Photos by Lori Sky Twohy
Railroad Earth is one tough band to try and slap a genre on. The only way I could possibly describe them is by saying that their music is a rip-roaring tide of accordion, mandolin, saxophone, percussion, guitar, harmonica, fiddle and bouzouki. They are what I would expect an avid adventurer would listen to. Whether you’re looking to get lost in a jam-filled Americana smorgasbord or just sit back and relax to a good old bluegrass melody that brings a fresh blend of flavor, Railroad Earth never disappoints. Their albums have dramatically transformed over the years which is expected. This is most likely due to the bands short-lived bar-hopping gigs, of which, there were only 9. After this, the band stole the show at Telluride Bluegrass Festival. It is all due to the sheer imagination and musical genius that RRE strives to bring to the fans with every note.
Tim Carbone is a multi-faceted musician that has had music in his veins since a very early age. His role in RRE is to showcase those skills by honing in on 3 different instruments. He has mastered the fiddle (which was his instrument of choice- thanks to some pretty girl in grade school). He also gives the band the guitar flair, electronically, and I can’t leave out one of the most unique sounds to the band, accordion.
I called Tim on a beautiful Thursday afternoon of June (which was fitting because I heard it was accordion appreciation month) to ask about all things music and the excitement of the Summer ahead.
JBO- It’s a beautiful day here in Asheville. I’m trying to stay outside as much as possible.
Tim- I hear you. I’m actually in ColumbusOH. We drove through the night from Jersey. We got some real heavy rain and I tried sleeping through it.
Tim- That’s a common misconception, actually. In actuality, what people come to know as “newgrass” really originated in NJ. Some of the guys that originated that form of music like David Grisman is from Hackensack, New Jersey. The guy that pretty much put that sound on the map is a guy named Tony Trischka. He taught Bela Fleck, who was part of the New Grass Revival. His teacher, Tony is from Elizabethtown, NJ. So there’s more bluegrass in NJ than most people realize.
JBO- Is it true that you guys only played 9 actual shows before hopping into the world of Telluride? What was that like? Did you expect to take flight as quickly as you did?
Tim- No, not at all. We had no expectations of anything. We were just out there trying to play some shows. What we thought we were doing was trying to play our lead singer and songwriters songs in an acoustic setting and it turned out that we had a bunch of standard bluegrass instrumentals and that was something we really liked and knew we could play.
JBO- Looking at your instruments, you guys incorporate a penny whistle and a bouzouki amongst other things. Are those instruments you see often in other bluegrass bands or is that uniquely Railroad Earth?
Tim- I’m going to say that uniquely us. I mean you see a bouzouki here and there. I’ve occasionally seen Tim O’Brien play one. Also, one of the guys from Mumford and Sons plays one. The one in RRE is known as an Irish bouzouki which is originally Greek. The original instrument had a rounded back, like half oval. It has a very long neck. When they adapted it they flattened the back and shortened the scale. It’s tuned similar and has the same string arrangement. The penny whistle is a plane old traditional instrument. John and I and everyone else are huge fans of Celtic music and you can hear Celtic influence in all of our playing. When you listen to RRE, it’s a collection of influences, like rock n’roll, jazz and even classical. It’s not just one thing. For the entire career of the band we’ve always just tried to figure out what the hell we are. “What the hell are we?! I don’t know I think it’s just good music! Okay let’s just go with it!”
JBO- Somehow you guys have figured out how to ebb and flow with those styles. Is there a premeditated way to play when you go on stage or do you brew up the madness when you get there?
Tim- It’s a little bit of both. When we do a show at a venue, we have time between the sound check and show so we try to use that time to work through segues and bring something a little different to each show. Like “How are we going to get from one song to the other? What if we did this?” Whatever it is, we work through it during sound check and pull it out at that time. Each show is not only different because each one of us we all have our own way and solos, many times, not all the times but many times, we introduce little spots and segues at each show that are different from others. A lot of times things are spontaneous. That’s the real magic.
JBO- Is it hard for you to jump from studio life to tour life?
Tim- Not for me but it is for others. I spend the same amount of time in the studio that I do on tour. My other job is producing records. I have my own studio which I’m in just about every day. If I’m not in that studio then I’m off in another, helping other artists and bands produce their records. For me, the studio is more of my natural element. For other band members, it’s another mindset. It’s a totally different anomaly. There are elements of immediacy with touring- feeding off the crowd, etc. and you want to make sure you have that but you totally under a microscope. It’s almost like you’re a trained dog. “Okay! Go now! Do this!” As when, as soon as when you hit “record” you’re putting something down to last forever. So it’s a totally different psychology.
Tim- We just finished tracking our new record back in January. We are at various stages of mixing. We’re exploring the various ways of mixing to make it sound the way we want. We actually hired a guy to mix it for us and we’ve been listening to what he’s come up with. We are constantly approving while making suggestions. When you release a record, you want to do it in such a time that you can tour to support it and it’ll have the greatest impact. The whole plan was to release the record in March and tour through April and May, before festival season started but that’s not going to happen so we’re going to release nearer the fall and maybe even next winter when we come back from New Years Eve. It will most likely be early January. We have a brand new record in the can! However, we will not be performing any of those songs. It is our habit to not perform any songs live that haven’t been released on an actual studio record. We are pretty old-school. It’s a lot easier. But we do have some stuff that didn’t make it on the record that we could go ahead and throw out, live, just to fake everyone out like, “Oh this sounds like it’s on the new record!” “Nah man! I checked it out already! It’s not on here! Dammit!”
JBO-ElectricForest is coming up soon. Are you excited about it? What artists are you excited about seeing?
Tim- It’s totally different. We’ve done a bunch of those. We didn’t go last year but the first couple times the line up was incredible. You could go see Son Volt, Broken Social Scene and Big Gigantic, “What the hell?!” It goes on and on. Our buddies Greensky Bluegrass are on the bill. Bill Nershi and I like to improvisational duo show, just off the cuff. He and I have talked about just wandering around and appearing somewhere and doing a crazy duo thing. I’m more looking forward to just wandering around and doing something crazy in the forest, just for shits and grins. I don’t know if it will happen but that would be super fun.
JBO- Who are some of your favorite musicians to work with?
Tim- Well we’re all good friends with the guys in String Cheese Incident. Keith Moseley is in my side project, The Contributions. He and I work 5 or 6 times a year. Locally, my favorite fiddle player is Jason Carter of The Del McCoury Band. There’s a band that occasionally leaks over into the jamband scene that I love called “Delicate Steve”. They’re a crazy instrumental band that’s been on the scene. They’re like a genetic splice of Talking Heads, Flaming Lips and George Harrison. There’s nothing like them. They’re like a rare orchid that no one ever saw. That’s how much I enjoy them.
JBO- Is there any news or information you would like to leave with me?
Tim- We’re coming out with our new record either late this year or early next year. I’m working on some side stuff. I actually directed my first video for an artist named Bob Sydor called “California”. I’m extremely proud of it and had a great fucking time doing it. I learned so much. My other side project, The Contributions, is working on our second album and it will also be coming out late this year or early next year.
Check out everything RailRoad Earth including tour dates at www.railroadearth.com