Although snow has been sparse, it has been a tumultuous winter. What do you do when Mother Nature can’t decide what season it is? Throw on some good tunes, sit back and enjoy a cup of tea! What better way to bring in the spring season than with live music? On that (clef) note, Railroad Earth is making their way south and chugging into our Philadelphia neighborhood; next stop the Union Transfer!
As forever fans of this exceptional band with an eclectic sound, The Music Vibes is excited to have had the pleasure of interviewing Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling. Check out the scoop on the band’s origins and evolution from their North Jersey roots and learn more about their music in this exclusive interview below:
Rebecca (R): When describing your music you often mention how you don’t strive to fit within any particular genre, yet the band can identify with Levon Helm’s description of rock and roll from The Last Waltz-
Levon Helm: Bluegrass and country music … if it comes down into that area and if it
mixes there with the rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all that
Martin Scorsese: What’s it called?
Levon Helm: Rock and roll.
R: What influence has the late but great Levon Helm had on your music?
Andy Goessling (A): Levon Helm set the back beat for the music we all play on the folk, bluegrass, jam and Americana scene. It’s so ingrained in any acoustic music that has incorporated a full rhythm section now, we don’t even think of him as the one that is really back there!
R: Being a band that is undefined by labels allows your music to be unrestricted to the confines of certain genres. How does it feel when people try to ”squeeze” your music into one specific genre?
A: I don’t feel people are squeezing it into a genre so much as naming the one that jumps out to them from there own listening experience. Sometimes it’s really fascinating the influence they will notice with all the stuff that’s blended in there. A guy at a gig in California came up to me once and said, your background lines remind of that guy that played sax with Loggins and Messina (Al Garth) …all I said was ‘Busted!’. He got it right…
R: Gathering of the Vibes was one of our summer festival highlights! Railroad Earth put on quite the stellar performance as a group as well as in the musical collaborations- How did it feel playing with the likes of Warren Haynes?
A: It was really exciting getting to play everything from legendary tunes like ‘Blue Sky’ to Warren’s new acoustic material we explored on the Ashes and Dust record. It was a little intimidating at first, but then you realize he’s a down to earth ‘band guy’ that just wants you to do your thing the way you see it. It’s a real collaboration up there, and that makes it easy.
R: What have been some of the bands favorite collaborations?
We’ve gotten to play with Phil Lesh several times around the Bay Area, David Bromberg at Bonnaroo, Bill Payne has sat in on our tunes, Warren Haynes of course. We’ve had practically all the members of String Cheese and Greensky Bluegrass on stage with us. This is the benefit of touring and the festival scene, spontaneity, if you let it in…
R: How did it feel when you found out that your first ever professional gig was going to be at the renowned Telluride Music Festival? Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
A: In some ways, other than knowing it was a big audience; I think the band was blissfully unaware of the festivals’ place in the bluegrass performance legend! It wasn’t until we got there (and tried to breathe) that it hit us what an amazing opportunity this was going to be to share our music with an audience that was really ready for it. Everyone in the band has previously been in great bands that had various levels of success, but it’s an unforgettable experience in this profession the moment you realize this time you are playing the right music at the right time for the right audience.
R: Quite some time ago, I remember seeing John play mandolin at a small Coffee Shop in Morristown, NJ, although I believe the coffee shop has since closed down. How has your Northern NJ roots influenced your music and what part, if any, has it played in your evolution as a band?
A: Even though it is thought of as a small state, the amount of musical diversity and gigs available in NJ when we all were getting started was pretty unique, we all just didn’t know it until we left. As you saw, John and his collaborator, Todd Collins, could do a classical duo one night, then a jazz gig. I was doing Irish gigs, then a rock gig with Tim. We’d all back up songwriters another night. Todd Sheaffer had his full band, From Good Homes, or his band would split up into smaller units and play separately. The point is there was an original music audience in North Jersey that would support all these different projects and go out 4-5 nights a week. This was totally separate from the shore/Springsteen scene even though that was only an hour away!
R: I understand that two bands originally from Morris/Sussex county, New Jersey, ‘Blue Sparks from Hell’ and ‘From Good Homes’, may have been predecessors to Railroad Earth. Can you tell us a little more about this story?
A: The Blue Sparks got started a little earlier than Homes and began as a jump blues band doing Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris type music with Tim and I doing a sax and violin horn section. Eventually, like most serious bands of the era, we chased a record deal and did mostly original material while keeping our basic sound and instrumentation. We eventually got signed to Epic records and were on a compilation record of their artists but didn’t get a full release. Todd fronted Homes doing a combination of some covers and his originals and ended up on RCA, also using violin and sax harmonies (among other textures). I think of this instrumentation as a kind of’ ‘N. Jersey sound’, that continued into RRE with the mandolin, banjo, harmony lines we are still using now.
R: What are the major differences between recording music in the studio and playing before a live audience? Is one more difficult than the other? Do you prefer one over the other?
A: Both are symbiotic to each other, I like both, but it’s great knowing you are going to get to play what you are recording, live, so that adds to the anticipation of getting the recording out, so you can play the new material.
R: You often play songs in different keys. Is this to keep the music fresh and the audience on their toes? Can you tell us more about how you decide which keys to play your songs in when originally recording a tune and later when you are changing it up?
A: Picking a key is a combination of what fits the instrument’s capability or especially the singers comfort and range and the emotional content of the piece. It’s been known and catalogued since ancient Greek or Indian music that each key has a separate emotional content suitable for different moods and the music will have more power if this is capitalized on. Most of the time, the song picks the key, even though you wish you could.
R: Being that you are multi-instrumentalists, do you have a favorite instrument? Is there an instrument that you don’t know how to play, but that you would like to learn?
A: My favorite string instrument is the German concert zither. It has five melody strings over a fret board and 30 accompaniment strings. You can play independent melody and background with the range of a piano and it sits on a table like a dulcimer. (I have a version of “As Time Goes By” on YouTube if you want to get the gist of it.) I’m working on playing a more Americana style on it right now as opposed the German folk music it’s descended from. My next favorite on woodwinds would be the Tarogato.
It’s a Romanian wooden saxophone for lack of a better comparison. I think it might have a place in more modern folk music, but we’ll see!
R: As musicians, do you use your music as a vehicle to convey any particular message(s) to your listeners? If so, do you think your audience has picked up on it?
A: I wouldn’t say we send a message so much as people seem to tell us the music helps center them to a place they can do the work they need to do in their own life. It’s like an island they can go to, to spiritually recharge.
R: Do you have any fond or humorous stories from Philadelphia that you would like to share with our readers?
A: I guess I would just say I can’t believe how South St and the scene there has grown since ‘the old days’. The Blue Sparks were one of the first bands to play J.C. Dobbs when it opened. The corner it was on was an overgrown vacant lot with John, the owners’ MG parked on it. We slept on the third floor before it was renovated and I have vague memories of sleeping in various empty buildings across the street because they were open and ‘I know the guy’…
R: What advice would you give to today’s aspiring musicians?
A: You just have to be in it because you love the profession and craft itself and can communicate that joy to the audience. Everything is going to stem from that because it’s mostly a live game now. Records just get the message out for the live show. In a lot of ways, the music business is more like it was a hundred years ago.
R: What can we look forward to in 2016? Does the band have any resolutions or special goals for the New Year?
A: Looking forward to more surprise collaborations at festivals, and we are working on new material now. Just need to stay home long enough to finish it!
There you heard it, we have quite a bit to look forward to from Railroad Earth this year! So all aboard for this musical journey and make sure to purchase your tickets for Thursday March 10th at the Union Transfer before it’s too late! Railroad Earth will also be making stops at the 9:30 Club in DC on Friday March 11th and Saturday the 12th following their Philadelphia performance, and before making their way down to Live Oak Florida for Suwanne Springfest. The Music Vibes hopes to see you this Thursday at the Union Transfer!
Preview and Interview by Rebecca Wolfe
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