of their name are further testament to the band’s psyche, for the stories in Railroad Earth’s music are tales of America, and the lyrics are poetry unto themselves.
Railroad Earth formed in northwestern New Jersey, where the majority of the band’s members kept finding themselves in the same musical circles. They would mostly pick at multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling’s house, a lot of bluegrass and covers, until Todd brought in his own songs and provided the band with their first true framework. In 2001 they knocked out a fast demo, and were booked at the famed Telluride Bluegrass Festival’s main stage before they even had their first show. Railroad Earth has been a bluegrass band on tour ever since, though Carey Harmon plays percussion and drums, allowing the group to resist being typecast into that one genre. To any fan, Railroad Earth is American rock and roll.
We caught up with Tim Carbone during the southeastern leg of the band’s tour. His many interests also range from philosophy to politics, to production. Buddy Cage (New Riders of the Purple Sage) once remarked, “Tim knows how to serve the song,” and ultimately, that’s at the heart of what he and Railroad Earth do.
How have your shows been since New Year’s. Any particular highlights?
Well, just after New Year’s we did a little run from through the West to the Midwest and then took a week or ten days down and now we’re on a little run through the southeast. The highlight so far for me, is we’ve done really good as far as crowds. Last night, it didn’t sell out, but other than that, the first three shows of this portion of the tour have all sold-out.
Where are you now?
We are in Birmingham, Alabama and we have a couple days off.
What do you think you’ll do on your days off?
Right now I’m working on writing a storyboard for a video I’m going to shoot for a friend in L.A. later on this month. I’m doing that today and tomorrow, and also listening to mixes of the new Railroad Earth record and see what else there is remaining to do. We’re getting very close.
How did you guys approach this upcoming album differently, and what can we expect?
This album has got a little bit more variety on it, it’s kind of hard to predict whether fans will like it or not like it. There are a couple more tunes with electric guitar on it and our mandolin player John Skehan is also an excellent keyboard player, so there’s more piano on it, and he’s playing some Hammond organ. So there’s a little bit more variety, so hopefully we’ll go along with our vision.
Are you playing electric guitar on the new album?
No, not a lot. I’m playing electric guitar on three songs, but I’m also playing fiddle on those songs too.
I hear Andrew Altman (bass) has more of an influence on it.
Well, he has no more influence than anybody else. The song that he has on the record is actually a song that is married to a fiddle tune that John Skehan wrote, so it’s kind of a two-parter. That’s how we work a lot of the time.
Did you produce this latest album?
No, I did not produce this record. That wouldn’t be something that I would do—producing Railroad Earth—it’s not something that I would like to do. It’s kind of an odd thing, because there’s a kind of mutual vision that goes on in the band and so I think that we’ll either have an outside producer or the whole band will produce it.
Does being a producer make you approach your own music differently?
It makes me approach recording differently, that’s for sure. I kind of have more of a vision in my mind of what things can sound like further down the line, as opposed to exactly when you’re recording it. And other things, it’s sort of hard to explain. I’m kind of ruined for listening to music in a way, because I can’t just listen to a song anymore, now I’m listening to it, “Oh! What does that snare drum sound like? And how did they do that?” [Laughs]
A general Americana feel—the theme of the railroad, tales of early American history, inter-generational songs—runs through a lot of your music. The band, or at least Todd in his songs, seem to draw on a certain period of American history. Why do you think that is?
I think he totally finds inspiration there. I think also, he’s a very avid reader—his mojo gets set into motion by the things he reads. He reads a lot stuff that is either set in that period or has something to do with that period of time, various periods. I can’t speak for him and say that’s what influences him, but I know from knowing him that he’s a voracious reader. I mostly know he’s been reading older material. I think it definitely does have an effect on his writing.
What is Todd’s “singwriting” and the bands songwriting process in general like?
This would be better answered by Todd, but he explains it as “singwriting,” because what he’ll do is come up with a melody and a series of chord changes that he’ll start mumbling, for lack of a better word, words to it—he’ll capture the essence of what the song is about. And he may already have an idea what the song’s about and just fill in the spaces. He’s developing the melody through the use of nonsense words, so to speak, to fill in the spaces and then he’ll fill in the gap; it’ll occur to him what the song is actually about. It’ll come to him. That’s just the way it comes out; that’s the best I can describe it.
The band in general?
What usually happens is Todd will come in with a song, and we will basically enter it and fill in what is our sound. We’ll help arrangements—the song is the song pretty much when it comes in. The collaboration comes in with how the song is arranged and the kind of little vibe the song hits after we give it that kind of treatment.
I’m curious how the band’s sound has been influenced by the members’ varied tastes, and even by influences that aren’t necessarily musicians.
That’s a great question. For me—I can mostly speak for myself—I’m influenced by thinkers as well as songwriters and musicians. For instance, I’m influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, also by Buddhist thinkers like the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh, Shantideva of India and his thinking; lots of different things, not just musicians. I don’t know that I could speak for the rest of the band but that’s me.