The Middle Way: Railroad Earth’s Andrew Altman Discusses New Project Drewcifer & More
Words by: Ryan Dembinsky
I’ve said this before and I’ll surely say it again: but when it comes to what makes a band great and gives it the best odds of longevity, it’s very often tied to the role players in the band more so than a great frontman. A great frontman is important, sure, but you usually can’t win a championship with just a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant. You need your Scottie Pippen or your Pau Gasol.
The names that always sit on the tip of my tongue for these types of musicians who quietly add immense contributions to their bands are Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket and Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood. But another of those role players would be Andrew Altman, the bassist for Railroad Earth. Altman is an understated musician who shies away from the limelight, while making enormous contributions both instrumentally and in terms of material.
Inevitably, as fans figure out that musicians like these are deeply talented writers in in their own right and not just hired guns, sooner or later people want to hear their original material. Much like Broemel and Casal have done recently, Altman is quietly using his time off to tackle some ambitious new ground and showcase some original compositions through a new band called Drewcifer. He’s also stepping out front in a duo format with renowned jazz drummer John Davis and joining The Everyone Orchestra. On top of that, he recently released a new single for a terrific tune called “The Middle.”
I caught up with Altman just before he embarks on this ambitious run of shows beginning this Friday with Drewcifer at American Beauty in New York City.
JAMBASE: To get started, I’d be curious to hear given your education in jazz and your history with The Codetalkers, how did you decide to transition from jazz to bluegrass? Was that even a conscious decision or more something that just came about as different opportunities arose?
Andrew Altman: It really was just an extension of what I was already doing because, fundamentally, Railroad Earth isn’t really a bluegrass band. It started as a sort of newgrass project, but as it evolved from “project” to “band,” the roots of the members really started to come through and bluegrass is a minority role in those roots I would say.
When I was first introduced to them around 2008, it was already headed that way and that is probably why the music made sense to me. It seemed like somewhere that I would fit in and so when they needed a bass player, I decided to give it a shot.
JAMBASE: Bouncing around a little here, but you have a lot of exciting things on the table at the moment. First, tell us about the terrific new single you just released called “The Middle.” Could you demystify the song a bit? I was trying to get a sense as to what the lyrics are about, but couldn’t quite determine if it’s a love song or perhaps more of a commentary on just trying to find common ground with different people be it relationships, politics, race issues, or anything else. What does the song mean to you?
AA: I think it is a little bit of both. I mean you can be caught in the middle of a lot of things: class, wars, politics. Specific to me was the fact that at the time I was geographically located in NYC exactly between the nation’s poorest congressional district and the building with the single highest concentration of billionaires in the country. The fact that these places are literally miles apart blew my mind, because I tend to think more in terms of what you leave behind that what you have while you’re here.
That juxtaposition of wealth and poverty so nearby is just wild. Trying to comprehend having that much or that little when you live a pretty ordinary life is like trying to understand distances in outer space. The song though is more about that feeling of resignation to what you love than what you stand to lose or gain.
JAMBASE: Will that potentially be part of a larger solo album you have in the works?
AA: I am constantly writing new material, but my fulltime job is Railroad Earth and there just isn’t time to support a whole record. I could manage the time and money to record one, but if you can’t do some shows to back it up then it kind of lands in the abyss of the internet. I think putting out singles as I have time and can put together some shows, like the ones coming up, will be more fun and less pressure.
JAMBASE: Before Railroad Earth gets rolling for a busy summer, you have a run of gigs with a few interesting other new projects like Drewcifer, the Andrew Altman Duo, and Everyone Orchestra. First off, what will the format be for the duo? I understand you’re playing with John Davis, a great jazz drummer? So will that just be a bass and drum project? What kind of material are you playing for that?
AA: For the duo show I will be playing acoustic guitar, and using just a smattering of effects. I will be playing original stuff and probably a few select covers. The show is in a small listening room called Fox & Crow in my neighborhood over in Jersey City on May 13th, so really it is more about getting some great interaction going with John and letting the songs have a vibe. John and I went to high school together and he has gone on to become one of the premier jazz drummers on the scene right now, but he just has a natural feel for improvisation and interaction that makes him excel in any environment where he can do his thing. If the duo format has legs, I may try to take it some other places because if there is one thing I know, as a bass player, it is drummers.
JAMBASE: Similarly, how did Drewcifer come to be and what can we expect to hear from those shows?
AA: Drewcifer came about from not wanting to be a bandleader. I like to write songs and I like to play bass in a band, but doing things like “Andrew Altman & Friends” or “Andrew Altman Band” is so much pressure to make sure it comes off great musically.
Collaborating with others still gives me a chance to get some material out there, but also share the stage with people who are inspired to do their thing as well. An environment where everyone has some measure of creative input has a better vibe than hiring people and telling them to learn a dozen of your songs.
Fortunately, there are some great people to work with in the NYC area and I’m happy that Andy Falco from Infamous Stringdusters was down to get this together with my friend Dave Butler on drums and Kevin Kendrick on vibes and keys. We’re going to be at American Beauty in NYC on April 21st and The Saint in Asbury Park, New Jersey on April 22nd.
JAMBASE: In terms of Railroad Earth, you guys have a new EP on the way. What was the writing and recording process like for this project? Any notable nuances you would point out as things that came out particularly cool that you are looking forward to people hearing?
The irony of the new material was that we got together on and off for a year or so trying different things, but the songs that Todd [Sheaffer] brought in were ones that we didn’t hear until we were already in the studio. It was kind of like how we did the Warren Haynes record [Ashes & Dust] where we would hear the song and then be doing a take 20 minutes later. That led to some spontaneity and vibe, but it also led to some arranging decisions we probably would have rethought. Mark Howard produced the recording and it was fun working with him given all that he has done with people like [Bob] Dylan, Tom Waits, Neil Young and others. We definitely wouldn’t have got it done in time without a producer.
JAMBASE: You guys have quite the geography tour in terms of a gorgeous backdrop for your summer of shows with Railroad Earth with places like Red Rocks, Grand Targhee, and even a festival in Alaska. Are there any dates or locations that you’re especially excited to play?
AA: Alaska for sure. I have been to all of the 48 lower states so this will be a chance to go somewhere in this country that I haven’t been. We are going to make a bit of a trip of it and hang out there a while and take it in. Now, if I could just get to Hawaii.
Red Rocks is always great as well. I think this will be number seven or eight for the band, and it always humbles you no matter how many times you do it because you can’t help but be reminded of that first time you sat down as a kid to learn an instrument and how far it is from there to standing under the stars with thousands of your friends.
JAMBASE: Finally, with so much juggling going on at the moment, what are you doing to keep focused and stay sane without too much stress building up? Got any good books or new music or anything worth recommending for anyone hitting the road to come see you this summer?
AA: The stress is definitely building. I’m late to the game, but I have really been enjoying The Barr Brothers record Sleeping Operator which came out a few years ago. I also recently got a record player and it is fun doing the whole used record store rummage thing. Getting some classic stuff on the cheap and trying to bring it back to life with a little cleaning.