At the Junction of Here and There: A Conversation with Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth returns to Cleveland tonight. The band is still riding the waves of its 2014 album, The Last of the Outlaws, while maintaining a constant connection with the more distant corners of their catalog. I spoke with fiddle player Tim Carbone this week, and we covered all the latest Railroad Earth developments, as well as the meaning of album composition in 2015. 

How have things been going on this tour?

The first leg of our winter tour went really well. We spent some time in the Midwest. The crowds were super energized, which is interesting because it's pretty gosh-darn cold out there. Really loud and boisterous. We had a great time in Denver — three nice shows at the Ogden — and then we got to go back to Texas. We hadn't been there in a very long time. That was super fun. It's been great. This little leg we've only just started last night in Columbus. Tonight [ed: Thursday night] we're in Grand Rapids. 

More cold places. It's freezing in Cleveland today.

It's six degrees outside in Grand Rapids now, with 25 mph winds. 

Incredible. As you approach a tour, are there certain goals that the band keeps in mind? Or certain songs that you guys try to highlight?

You know, when the album is new and fresh we obviously want to play songs off that and encourage people to buy it — and good luck with that. We try to look at the year and map out our touring strategies and hit as many markets as we can. I hate to use the word "markets," because it sounds I'm some salesman, but it is what it is. 

You've got the backdrop of the recent album going these days. With a year or so removed from the release of that album, how have those songs morphed in the live setting and how have they fit into your catalog?

Typically when we make a record, Todd will bring the songs in and we'll flesh them out. We're not the kind of band that goes out and kicks the tires on a song, so to speak. Basically, the songs are brought in and we make the record. We don't even play them until the album is actually released; it's kinda old-school. But you hit the nail on the head: The songs do take on a different life. We have a very long piece of music in the center of the record that is interesting, because it's very arranged and almost orchestral. What we've been having fun with is discovering where we can pull parts of that out and create segues between an existing order of the song and segue into that and out of that into other songs. That's been a super fun and interesting way to approach those songs, especially the instrumental sections. We rarely play the whole opus — that's what we call it — together. We've been having fun dissecting it and sewing it together with other things. And some of the songs have taken on other lives too, like the end of "Grandfather Mountain." Sometimes that jam at the end goes on for a little longer. We allow it to build, and that's the kinda stuff that we like to do. These songs are created under a certain set of circumstances in the studio, and then we play it live. We allow it to grow and gestate. Some of the songs are open to that approach, and some aren't.

Regarding the opus, was that always the intention — to have these songs weave together in the studio?

John, our mandolin player and keyboard player, he came up with the idea of trying to piece together a number of instrumental ideas that he had been working on. In the studio, we messed around with them for a bit. We realized we sorta had a concept here that we could make into a larger piece. It works really well.

It fits in nicely in an 'album' sense. And this is an album, first and foremost. Could you elaborate on how the band conceptualizes album composition? And — you mentioned working 'old-school' earlier. Could you also comment on why bands continue to craft full albums in 2015, given the music industry's shifts and all that? Just playing devil's advocate for a moment.

Well. Fuck if I know. ...I'm just kidding, sort of. We're living in odd times. There's a mystery to it, because a new paradigm has to be figured out. There are many facets to it, and this could be a very long conversation. To put it simply, a touring band makes a record is, one, they kinda have to. The reason why you make an album as a group of songs is pretty much so that you can create a story that gives people a focal point to talk about the music. You wouldn't be asking me questions about the record if we didn't have a record. The other facet of that is that there are just a lot of people — and you can include me — a lot of people who buy records. I'll stream stuff, but then I'll go buy it. I'm into vinyl these days. I love just getting a record, putting it on and sitting in front of it like I used to when I was younger — in its entirety. Then the first side is over, and you have a moment to digest what you just heard because you have to get up and flip the record over. You flip the record over and you're thinking about what's coming next. It's a great, super visceral experience. 

The word 'intentional' comes to mind. There's an intent behind your music. What also comes to mind, more recently, is the Red Rocks DVD you guys put out — a video representation of the band's state. What prompted that?

We've always liked how Red Rocks looks. It's such a beautiful venue. It's a difficult thing, because now you have to capture a performance and is that performance up to snuff? As a perfectionist, I listen to the audio from that show, and it's like, it's not our best show but it's certainly not our worst show. There's a vibe that was created. We had a friend come in an arrange some of the songs for a four-piece horn section — eclectic, not like your typical funk horn section. I'm talking, clarinet, trombone, tuba, baritone sax. Interesting arrangements that weren't typical. The songs we chose for that had more of a melodic approach. And it turned out really nice. We didn't hear the arrangements until the day of the show in our rehearsal space at Red Rocks. We were like, "Holy shit! This is awesome!" We have all that on film, so it's sort of a special event. 

Any big goals or events looming on the horizon?

We're planning on doing another one of our festivals in Jersey this summer. It's gonna be us and maybe one other large band. It'll be on a beautiful space on the Delaware River. During the day, people will be able to swim and go canoeing and hiking and experience the beauty of Pennsylvania's only national park. We're excited to do something there.

Railroad Earth
with Crow Moses
8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 14, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave.
Tickets: $22.50 in advance, $25 day of show

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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