Rock Candy Interview: Railroad Earth’s John Skehan

Railroad Earth comes back to Omaha for a show tonight with Whitewater Ramble at Slowdown. (Get your tickets.)

We called Railroad Earth’s John Skehan, the band’s mandolin player, and talked the band’s upcoming album (its first since its 2010 self-title album), improvising on stage, the drawbacks to touring all the time and the excitement that comes from jamming with your bandmates.

Q. What is the band up to right now?

A. We’re in the studio at the moment. We’re just finishing up some overdubs on our new record.

Q. Are you done with the album?

A. We are. We hope to be, anyhow, soon. We’re in the home stretch. We’ll have to do some final finishing after this next tour. Then we’ll get down to mixing.

We’re getting there. We’ve had a couple dates while we’ve been in the studio, as things tend to sprawl out. You have hurricane Sandy in the middle, which killed 10 days of the process. We got stuck in Houston coming back from a festival.

Q. You’re about to play a three-night run to start your tour. Are you excited?

A. I am gonna say maybe. That’s a tough call. We’ve pretty much had our heads in the studio. Aside from jumping out for the New Year’s show and our Halloween show.

Pretty much beyond that, it’s been focused on the work in the studio. We tend to roll with things as they come. We’ll see what happens.

Q. Will you work out any of the new songs when you come to town?

A. We do at times. What we’ve found lately, anyhow, to work really well is to make use of everyday soundcheck as a rehearsal. We’ll start generating ideas and hook some things up. We do try to change things up, setlist-wise, from night to night.

Or we’ll do something like, “Let’s change this and try a new segue or connection or intro.” It keeps things fresh.

Q. Three nights in a row should help you do that.

A. That’s something that we’ve kinda gotten used to — doing three nights. We just worked on a three night stand over New Years and (there was some rehearsal) buidling toward that.

We also take a look back at what we did the last time we were in town — what has developed and what has changed. “What haven’t we brought to that town yet?” We look really hard at, “How do you want to build each night and what is the vibe going to be?”

Q. Sounds like you work pretty hard on that kind stuff.

A. We do. Quite a few of the things that are in the repertoire took a long time to develop and work out in rehearsal situations. The song, “Colorado,” on our first record has gone through three or four incarnations as far as the middle jam section. We assembled it over a couple of days. It still feels like a tightrope walk. “Are we gonna get through it?” (Laughs)

We want to build things that are at least worthy of us wanting to play them over and over again over time. That translates to the audience wanting to hear them over and over again.

Q. You guys tour all the time. Are there any drawbacks from that?

A. There are. One of them is not having as much time to get home and get into the studio. This is the first time we’ve gone into work on a record in two years. The contrary to that is that it’s forced us to keep changing things up and take chances on the road. We’ll come up with something new and put it together and say, “Let’s go for it.” Everyone has enough trust in one another to do that.

Q. You do some improvisation in your set. How do you handle that?

A. We often step out in front of a big audience and say, “Well, we’re gonna do this.” There’s a mutual safety net between us. It keeps you thinking and keeps you sharp. It is a really good feeling when you have something to challenge yourself with. Even if it doesn’t fly, you come off saying, “Well, we tried that.”

One of the things we’ve tried to do from the beginning as far as the old songs is have a signpost. After there is an open section, we completely improvise freely together or people are trading solos, and then we have an arrival point. Hopefully, the improvisation that you want to leave open and free will build toward that arrival point.

Q. How long has it been since you were in Omaha?

A. We always have a great time there. We used to play at the old Ranch Bowl. That was a lot of fun. I remember clearly there was a show we did at the Ranch Bowl when Todd had lost his voice. He simply could not sing. I remember we did night at the Ranch Bowl where he didn’t sing or speak a note. We worked out the entire three-hour night. It actually came off well. We had a good night. We dug out every instrumental or fiddle tune we had ever written.

So now, we’re making the trip again. We’re starting to build some momentum for this record, which we’re very excited about. It’s different than any we’ve made before. It’s going to put everybody into an interesting space, both for the audience and the band.

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