I sat down with Todd Sheaffer late this summer at his home in rural New Jersey to discuss his reemergence to the JamBase scene in his new role as a songwriter and the lead singer for Railroad Earth. On his idyllic back porch, staring off into the woods, we dove into a couple of Joes from the Millburn Deli, a quart of their fabulous iced tea, and some good conversation.
Photo by Erin Mills
- Marty Millman
Marty Millman: What music are you listening to these days?
Todd Sheaffer: This is a CD I just picked up. We were down visiting the folks at Sugar Hill records and we raided the warehouse. It’s the Osborne Brothers. I’m liking it a lot, listening to it a lot, love the harmonies, love the arrangements.
MM: Did you make a conscious shift from the sound of your former band From Good Homes to a more traditional type of music or were you always listening to labels like Sugar Hill?
TS: I had always been listening to more traditional kinds of music and things that might fall on the Sugar Hill label, but certainly a lot more now, in Railroad Earth. It feels like a very natural kind of progression to be digging deeper into the roots of the kind of music I’ve always played.
MM: Was it fortuitous that you got together with the guys from Railroad Earth or were you looking for people to play this kind of music with you?
TS: I’ve known the guys in the group and played with them in various setting over the years and it wasn’t really a situation where I said, “Well, I’d like to start a new band” and went out and gathered around the players that I thought would be the ones. It was actually very different from that. They came to me and had a project started, invited me down to a bluegrass picking session over at Andy’s [Goessling – acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, pennywhistle, saxophones, etc.] house. I had been playing my solo shows, that’s what I had been doing at the time and I’ve always loved the music, always had an interest in it, listened to it and played a few songs here and there. So I went to that party just to have fun really, and had a whole hell of a lot of fun. You know, we were just picking out traditional songs, bluegrass jams, and I just threw a couple of my songs out in the midst of the songs that were flowing and the seemed to work really well, some of my newer songs, and we had a lot of fun, so we kind of took it from there. But its people I’ve known for years. Andy and Tim [Carbone – violin, acoustic guitar, vocals], I used to go see their band The Blue Sparks at the Stanhope House years ago. Great band, always liked their playing. Tim is the fiddle player, he also plays guitar. He was actually in From Good Homes for a little while around ’92, ’93 so I knew him and had played with him.
MM: I was surprised to hear "Head" as the first song on the album. What’s the difference between playing this song with Railroad Earth as opposed to From Good Homes?
TS: I think it works both ways, I enjoy it both versions. Well obviously it's got a different groove happening. We put it into a bluegrass groove and that was actually the first one. That jam that I was just describing, it was like “Well, you know any bluegrass songs Todd, pick one, pull one out for us.” I said, “Alright, sure, I know one.” and just started playing "Head" and it was really rockin’, it was a lot of fun. I think there’s something in the content of that melody that works really well as a bluegrass song. It’s the note that the melody starts on, that high lonesome sound. It doesn’t have that high lonesome sound when we put the rock and roll, funky kind of beat to it. When you put it in this other context you go “Oh, it is a bluegrass song, your right.” We put some good chord changes on it that John [Skehan – acoustic mandolin, acoustic guitar, piano] actually suggested, a B flat in there which never ended up in the Homes version which I like a lot. And then we take bluegrass and space it out at the end and take it into a jam, which is kind of an unusual approach in bluegrass. In bluegrass soloing you send it around the instrumentation. We took the end and it’s a free, open jam. There’s room for improvisation, but it keeps the bluegrass groove underneath it. So that’s kind of a different approach.
MM: I always interpreted "Head" as being about lucid dreaming and expanding your capabilities though your dream life. What is the song about?
TS: Well, it may be about that, I don’t know. That’s an interesting one. It also has a partier’s element to it. I’m happy to hear other interpretations of it, but it can also be a psychedelic theme. I don’t want to pin it down too much, that’s what I like about the song. There’s a lot of ways to take it, its open ended. I think it can also be a sexy song, you know. Well, its title is Head for one thing. Oddly enough when I originally wrote it I couldn’t decide if I wanted to sing, “Turn on my own head,” or “Turn off my own head.” I probably wrote it in the wee hours when I couldn’t sleep – “Me I’m in here flying.”
MM: Now that you have a new outlet for your music do you find that you are writing songs differently than in the past?
TS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t think I would have written that lyric [Head] right now. I’m really very interested in diving more into the roots, a little bit richer tradition I’m trying to draw from and continue to base the songs on. It’s always been in my writing. I knew about it, I knew it was there but I never really looked into it all that much. It’s occurring somewhat consciously, but more just by being exposed to this kind of music and learning more about it from the players and the band and from the scene that we’re on and I’m enjoying it a lot.
MM: Give me an example of a recent song that you have written with an Americana theme.
TS: Well, like "Black Bear" and "Chains, Lordy Lordy" for sure. Its interesting, in some reviews and interviews people have asked and commented that they hear a lot of Dylan and Robert Hunter in my newer songwriting. Those are writers who I’ve always loved and they too were heavily into roots music and lyric writing and drew on that tradition a lot and I’m really interested in how they approached that. So I’ve always been interested in that stuff because its drawn from roots.
MM: The song "Black Bear" continues with your common songwriting themes of a spiritual hibernation and rebirth. Can you comment on this?
TS: I’ve been interested in Native American stuff a little bit and I can see how they relate and learn from animals and from nature around us. The first time I saw a bear, you know, out here they come around a lot, but the first time I saw a black bear it stopped me in my tracks and I was just in awe of how powerful and beautiful it was. I tried to keep that in mind as I was writing this song. Just try to see what that meant to me, that feeling. The Native Americans give to certain encounters with animals certain powers and certain messages that they feel like they may be receiving. I think that’s kind of neat, you know. With "Black Bear" I tried to put that into my own personal experience and have some fun in writing the song. And it had been a period for me where I was kinda out here in the woods, with [From Good Homes] breaking up and wondering what kind of direction I may head in, or where my path may take me. And then when this band started happening it felt very natural and I said, “O.K., time to start moving again, hibernation is over.” So yeah, it was not just simply “Oh, there’s a bear, lets write about bears.” I tried to put other ideas into it and relate it to my experience, put that into it a little bit, but also try to keep it universal so other people can find some things in it.
MM: Can you comment on similar issues of redemption in "Seven Story Mountain?"
TS: There’s some of those themes in that one. Sometimes in your life there’s a little darker hibernation period. It’s a little darker period. And then you’re given a chance to come around again. It comes around again and you say “Oh. O.K.”, and you feel alive again and you feel that you have the strength to do it again. There’s also thoughts in that song in the music. Tim, the violin player, in particular is interested in eastern philosophies and things in his violin work. He spent a good couple of months in India and was very influenced by that playing and the music over there, the way they approach things and spiritual ideas. I went over there with Tim in December, last December, to Thailand, and we played music over there at the world festival of sacred music with Dharma Bums. So I think some of that crept into Seven Story Mountain too, their ideas of reincarnation. They’re a sweet people, very kind and fun, have a smile on their face. They don’t seem too worried about it. The idea that we may have another chance, they look at as they’re perfecting themselves spiritually. It may not happen this lifetime, they may have an opportunity next time. I think there is some of that creeping into Seven Story Mountain, certainly in the violin playing and maybe in some of the lyrics.
MM: Could you talk about the inspiration for "Chains"?
TS: That’s one where I was actually inspired by a conversation I had with a guy. It was pretty funny, I ended up in a... I got pulled over, coming out of New York, driving home. I pulled over, I was sleeping on the side of the road and I got arrested for DWI, which is a pain in the ass. Not a great moment. I ended up in the intoxicated driver’s resource center and I was talking with a guy there. The best thing that came out of my time at the IDRC was meeting some really great people. You know, there’s kind of a camaraderie that develops when you’re sitting in this place feeling stupid. There was a guy there and he started talking to me about his daughter. He was just telling me basically his life story, talking about his dad a lot, who had beaten the shit out of him. And his grandfather before who had beaten the shit out of his dad, and he said, “It stops here,” and he shows me a picture of his daughter, “there is no way I’m hitting this girl or abusing her.” You know, it’s really kind of a moving story when he was telling me that. That’s where the inspiration for that song came about. That’s the story behind Chains, and it’s made me think about things.
MM: Many of the bands you are now considered peers with are from Colorado. Is the song "Colorado" your announcement of the arrival of Railroad Earth?
TS: For years Colorado has always been a place that had a special feeling for me. My brother used to live there. I used to go out there and visit him all the time. He used to live in Crested Butte. So that’s when I first started going to Colorado and had a lot of friends out there and the Homes used to play there a lot. There’s a lot of folks from New Jersey out in Colorado too, friends that I’ve grown up with that live out there. So when we go out there, when Homes went out there and when Railroad Earth went out there, I’m seeing a lot of great old faces, seeing a lot of great old friends, and always having a great old time. So that’s in the song, anticipating seeing people again. It struck me as… there’s kind of a neat parallel to it, we did our first tour as Railroad Earth and where are we going? We’re going to Colorado. Just the anticipation of playing the Telluride Festival was very exciting for the band, for me.
MM: Has the band benefited from playing festivals with all these other great groups in a different way than just playing gigs by yourselves?
TS: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been out here in the woods for a little bit, you know. When [From Good Homes] broke up I was playing solo shows, but I was in more of a folky kind of environment. There’s just a great scene going on that I haven’t been around a whole lot because I hadn’t been out playing with a band. So that was great to see. It’s inspiring. There’s so much great music going on. So that’s just great to see, the festival scene, and the people getting into the music. It just seems to be growing, way more than I was aware of. Seeing the music, hearing the music, being around the energy and the variety has just been fantastic for me. It’s a real scene that just seems to be gaining more and more momentum. I’ve really enjoyed the festivals. And there are a lot of them, a lot more than I remember from the Homes heyday. High Sierra was just an incredible freak-out, that Saturday night, the vibe was just completely electric everywhere you walked. It was fun. We’re playing everything from, at least this summer, we played everything from real traditional bluegrass festivals to serious freak shows and everything in between, and it was neat.
MM: Are you learning new things from your new band mates as you go out on the road?
TS: It’s a great group of guys. We’re having a really good time and it’s really fun. It’s really fresh for us too. From what I’ve seen so far it seems as if it is going to be a great group. There’s really no stress. It seems like a good mesh of people. Things get taken care of very naturally. You don’t have to think about a whole lot. It just seems to feel real nice.
It’s a group that’s got a lot of experience with being on the road and also the dynamics of being in a band. I think when you’re really young and learning to be in a band you end up in a lot of tense moments because you’re still trying to figure everything out. Working out arrangements is a process you have to learn to do. Being on the road is a process you have to go through and a lot of this band the guys have done that. It’s like, “Been there, done that.” Things seem to be flowing real smoothly. We’ve done it before, gone thought the growing pains, and kind of approaching it at a level where we can get stuff done. The communication is there because people have worked out those kind of communication problems in other settings. Tim and Andy have toured a lot, a lot more than me even. They’ve got a lot of experience, they know the story, they know what its all about. And they know were you might hit a pit fall and they know how to take care of things that need taking care of. They’re hard to keep up with too, those guys, they’re unbelievable. They drove straight through to Colorado non-stop, slept in the van, didn’t stop. These guys are animals. Just when you’ve been in the van for two days Andy or Tim will sit up and say, “I’ll drive.” It’s unbelievable.
MM: Discuss the dichotomy in your songwriting between the lure of the open road and the power of one’s home.
TS: The lure. Someone describes it as the lure of the open road and the tug of what’s been left behind. It’s there. The name of the band, Railroad Earth, there’s momentum, there’s motion in it, but there’s also an earthy quality. "Stillwater Getaway" was written by John Skehan and Andy added the bridge section to it. It’s a great fun instrumental. I think there is a lot of momentum and energy, drive in it so that’s where the name came from. There’s a lot of that chug in bluegrass, you know, get that train motion happening. It’s got deep roots in a lot of traditional music. I think that Bill Monroe, a lot of his rhythms are just really simple, kind of based on hearing the rhythms of a train cruising by. The song "Railroad Earth" has a lot of those qualities in it. There’s a loneliness to it, there’s a motion to it that adds to that earthy quality. I like the harmonies in it, too. It’s fun singing the song. It has a little bit of a hobo quality to it.
MM: Speaking of hobos, how did you pick the Tom Waites song "Cold Water" to record for your debut album?
TS: Tim brought it in to rehearsal. He had that record and thought it would be a perfect song, and he was right. I love singing it. It feels very natural to sing and it’s a lot of fun. We just did it in the key of A, a good key for me to sing in. There’s a little more humor in it than in his original version that comes out in our version. It’s up-tempo with my singing style in the context of what we do. Its got a younger voice singing it. Waites sounds as if he’s about to die.
MM: Has your music reached a new level of maturity with Railroad Earth?
TS: I’m excited about the possibilities musically. I’ve really been learning a lot, first of all. We’ve talked a lot about the lyrics, but musically there’s been a lot of interesting stuff going on. I’ve learned a lot from the guys in the group and its exciting to me the wide diversity of areas we can explore. I’m practicing a lot on the guitar, more than I have in a long time, trying to expand my musical vocabulary. I’m trying to learn a little bit and get a little better as a soloist. Even trying a little flat picking, but trying to keep it within my own style. I’m really interested in trying to grow as a musician in not just the songwriting but in the playing. A lot of times as the front man, the singer, I’ve had a tendency to say, “You take the solo,” or, “you guys do the musical stuff.” But I’m trying to also throw myself into the mix a lot more.
Thanks to Emer O'Loghlin for the photos!
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