Interview & Photos | Railroad Earth | Chicago

Photos: Kristina Danitz
Interview: Michael Kaiz

Above you will find Kristina Danitz's photos from the recent Railroad Earth show at the House of Blues in Chicago. Michael Kaiz also sat down with RRE bassist Andrew Altman a couple days before the show where they discussed plans for the new album, Camp Railroad, and Kaiz also throws Altman some fan-submitted questions.

So I understand you're in the studio today, right?

No. Actually, Jay - everyone has kind of broken for different areas of the world. We've been working off and on since we got back from the New Years shows. There was some work done yesterday. We're down to the finishing stages. A lot of the basic tracks are done, so some of the guys are overdubbing and things like that. Some other guys are taking vacations before we start the winter tour.

Do you guys have a name for the new album, yet?

No. There's a couple that we're kicking around, but nothing definitive. So can't really say yet.

What's your preference as a musician? Do you have more fun when you're in the studio or on the stage in front of a crowd?

Well, lately, I have to say that I really live to play a lot, as it were. If I go a certain amount of time without playing I get kind of antsy. I get restless. I play every day at home; I'm always practicing and jamming with people around town. But without really going out with the band and putting on a nice production, I get restless. But the studio, it's good.

You could get lulled into a rut, as a touring band. You do it and every night is new and different, and that's cool. But you also don't get to experiment as much. You could sit at the studio and really just try some things, some things that might just sound totally awful. But at least there was no one there to hear it. "Well, that was awful. I'm not going to do that again." But you could also come up with something that's like, "Oh, wow. This is amazing. I want to start trying this live." So you don't always get that chance when you're out on the road. You don't get to try new equipment or new ways of playing and interacting and those kinds of things. New material, too, you don't really get time to work out new material on the road. So that's what's been nice for us.

So you've got Camp Railroad this summer. It's not exactly a conventional festival, in the whole weekend, camping and 30, 40, 100 bands type of way. How will it be different from a regular festival and what motivated you guys to do it?

This is something new. It's not really a festival. It's something that these people at Full Moon Resort started doing. It's a unique idea so far as I can tell. Some other bands have done it. It is two-thirds educational and one-third performance. I don't know that right now there's even a plan to put on a full-on performance.

There are going to be little performances, like maybe us in smaller settings. Umphrey's McGee did it last year and some other bands on our scene have done it. We were approached about it last year, actually, but the timing didn't work out. The idea is that over four days you develop these different curriculums, whatever you want really. I'll probably have a session or two where I talk about my jazz background.

I'm sure John will be doing something with classical music. Andy is kind of an instrument collector and he's our multi- instrumentalist. It'll be that kind of thing. Then groups of us might do different things. They might do maybe a jazz or bluegrass thing where a few of us are demonstrating it. It's supposed to be more intimate.

Certainly this would be great for people who are musicians. Even if you don't play, it'd be interesting to hear the things that motivate us and where we come from musically. You can sit there with an instrument and learn or you can sit there with a cup of coffee and listen.

One thing I found interesting about the press release for Camp Railroad is it mentions that people who are working in marketing or managing bands will find opportunities to learn too.

I think we're going to try to make that part of the curriculum. We've pretty much got it all ironed out, but we would be remiss to not utilize the people we have on our crew. They're the core personalities in our own rights. We have a lighting designer. We have a sound engineer. We have a monitor engineer. We have a tour manager, merchandise, and of course our band manager.

I'm not sure who all is going to be involved specifically, but it's definitely something that should be part of the curriculum. It's supposed to be this all-inclusive, behind the scenes look. It would be good to involve some of those people, because they're important to what we do.

So that crew of guys, between your managers, lighting directors, and all that, it's kind of like you having a family on the road with you. Right?

Yeah. Or more like siblings. They're like your brothers where you get along and it's super fun. It's very close. But this group of people is new with the band. Whenever they've started they've pretty much been one team. Railroad Earth definitely doesn't go through personnel very much. We've only ever had one sound engineer, one monitor engineer. We've just had the one lighting designer.

You guys definitely seem like the type of band that keeps the people who count close. So that's good to hear. So what would you say was the biggest turning point in Railroad Earth's career so far?

Biggest turning point, hmm? Well, when I joined the band, of course. No. I'm kidding.

Great answer.

The two biggest ones you always hear about were before I was there. Of course, one of the biggest things they had right off the bat, of course, the Telluride thing. That was one of their very first shows, or maybe their tenth official gig ever was going out to do Telluride. Then in 2005 Phil Lesh joined them for some things and featured them on a couple things. The bluegrass festival and the association with the jam band scene. People love or hate that word, it doesn't really bother me. It is what it is.

This brings up something that's important to me. Some people want to avoid that sort of thing. "Well I'm not just a jam band," or, "We're not just a jam band." The thing is that you can try to avoid it all you want, but the people that support bands like ours, they're very dedicated. That's a good thing.

No matter what kind of music you like, if you're into indie rock, if you're into heavy metal, if you're into jazz, if you're into classical, every scene that people would follow music, there's something that they're going to want to complain about. So it doesn't matter. But bands on our scene they call them jam bands, people like to support. They like to come out to shows.

They'll pay the money for the ticket, and that's what keeps you going down the road. In a world where so many people can get your product for free, whether you're a musician or you make movies, or anything digital, people can just get it for free. The one thing for bands that really is so important now is just being able to sell concert tickets, and this is the best scene for it.

If you're a jam band right now, you better be thanking your lucky stars because people will buy those tickets and they'll support you. They'll put up with a terrible show one night for that amazing show the next night, and they'll stay loyal. They won't just go, "Oh that was terrible. I'm done with you guys."

Yeah. It's a really beautiful thing to see.

As an artist, that's a good place to be in. I don't personally shun that label.

Everyone in Railroad Earth had experiences with previous bands, what would you say the most important thing you learned in your prior music career was coming into Railroad Earth?

For me, it was my training was really digging into jazz 100% for about five or six years of my formative years as a player and musician. That was almost what I played and listened to exclusively when I was young, and that's what really formed me as a musician. Learning that craft gives you everything. Of course, jazz is hugely improvisational, which translates to what we do very well. So you learn improvisation, and you really train your ear. I mean, your harmony is so advanced that you can learn and hear those changes. You can do anything.

I talked to a couple of fans of the band, and I got some questions from them. How would you like to field some fan questions?

Oh, yeah. Shoot.

Despina asks, "Have any of you guys studied music in school, or are you guys self-taught? How do you think that is a factor in what you guys do?"

Well, that kind of ties into the last question. I have a degree in jazz, which was helpful for me. I didn't have a lot of lessons or anything, I was self-taught, then I was able to get a scholarship. So that really was my first chance to go all in. John, he's the same way. He studied classical music in college. I think Andy and Tim studied music a little bit, I don't know if they got full-on degrees, but I know they took some classes. Those guys are largely more self-taught. It goes hand in hand. You can go get a degree in architecture. But that's only half of what it takes to build a building. The degree just gives you raw material; you then have to form it into a career and a sound, a vision.

Randall asks, "What genres of music are currently influencing the band? Where are you drawing your current external influences from?"

Well that's another nice thing about the genre we're in. We're able to really bring all our influences into the band. We don't have a lot of unified influences, which is fine, because then we come together. The sound that comes out is truly representative of a little of everything. Andy is really big into folk music and bluegrass and jazz. John is really heavy into the classical thing. Todd's into songwriters. Whenever I see him listening to an iPod it's Dillon or Neil Young.

Some of the stuff I listened to a lot in the last year was Wilco, The Decemberists and M83. Carrie is into some of the stuff I am, Wilco and everything, Arcade Fire, Feist.

Tim is quite a big consumer of music. He's the one that's always turning us onto the lesser known stuff. I'm always aware of what's out there, the larger scope of things. But he's always finding the niche, out of the way artists that are really cool, in addition to the classic stuff.

[Published on: 1/30/13]

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