An Interview with John Skehan of Railroad Earth

WRGW: Once again, this is John Skehan of Railroad Earth on air with us. Did I pronounce your name correctly?

JS: Yes, Skehan, that’s correct.

Alright, excellent. So let’s see, you told me earlier that you all are now at home, where is that exactly? Stillwater, New Jersey for me, the band’s based out of northwestern New Jersey. We’re kind of all spread around the state. We just got back from about a two week tour on Sunday.

And you still have some more dates coming up, correct?

That’s right, we’re headed to Boston and then Washington, D.C. this weekend.

Yes, I know, I will be seeing you there! I’m very excited. How, if at all, does New Jersey factor into your music, to the composition, to your style, to your inspiration?

Well in a lot of ways. One of the earliest examples was one of the first songs that Todd, our lead singer and main songwriter, began working up for the band when we were just sort of getting together and experimenting with this music. The song was called “Black Bear” because where we are up in the northern corner of New Jersey, black bears are kind of a fixture around here – beautiful creatures and we have them roaming through our back yards from time to time. It’s always an exciting sight to see. But in fact, I remember working on that song outdoors on kind of a nice, extra warm fall day before we had really begun to record or do anything real serious with the band. We were just kind of working through the beginnings of the song “Black Bear” and, sure enough, one of them happened to kind of wander out of the woods for a moment. He took a pause, gave us a look, and went about his business. That’s certainly one of the things [from] this part of New Jersey that [we] get to bring on the road with us.
And am I correct in thinking that the name of the first EP, or at least the one that I have, is Black Bear Sessions?
Yeah, because it really was just kind of an informal get-together to try out some new music in a new format with a new band, different instrumentation. And “Black Bear” was one of the first songs we went in and recorded, and put out a five-song demo. Then, when that began to get some wheels and we found ourselves hitting the road and appearing at a number of festivals early on, we decided to go back and finish the record with a few more songs and just called it The Black Bear Sessions because it really was an informal go-into-the-studio-and-see-what-happens, sit-back-and-listen-to-what-we-did.

So that was 2000 to 2001 to 2002 era. What is it like to be in Railroad earth now, in 2013, as opposed to back when you were first getting started?

Well, you know, the time has really run by us quickly, and we’ve certainly been very, very blessed over these years to run into a lot of great people, had a tremendous amount of support, and now just sit back and see how not only the music has grown and the band has grown but also the fanbase has grown so much that it’s hard to imagine. We certainly never saw it coming back then in 2001 or 2002. We were just sort of rolling with something that we didn’t quite know where it was gonna go or what was gonna happen, so to look back on it now, I guess get a little perspective on that, is pretty humbling and amazing to think we’ve come this far.

And that makes me think of, well you mention how your fanbase is growing and how people react to your music, I’m wondering because your sound is so very American folk, beautiful and twangy, have you ever done any tours abroad in other countries?

Well, we haven’t really done any long tours, we’ve been lucky enough to go to a festival in Japan, Fuji Rock, I think that was back in ‘07 and we did go to a festival in Glasgow Scotland called Celtic connections— I think also in 2007. But we were able to just pick up a couple of dates in England and then do the festival in Scotland. That’s really been our only overseas trips we were just down in Tulum, Mexico playing the Strings and Soul Festival this past December, but that’s a little bit different than a tour and you know cruising through other countries. We’re hoping to do so at some point, but there’s an awful lot of ground to cover here in the United States as well, so we’re still trying to hit every place we possibly can at home.

Have you noticed any difference in audiences’ receptions based on the location of the venue? Like, New Mexico versus Massachusetts, is there a difference?

Well, I think that the response is usually pretty consistent, the difference is in the number of people, you know the West, Colorado in particular and California, have always been the strongest for us really, from the beginning, which is why I think most people think the band is actually from Colorado. But I guess people seem to react to the music, most of the time, positively just about the same everywhere we go. It’s just a difference in sheer numbers and audience, but we’re starting to see it grow more and more throughout the Southeast and all across the country.

As a performer, do individual concerts require different things from you than playing huge festivals, or even medium sized or smaller festivals, is it just a different vibe?

Well, you know we try to keep things a little vibrant by changing up the music as much as we can while we’re on the road. Certainly, during venue tours, we get the chance to play a lot longer than on a festival. Although, sometimes our festival sets will be a straight two hours. But when you’re doing shows in venues, especially doing multiple night stands in some cities— we just finished up a two night run of Atlanta, and we started that with, I think, two nights in Charlottesville— you get to settle in a little more. And since we’re doing two fairly long sets each night, you kind of shape the music in terms of song selection and try to create a story or just an evolving mood throughout the night, or even an arc over two different nights. Sometimes when you’re hitting a festival and you have 90 minutes or even two hours, you’re trying to reach a very large number of people so you’re going to kind of come out with all guns blazing and do things a little differently than you might when you have a full night of two sets of music.

Word on the Internet is that you all are really known for passionate, energized live shows. How do you keep up that level of intensity and energy night after night?

Well, we try to keep changing things. I think one of the interesting ways in which the band has evolved especially, as you mentioned earlier, thinking back to 2001 or 2002, we certainly got more confident in taking chances, in improvising, and changing up transitions in between songs or even wholesale parts of songs. And we try to do that just about every night, and try to come up with something to hopefully surprise or keep the interest level of people in the audience who know the music that might hear us doing something that we’ve never done before. But it also, I think, keeps us having a bit of an edge, when you have to go out there and think “Okay, this is completely different and new, and even though we may have played this song a hundred times before, we’re going to turn it inside out tonight, and go out on a limb and hope we all land on our feet.” I’d still say, though, that the biggest factor in energy behind a show is the audience, since a lot of what we do is improvisational, I think the audience feels that and when the energy is coming back from them, the band reciprocates, and you have kind of a mutual excitement in terms of something that is happening right there, right then that is felt by both the audience and the band.

Do you ever try to play cover songs at your shows? Is that something that you enjoy doing?

You know, we do now and again. We tend to be kind of selective with them, I think, more if it’s something we like or seems to fit the band, in particular Todd, being the lead singer, then we’ll go there. But if it simply doesn’t feel right or doesn’t fit, we’re just not gonna do it. We’ve had a couple of cover songs from early on, I guess one that comes to mind is a Tom Waits song called “Cold Water” which on the Tom Waits record is a slow, slow dirge and I think it was Timmy that brought it in and said “This would be a great bluegrass number.” So we cranked up the tempo, tripled it probably, and it’s still one of the more fun, just kind of rousing tunes in the repertoire. Usually, if we are approaching a cover, it’s because we want to do something completely different with or it’s something we all just genuinely like.

Well that’s a very organic way to do it. Why else would you ever play a song that isn’t your own if you don’t all love it?

Yeah, it has to mean something to us, I guess, rather than just throwing in covers for the sake of changing things up. We do get some unusual requests now and again and sometimes they have actually yielded songs that have found their way into the repertoire.

So, the improvisation that you mentioned that you all are so good at and that you love doing so much… Does that factor into the songwriting process as well?

It does, quite often. Again, Todd being the main songwriter, he’ll bring something in that’s really fully finished and the band will work with him just in terms of arrangements, instrumentation, kind of orchestrating things. But oftentimes we’ll get together in a studio or in a rehearsal space and a song will grow out of an improvisation. There are a number…I guess one that comes to mind would be “Morning Flies” from The Good Life record that really just started as kind of a groove that our bass player and our drummer, Carey, were warming up on in the morning. Next thing you knew, Todd started to get melodic ideas and began to kind of sing along and over a day or two a song had evolved. I think the song “Hard Livin’” from Amen Corner album really started out the same way, just kind of a riff that we were messing around with. Next thing you know, Todd had an idea that popped into his head and before too long it was a song.

I love that song, actually. I played it just before you called in. So that’s very fitting. I just have a couple more questions, kind of directed at you, personally. You know you play the mandolin, correct? And a number of other instruments, but primarily you play mandolin for the band?

Yes.

So, why Mandolin? It’s just kind of a personal question, but that’s not an instrument that many musicians know their way around.

There’s something about it that just sort of drew me in. When I first began to listen to mandolin players, David Grismund and Sam Bush in particular, and, you know, in terms of bluegrass considering that Bill Munroe is the father of bluegrass and he was THE mandolin player. Really, he brought the mandolin to the forefront of a band, and the music he developed, bluegrass music and his mandolin playing style, he was really the first one to step up and say, “This can be a lead instrument.” A lead melody instrument, just like the violin. And it can also be a very powerful, driving rhythmic instrument. So when you start to get bitten by the bluegrass bug and get hooked on it, certainly the mandolin kind of holds a special place in the hierarchy of instruments. But for me, it’s just an amazingly versatile instrument, at once melodic and rhythmic and having had, initially, a background in guitar, moving from one fretted instrument to the next was somewhat natural. But also having had a lot of background with piano, I think the way I approached the mandolin was very much like the piano player’s right hand. At least, that’s how I view my role in the band, as someone who is like what the piano player would do with his right hand both playing melodies but also supporting things harmonically, playing chords but moving chord voicings around in a way both melodic and harmonic at once to support what’s happening.

It all sounds so very mathematical to me.

That’s the nerd side of it. The other thing is that the mandolin is beautiful and cool, the shape of it, it has a waist, it has hips, it’s sexy. It’s a beautiful thing.

And am I also correct, in doing some research, that you play a bouzouki on many songs?

Yes, I do.

Could you explain to our listeners exactly what that is?

Well, it’s an Irish bouzouki which sort of sounds like the punchline to a joke, because the bouzouki is originally a Greek instrument in origin. However, in the ‘60s, the Irish guys— I guess, somebody— brought one back from Greece and they were kind of drawn to the sort of jangly open quality of it. It works as a great harmonic support instrument for fiddle tunes, and they tuned it differently than the Greeks, basically tuning it an octave lower than a mandolin, which is tuned the same as a violin, so it kind of works great for playing fiddle tunes. And it fills in that role kind of between the mandolin and the guitar, being an octave lower. And having an interest in Celtic music, I was just sort of drawn to it and thought that it would be another interesting color on the palette for the band.

How do you explain matching these—you said Celtic, that’s the perfect word—Celtic influences with a style of music that is so very, quintessentially American? How do those two things work together?

Well, the Celtic influence really runs deep in the origins of bluegrass and, in particular, that whole area of American music that sprang forth from the Appalachian mountains largely because most of the immigrants were of Scotch Irish background. And they brought fiddle tunes, the traditional songs, with them. They found themselves kind of isolated down in the mountains and began blending that music with some things that were just evolving in America, gospel music, the music of black churches. And it’s really a large component in the melting pot that yielded bluegrass, and then further on, rock and roll. That’s what Bill Munroe used to call the ancient tones, the haunting modal qualities of the old Scotts-Irish fiddle tunes.

Yeah, it even sounds like it comes from the mountains. Like it’s misty and cloudy. It’s definitely atmospheric.

Yes, and like you said, it runs deep in particular in bluegrass and in American folk traditions.

So just to wrap this up I have a question about Railroad Earth as a unit. You haven’t released an album in a couple of years now. Is there one in the works, or would you like there to be one in the works?

There is one in the works, actually. We are hopefully getting very close to finishing it. We need to get into the process of mixing but we have been in the studio well for the better part of October and November and then as much as we’ve been able to, in between getting out on the road, you know. After New Years and everything we’ve been on a couple of long tours, but we’ve got the bulk of the record done, just really need to put the finishing touches on it. And it’s been an exciting process, it has been a couple of years and I think it’s yielded a lot of new music and probably the best record we’ve done since the beginning. If not the best.

Wow, I am so glad to hear that. I am so happy now. Are you playing any of these new songs on the tour right now?

Not just yet. We live in a world where things, once you put them out there… especially since we do allow taping and everything… that, you know, as soon as you bring something new out, it pretty much ends up all over the place and before you know it it’s not new anymore. So we are holding off until the record is closer to being finished and being released which will hopefully be in the springtime or at least early summer as we head for festival season. But we usually hold off on breaking out the new material until we’re closer to the record coming out, just because we certainly don’t want it to become to old too fast.

I can certainly understand that and I respect it and I very much look forward to hearing your new music.

Well thank you, we’re very excited about it. It’s going to be an interesting ride once it all comes together.

Good good good, and it’s a ride that’s going nowhere but up right now, and I’m just so happy for you guys, and I’ve loved seeing your rise, and I know it will continue. So once again, thank you, John, for calling WRGW and having a chat with us, and best of luck on the rest of your tour. I will be seeing you in Washington, DC this weekend but as for the rest of it, safe travels and I wish you the best.
Well, thank you very much! I’m looking forward to getting back to the 9:30 Club. We always have a great night there.
Always, always. But they’re very intense with their underage hand stamping, I can tell you right now. That’s a Me Problem. But thanks once again, we hope to hear some new music from you very soon!
Alright. Thank you so much. See you this weekend!

TLDR: You can also listen to the interview

-Tori Kerr

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