’35 songs and a van’ An interview with multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth is perhaps best known for its vast array of influences which include bluegrass, jazz, classic rock and traditional Irish, just for starters.
From its auspicious appearance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2001, Railroad Earth has grown to become an institution in America’s jam band festival scene.
Ever since, the six-piece, mostly acoustic outfit has wooed audiences with their playful, aesthetically diverse and often literary-tinged tunes (the band’s name was mined from Jack Kerouac’s story, “October in the Railroad Earth”).
I recently interviewed Railroad Earth’s multi-instrumentalist Andy Goessling by phone about how the band developed its propensity for jamming and the current state of the festival scene. As we talked, we also touched on how Railroad Earth folds influence into its music, how the group first began playing together and the all-consuming power of the Internet.
Will Kyle: Can you talk about how Railroad Earth began?
Andy Goessling: Well, everybody was playing in different bands in the New Jersey/New York area and we reached this point where everyone’s band was taking a break. During that time, I decided to host a bunch of picking parties at my house, thinking: “Why don’t we play music for fun?” Everyone had been involved in these serious recording projects and was looking for a change. About five picking parties later, Railroad Earth became the people that were left still playing. I guess we inadvertently started a band by trying not to start a band.
Soon after came the now famous, Telluride-landing demo?
We realized there were four of us and we had a bunch of songs, so we decided to go actively find a bass player and a drummer. We were in the middle of working up the songs, when the guy that eventually became our manager asked for a demo. So we recorded five songs, gave them to him and he sent them to Telluride to try out for their bluegrass festival. Our manager called back two weeks later and told us we had landed the gig. That never happens. At first we were like, “Let’s give this guy a tape so he’ll go away.” Then we got the gig in Telluride and realized we had to go write 35 more songs and buy a van.
Did Railroad Earth employ jamming much before Telluride? If not, how did such a thing stylistically come into the band’s sound?
We had to actively put jamming into the music. I mean, any band is going to have to learn how to jam, because you are learning how to have a conversation with five other people, regardless of whether each person independently knows the ins and outs of jamming. All the other projects we’d been in before had been intense songwriting projects, projects where we just didn’t do four-minute solos. The New York scene we were playing back then was all about arranged songs, but when we hit the Colorado and California scene we went, “Wow these people are open to this and other bands are doing it,” so we added it.
So, is your East Coast audience now more open to jamming than when you first started?
Looking at it 10 years ago, (pre-Facebook, pre-Napster) you basically had to go to California in order to play for people in California. Bands were still giving out CDs at shows. Now, you do a show in Portland, Maine and people in California are emailing you the next day and posting videos of the show on Facebook. Listeners know everything that’s going on all the time. It’s a more unified audience now, so there really isn’t that geographical difference anymore.
Good or bad, does that become something you have to constantly work against in order to redefine yourself?
Well, there is that. I guess you become more pressured to come up with new stuff, to do something new, because that real-time audience exists all the time on the Internet.
You guys started off hanging out and playing tunes for fun. It seems like things kind of happened without terribly much agency or pushing on your part or the other members of Railroad Earth. Do you think that in the current Internet climate new bands have to be more active and push harder to gain exposure?
We were lucky to come up during a time where the audience was a little more forgiving and less discerning, which gave us a chance to develop our sound a bit more organically. Now, thanks to the Internet, there is more opportunity, but also pressure with its open community, so we’ll add a change or a variation for any particular show to keep things fresh.
How does jamming work for Railroad Earth? How do you keep a sense of what is happening when? Does executing such a thing happen more organically the more shows you play?
It’s easier to jam the better you know the people you’re jamming with. When Railroad Earth was first starting, there were songs where whole sections got written because somebody made a mistake or came up with a different chord. It’s mostly the same now, say, Todd will be taking a guitar solo and based on the notes he’s playing, I’ll come up with different background chords. Other members might hear that and move the jam in another direction. In this way, “Spring-Heeled Jack” is complete improvisation. Of course there are some set sections, but for most of it I don’t know what’s going to happen on any given night.
What was it like playing electric guitar for the first time on Railroad Earth’s newest, self-titled outing?
That’s kind of funny. We made a decision to put those kinds of instruments on this latest album because the songs seemed to want it. Back when Railroad Earth started, it was the other way around. I actively chose not to play electric guitar. Before Railroad Earth, I was in groups playing electric 12-string and electric guitar, so maybe I burned out a bit, and when Railroad Earth formed, I decided not to use electric guitar in order to give the band a stylistic starting point based around acoustic sound.
So you played electric back with the Secret Admirers I assume?
Yeah, for that band it was all electric guitar. Timmy [Carbone] and I also had a band, Kings In Disguise, and it was the same deal, I was even using electric mandolin.
Railroad Earth seems to foster a wide range in terms of the age of its fans. Do you find your sound naturally possessing that age disparity or is that something you have to strive for?
No, that came about really naturally. What the different age groups are hearing are the influences the band collectively shares. Some people in the band do nothing but listen to new music. I’m sure older listeners can hear I used to listen to Doc Watson or David Bromberg. It’s subtle, but all the age groups are hearing the influence they like and then coming together over it.
I bet you can introduce people to new sounds that way too. It seems like an amazing way to communicate.
Sometimes a fan will come up to me and say they are reminded of this or that –maybe they caught a Loggins and Messina vibe in one of our tunes. Sometimes they will even pick out the exact influence I was going for no matter how obscure.
How has the festival scene changed since you first hit Telluride?
When we first started, it was as if nobody knew exactly where the music was going. So festivals were a little more free form and a lot of the bands were there just there because they were willing to play. There was no set circuit as there is today. It was more homespun. Now they’ve become more professional. Promoters have set the bar so high, that you can’t really have a poorly-run, amateur festival anymore.
There is also more competition between bands. Ten or 15 years ago, fans were okay with a more relaxed experience, now the bands must have their shit together to impress fans. As we’ve said, the Internet has made listening to music into a global thing. People want to show up and have a professionally-run festival from day one. For example, we just hosted a Halloween festival and had to make it come off like it was our fifth year instead of our first.
I’m sure it’s harder for bands to break in because of that. You guys would have made the festival circuit eventually, but you might not have been given that Telluride pass right away if you were starting up seven years later or today even. Think that is fair to say?
I would say so. The first year we were at Telluride, we were more of a songwriter-based band. There were three or four bands that year that were free form jazz, Bela Fleck kind of bands with saxophones and instrumentalists so we grew to fit that mold. The first couple years at Telluride, there were four or five side projects that had main stage flops. You just don’t see that anymore.
Where do you see your band going next? Are you guys in the studio?
We’re trying to figure that out now. We’ve been so caught up in touring and changing arrangements around on a night by night basis — writing new parts, jams and transitions — we haven’t gone out to the macro view of things yet. Which might be where music is headed now. I suppose it’s also a question of what an album even is at this point. I’m not really sure.
I’m reminded of the Grateful Dead and their long-running “Dick’s Picks” series.
Yeah, that’s kind of where we are now — live records of shows. With so much touring and the constant expectation of fans for live performance, it’s hard to take time off to write. People want a new show tomorrow, not in a month or a year. On New Year’s, we did four songs we hadn’t done in a long while. Is that any different than releasing new songs?
What’s your favorite record of last year?
I listen to music so piecemeal; I didn’t really have a favorite record. I usually just grab a song here or there and spin it, but I’ve actually been revisiting a bunch of old stuff lately. A friend gave me about 20 crates of vinyl records a little while back, so I’ve been in this world of revisiting all these early bluegrass, Irish, acoustic and folk albums. I even found a bunch of 1960s rock albums I had never heard. I’ve been using the stuff to influence what I’m doing now.
Railroad Earth plays the Pageant on Friday, January 27.