Railroad Earth – Interview With John Skehan

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, and in the case of the New Jersey’s Railroad Earth that distance can be measured in time. It’s been three years since the group’s last studio release, but during that time the band has only grown as they’ve become a major touring act known for their unpredictably exciting live performances. Though the band is often lumped in with the “jam” scene where there is a stigma that studio albums rarely match live performances on a musical level, Railroad Earth has always managed to release solid recordings that receive praise from loyal fans and critics alike.

Following in that line of solid studio recordings, Railroad Earth’s latest studio album, Last of the Outlaws, has the band venturing into fresh musical territory, while delivering some of its most compelling songs to date that rival the story telling of some of folk’s mightiest writers. For recording,  the members of Railroad Earth gathered in the rural town of Knowlton, New Jersey in a house discovered by mandolin player John Skehan, who found a perfect recording space inside when he visited the home to look at a baby grand piano. On the eve of the official release of Last of the Outlaws we spoke with Skehan about the process behind recording Last of the Outlaws and the current state of Railroad Earth.

The new record is just about to be released which must be exciting. How’s everyone feeling?

Great. We’ve been slowly unveiling new songs on the road and we’re starting to sink our teeth into them. We’re starting to learn more and more of the new record and we plan on being able to play the whole thing by the time we get to Denver for the release party.


Will you play the record in its entirety?

Well, we have two nights in Denver so we’ll probably work in everything between the two nights. I don’t know if we’ll do it in sequence as we’re still trying to make it fit into a show properly.

How have the fans been reacting to the new songs so far?

So far so good! In the past few nights I’ve noticed that people seem to know the words [to some songs] already. We maybe pulled out the first couple of [new] tunes as far back as our Thanksgiving show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Now I think people have had a chance to listen a little bit and they seem to know the songs already.

How does a new song get to the point where the band can really jam and open up on it?

That depends largely on the song. Going back to the first album (The Black Bear Sessions) we’ve always had some songs that just want to be the straightforward arrangement that we first put together and recorded them as. [Those songs] don’t necessarily warrant a wide-open jam, but then others have been a deliberate vehicle for improvisation. We do take some of the songs and say, ‘what could we do in the middle here,’ and either start to add new material or work out different parts. On one in particular we had a little idea where everybody passes around the melody and stacks up layers. It really depends on where it fits in the show and how it blends with the rest of the repertoire on any given set-list.


Getting back to Last of the Outlaws, is there a particular reason why you waited three years to do a new album and was there a particular factor that motivated the band to get back in the studio?

We’d been hitting the road pretty hard, especially since the last album (Railroad Earth, 2010). Obviously the one factor is to keep covering ground and make it to all points around the country within a year’s time, and then another year goes by and it becomes hard to set aside the time to really get into a good creative space. Sometimes it’s just a matter of right time right place and that we maybe have some new material that we want to dig into and put down on a record.

Given how much Railroad Earth is known as a live band, are there challenges to capturing that live energy and spirit in the studio?

It is a challenge and it depends on the material. With Last of the Outlaws I think we got lucky and happened to find a studio that would accommodate us. We definitely went in with the intention of being able to set everything up and play together as a band, be isolated enough to track everything but all be in the same room so we could play together as we do live and capture some of those moments. One song in particular on the record, “Grandfather Mountain,” we just decided to let fly, open up the ending of it, and just play as we would live. We ran it down a number of times, sat and listened to the tapes, and tried to better it until we felt like we had one full performance that was very satisfying. That happened with a couple of tracks on the record. In contrast to the last studio album, which was very much a production effort where the songs were already kind of done, set, and built from the ground up with drum and bass tracks, as opposed to Last of the Outlaws where it was more of a live setting and vibe.

You mentioned where you recorded the album. I read that you stumbled on the house where the album was recorded kind of by accident. What was it that stood out about the space to you?

The funny thing was that a friend of mine told me that he knew someone who was a drummer and he had a studio in his basement, and he happened to have a baby grand piano that he was selling. So I went to look at a piano and I was thinking ‘yeah, he’s got a studio in his basement, everyone does now. What do you need? A laptop, decent speakers and a microphone.’ It doesn’t take much to have a studio these days. When I went to look at the piano he had this massive space in the lower third of the house that he had done up like a real studio; real isolation booths, sliding glass doors, wired properly and everything like that. I was just kind of stunned at the size of it. At that point we had no intention of going to work on a record until some months later. My first thought was that I need to tell our fiddle player Tim Carbone about it because he produces a lot of records and it would be a great place for him to work.

But one thing led to another and we hauled our truck up there, unloaded our gear, and took the place over for about two months. The punch line to the whole story was that we actually ended up using the [baby grand] piano on some of the record more prominently than we have used a piano on any previous studio record. By the time we were finishing up the sessions I told the guy [selling the piano], ‘if you still want to sell that piano I’m ready to go,’ and he said, ‘you know, I think I want to hang onto it. It’s sounds pretty good now that we’ve recorded it this much’ [laughs].

Can you talk about where the idea came from to put a long-form composition (“All That’s Dead May Live Again/Face With A Hole”) on the album?

It’s something I had been thinking about for awhile just to challenge ourselves and see if we could come up with something that was a fully realized piece but really went through a variety of different feels and moods. I think some of it came from over the last couple of years [when] we’ve been working and experimenting more in a live setting in connecting different songs, coming up with different segues, and at times even trying to string two or three songs together. Also, as we get better at developing sets that have a flow to them, they start to feel like one body of work even though they’re all different songs from different times in the band’s history. That kind of sparked the idea that we could do something that had a larger scope to it. I began mapping out ideas with some instrumental pieces I had, but also with a couple of blank spaces, saying ‘I don’t know what this next part will be but it could be something like this if somebody wants to come up with an idea, or this could be a short vocal Todd (Sheaffer) song here that would develop into this and move to that.’ So it all came together and Todd brought in some things that fit and we began to get an idea of the shape of the thing. Next thing we knew we had a piece.

Is “All That’s Dead May Live Again/Face With A Hole” something that could be performed live?

Oh yeah, that’s our intention. We’ve been working on it and hopefully it’ll be something that we can expand on further. We’ve been learning to play certain sections of it individually and I think within this notion of having the long piece comes the idea that we can do it all as it is on the album, but we can also break all of these five or six different movements apart and use them within the set-list whether they’re connections to completely different songs or just vehicles to take us somewhere new.

Each song on the new album seems to have a different musical style. What kind of influences did you and the band have?

The best way I could answer that question is that it’s kind of more of an internal influence of where everyone was at that moment in our lives. We recorded the album over a year ago and some of the songs really speak to a lot of what was going on in the band’s life at that time, as well as our individual lives. The songs are just a little bit of a snapshot of where we were at that particular moment, so I don’t think there was any real conscious, strong influence other than saying what can we have here, which is first and foremost always Todd’s writing, and that sets the tone for everything else.


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