Q&A With Railroad Earth’s Todd Sheaffer

Railroad Earth frontman Todd Sheaffer talks to Pollstar about the ghosts and inspiration behind the band’s new album, Last of the Outlaws.” Plus, he offers aspiring songwriters advice about “getting in the zone.”

We phoned up the singer/guitarist a few days before the band launched another leg of U.S. dates. Earlier that day the band had gotten some exciting news, learning that it had sold out its upcoming gig in Los Angeles.

You could call Railroad Earth Americana or bluegrass or newgrass or roots or a jam band or simply rock. But as the act’s Facebook page points out, “ the members of Railroad Earth aren’t losing sleep about what ‘kind’ of music they play – they just play it.”

Released in January, Last of the Outlaws kicks off with the cheery tune “Chasin’ A Rainbow.” In contrast, the nearly 21-minute, two-track opus “All That’s Dead May Live Again” / “Face With A Hole,” focuses on a much heavier topic.  

We’ll let Sheaffer tell you all about it. Interview below …

Photo: Blain Peckmann

In a recent interview, where you were discussing the track “Chasin’ A Rainbow,” you mentioned that 2013 had a lot of strange omens and you called it “the year of rainbows.” So, how has 2014 been treating you so far? Any idea about what kind of year it’s going to be?

(laughs) Haven’t seen a lot of rainbows this year. I’ve seen a lot of highways, how about that? I’ve seen a lot of my bunk on the bus. … We’ve been busy. We’re going [around] the country in support of the new record and it’s been great.

Let’s talk about the process of writing and recording Last of the Outlaws.

The most important thing for me for writing to be productive and fruitful and come up with good stuff is [to] get in the zone, as they say. Getting in the zone sometimes is problematic (laughs). Finding the time and the space.

Do you have any tips for aspiring songwriters to get in the zone?

(laughs) Well, you know you gotta clear the space around you, get some distractions out of the way and get focused on what you’re doing. And then for me, I just gotta do it.

And then boom! I’ll just get a flow going, get the rhythm going and then the songs just start pouring out. And for me [getting in the zone] is a good description. It’s like a basketball player when [he’s] in the zone and throwing up shots and they’re all going in. It’s like that. You pick up the guitar and then boom! The songs just come flowing.

But it takes me, these days anyway, a while to get into that place. That’s the hardest part – finding the time away from distractions and other commitments to get into that.

But once we got into the studio and I really started working on the songs, they started coming pretty quickly … and I was really happy with what I had going. It seemed like a unified body of work, a unified statement and stuff that was inspiring for the band. We were pushing in a new direction.

Photo: Rod Tanaka / TanakaPhoto.net
Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, Colo.

What were some of the subjects that inspired this album?

You know, this album is [very] inspired by the goings-on and the relationships … in the band. “One More Night On The Road” is an obvious one.

“The Hangtown Ball,” I’ll mention that one. We have a festival that we do in California every Halloween called “The Hangtown Halloween Ball” in Placerville, Calif. And [the town’s] history is notorious for being a place where a lot of hangings took place during the Gold Rush era. A lot of outlaws … People taking the law into their own hands and hangings and all kinds of Wild West craziness going on.

They call [Placerville] Old Hang Town – that’s its nickname. And it seemed like a great place for a Halloween festival.

It definitely sounds like there are some ghosts around there.

Yeah and I did some research actually. I went down to the historic society and read up a bit on some of the history. I actually used some characters and stories and names from Placerville … in the song. … This song … goes through characters, each one telling his story of why he was hanged, how he got into that predicament on Hangman’s Row.  

I’m sure all the fans who’ve attended your Halloween festivals will especially appreciate that track.

Yeah, hopefully it will become a theme for the festival, which was kind of the idea as well as a track on the album.

So yeah, actual historic characters [and] I used the names of some old high school friends (laughs) put ’em on the scaffolds. And one is actually the name of a local restaurant here in Sussex (laughs) – Elias Cole. So that was kind of fun.

And then there’s a song called “Grandfather Mountain.” We did a festival in North Carolina, in the Appalachians, right at the foot of Grandfather Mountain. … The festival … was intended to be annual but actually is not going to be annual at this point. “Grandfather Mountain” was supposed to be another theme song.

I [was] just inspired by the beauty of the mountain and the beauty of the place. And the passage of time and the bittersweet feeling of time passing. There’s a lot in there. I’m not sure I can really explain it all.

Photo: Rich Singer
Music On The Mountaintop, Grandfather Campground, Banner Elk, N.C.

And then you have the nearly 21-minute suite made up of the tracks “All That’s Dead May Live Again” and “Face With a Hole.” What went into recording that?

I’ll talk about the music first. John had the idea to create and record an extended musical piece. In our live shows a lot of times we’ll do segues between songs, where we’ll just improvise music, leading from one song to another. We’ll create a kind of fluid, flowing musical experience to a set.

And John had that idea to bring that to the album. He had a couple set musical pieces that he wanted to do this with. I thought that was a great idea and everyone else did as well. Certainly a challenge and something different that we hadn’t done before [for] a studio record. It was a lot of work but it was very rewarding. … I wrote a transitional piece, a musical section to transition from one of his musical pieces to another musical piece and then transition to another song. John and I composed it and put it together and then the band improvised music. John worked very hard on orchestrating a couple sections of his musical pieces. …

Lyrically, I don’t know if inspired is the right word, but [the songs] deal with the ongoing epidemic of violence in our culture. Not unique to our culture, by any means, but it seems like every day you hear another story of a shooting and just this insane violence towards ourselves and towards our own communities. And that’s one song – “Face With A Hole” – and then there’s the complementary song “All That’s Dead May Live Again.” We have these violent acts and then we come together as a community with our candlelight vigils and we try and make some sense of it and I guess overcome it. … It’s a pretty heavy piece.

Have you played it live yet?

[Playing it] live, people are riveted. … It’s not exactly a “let’s dance around and have a drink” kind of song (laughs).

Yeah, it’s not “Chasin’ a Rainbow.”

It’s a commitment. Our fans – God bless ‘em – are willing to take the ride and actually I think they love it. One of the beauties of being in Railroad Earth, for me anyway, is the freedom that our fans and our audience allows us. They let us indulge the muse, you know? (laughs) Both on [the] album and in concert.

We’ve been playing what we call “the opus,” the entire opus. And we’ve also played it as separate sections in different places in the show. It’s a big night if we do the whole opus.

So the band is about to start another leg of dates. How has the 2014 tour been going so far?

Well, musically, I think the band is playing great. We’ve been together 12 years now. The past four with Andrew Altman on the bass and I think Andrew and Carey [Harmon], our drummer, are kind of hitting a new stride. Certainly on the new record. I think they play with a lot of confidence [and] Andrew has brought a lot to this band. And we’re really starting to feel it. … And attendance has been up pretty much everywhere, which is great.

Are there any cities or venues you’re especially looking forward to playing?

Well we just discovered today that The Troubador in L.A. sold out. So we have a sold-out show in L.A., which if you talked to me two years ago, I would have laughed. … We’re doing great anywhere, but L.A.’s always been pretty slow for us. So that’s kind of exciting that somebody’s actually coming to see us in L.A. (laughs). We actually stopped going there for a while because nobody came.

And we haven’t been to Phoenix and San Diego in a long time. …

And then some of our absolute favorites. We’re doing three nights at The Fillmore in San Francisco. We love The Fillmore, we’ve been there a lot. … That was one of the first places where we really took hold and we had a lot of fun there. And we’re going to Portland. We’ve had a great history there; we’ve done a lot of stuff there including a New Year’s Eve run.

Photo: Blain Peckmann

Upcoming dates for Railroad Earth:

March 14 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore     
March 15 – San Francisco, Calif., The Fillmore     
March 16 – Arcata, Calif., Arcata Theatre     
March 19 – Spokane, Wash., Knitting Factory Concert House     
March 20 – Seattle, Wash., The Neptune     
March 21 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins Crystal Ballroom     
March 22 – Portland, Ore., McMenamins Crystal Ballroom     
April 2 – Knoxville, Tenn., Bijou Theatre     
April 3 – Charlotte, N.C., Fillmore Charlotte     
April 4 – Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse     
April 5 – Atlanta, Ga., Variety Playhouse
April 6 – Nashville, Tenn., 3rd & Lindsley    
April 9 – Cincinnati, Ohio, 20th Century Theatre     
April 10 – Louisville, Ky., Headliners Music Hall
April 11 – Cleveland, Ohio, House Of Blues     
April 12 – Baltimore, Md., Rams Head Live!
May 23 – Cumberland, Md., Allegany County Fairgrounds (Delfest)     
May 24 – Cumberland, Md., Allegany County Fairgrounds (Delfest)     
June 21 – Bend, Ore., Rockin A Ranch (4 Peaks Music Festival)
June 28 – Owensboro, Ky., Yellow Creek Park (ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival-)
July 19 – North Plains, Ore., Horning’s Hideout (Northwest String Summit)
Aug. 1 – Boulder, Colo., Boulder Theater     
Aug. 2 – Morrison, Colo., Red Rocks Amphitheatre
Sept. 14 – Danville, Ill., Kennekuk County Park (Phases Of The Moon Music & Art Festival)

For more information please visit RailRoadEarth.com