Interviews: Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth

Railroad Earth
Jeff Pearson, April 11, 2011
Originally published by Life’s Sweet Breath

Railroad Earth has been touring constantly for ten years, bringing their eclectic blend of roots, Americana instrumentation with no stylistic boundaries to audiences all across the country. This is a big year for the band, with their special tenth anniversary show at the Wellmont Theatre in May, a Red Rocks show with Yonder Mountain String Band in August, and countless festival stops. We  got the chance to have a talk with the band’s fiddle extraordinaire, Tim Carbone, in the midst of a recording session.

Tactile Tracks: What are you working on?

Tim Carbone: I’m working on an album by a gentleman named Damien Calcagne, he used to be part of a band of a really great band, Swampadelica.

Tactile Tracks: You’re celebrating Railroad Earth’s tenth anniversary at the Wellmont Theatre in New Jersey. What do you have in store for those lucky home-town folks?

TC: Well, to a certain extent it will be a typical Railroad Earth show, which would be where we try our best to kick ass and take names. We’re going to add some of the older material back in, and to be honest with you—I’m not completely, exactly sure what it’s all going to be all like. We’re going to go into a few days of rehearsal before the show, and really hammer out something cool. So I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be, but it will be cool and it will be a little different.

Tactile Tracks: Are there any special shows throughout your ten-year history that stand out to you?

TC: Oh, yeah man. I think the show that we played at the Independent in San Francisco, when Phil Lesh came out and played, that was kind of cool. It was just kind of interesting to play “Terrapin Station” with Phil Lesh. You know, “Wait a minute, hold it here; I’m playing “Terrapin” with Phil Lesh.” (Laughs) So that was kind of cool. Some of the festivals we’ve done have been really terrific. Back in 2005, we went over and played Fuji Rock in Japan, and got a taste of what it’s like playing for the Japanese, and they’re absolutely rabid and out of their minds. When you play, it seems like you’re the Beatles at Shea Stadium. After the first song we played, it was about 5,000 people in kind of a big shed, you know, and you couldn’t hear. It was like five 747’s taking off. My monitor engineer was standing twenty feet from me, and I yelled at him, “I can’t hear my monitors!” and I just saw his mouth moving. I couldn’t hear him, he couldn’t hear me, so that was kind of a trip.

Tactile Tracks: Were they singing all the words back to you guys?

TC: No, but they were dancing. They were dancing their asses off.

“The idea that you can have a conversation onstage. Kind of like the lost art of conversation, where someone listens as much as they talk.”

Tactile Tracks: Can you tell us about the engagement party you guys played a few years back? The show is beginning to grow into a legend, thanks to a lovely taper.

TC: Well, we put it together for Jimmy [Sapia], because he’s a friend of ours, and we just kind of stood up for him, but there’s nothing really that remarkable about it. (Laughs) It was just a great show, but more than that, I think people were really digging the vibe. You know, it was lots of friends and everybody was in a beautiful mood, and celebrating, having a great time. We kind of got caught up in that atmosphere.

Tactile Tracks: In the age where playing shows is the main means for a musician, how important are tapers to Railroad Earth’s growth?

TC: Huge. Absolutely huge. We participate right in with it, man. I think in the second year of the band, we made our own bootlegs, and made like, 10,000 of them. We gave them to our street team to hand out at other shows as people left. Those shows came from various tapers. I believe we got some from Mark Adams, early tapers of the band. There’s hardly a better way to get the word out there about a band than those tapes.

Tactile Tracks: Speaking of anniversaries—today marks the 39th anniversary of the first date of the Grateful Dead Europe ’72 Tour, which is being released in its entirety later this year.

TC: Oh, yeah.

Tactile Tracks: I know the band likes to cover the Dead from time to time; what are some of your favorite tunes of theirs to play?

TC: Well, we don’t play a whole lot of them, believe it or not. I think my favorite one of theirs to play is “The Wheel”, which actually on Garcia’s solo record. When you get right down do it, we do “The Wheel”, we’ve done “Terrapin”, we do “Mississippi Uptown Toodeloo”. You know, “Catfish John”, which they did, but that’s traditional. We do another Jerry Band tune, which is a traditional gospel tune, “Sisters And Brothers”, but I think that’s about it, really.

Tactile Tracks: Do you see a lot of Grateful Dead inspiration in Railroad Earth’s music?

TC: Well, we’re inspired by everything. If you ask each individual band member, they’ll give you a different list of people that they’re inspired by. Me, personally—I stopped listening to the Grateful Dead in 1973. That’s how old I am. I saw Pigpen [Ron McKernan], twice! (Laughs) My favorite Grateful Dead record is American Beauty. Workingman’s Dead is another one. Europe ’72 is great. I really love Bill Kreutzmann’s playing on it, and you can really hear it on that record. Mickey [Hart] wasn’t on tour with them. So you just get that one drummer, and they really rock. That live record, to me, they were crushing it, because it was a perfect snapshot in time for them.

Tactile Tracks: With your fiddle playing, what sort of music do you draw inspiration from?

TC: Some of my heroes are Stéphane Grappelli, and my early bluegrass heroes would be Byron Berline, and you know, Vassar Clements. I’m also very influenced by Celtic music–Frankie Gavin, from a band called De Dannan, huge influence on me. Also Indian classical music. There’s an ancient Indian instrument called the sarangi and I listen to a guy named Sultan Khan, who is probably the greatest living sarangi master in the world. I listen to him a lot. He’s also Derek Trucks’ guru too. The first time I saw Derek Trucks play; I went up to him afterwards and said, “You listen to Sultan Khan?” He said “Yeah man! That’s my guy!” (Laughs)

Tactile Tracks: Being a band that plays hundreds of dates a year, and uses improvisation onstage each night, Railroad Earth often gets referred to as a “jam band”. How do you feel about the tag for the band, and as a general umbrella label for bands which fit those criteria?

TC: I’ve said this before, so this will kind of be reiterating other quotes from me, but it just holds true, and it just is what it is. I think the term “jam band” refers to the audience, more so than the band itself. Because, when you think about it, there are a lot of different styles of music that fit under that umbrella. For instance, we don’t sound anything like Umphrey’s McGee, who’s a fine band in their own right, but they’re referred to as a “jam band”. If they played back-to-back with us, there’s really no similarity. And there’s less similarity with them only because their music is so well-arranged and so constructed; our music is that as well, but we find certain songs where we can open up, explore, and improvise. A lot of our improvisations that we do are more of a group improvisation. The idea that you can have a conversation onstage. Kind of like the lost art of conversation, where someone listens as much as they talk.

Tactile Tracks: Aside from the anniversary show, the band is set for a date at Red Rocks with Yonder Mountain String Band. Can you take me back to the first time you guys played there?

TC: We opened for the Allman Brothers. Yeah, it was awesome; it was great. I was scheduled to do a benefit down in Golden, after our performance. So I was quickly packing up, to try to get my stuff out to get it into a separate van and drive it down to do this benefit, and the next thing you know, their stage manager came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “Warren Haynes would like to talk to you in the production office.” So I walk in, and [Warren] says “Hey man, I really like your playing, and we’d sure like to have you come out and sit in on a song.” I was like, “Well, sure.” So I ran upstairs and said, “No, no! Stop! Don’t pack my shit up.” Sure enough, they set it back up, and I sat in with the Allman Brothers. So it was a fairly auspicious night for me. It was a great night for Railroad Earth.

“A lot of these festivals tend to be homely in a way, because we play the same circle with a lot of bands, and we’ve made a lot of friends.”

Tactile Tracks: Bonnaroo, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Delfest, and Floydfest are just a few among a multitude of festival dates for the band this year. What makes those festival sets special to you?

TC: I love doing Telluride. Bonnaroo is kind of cool, because the crowd is just so huge that’s it’s so over the top. I like High Sierra Music Festival, because it’s a smaller festival and their lineup tends to be pretty eclectic; you never know who you’re going to see. It’s nice to be there for the weekend and wander around and see all the other great music. A lot of these festivals tend to be homely in a way, because we play the same circle with a lot of bands, and we’ve made a lot of friends. Some of these festivals, we all show up at the same time, and it’s like “Hey man, I haven’t seen you since last year!” It’s kind of fun.

Tactile Tracks: For a lot of us, our first Wakarusa sunset in the Ozarks was while watching Railroad Earth play.

TC: Wakarusa is great. We’re not doing it this year, unfortunately, but it is an awesome festival.

Tactile Tracks: From a performer’s standpoint, can you feel a difference in crowd energy between a standalone show and a festival set?

TC: Well, a lot of times we’re playing in venues, smaller theatres, where it’s a little bit more intimate. There can be more of a dynamic between the audience and the band, but not necessarily. Some festivals are just over the top. Like I told you, with Fuji Rock–that was just overwhelming. It really was like the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The first real gig that we had was playing the main stage at Telluride Bluegrass. That was like, you know “Uh-oh! I guess we’re going now!”

Tactile Tracks: Your latest, self-titled, album is a nice representation of a live Railroad Earth show, with beautiful balladry mixed with foot-stomping, knee-slapping, good times. Is capturing a “live” feel on your records something that you are conscious of when recording?

TC: That record wasn’t done with the whole idea that we were going to capture a live performance. There is one song there that is totally live, “Spring-Heeled Jack”, which is a one-take, no overdub performance. As far as playing live on that record, all of the string parts were done live–mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar. Those instruments were all done with the three of us in the same room, looking at each other. So it kind of gave it that live immediacy.

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