Railroad Earth’s Tim Carbone Discusses Andy Goessling, Playing With The Allman Brothers Band & More
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. (For more, check out a full archive of more than 60 The Art Of The Sit-In interviews here).
The death of Andy Goessling, co-founder and beloved multi-instrumentalist from jam scene staples Railroad Earth, left the band with many tough decisions ahead. But musicians do what they do — play — in times of triumph or in sorrow, and so it goes with Railroad Earth, which, as violinist Tim Carbone shared with me in a recent interview, is playing hard as they figure out their next steps.
Here’s Tim on the evolution of Railroad Earth, what’s new with side projects like The Contribution and the Metropolitan Jamgrass Alliance, his approach as a much-in-demand producer, and some of his favorite jamming experiences.
JAMBASE: Well, I’ll start with the obvious and ask about Andy Goessling. Like everyone, we were so sad to hear the news of his passing. How are you guys doing?
TIM CARBONE: We’re hanging in there. We are. It comes in waves. I played music with Andy for 40 years — we met and played music together when I was 21 and he was 18. So that’s a tough one. It’s been a big punch in the gut. We knew it was coming, though we weren’t sure it was going to happen as fast as it did. Once it got into his liver that meant a few weeks later it was over. So, we’re motoring on.
JAMBASE: I imagine he’d want you to.
TC: Yeah, he would.
JAMBASE: What do you remember about him from when he was 18 and you were first playing together?
TC: He was very much the way he was up through his passing, which was mostly interested in old antiques and all kinds of instruments. I mean, when you went over to his house at any given time you’d just find him with this stuff. The original band I was in with him was called the Blue Sparks From Hell, and the lead singer of that band said we’ve got to have a fiddle player, and I don’t think he was much interested in having a fiddle player. [laughs]
When I first got in the band, we were living in this kind of boarding house together. I’d see him all the time. His main instrument was mandolin, believe it or not — that and saxophone. He picked up banjo much later. Most of the day you’d hear him playing one instrument or another and he’d just be cycling through them: sax, or flute, or whatever. If I wasn’t a music lover, I’d be knocking on the door asking him to just shut the fuck up for a second [laughs].
But man, that band, we did so many gigs, we had to be brothers — we didn’t have a choice. We did 250 gigs a year for a lot of years, and then went down to 100, but I’m sure we did something like 4,000 gigs with that band.
JAMBASE: And that’s just that band. Railroad Earth’s put up … oh, a few years of shows, too.
TC: We’re coming up on a couple of thousand, for sure. And at the moment, we’re kind of in transition. We’re not 100 percent sure what we’re going to do without Andy — it’s impossible to replace a guy who plays eight instruments onstage, and who not only does that, but also does it in a unique way. I mean, he could solo on every instrument, he wasn’t just puttering around.
So we’re playing the shows we have, and right now, pretty much, we’re playing real hard. Everyone is playing with a lot of heart, and with Andy in mind. We’re just kind of feeling it out and figuring out what we’re going to do next. We’re not panicking or anything. You probably know that in one of John F. Kennedy’s foreign affairs speeches, he said that the word for “chaos” in Chinese is two characters, and the first character is danger and the second character is opportunity. So, I’m kind of gently looking in that direction — we’re thinking about it in that way. It’s a really hard thing to lose a band mate and someone you spent so much time with, and who brought such a unique voice and texture into the band. So, maybe there’s another texture we hadn’t quite thought of — and into that texture is where the band might go. Again, we don’t know. The opportunity to find someone that could be that has now been presented to us, whether we like it or not.
JAMBASE: You’ve had a few folks join in the band while Andy was in treatment and since his passing, folks like Matt Slocum. How are you guiding them?
TC: It limits the amount of songs we can choose from, because it’s not really feasible to hand a guy like 120 songs and say, “learn all these.” So we’re working off of a list of about 30 songs at the moment, adding as many as possible while helping the players to assimilate. We’re relying on them to bring what they bring. Matt is just an amazing player, he brings a great texture to the band. Everyone brings their own little thing.
Matt is also a great hang. A lot of what you’re doing when you’re on the road is being in close proximity to the same people all the time, which is not easy. People who’ve never done it seem to think sometimes that it’s one big party, but it’s a lot of work to be away like that, so it’s important to be able to enjoy the presence of someone you’re working with, especially when you don’t quite know them yet. Matt has been so easy. He instantly felt like he was a member of the band. He’s kind of a goofball.
JAMBASE: Does that make him an outlier, or are you all goofballs?
TC: [laughs] We’re all goofballs for sure. Everyone has a little goofball in them here.
JAMBASE: This would normally be the part of the interview, Tim, where I’d ask about next steps for the band and your ongoing evolution but we’ve answered that I think.
TC: Yeah, I’m guessing that’s true. The idea of trying to find another multi-instrumentalist who can do what Andy could do is a mistake. We all believe that’s a mistake. However, we may find someone who plays a number of string instruments or brings another set of skills, or we may go with keyboards. We’re not exactly sure yet. I’m pretty confident we’re going to have patience to the degree in which we find the right person that will help the band take its next step. We have material to make a new record, and we’ll find that person who’s going to help that along.
JAMBASE: Will Matt be on your upcoming gigs?
TC: He’s not going to be at all of them, he has some other commitments. We have Danny Louis [from Gov’t Mule] joining us for a few, and Jeremy Lawton from Big Head Todd playing keyboards and pedal steel guitar. Jeremy is a super nice guy. Matt can get on keys and just shred. Jeremy can shred, too, but in a different way; he’ll produce textures that enhance the song. There’s also Erik Yates [from Hot Buttered Rum], he’s kind of similar to Andy in that he plays flute and saxophone — we’ve used him in a few instances.
Matt will be with us for New Year’s. When we come back in January, I’m pretty sure he’ll be doing a few more with us, too.
JAMBASE: Will you aggressively tour in 2019?
TC: We’ve backed off a little bit. It’s been useful before to go back out into a full-tilt winter tour that lasts five weeks but we’ll back off a little bit. The last one of those I call the plague tour. We only missed one gig, but there’s 12 of us in the bus and two in the truck, and of the 12 of us in the bus, 10 of us got sick. Seriously, man, there were 10 fucking people in a god damn tour bus not just [whiny voice] “Oh, I feel sick,” but full-on with the flu, running a 102 degree fever, and my body feels like someone’s pounding me with a hammer, and all I want to do is lay down. Four weeks of that.
JAMBASE: But you played through!
TC: [laughs] Oh man, it was heroic. That was some heroic shit right there.
JAMBASE: You always have a few side projects kicking around, Tim. What’s the latest with the Metropolitan Jamgrass Alliance?
TC: That’s always super fun. It’s wild because we never rehearse and just kind of get together in the dressing room and talk about a few tunes we’re going to do and pass around MP3s of songs we’d like to do. But it’s a joy to get onstage with these great players and just let your hair down. Maybe someday it’ll turn into something more than friends picking together in front of people but we like that, too.
The Contribution is my other major side project. We did a soft release of a new record back before the summer and we’re going to do a larger re-release in 2019. They’re based in the Bay Area and that’s kind of where they’re big. The record is a major step forward, especially for me as a producer. It’s a major step in terms of sonics: the way the songs are written and how they sound, and I think it’s among the best stuff I’ve ever done.
I have another side project I’m writing with called Cedar Sparks. It’s a little easier for me because all of the players live within 10 miles of my house. It’s myself and Lou Rogai, who is I believe one of the more brilliant musicians and songwriters I’ve ever been associated with. We have an album’s worth of material.
Lou is in a kind of indie-folk-rock band called Lewis & Clarke. They’ve been around a bit, toured internationally, have like six records out. Amazingly, he lives across the street from where my studio is in the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania. We came across each other and were just kind of like, hey man, let’s do something together. This music is completely different than anything else I’ve done. It’s like gothic-folk-rock. But we also wrote a Christmas song last year. The two of us sat down and watched It’s A Wonderful Life and just started jotting down ideas and we kind of scrambled the ideas of what was going on. We’re going to release the song digitally probably in the next few weeks just to throw it out there. It’s actually a really good Christmas song.
JAMBASE: You’ve produced a lot of artists and been involved in a lot of different scenarios. What’s your approach to producing?
TC: Mostly I have a service-to-the-song attitude. A lot of times it depends on what they’re looking for. I can do soup to nuts, or I can do a little. I’ll ask for demos, listen, and then write down some of my impressions, ideas for arrangements, maybe ideas for instrumentation if they haven’t gotten that far. I’m kind of more about streamlining the song to glean what it is all about. What is the songwriter trying to say? I try to clear a path so that it is said succinctly. You know, “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.” I listen again and again, but pretty much 85 percent of the time, my first impression is what I’m going with when I send ideas to the band.
When I get into the studio, my job is to have the sessions go quickly and easily. I’ve also been around, so I play the role of camp counselor or psychologist and try to create a fun vibe. It’s important to be even-keeled and that can be hard, especially with bands or artists that may not have much or any experience making records. All of a sudden, you’re under a microscope. It’s a completely different experience than a live show environment, but I invite them to imagine it’s a live show: relax and play the way you’ve always played. If it’s what they’re going for, I try to get as much of a live feel as I can in what the song is calling for.
I really look for some sonic event that will catch the listeners’ attention and keep them close to the song. Some of my favorite producers are George Martin and Jonathan Wilson. The late Richard Swift was a hero of mine. They’re not afraid to add a horn section or strings, but in that regard also not just use funk horns, or some trumpet or trombone doing stabs. I think about what else I can do to create another mood that the song is going for. I might use a French horn, or a trombone, or a bass clarinet, whatever the tonality is. I try to be a sonic adventurer.
JAMBASE: Do you take that approach to improvisation as well? You’re not a noodler — you like your solos to get somewhere.
TC: I try as fast as I can to understand the structure of a song and then to add something to it. I’m an aggressive player. I try to create energy right away, or, if the song needs something soft and beautiful, add that.
JAMBASE: Hoping I can get a sit-in story out of you. Tim Carbone, sit-in-story, what comes to mind?
TC: Well, I think I’ll give you the story of sitting in with The Allman Brothers Band at Red Rocks [in 2009]. This was a situation where I had no idea what was coming. I was a huge fan of both Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks. Derek as a slide player reminds me of Ustad Sultan Khan. I listen to a lot of Indian classical music, and before I got to play with Derek I met him and I told him, “you know, you remind me of this sarangi player,” and before I could even say any more, Derek goes, “Ustad Sultan Khan, he’s my guru!” And I was like, OK, wow.
Railroad Earth was opening for The Allman Brothers at Red Rocks, and I was going to go down after that to Golden, Colorado, and play with my friends New Monsoon. My crew had already taken down my gear. So I’m walking down to the van to start the drive down to Golden, and I get a tap on the shoulder from The Allman Brothers stage manager and he said, “Warren Haynes would like to talk to you downstairs in the production office.” I go down there, and Warren’s there and he said, “Man, we love your playing — you want to come sit-in with us?” I was like, “Hell yeah!”
So I wander out onto the stage, they had me play on “Come In My Kitchen,” the Robert Johnson song. They had me set up between Derek and Warren and the next thing you know, they’re soloing and they pass the solo to me and I go, and I look over and there’s freakin’ Gregg Allman staring at me. He puts his hands up and motions for me, like, you know, take another one! So I go, and it was great. It was the first time we’d ever played Red Rocks and it was sold-out.
I saw The Allman Brothers when I was 15 or 16 around when the Live At Fillmore East album came out. My brother and I went to the shows at Stony Brook [on Long Island] — the early show and the late show. We got there, already with tickets to the early show, and just decided to buy them for the late show, too – what the hell. We’re walking over in front of the student union, near the gym, and a limo pulls up, the back window rolls down, and a big giant cloud of marijuana smoke comes out, and it’s Duane Allman. And he says, “Hey man, do you know where the gymnasium is?” I’m standing there stunned and I think I said, “yeah, it’s right there,” and Duane smiles and says, “Thanks man!”
We could almost put our feet up on stage, that’s how close we were to Duane. I loved The Allman Brothers — loved them from the get-go. Playing with them was insane. I usually am never nervous. I play with a lot of people and have enough knowledge of my instrument that I can turn off the idea of having to figure out how to make it work — I just plug into the music and let go. But I definitely was a little nervous that night. And I’ve been friends with Warren and Derek ever since.
JAMBASE: And you’ve played a bunch with Warren if I’m not mistaken. I remember seeing him with most of Railroad Earth at The Capitol Theatre in 2012, and then you played on his string band record. I also loved seeing you come out with Gov’t Mule and John Scofield in Pennsylvania during that tour in 2015.
TC: Oh man, yeah. That was incredible playing with those guys, and not to mention, we were playing I think a John Coltrane tune. There’s a lot of great sit-ins I can remember. I’m a really lucky person in that I’ve been able to have these experiences and dig in and be in the moment. I try to live my life in the moment. It’s kind of an odd balance because when you’re sitting-in, you have to be present and concentrate and think about how what you’re doing is adding to the music, which is pretty much not living in the moment. But you maneuver your way through.
You know there’s something else I just thought of from the question you asked about producing.
JAMBASE: Do tell.
TC: I just finished a record with The Drunken Hearts from Colorado, do you know them?
JAMBASE: I do!
TC: It was an interesting process. The principal songwriter, Andrew McConathy, he had this demo of acoustic guitar songs, and some of them were kind of sketches and some of them were more complete. But he was like, “I want to get in and do it.” This was the first time I have ever done anything where we went with his sketches and my arrangements and production notes and then went in and did a song a day in the studio. We taught a song to the band at Silo Sound in Denver, and we’d all be in a circle playing, and everyone would take their positions, and we’d start at like 11 a.m. and by 11 p.m. we had a whole song done. We did that every day for 11 days. The record came out brilliantly. To be 100 percent together on what we were doing and being that open to other people’s ideas and their playing, that’s a liberating process.
JAMBASE: I’m guessing they don’t all happen that way.
TC: Not very much, no. But our last EP with Railroad Earth was like that. It was done quickly, over the course of two or three days. Todd [Sheaffer] wrote the songs and he’d come in and teach them to us, and John [Skehan] and Andy would come in to help with the bridge, and John also had an instrumental on there we spent a bit more time with because it was a difficult song. But we just went in and it was like, here we go. It’s amazing when that happens.
Tour Dates for Railroad Earth