John Skehan of Railroad Earth on jamming and how playing is conversational
Steering clear of strict categorization, the tenured musicians in Railroad Earth have managed to merge multiple genres with bluesy riffs, acoustic instrumentation and a mesmerizing live show. We caught up with mandolinist John Skehan while the group was laying down tracks in a private home studio on the western edge of New Jersey to learn a little bit about how the group manages to keep things exciting on stage by viewing their music as a conversation -- one that can go on all night long if you let it.
Westword: Where are you currently located? Are you touring at the moment?
John Skehan: No, we are in the studio. We've got a sweet studio in a private house. It's a great thing.
Where is the studio located?
Just on the western edge of New Jersey. We're working on the finishing touches for the album.
When is the release date for this album?
I don't know if one has been set or determined. For now, we're just focused on being able to work. We have a good bit more work to do.
Well, I guess to start things off, what would you say is the New Year's resolution for Railroad Earth, or your personal resolution?
I can only speak for myself, but one [resolution] is to keep my harpsichord in tune so I can play it more. It's not the most useful, but I enjoy it.
Did y'all come up with one collectively for the band?
Nobody has really thrown anything out there or discussed much, but I think that's because we get caught up in the New Year's Eve shows that we're doing, and by the time it's all done, we're all wiped out.
Where were you for NYE?
Portland. We did three nights at the Crystal Ballroom. They have always been pretty good to us.
What kinds of new things are you pulling out for 2013? Or maybe for Denver?
We certainly always try to pull something new every chance we get. We always roll with things in the moment. We see what happens when we get there. I'm sure something will happen. As always, we're looking for completing the record with new sounds -- we'll be doing something for sure. We've been so focused in studio land, in that bubble, that when we get on the road, the bubble bursts, and now we're back in the bubble of the studio.
How are you feeding off each other on stage? Do you take cues from each other, lead one another into a jam, or just take it as it comes?
It's a lot of listening and somewhat like you are describing. There is this serious trust when someone else is playing, especially when it's something new. A lot of times, someone will step out with something, and its very conversational, and you hear what they have to say, and then maybe one of us will echo or repeat it, and then someone might pick up on that, and it gets passed around. In a sense, aside from soloing, everyone is in their complementing style; we are always vibing off each other. While you are playing, you are constantly adapting and changing. I don't know any exact bass part or mandolin part when it comes to the live shows because it changes from night to night, depending on the show.
Does any one person take the lead, or do you take cues from each other?
Largely, in certain songs, there are pre-determined spaces, especially when the energy builds. Todd's guitar soloing and Timmy's fiddle playing have the ability to bring things to the highest peak, so they typically occupy the end of a jam. It does change from night to night, and someone might take the lead when they feel it.
Is that sort of thing discussed prior to the show? What is going on backstage before Railroad Earth hits the stage?
We try to get at least a fairly well planned set ahead of time, but it's always subject to change. We have gotten into the habit of at least having a sound check for a new segue or a new intro, or anything that is different at all. In the past, we really haven't played new material until we are close to the release date. We live in a world where everything is released online once we perform it, so we like to save the new stuff for closer to release dates.
Are you with the whole band right now?
We are doing some overdubs and vocals, and Todd is laying down a little guitar.
How often are you on tour versus being in the studio?
This is the first opportunity and time we can get from the tour in years. As you move through the year, it kind of takes on different aspects: In the summer it means a lot of festivals, but there is a lot more travel. Then in the winter and spring and fall, we are on the ground coming up and doing three nights in Denver, then five nights in a row in five different cities. It's pretty crazy.
Which do you prefer?
This is an exciting experience just being in the studio. We started this record by just throwing things around for a couple weeks, not really having any really preconceived ideas about the music. Todd is definitely the main songwriter and brings in a majority of the songs and vocals. I write a number of instrumentals, and Todd might come back with something that is fully finished, and we work out the instrumentation and arrangement, and sometimes a jam comes out of a practice session.
Often in the studio, someone will start playing and we all jump in, and sometimes it's a warm up that starts the session. That's how "Mourning Flies" started out, as a bass and drum groove, and we dropped in and started playing, and in a couple days, it turned into a song. Todd went home and came back with ideas. That's also how "Hard Livin" came together, as well. It's a little bit of everything.
Have you ever brought anything from the stage to the studio?
The idea has occurred to us, but we are on the road so much, that when we are walking into the studio, we kind of create a clean slate because a lot of what we do on the road is either spontaneous, or worked out that day, and then framed around the evolution, and we kind of stick with them...aside from chance happenings here and there.
Are there any that are more enjoyable to play?
One of the great things, and this is a tribute to Todd's song writing, is that there are certain situations where a song will ring differently. What comes to mind is earlier in December, Todd wrote this great song called "Old Man and the Land," and there was something about the chorus and how everyone latched on to it. It just hit that moment. We felt it, and they felt it. I think that's a tribute to the lyrical writing, and the things we patched into the song. It was at a festival in Mexico called "Strings and Soul" -- it was really fun event.