Railroad Earth: The Outlaw Way
Photo by Stuart Levine
In the wake of an extensive North American tour that will take Railroad Earth through winter and into the spring of 2014 to support the release of their seventh studio album _ The Last of the Outlaws_, drummer Carey Harmon took some time out of what is already a hectic and exciting schedule to speak to Jambands.com. Enthusiastically and courteously reflecting on what was a huge year for his band, Harmon seemed humbled by the support of his fans while describing his feelings on the current state of the record industry.
“Music is not going to stop,” said Harmon, “and trying to play on people’s consciences – that they will buy the record because they should – I don’t think is a good business plan.” It can be safely predicted that people will always be making music, regardless of industry downfalls or benefits, especially if the world has bands like Railroad Earth to supply that music. Following the Grateful Dead touring-business model, the newgrass sextet have built themselves a formidable following over the last thirteen years.
The New Jersey-based band will tour incessantly in support of The Last of the Outlaws, and with the hopes of spreading their music as far as possible. Last summer Railroad Earth performed their largest headlining concert to date, at Colorado’s historic Red Rocks Amphitheatre to well over eight thousand loyal fans in what was a rain-soaked testament to what a band can achieve with the help of a supportive fan-base and the will keep on playing.
Let’s talk about the new album, The Last of the Outlaws. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the recording process this time around, because it’s got a really classic-sounding vibe, but at the same time it sounds very full for a band that mostly works in acoustic instrumentation.
Yeah, well that’s good to hear, I appreciate that. We went in with probably as little a plan as ever and the idea was to get as many ideas out as we could as a group and in a group setting. So we found a place where we could have enough space to set up and stay set up and just kind of let it go. We’d come in every day and just start jamming and somebody was always hitting record; we had a great engineer there to record everything. And we would leave on a regular basis every couple days with things posted to a server that we could all download and listen to and go, “You know what, write it. Three and a half, four minutes into this thing, at the end of the day it’s a really cool thing.” So a lot of things were able to be built that way and it also gave us the chance for Todd [Shaeffer] to just do his thing, which is to come in usually with something that’s just guitar-based that’s coming more from the singer-songwriter head.
But to be able to mix the two elements – there was no producer involved, which gave us a lot of freedom – the majority of the tracking, the overdubbing and getting things done was kind of in that free-flowing environment, which got done months ago. So we were looking around for the right person to mix it and finish it for months and that’s why it still wasn’t finished until recently. But we learn a little bit each time, and that was the path we took this time.
So you did everything live in the studio?
You know for the most part. You cut everything – sometimes things that you’re hearing on the record, we didn’t know we were going for necessarily. There’s things that were there that were end-of-the-day sort of things. You know, “One More Night on the Road,” and that kind of stuff wasn’t necessarily painstakingly done through takes. It was sort of like, “If it’s fun and it sounds like the record, let’s keep it there.” So it had that sort of flow to it. There’s obviously layering that goes on in the record, too. So there’s things where people went back and added instruments, especially John who got to stretch out, which was great. John Skehan got the chance to play piano finally on a record. He’s a great pianist; he was a pianist before he was a mandolin player.
That was a really exciting thing for me to hear, because I know he is a classically-trained pianist but we’ve never heard that before on Railroad earth songs and it adds such a great layer to songs like “Grandfather Mountain.” And he plays an organ on “When the Sun Gets In Your Blood” that made the whole song for me.
You know, I will say that you have heard John play classical piano in a sense that he really does approach the mandolin differently than most mandolin players I’ve heard. I think a lot had to do with playing the piano on the mandolin; all the voicings and the parts that he thinks of. But to hear him finally sit down and play the piano…Honestly we just finished a Thanksgiving run at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg and that was the first time the piano – or the digital piano – made its way out on to stage so we played “Grandfather Mountain” for the first time in a PA, loud in front of an audience. So it’s gonna be fun, it’s gonna open up a lot of things.
You’ve done some really interesting things on this record. The biggest thing that jumped out at me – and I knew I was going to love it as soon as I saw the track-listing and the times for it – was the suite that you did, “All That’s Dead May Live Again.” It’s a twenty-plus minute suite with seven movements, which I think is just awesome and ambitious and you really don’t see that a lot from many bands. How did you approach that in the studio? Did you record that all as one piece or did you take different cuts?
There were different cuts. The idea of the long instrumental has been in the works for a long time and a lot of it has been in the mind of John Skehan. Various sections of this I’ve heard from him and we’ve messed around on for a while, but never had we really put the whole thing together. It was very much assembled. We had this section and that section and then Todd came in with the song “All That’s Dead” and he added the other song that’s in there as well.
It was very much an assembled thing and it was interesting to see if it was all going to make any kind of sense together. You know, what order do you put the whole thing in? And then we did start piecing it together and, yes, some overdubs came along and other ideas got layered on top of it. It wasn’t until months ago that we sat down to rehearse and had to learn how to play the whole thing (laughs).
How does a song like that translate live for you guys?
I don’t know. We haven’t figured it out because I don’t know if it’s going to be a full piece every time we play it. We’ve messed around with the idea, or at least talked about the idea, of you know, “What if we just brought out this section or this other section as part of something else?” but now and then you play the entire piece. So it remains to be seen, because I think we would like to play a lot of those sections more than it would fit to actually play that whole thing.
Then you can kind of get a “Terrapin Station” feel to it where you can maybe play a different section of it at a certain point or break it up a little bit or play just parts of it each night. I look forward to hearing that live.
Yeah, me too, I look forward to playing it live, because I think that will be a really different thing for us.